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21 December 2017

The backlash against The Last Jedi is bizarrely familiar and irrational

The outraged fans are missing its charms – and forgetting the history of the series.

By James Cooray Smith

Here’s something strange: The latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, currently has a higher rating among critics (93 per cent) than members of the public (high 50s and still plunging) on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. For a film series that has had mixed critical fortunes, but which can point to billions in ticket sales in five different decades, that’s a thoroughly peculiar place to be.

The buzz – as well as the critical consensus – on the movie pre-release was positive. The film provides the audience’s first real reunion with Luke Skywalker, hero of the 77-83 Star Wars trilogy, for 35 years. (He appears in a single scene, and as a non-speaking character, in 2015’s The Force Awakens.) Lucasfilm were even optimistically distributing “For Your Consideration” cards ahead of Oscar voting season. While it is traditional for any and all Star Wars films to be labelled “The best since Empire [Strikes Back]” this seemed to go beyond that.

Unlike every other Star Wars film made since Disney’s purchase of the series from its creator George Lucas, The Last Jedi worked out exactly as everyone thought it should. Writer/Director Rian Johnson – whose film Brick (2005) won the Jury Prize at Sundance and prizes at Deauville and Sitges – was hired on the basis of his previous films. He wrote a script his bosses liked, and then went off and shot, edited and delivered a film they liked. It’s the first Star Wars film since 2005 which hasn’t lost a senior creative figure, either through being fired, demoted, sidelined or walking. Part of Disney’s enthusiasm will be the result of Johnson delivering as promised, but the content and quality of the actual movie is hardly going to be irrelevant to that enthusiasm.

There were some signs of imbalance in the force, though. Johnson had already taken some heat on Twitter over the trailers and some preview images showing “porgs”, cute puffin like birds that littered the island on which Luke lives in self-imposed exile. There is a significant minority of Star Wars fans who hate any aspect of funny animal comedy in the films, which rather makes one wonder why they are fans of a series which has always featured it. When the released film not only featured the porgs more extensively than Johnson’s online critics had feared, but had several other wacky alien species too, there was some loud discontent from some of the series’ most devoted fans.

Other complaints followed. Some – such as that Luke fled rather than fight the First Order – seem to come from a simple misreading of the story. Others, such as that the film’s male characters are insufficiently heroic, have uncomfortable undertones. None are particularly cogent. Most are just odd as responses to a film that argues for life as a synthesis, a balance, of old and new; that history is gravity and cannot be escaped, but the new should be embraced alongside it, with neither the future nor the past wholly rejected or uncritically grasped close.

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The internet rebellion that has followed Johnson’s film, with particular relevance to the Rotten Tomatoes score, looks like a backlash against critical consensus by the actual paying public. However, the film’s box office takings would seem to tell a different story. The Last Jedi had the second biggest opening box office weekend in history, after The Force Awakens. Films that open big, but which no one likes, drop off in days. Instead The Last Jedi is sustaining that business, and has already taken well over half a billion dollars. It will double that before long on current projections. 

What one can always do multiple times, though, is vote on Rotten Tomatoes. At least if you should be sufficiently motivated to set up multiple accounts, clear your computer’s cookies and so on, and plenty of people on internet forums have boasted of voting multiple times. This backlash against The Last Jedi has now reached a peak, with the launching of a petition, signed by thousands of people who presumably think of themselves are responsible adults, asking Disney to “decanonise” the film.

What they mean by this (and you could be forgiven for having no idea) is that they want Disney to declare that the events of the film didn’t happen within the fictional Star Wars universe, so that none of the implications of them matter. Luke Skywalker has not become one with the force. There’s no such place as Canto Bite. There are no porgs.

This idea of “canonicity” is the bread and butter of many fandoms. It’s a faintly absurd concept: that one made up story can be more or less real than another made up story. It is derived from theology, via literary studies, in which contexts it at least makes some kind of sense. This demand is, while exactly as peculiar as it appears, not completely without precedent in other film series. The forthcoming 2018 Halloween sequel stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, a character killed off in 2002’s somewhat ironically entitled Halloween: Resurrection. The 2018 film won’t explain how she isn’t dead. It will simply ignore the 2002 film entirely. 

Halloween: Resurrection itself was a sequel to H20 (1998), the eighth film in the series, which ignored the events of between two and six of those prior to it, depending on whom you ask.

Bigger intellectual properties have also flirted with the idea: The Alien film planned by Chappie and District 9 director Neill Blomkamp – and which grew out of his creative relationship with Sigourney Weaver – would have been a delayed sequel to Aliens (1986) ignoring Alien 3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997). While currently in development hell, the picture may still happen and the relative failure of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant make that more, rather than less, likely.

