By Cody Willoughby
Disclaimer: The review is spoiler-free.
As of this writing, the critical and audience scores on RottenTomatoes for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” are decidedly split.
For the uninitiated, a film’s score on the Tomatometer receives a percentage from zero to 100, and is not an average score that critics have given the film, but rather a percentage of critics who gave the film a positive review. A positive review counts as a “red tomato”. A negative review counts as a “green splat”.
The system is imperfect; I’ve seen many middling reviews veer toward the coveted tomato, just as I’ve seen many reviews fairly calling out a film’s flaws that receive the splat. At any rate, RottenTomatoes serves as a decent aggregate to gauge the general quality of a film, and in recent years, the site has notoriously picked up steam in impacting the public decision to support a film commercially. The site has become so influential, there is now often a “Certified Fresh by RottenTomatoes” stamp on Blu-Ray releases, just to give sales that extra kick.
Having said that, the critical score for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” sits at 93 percent. That’s a strong showing. For comparison, some other films that received this score in 2017 are “Logan”, “Baby Driver”, “The Disaster Artist”, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, all of which are films in conversation for the year-end awards season. With a score like that, one would think “The Last Jedi” is something very special.
The audience score, however, is not so glowing. Since the film’s release, it’s hovered between 50 and 58 percent, clearly splitting moviegoers from the get-go. It’s the lowest audience ranking for a Star Wars film ever. It ranks even lower than other middling films of late, like “Justice League” and “Murder on the Orient Express”.
This is not the first time such a divide has happened between critics and audiences, but it does beg the question – how does it happen? How can critics and audiences so drastically disagree on a film’s quality? Perhaps it’s best to take a moment to discuss the film proper, whose elements may be indicative on their own as to why the split is happening.
“The Last Jedi”, the 8th episode in the continuing saga, picks up seemingly moments where the 7th installment concluded. Rey has found Luke Skywalker on a remote planet, and begs him for help in the fight against the villainous First Order. Leia, Poe and Finn find themselves locked in a battle against the First Order’s fleet, trying desperately to get the dwindling Resistance out of harm’s way. Kylo Ren, the previous film’s major antagonist, battles his own inner turmoil in a pull between the light and dark sides of the Force, meanwhile linked to Rey through Force-speak and trying desperately to find where Luke could be hiding.
These are just some of the major goings-on of the film’s plot, which is busy and involved from minute one. All of these beats are logical places to begin the story (at least considering where The Force Awakens left things), and none of these beats seem to be what are garnering direct complaints.
Critics seem to be largely praising the film for its attempt at taking the franchise into new, fresh territory. Audience reviews, or at least the dissatisfied ones, seem to be disparaging the film for its decision to send characters in certain directions that aren’t true to previous adventures, as well as the need to re-write the mythos of the Jedi, the Force, etc. entirely.
In a way, I think both have a point. In a way, I worry both are also slightly missing the point.
The issue at hand is that there are two major ways to critique a product. One way is to critique it on “overall production quality”. Another way is on “user satisfaction”. While there’s plenty of overlap, the majority of critics seem trained to gauge a film’s production quality first and foremost, while audiences tend to look primarily at user satisfaction. Obviously, a big blockbuster film is a unique product, in that thousands of hands are involved in its making, and that production quality and user satisfaction are largely parallel. With a good film, you can’t really have one without the other. Both are absolutely essential in aggregating a true review for the product.
“The Last Jedi” is indeed a well-made film. There are certain elements of the production that even poor reviews haven’t had the guts to disparage. I don’t think anybody can fault most of the film’s casting; it’s a coterie of spirited performers who all seem happy to be there, the highlight most definitely being Mark Hamill, whose wide-eyed elder Luke may be the man’s greatest onscreen performance ever. I also don’t believe anybody can deny the expertise in the film’s direction or cinematography – it looks absolutely fantastic. It’s lit beautifully, framed with timeless technique, and many of the special effects exceed the quality of “The Force Awakens”. A few moments incite genuine awe, and it’s easy to feel on these elements alone like your ticket bought you something worthwhile.
However, for all of its high production value and narrative goings-on, there’s a major element that this film lacks, and I noted it even stepping out of the theater.
