By Tom Holste
Jan. 16, 2018
There has been a grave disturbance in the Force.
The new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, released last month to an astonishing level of critical acclaim, with “the best movie in the series since The Empire Strikes Back” being a common refrain. But once fans started seeing the movie, a much different anthem started gaining traction: “the worst movie in the series, worse than The Phantom Menace.”
Rotten Tomatoes, a site that pulls reviews from around the Web and compiles percentages based on positive and negative reviews, has been at the center of the controversy. At the time of writing, Last Jedi’s critical consensus stands strong at 90%, but the Audience Score (which can be affected by any user who signs up and votes) has currently plummeted to 49%.
So, what happened to cause such a wide gap in reception between critics and audiences? What follows is not a review, but an attempt to objectively show both sides of the argument. (Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t seen the movie!)
It’s Different. A common sentiment after the release of The Force Awakens is that there were too many things that felt like clichés from other movies in the series. People wanted (or thought they wanted) the sequel movies to be different. Writer-director Rian Johnson took the message to heart, and ironically delivered a movie that felt so different in its tone and structure that it became off-putting to many fans. For critics, though, who probably like cinema as a whole more than they like Star Wars in particular, any change was welcome.
It’s Sad. Rather than playing it safe and having nothing bad happen to characters from the Original Trilogy, as one might expect from a major corporation reviving a franchise, Disney-owned Lucasfilm has surprisingly taken a lot of risks, putting the classic characters through the ringer. In Force Awakens, we learned that Han Solo failed to be a good husband and dad and that he went back to a life of crime before ultimately being killed by his son. In Last Jedi, we find a bitter, depressed Luke Skywalker who failed to revive the Jedi Order and enabled his nephew to go on a killing spree. (In fairness, all of these ideas are already in Force Awakens, but in Last Jedi, everything gets spelled out in detail.) In the end, Luke also dies.
These sequels have also shown us that Leia failed in her diplomatic duties to restore the Republic. By the end of this film, the heroes are once again broken and on the run. And since actress Carrie Fisher has passed away, there’s no chance for her character to take part in any happy ending in the next sequel. All of the major classic characters are now dead. While critics enjoyed the risk-taking elements, fans are crushed from watching their childhood heroes meet such sad fates.
It’s All About the New Characters. Unsurprisingly, Disney has made the new heroes—Rey, Finn and Poe—the focus of the new trilogy. As already mentioned, the major characters from the Original Trilogy are now all gone (with no mention of whatever happened to Lando Calrissian), and supporting characters such as Chewbacca and the droids have been reduced to cameos in films that juggle a very large cast. Critics appreciate the focus on the new, interesting characters; nostalgic fans come away with an empty feeling.
A Twist or Not a Twist? Poe’s subplot is about trying to stop Admiral Holdo, who he believes to be a spy. He recruits Finn and Rose to help him. Ultimately, their plan fails, but it doesn’t matter because Holdo’s plot succeeds. For anyone who thought that Poe’s plan was going to succeed, this movie has two great twists in it. For those who guessed that Holdo was in the right, though, the Poe/Finn/Rose subplot has no twists.
Elsewhere on the plot-twist front: Virtually no one saw the twist coming that Rey’s parents aren’t anyone famous or connected to the overall Skywalker/Solo saga. For those who enjoyed the feel of the original movies, and remember that Luke Skywalker himself started off as an “everyman” character from the middle of nowhere in the original movie, this twist feels like a return to form. However, with this saga’s famous shocking family reveals, and with the previous director (JJ Abrams) known for crafting mystery stories like the TV show Lost, this reveal fell flat for some.
Another genuine surprise was when the villainous Snoke was abruptly killed off in this installment, when nearly everyone expected him to make it to the last film in the trilogy. Critics loved the surprise and the renewed focus on Kylo Ren as the main villain. Fans who wanted to know more about his backstory were frustrated that he was dispatched so quickly.
Social Commentary. Many critics gushed over the apparent social commentary, with the movie seeming to take an anti-war stance and to criticize wealthy people. Many fans hated this aspect and preferred the saga when it was more mythic in its storytelling. Ironically, Star Trek fans were upset when the new movies became like theme-park rides rather than the social commentary that they’re known for; now Star Wars is criticized for its commentary from fans that are used to the movies being theme-park rides.
With all of these issues in mind, the Star Wars franchise stands at a tenuous crossroads. Last Jedi has made a ton of money despite the backlash (it was #1 for three weeks in a row and quickly became the highest-grossing movie of 2017), but many long-term fans have sworn off seeing Ep. IX. To Disney’s credit, they’ve tried playing it safe and got criticized, and they’ve tried taking chances and gotten criticized. Where do they go from here?
The questions remain as both the studio and audiences find out that Star Wars means something very special to nearly everyone, but we all have different ideas about what exactly it is that makes it special.