This article contains major Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers.
At long last, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in theaters, and like a Force-sensitive Jakku kid, it is causing the earth to shake. As with the two previous Disney-produced Star Wars movies, it was glowingly received by critics, including in our review, and is seeing an even grander reception at the box office. Studio estimates currently have The Last Jedi’s Thursday night earnings at a staggering $45 million, with a projected $100 million for the whole of Friday. To put that in context, it will make more by Saturday than Justice League did in its whole opening weekend. So obviously Disney and Star Wars fans alike have plenty to cheer about. And yet, at least as judged by the early wave of super fans reactions, there is a great disturbance in the Force: divided opinion.
Indeed, the film is still only in its yawning first day of wide release, but already from social media to reddit, and everywhere else online movie geeks gather, The Last Jedi is being met with contention. Is this really what everyone expected two years ago when The Force Awakens ended on a literal cliffhanger? It would of course be shortsighted to believe vocal online fans represent anything but a fraction of moviegoing opinion, yet it is nonetheless striking when The Last Jedi enjoys a 93 percent “Fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes, and the fan score is at a “Rotten” 58 percent. That number will inevitably change as more people see the movie, but it will almost certainly remain drastically lower than The Force Awakens and Rogue One’s respective 88 and 87 percent fan approval numbers… it may even stay under Justice League’s 80 percent.
This is not to say that Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score is some great authority on the perception of moviegoers. But at least judging by the mixed reaction from the earliest and most eager of Star Wars fans, The Last Jedi did more for critics than it did for fans. Why?
Likely the biggest reason critics were so enthused about The Last Jedi is the exact same source of discord amongst the fans: it is not what we traditionally want from a Star Wars movie.
Personally, I had several issues with The Last Jedi. It runs too long and has awkward editing choices that attempt to balance its overabundance of subplots (and one particularly extraneous one involving Finn and Rose on what I dub the “Monte Carlo Planet”). Yet while noting these in my review, the film’s many virtues are so strong that these flaws pale in comparison. And what I most enjoyed was the way it constantly averts expectations from what is considered “traditional” Star Wars, or even simply how we thought things would play out after The Force Awakens.
This twist begins with the very first scene on Ahch-To, the Irish looking island upon which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) spend most of their screen time. Whereas the previous film ended with Rey silently pleading with Luke while attempting to hand him his father’s lightsaber, The Last Jedi picks up from that same moment with Luke nonchalantly tossing the weapon over his shoulder. He then strolls away without saying a word.
Nobody expected Rian Johnson to continue J.J. Abrams’ earnest ending in so flippant a manner, and that may go for the whole film. While The Force Awakens slavishly recreated the Original Trilogy’s plot points and tone, The Last Jedi is constantly using your familiarity against you. Audiences have been lulled into accepting Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the stand-in for Emperor Palpatine. He has the exact same role as the Emperor from the original films, and is even in a similar sequence where he has the film’s protagonist in his clutches while giving a heavy-handed monologue about how powerful he is.
Yet while both Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi see a student massacre his dark master to save the hero, in the 2017 edition, it comes not at the climax of a trilogy, nor even during the finale of its own film. It is at the midway point where Snoke is cut off (and in half) mid-sentence. All the mystery of who Snoke would be in the Star Wars mythos and his role in this enormous galaxy is thrown away before audiences ever get to fully know what distinguishes him from Palpatine. It even frankly appears to be a bit of a recalibration on Johnson’s part, as he does away with one of Abrams’ least inspired elements from The Force Awakens. It’s great storytelling, but the antithesis of the world-building fans love so much, especially post-Marvel Studios.
