Warning: contains spoilers for The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017).
It’s not unusual for audiences and critics to disagree on a film’s quality. Take 2017’s Justice League for instance; it’s got an audience score of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes – that’s the percentage of audiences who enjoyed it and registered their opinion on the site – but a Tomatometer (the same for critics) of only 40% – a 31-point gap. The divide’s even more pronounced for Warcraft from the previous year: 76% of audiences liked it compared to 28% of critics – a difference of 48-points! That’s a percentage difference of more than 90%, which is pretty amazing. That being said, this trend does make sense. Anyone spending money on a cinema ticket nowadays is probably a fan of the franchise and more likely to be invested already, compared to critics, who see the majority of films regardless.
However, this pattern rarely manifests in the opposite direction, and never with a franchise as universally adored as Star Wars. As of writing – a little under a year after its release – The Last Jedi has a 91% “fresh” Tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the lowest audience score of any main-series Star Wars film (including the prequels!) – a dismal 45%. The Last Jedi is the highest-budget film to ever create such a dramatic divide. Most of this, I think, stems from reactionary fans, unhappy with the film’s direction, review bombing the site. Even in writing this piece, I noticed I still had my Google rating for the film set to “disliked it.” However, as has been noted by Reddit user OddGoose, The Last Jedi dramatically improves upon repeat viewing: the tonal shifts appear less jarring, the themes more nuanced, and the characters more engaging. Here’s why.
I first saw The Last Jedi at the cinema with my mum, a few days after its UK release. We’d watched The Force Awakens the night before to catch up, and were both really excited to see what more this universe had to offer. My mum really enjoyed it! Unfortunately, I did not. I put this down, almost exclusively, to the fact that I am a bit more diehard Star Wars than she is and that I spend a large bulk of my time watching and analysing movies. Nevertheless, I found it poorly structured, thematically worlds apart from its predecessor, plagued by plot holes, and its tone more befitting of the prequel trilogy than that taken by The Force Awakens. “That’s something I’m definitely never watching again,” I recollect spouting off as we left the cinema. Fast-forward to last week. Back home for my birthday, I found a mint-condition copy of the film in my local CeX and convinced myself to give it another go – it helped that they were doing a 2 for 1 on Blu-rays, and the Collector’s Edition of Apocalypse Now was too good to pass up. The other day, I finally sat down to give it another go, and I found myself pleasantly surprised.
What really opens The Last Jedi to reassessment on subsequent viewings is, as is the case with any film, the lack of weight of expectation. Going into The Last Jedi having seen it once before, I wasn’t pining for my utopian vision for what the film should be to materialise on-screen. The tonal shifts that had felt so jarring the first time didn’t any more. By not viewing the film through such a critical eye, director Rian Johnson’s intended vision begins to shine through. One of Han Solo’s most enduring quotes from The Force Awakens, “that’s not how the force works!” was echoed back at Disney by a vocal portion of the fanbase following the release of The Last Jedi. The film introduces a number of (divisive) manifestations of ‘the force’, designed to expand the mythos surrounding the cryptic energy at the heart of the saga. These include force-bonds (which fans have lovingly termed “force skype”) and force-projection. This leads me to the first criticism aimed at The Last Jedi: its narrative inconsistency. This problem is supposedly two-fold, encompassing both the film’s treatment of major characters and its fresh force concepts.
Most of the criticism of the film’s characterisation centers around the character of Luke Skywalker. Fundamentally, this is not the same hero we came to know and love 35 years ago. Original trilogy Luke is a seasoned and patient fighter. Idealistic to a fault, he’s willing to see the good in anyone, going so far as believing Darth Vader could be redeemed. And by the end of the trilogy he’s filled with faith, hope, and optimism for the future of the Jedi. The version of Luke presented in The Last Jedi is completely different, however. He’s brash, abrasive, and has lost all hope in the good of the Jedi. This might seem out of character, and it is, but Luke’s been scarred by an important and emotional event. The temptation of his best pupil Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) to the dark side is what drove both of them down the path we find them on today. The Last Jedi is about Luke, through Rey, finding and regaining that hope again. This couldn’t be done, of course, if he hadn’t lost hope initially.
The film’s new force concepts have also been criticised for not being established beforehand. “Force skype” and force projection have never been displayed so directly in a Star Wars film before, admittedly, but there is precedent for both. Luke, Leia, even Vader were shown to communicate via the force – we never saw it face-to-face, but we never had to; it was never a long exchange. Force projection too, has been established through force ghosts in the earlier films. What is to stop Luke, or anyone else for that matter, taking advantage of the same technique? His resulting death has been criticised too, but is explained in a small line of dialogue that Kylo Ren says to Rey: “You are not doing this, the effort would kill you.” It’s a small touch, but of course, the upshot is much more significant when it is considered that someone as well-versed in the force as Luke would have definitely known this too.
Early backlash towards The Last Jedi pointed the finger at its shoehorning in of progressivism. Much of this abuse was directed at Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) for promoting ‘forced diversity and Daisy Ridley (Rey) for her character being a Mary Sue. Many saw the promotion of female heroes as being a response to the Trump presidency and that dirty politics was being shoved down their throats – I’m getting Gamergate vibes. The Last Jedi does have some moral takeaways, though, asking its viewers to consider the human cost of war – brave for what’s ostensibly a kids’ film – going so far as to include an arms dealer character, profiting off the never-ending conflict from the pockets of both the Resistance and the First Order, a relevant message about contemporary war profiteering.
The final major criticism of The Last Jedi does, admittedly, have some teeth. Something Rian Johnson tried to do with The Last Jedi, given The Force Awakens’ lack of originality (not a bad thing), was subvert expectations. Part of the problem, some fans felt, was that this entailed a departure from the themes and plot points established in The Force Awakens. This isn’t without merit: the main antagonist is sliced open 2/3 of the way through the film, Rey’s oh-so-important lineage is revealed to be irrelevant, and the plan pursued by the Resistance for the film’s first 100 minutes fails miserably. It changes tack for sure, but I’d argue it doesn’t do away with them altogether and actually introduces some of its own. Snoke might not be dead, but would it be so bad if he was? That allows Kylo Ren to slip into the role of the trilogy’s primary villain, which will make his eventual turn to the light-side, feel all the more earned; Rey’s parents, too, weren’t established as big, revelatory characters: that was all fan speculation; and the failure of Finn’s plan helps solidify some of the film’s central themes.
Avoiding a preoccupation with the film’s failings allows one to appreciate the film’s visual and thematic beauty a little more. From the landscapes of Ahch-To and Crait, to the interiors of Canto Bight Snoke’s throne room, it’s definitely the most traditionally beautiful Star Wars in the canon. The film’s standout moment takes place in Snoke’s throne room. The blood red curtains, contrasted against the bright, energetic lightsabers – one fizzing and spitting, the other softly humming – serve as the backdrop for an expertly choreographed combat encounter as Rey and Kylo Ren join forces to battle Snoke’s Praetorian Guards; it’s gorgeous. Taking advantage of such themes as ‘failure’, ‘hope’, and “[letting] the past die” might sound grim, but in reality they make this probably the most intellectual Star Wars, and likely the closest the franchise will ever get to arthouse.
I’m not saying the film’s problems are non-existent – such matters are subjective after all – but their impact on the film did seem to wane with my second viewing. Only time will tell if it will prove just as enjoyable a third time, when I undoubtedly watch it again before watching next year’s instalment…