In Star Wars too, there are precedents of a sort. When Disney bought Star Wars lock, stock and barrel from its creator George Lucas, it declared that any films it made in the future would not feel bound by anything established in the millions of Star Wars comics and tie-in novels published since the late 1970s. While that looked like a break with the past (and was probably, more than anything else, a statement meant to facilitate the killing of Han Solo in The Force Awakens, the books and comics having shown him living to old age) it wasn’t really. Lucas had never felt bound by spin-off material, either, and his prequel trilogy cheerfully ignored licensed spin-off stories in favour of the writer/director’s own creative impulses and interests, again at the price of boiling fan rage that went loudly public.

Fan “ownership” of a series, like that of a football club, is an interesting concept. There is something there. A Theseus’ Boat (or, if you prefer, Trigger’s Broom) situation, where the audience is permanent, while those responsible for what they’re watching are transitory. Johnson, though – like The Force Awakens’ co-writer/director JJ Abrams – was a Star Wars fan as a child. It’s like someone becoming the manager of their hometown or childhood club. Fans might love to see one of their own in charge. Or they might fume that their former fellow’s idea of what it all means is different to their own.

Disney is not going to disavow The Last Jedi. Johnson has been offered, and accepted, the opportunity to create and guide his own trilogy of Star Wars films to take the series up to the middle of the next decade. His pitch for these films, currently untitled and with release dates but no story or cast details attached, was so scanty it scarcely even qualifies as high concept. That’s three films that between them are going to cost the best part of a billion dollars handed over to Johnson to make more Star Wars. At the moment, at least, he’s the only fan whose opinion Disney is really interested in.

Will that change? It took the Halloween franchise decades and several changes of owner to jettison what became perceived – rightly or wrongly – as mistakes in the telling of its ongoing story. Aliens was 30 years old when Neill Blomkamp’s film homed into view, while The Last Jedi has been in cinemas, at time of writing, for less than a week.

However, what may change over time is fan response. As younger people shuffle into the fandom and older ones shuffle out, finding better things to do or even dying off. Many Star Wars fans old enough to remember at least one of the original trilogy coming out in cinemas will tell you that they are untouchable classics of cinema, and that the prequel trilogy is universally despised. A variation on this is that only the first two of the first trilogy are great, with the third a kind of heresy (funny animal comedy again, among other things) – and it largely comes down to the age of the complainant.

If you take Rotten Tomatoes’ critics reviews of Star Wars films and remove any made outside the franchise’s original release periods, something surprising happens. Both originals and prequels boast two films with scores in the sixties and one above it. Revenge of the Sith is the best reviewed Star Wars film (at least, before The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, both of which bettered it among the non-paying classes) with the Best Picture-nominated original Star Wars making do with second place.

Attack of the Clones beats out both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with The Phantom Menace snuggling only two percentage points behind them. IMDB’s metascore, another reviews aggregator drawn from professional critics but stretched over time, tells us that the original Star Wars is the best, with The Force Awakens and The Empire Strikes Back in joint second place. Revenge of the Sith takes the bronze medal, followed by Attack of the Clones and then Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace bringing up the rear. All eras of Star Wars are integrated up and down both charts. “Good,” as the evil Palpatine tells Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith, “is a point of view”. There are always multiple squabbling consensuses, scrapping it out in public all the time.

To me, personally, the fan furore over The Last Jedi all seems bizarrely familiar. I remember seeing The Phantom Menace in New York in 1999. It was a public screening, although I was reviewing it for a UK magazine. (1999’s Star Wars film came out in the UK two months after its US release, 2017’s 24 hours before.)

The audience cheered, laughed at all the right bits, and applauded five or six key moments and the end credits. I came out of the cinema to a boiling hot spring day. I bought a beer and that morning’s New York Times, in which the lead critic, the revered Janet Maslin, wrote that the film “offers a happy surprise: It’s up to snuff. It sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the originals and offers a swashbuckling galactic getaway… Lucas still champions wondrous visions over bleak ones and sustains his love of escapist fun. There’s no better tour guide for a trip.”

I wandered past the shop FAO Schwarz, where kids queued to buy toy lightsabers and action figures. A week later, the nascent internet fandom was telling me the film was universally despised, betrayed its principal characters and had too much animal comedy. While I’ve been writing this article I’ve been periodically checking Rotten Tomatoes. The Last Jedi now sits below The Phantom Menace on its paying-punters aggregator.

Star Wars is a series which is thematically interested in circles – in history not repeating but duplicating, of events inverting and rhyming – and this is something that Johnson’s film appreciates and understands. It is weirdly fitting then, as well as disappointing, to realise that we’ve been here before. 

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