While the general critical approach is to embrace something that can artfully or even thrillingly subvert expectation, these are some of the exact elements that fans are currently vocally despising on Twitter. After two years of speculation and musing about a movie that echoed a fan’s starstruck love, The Last Jedi mostly dismisses those elements in favor of digging into something deeper. The Knights of Ren, a group of followers who helped Kylo Ren slaughter the children inside Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple, are entirely ignored. Instead of idolizing the older movies that fans love, The Last Jedi deconstructs them. Luke Skywalker isn’t just a grizzly hermit on Ahch-To; he is a bitter old man who’s given into apathy and a sense of failure. The Force ghost that haunts Luke also doesn’t really dispel this notion, suggesting much can be learned by Luke’s life and his profound shortcomings.
As per Yoda, goodness and power do not just come from the Force or prophecy, but from strength of character and intuition. He suggests everything Rey needs to know to become a Jedi she already possesses, as opposed to years of verification that she is special or a chosen one like Anakin Skywalker and Luke before her.
In actuality, this returns to the original conceit of Luke Skywalker that audiences saw in 1977, where he was just a slightly whiny farmboy swept up in a grand adventure. There was no revelation that he was Anakin Skywalker’s son or especially blessed; he was a kid who wanted to be a Jedi, just as it is revealed that Rey’s parents were no one special. Kylo Ren even says, “They have no role in this story.” While perhaps truer to the effect of A New Hope, it is in complete contradiction to what Star Wars has come to represent for most fans with its operatic familial struggles and implied divinity. There is no immaculate conception here.
Critics and cinephiles who view movies through a vast array of cinematic history tend to appreciate films, especially sequels, that can deepen, challenge, or completely reshape how we have previously viewed a genre or trope. This goes double for a long-running franchise like Star Wars. But for fans, it’s the long-running familiarity that is so exciting. You are going back to that world with these characters. Again.
Seeing those characters deconstructed as thoroughly as Luke Skywalker means that even if he gets an epic and legendary sendoff wherein he really does stare down the entire might of the First Order with only a laser sword, it doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been depicted as broken or regretful. The antithesis of the Luke Skywalker in the much more fan service-inclined Expanded Universe where Luke remained ever the irreplaceable hero. In The Last Jedi, he is literally replaced.
What critics look for—originality, differentiation, something new—might only go so far with the most invested of fans. For some, the quality of the film becomes a secondary concern after how characters and worlds are presented based on preconceived notions from other media. And this is not exclusive to Star Wars.
Time and again, filmmakers who veer too far out of the comfort zone of nerdy buzz words like “canon” and “continuity” might find a warmer welcome from critics and mainstream moviegoers than they will the “fanboy” community. For instance, Iron Man 3 is no classic, however, it was a fun and diverting Marvel Studios effort that included a refreshingly nifty twist: Ben Kingsley’s villain who is sold in the credits as the big bad turns out to be as threatening as the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. He’s a buffoon and a subversive satire of superhero villains. While many reviews credited Shane Black’s creativity for poking fun at the clichés of his genre, fans who expected a comic book-accurate depiction of the Mandarin character (oblihvious racism and all) were left sorely disappointed.
Similarly, The Dark Knight Rises made over a billion dollars and enjoyed rave reviews for being a satisfying, layered conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. However, it also contradicted the previous film in which Batman seemed to be going on a lone crusade to save Gotham by jumping ahead nearly a decade, during which time Christian Bale’s Batman was retired. More startling still, it deconstructed Batman in a profound way, recasting the mask as his inability to cope with a childhood trauma. To save his city and himself, he has to be able to move past his anger and want to live again without the costume. He had to put his cape away and grow up.
It was a bold choice for a mass marketed power fantasy, however Nolan pulled it off with grace and class. It’s a film that has a high reputation among the general audiences, but to generations of hardcore fans who’ve read for decades about a Batman who will never end his war on crime, the mere fact it ended, and ended with a happy and healthily Bat-free Bruce Wayne no less, was akin to sacrilege.
So too does The Last Jedi dare to blaspheme Luke Skywalker by making him a mere mortal. One who can lose faith or give in. So while he, and his film, can transcend to a higher plane for critics who reward ambition, it might levitate just out of bounds for those who care most.