New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is no fan of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which he thought displayed a stunning lack of imagination. He has similar complaints about most of the movies that comprise popular franchises such as Star Wars or Marvel.
“They’ve become entertaining but repetitive and superficial in a way that the biggest adult Hollywood movies of 20 or 30 years ago weren’t,” Douthat says in Episode 405 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
It’s not just movies. When it comes to the modern world, Douthat sees malaise everywhere, whether it’s culture, politics, economics, or technology. It’s a theme he explores in his new book The Decadent Society.
“There’s been very clear technological progress in figuring out how to zap information around the world and create convincing simulations of reality,” he says. “But when you compare expectations around genetic engineering and alternative energy—or a whole host of things—relative to what people expected in the ’60s, or even what people expected in the first dot-com boom in the 1990s, I think there’s been a lot of disappointment.”
Douthat says that humanity was highly invested in the space race, and that the loss of that grand narrative has had ripple effects throughout society. “It might be that because we didn’t get the new frontier we were promised, people became more pessimistic, more disillusioned, less confident in the future, and various political and economic and cultural problems followed here on Earth,” he says.
He believes that in the long run, only a revitalized space program can shake us out of our doldrums. Ideally this would involve a warp drive or something similarly game-changing. “I’m really interested in the disjunctive forces—technological, political, religious—that could bring decadence to an end and usher in either something more frightening—like a landscape ravaged by the coronavirus—or something that looks more like a Renaissance or an Age of Exploration,” he says.
Listen to the complete interview with Ross Douthat in Episode 405 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
“Certainly when my dad was reading The Lord of the Rings to me at age 7, I had no sense of the theological resonances of Galadriel and the Virgin Mary or anything like that. But I like to joke—since I am in conservative political punditry—that the two fantasies that lead people into conservatism are Ayn Rand’s novels and The Lord of the Rings, and what kind of conservative you are depends on which kind of novel you love best. … I think that if you treat Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as science fiction novels about an alien species that marginally resembles the human race, then they’re actually pretty entertaining. But as manifestoes for a political philosophy, I was never really convinced.”
Ross Douthat on George R.R. Martin:
“I remember a moment in college finding a couple of fellow nerds who were really into Storm of Swords, which had just come out. This was 2002, and little did we know that literally 18 years later we would only be two books further advanced in the saga. … The last one, A Dance with Dragons, came out the year our first child was born, and I remember really looking forward to it, and reading it as a break from the rigors of parenting over our summer vacation in Maine. But then getting to the end, and being incredibly disappointed because I felt like he had stopped short of three separate climaxes. And I was like, ‘Well, they’ll come in the next book.’ And here we are, the baby is now a 9-year-old girl, we’re about to have our fourth child, and still nobody knows what actually happened in the battle of Winterfell.”
Ross Douthat on pop culture:
“I remember the days when [sci-fi] was considered déclassé, and something for guys in their parents’ basements, but that was my teenage life, and in my adult life it’s been pretty normal and mainstream. So I’m not sure it’s changed that much in the last 10 years. I think once you had the one-two-three punch of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and then the rise of Marvel, it became pretty established that it was no weirder to write about sci-fi and fantasy then it would be to write about a Bruce Willis movie or something. The weirdness would be writing about pop culture too much when you’re a political columnist, but sci-fi and fantasy is pop culture now, in a way that was not at all the case when I was 15.”
Ross Douthat on Star Trek:
“I feel like I watched The Next Generation in a phase where I was young enough not to be annoyed by [the liberal messages]. Probably if I went back and watched some of the preachier episodes in the Roddenberry into Picard part of the canon, I might be annoyed by them. I admire certain things, obviously, about the Roddenberry worldview, the ‘optimism to the stars’ spirit, and that makes me willing to forgive some of the more—to my mind—absurd elements of the Federation as this secular utopia where everyone’s in the same jumpsuits and so on. But then also Deep Space Nine, which came on when I was a teenager, had a little more religion. It still tended to reduce it to these science fiction explanations, but it took the persistence of religion a little bit more seriously than The Next Generation did.”