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The Last Jedi: the most divisive of Star Wars films
It doubtless hasn’t escaped your notice that Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest instalment from the long-running space opera franchise conceived by the eternally-bearded George Lucas, is running in cinemas right now. It has been winning plaudits left, right and centre from critics, many of whom have championed it as the finest entry in the series since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. It is certified 93% Fresh on the Rotten Tomatoes site based on 287 critic reviews. This is the joint 2nd-highest score for the whole series, behind The Empire Strikes Back and equal with A New Hope (1977) and The Force Awakens (2015).
However, if you glance over to the right of the critic review percentage you may be in for a bit of a shock: a 56% audience score. That’s the second-lowest audience score for all of the big-screen Star Wars releases bar the 38% garnered by the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) - an entry which, let’s face it, nobody actually counts. Even the much-maligned The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) have slightly higher audience scores at present: 59% and 57% respectively.
What’s going on with the major score discrepancy?
A glance through a number of the 337 (and counting) pages’ worth of audience reviews reveals individual scores which tend to be either at the top or bottom end of the scale, with a similar number falling each way. In fact, after examining the first five pages I found out by that far the most frequent scores given are 1/2 star (27 reviews) or ★★★★★ (28 reviews). By contrast, very few audience members have given the film the midrange scores of ★★1/2 (3 reviews), ★★★ (1 review) or ★★★1/2 (2 reviews).
Here are some of the more negative remarks:
“The “critics” who reviewed were obviously paid”
“Everyone is right - they DESTORYED (sic) Luke's character in the most humiliating way possible.”
“Disney is to blame and this is capitalism at its worst.”
“PETA animal rights commercial for 15 minutes. “
“Character decisions are poor at best, and Rey has devolved into a creature representing magical wish fulfillment, precisely the wrong message for young girls.”
“After seeing "The Last Jedi" I now know why Carrie Fisher died…”
Some of the feedback at the positive end of the scale included the following:
“I thought Rian Johnson communicated an emotionally and philosophically complex story that really delivered.”
“For the first time ever, we're FREE from Lucas' story-telling by rhyming”
“Rian Johnson did an amazing job at creating what sets the stage for an entirely new generation.”
“This movie was shocking and basically threw everyone's theories into the trash which I liked.”
“The Last Jedi is one of my favorite Star Wars films. I really appreciated the way the film grapples with themes of disappointment and failure. “
“I am still stunned by the film and need to see it several more times, but right now I'm inclined to say that it surpassed Empire and justly takes it's place among the best that the franchise has had to offer.”
Why are opinions so polarised?
The bulk of the film’s divisive nature seems to hinge on the number of breaks it took with preconceived ideas. One of the most controversial seems to be the elderly Luke Skywalker, who comes across as a gruff, reluctant cynic for much of the runtime. There’s also the implication that Leia has inherited some Force powers of her own, the love them/hate them Porgs and the surprising outcomes within the story arcs of the main antagonists.
Personally, I loved it. It took the franchise and added a depth and breath that even touched upon present-day themes in a way in which this particular universe has hitherto mostly avoided. It was heartrending, funny, exciting, suspenseful and intelligent in a way in which most modern blockbusters (even many of the highly enjoyable MCU entries) would kill for. I don’t necessarily think it’s a perfect film; some of the CGI hearkened back to the fake, shiny worlds of the prequel trilogy and the midsection was on the slow side. I’m not sure what to make of Leia’s “drifting through space” scene either. However, everything great about the whole thing really overshadowed the niggles as far as I’m concerned.
However, it’s beyond doubt that there’s such a huge weight of expectation which comes with the franchise; it has been such an important part of the childhood of many millions of forty-somethings - from the movies themselves to the huge range of collectable play figurines and other accessories. Moreover, the film’s iconography has been countlessly referenced throughout popular culture since then, passing the legend - rather like Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker - from generation to generation. Most recently, even the anti-Trump “Resistance” has taken its name from the heroic faction in The Force Awakens and has adopted Carrie Fisher as their martyr since her untimely death in December last year.
The weight of expectations
It is inevitable that such expectations are impossible to live up to. While The Force Awakens won strong scores from both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes there has since been something of a backlash over its perceived pandering to nostalgia coupled with the fact that its story feels too close to that of A New Hope. In this instance, the opposite is true; the film takes both the story and beloved characters in unexpected directions, prompting a much more immediate backlash.
While it’s an easy route to attack old Star Wars fans for being impossible to please, they are, after all, only human. When strong nostalgic memories are attached to a certain period of your life (especially childhood) it is extremely difficult to detach from a hazy, idealised mindset.
Perhaps only time will tell whether The Last Jedi stands out as a high point or a low point of the series. The dust has to settle, people need to rewatch it on its inevitable home-viewing releases and then - only then - can we find out how it truly holds up. I could be wrong, but somehow I suspect that it will be viewed more positively in years to come.