“What more could you have wanted out of the film?” A companion asked me.
“Consequence,” I responded.
We’ve been trained with these films to expect a certain narrative structure. The Star Wars franchise has always been tremendous at delivering pieces of the story in very distinct acts, the best of the films adhering strictly to the classic three-act structure. Despite his faults, it’s one of the many things I think George Lucas understood well about storytelling. Even the original trilogy itself is a story in three acts.
“In the first act, you’re introduced to these characters,” Lucas once said. “In the second act, you have them dropped into a black hole, unable to get out. In the third act, they get out. That’s drama – that’s the way it works. You shouldn’t have an exuberant happy second act.”
The three-act structure is important in reviewing “The Last Jedi” for two reasons.
The first reason is that “The Last Jedi” is not a story told in three acts, but rather, a story told in four. There comes a moment around the two-hour mark where all major storylines seem to be concluding, and both physically and emotionally, the narrative reaches a height. But then, the story just keeps going for 30 more minutes. Granted, those final 30 minutes have some great moments, but somehow, due to our preconception of basic story structure, it feels like those last minutes were tacked on by mistake, or were otherwise the fault of poor pacing earlier in the film’s story.
There are sequences throughout the film that feel like direct detours to buy time for certain characters while others do more important and necessary things, and had these pacing problems been solved, the movie might’ve seemed tighter, more focused, and could’ve fit itself into a standard three acts. The issues with pacing cause a meandering sensation, which has never been a sensation I’ve picked up in “Star Wars” before, even in weaker installments.
The second reason to note the three-act structure is because “The Last Jedi” itself is the second act in a trilogy, by the studio’s own admission. It’s the middle installment meant to lead in to a conclusion with Episode 9. Following Lucas’ own understanding of the three-act structure, this act should be about the characters facing an insurmountable problem with no clear sign of immediate solution. “The Empire Strikes Back” delivered this effect like gangbusters in 1980, essentially cliffhangering the entire story. I wasn’t alive in 1980, but had I been, I can’t imagine how excited I might’ve been for “Return of the Jedi”.
After viewing “The Last Jedi”, I don’t have that feeling. In fact, I’m uncertain of how an entire other episode could even be filled. The movie took plenty of narrative risks – story elements which I refuse to spoil here – but I fear that many of them are the wrong risks. I believe the main reason that we follow stories within this genre is because we’re invested in characters, and the major twists and developments written into “The Last Jedi” did not really see any of our major characters being sent down compelling paths that would carry us into future installments. As far as Star Wars mythos goes, there was definite movement. As far as the characters were concerned, it was one step forward and one step back.
Instinctually, that isn’t what viewers want. Changing the world a story takes place in and pacing the story asymmetrically to previous chapters while not really administering satisfying growth for its main characters is not great storytelling. It’s okay for a film to be thematically challenging, but not at the expense of traditional story beats that people not only expect, but desire.
Does that make the film a bad movie? Not necessarily. As previously stated, I think it’s a gorgeous-looking film, and I think that writer/director Rian Johnson succeeded tremendously in achieving his own vision and executing the story he wanted to tell (which is something I can’t even say for George Lucas’ efforts in the franchise).
That’s the main reason I believe that most critics have been very kind to the movie; critics see a lot of garbage throughout the year, and I’m sure they appreciate some nuance and complexity to big-budget films more than anyone. Simultaneously, it makes perfect sense why regular moviegoers aren’t warming to it as much; they’re responding with immediacy to the unsavory story decisions, and aren’t as concerned with other positive attributes the piece may possess.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi himself once said, many of life’s truths are often dependent on a certain point of view. I believe that critical praise and audience dissent for “The Last Jedi” are, in their way, both correct, but neither perspective covers the entire story on its own.
It’s a complicated issue, and perhaps the developments offered within a 9th episode may cause me to backpedal my own reluctance with this installment. “The Last Jedi” is a film worth seeing, if only to accept the challenge it lays before the viewer, but much like Kylo Ren’s own struggle in the movie, the elements of good are wrestling constantly with the bad.
Perhaps in that sense, the film’s a weird misunderstood piece of genius. Now I’m just talking crazy.
Reach Cody Willoughby at firstname.lastname@example.org.