Despite having not seen nor sampled spoilers for The Last Jedi yet, I have been aware that there is a mutiny of sorts on the part of the audience. It’s not an Episode I situation of the film being objectively bad, but a divide between the opinions of professional reviewers and the unashed masses and then division WITHIN each group. I’ve noticed this scenario play out in all permutations and am wondering what is really going on here.
First, let’s start out with something that is universally liked. This synchronization between professional reviewer and audience is what I would expect most of the time, and yet it seems to be happening less frequently these days. Is there any particular reason why Stranger Things in particular would be universally praised? One thing about it is it doesn’t seem to be…ideologically heavy-handed. It is old-fashioned 80s style kids-confront-monsters nostalgia. So the worst someone might think about it is that it’s too derivative or that it serves no positive social function. But that doesn’t appear to be what critics are saying.
Now we come to the property that had the widest gap with the audience rating it higher than critics. One could probably write a book about this one. Seth MacFarlane is a polarizing figure in that he associates himself with the left and yet his treatment of sexuality opens himself up to huge criticism from the feminist-leaning. This reflects a double-standard where we live in an increasingly sexually permissive society that tends to favor female sexuality while confining male sexuality into narrower and narrower boundaries of acceptability. How this plays out in reviews is I think professional critics have been infiltrated by those who otherwise would have wanted to go into political activism. Since the squeaky wheel gets the grease, it’s in the interest of reviewers to comb through pop culture looking for offense. This sort of thing was mostly a hobby of the right-wing back in the 80s. The Moral Majority failed to stop the slide of pop culture into the gutter from Married with Children onwards, but now the left has taken over in judging what’s a good or bad influence on society.
This disconnect between an ideology-first assessemt of a property vs. its entertainment value is reflected in the inversion of reviews for both The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery. Discovery ticks all of the requisite boxes that activist-leaning critics look for first, but beyond that, it offers little actual entertainment value, since the characters are unlikeable and the show leans on style over substance. This is why even the professional critics won’t rate it above a low B.
Now we come to the current example, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The critics have weighed in very firmly in the film’s favor. I have read spoiler-free reviews that are not afraid to point out the film’s flaws, and yet ultimately reviewers are giving it a thumbs-up. The audience, however, is split even more than Star Trek: Discovery. This is surprising, and not having seen it, I can only speculate why that is.
I have noted in the past that the hype cycle has a way of causing people to have an inflated sense of a film’s quality. That sense of a film being “event cinema” is a halo that can stick with you even if the movie is less than perfect. This is why a lot of modern popcorn fare does so well. It’s not that the films are great. They don’t need to be. They just need to be…competent. Producing competent franchise material has become a specialty of Disney’s properties. A good example of competent films would be Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok. Of those two films.
Sure enough, Doctor Strange’s Rotten Tomatoes represents the epitome of “competent”:
What you get out of competent is a satisfying moviegoing experience, but not nothing earth-shattering. The downside of Doctor Strange was how it seemed to copy Inception and other tropes. It executed them well, but we were not really seeing this sort of thing for the first time, and anything with Tilda Swinton in it is usually worth watching.
In order for a movie to score into the 90s in both professional and audience reviews it needs to push boundaries a bit. But that’s risky. Here’s Arrival’s reviews.
Notice how the professional critics, who are the intelligentsia, rated it higher than the general audience, who want more feel-good escapism. The general audience still liked it, but some were alienated by its cerebral art-house vibe.
Perhaps more than simply reviewing things I am more interested in why it is people like or dislike things. What you like or dislike says a lot about who you are as a person. In a way you reinforce your reality by consuming stories that tell you what you want to hear. I think there’s only a small contingent out there who are on the lookout for stories to openly challenge their preconceived notions. More often than not, when a story’s point conflicts with a person’s convictions then that friction causes you to simply not like it. How much the film stacks the deck in an almost propagandistic way the more likely that you’ll dig in your proverbial heels and say “screw this”. The more ambiguous the story is, the more it simply asks open-ended questions and not attempting to definitively answer them, the more we tend to be able to accept its devil’s advocacy.
Most popcorn films are not ambiguous like this because they model themselves on the Hero’s Journey ala Joseph Campbell. Doctor Strange is therefore not that different from Star Wars other than the fact that Strange starts out arrogant and Luke starts out sort of whiney and immature…
…but both of them are thrust out of their comfort zones and into a larger, more exciting world than they knew existed, one in which they were the “chosen one” who could have a big impact. And there’s nothing wrong with that story other than the fact that it’s just one of many story types. It just happens to be the type of story that appeals to kids and lends itself to long CG action set-pieces.
So now we get to the central mystery of why it is Star Wars is dividing the audience so much more than critics and whether this is a sign that the film made a mistake or perhaps…something different?
There are already a spate of news articles on this topic but I’m not going to read them because they are bound to be full of spoilers. I do know that the film has its share of bloat or “plot swiss cheese” as it’s been called. I don’t really think this is the key reason for the low audience score, however. Again, I think it all revolves around the treatment of Luke and his apparent loss of faith in the principles of the Jedi. Mark Hamill has made it known that this approach was not how he envisioned his character’s development and he had to struggle to find proper motivation. This was ultimately the big gamble. Critics are so jaded that they tend to appreciate films that defy expectations. General audiences tend to be more creatures of habit. And yet a lot of the audience did groan over the familiarity of A Force Awakens. I mean, do we really need THREE Death Stars stories??? So either The Last Jedi may have been an over-compensation in trying to subvert expectations.
Now, there’s one other detail to note here, which is that openions of films are not static. Over time they “settle”. The reputation of films that subverted expectations often grows with time as the general public eventually lets go and keys into what the filmmaker was trying to say. When dealing with a property as entrenched as Star Wars, upsetting the applecart like this is the riskiest thing you can do, and yet at the same time, perhaps it’s just what the franchise needs.
Many treat the tone of Star Wars as sacred, but at the same time, there’s a limit to how many delights a fictional universe can provide before it begins to feel like old ground. I love the Falcon and all, and it’s nice to see it recreated in every detail, or the Blockade Runner, but atmosphere only takes you so far. But once you break from tradition, you can’t turn back anymore. It’s like, on the one hand you have the Ewok adventures in rendering Star Wars kiddie nonsense and on the other you can turn Star Wars into some sort of modernistic drama with nothing but shades of gray. The whole appeal of Star Wars in the 70s was its lack of moral ambiguity. Evil was evil and good was good. The only complication was the idea of corruption and redemption. But there was no post-modernistic rationalizations in-movie about how the Empire blowing up planets was OK or the Jedi were less than noble in their ambitions. This provided a huge amount of comfort immediately after Vietnam and Watergate. Perhaps it was unrealistic, but it was what was needed.
Now, I’m not so sure what we “need” since no single movie seems to carry the same sort of weight Star Wars did back in 1977. The medium itself has been diminished through overexposure and overanalysis. It’s hard to completely immerse because in the back of your mind you’re thinking about how you’ll bang out your opinions on Facebook or Rotten Tomatoes afterwards.
I can’t answer the mystery surrounding the Last Jedi controversy until after I’ve seen it, but I guess I’m tempering my expectations now to the point where I’m not as much going for its own sake as much as I am to understand the source of all this wailing and gnashing of teeth.
So much is personally riding on my reaction to this film as far as my continued interest in Star Wars that expect my actual review to be a big one.