The Last Jedi - the most divisive Star Wars movie

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. The movie depicts his deeply personal communications like some sort of ongoing FaceTime conversation.
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. The movie depicts his deeply personal communications like some sort of ongoing FaceTime conversation.PHOTO: WALT DISNEY PICTURES

WASHINGTON • In the immediate aftermath of The Last Jedi's historic opening weekend, the most eye-popping numbers aren't necessarily the box-office tallies, but rather the gap between many reviewer and fan reactions. Because by some audience metrics, this is the most polarising Star Wars film ever.

Which raises the question: Just what did writer-director Rian Johnson do to create such a hotly divisive movie?

(Spoilers abound.)

The Last Jedi retained fairly sterling reviewer scores on MetaCritic (86) and Rotten Tomatoes (93 per cent "fresh").

Yet on those same sites, the audience reactions were resulting in low scores of 4.9 out of 10 on Metacritic, and 56 per cent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. The latter is not only the site's lowest number for a live-action theatrical Star Wars film; it also is the largest Rotten Tomatoes disparity for a Star Wars film (37 percentage points), within a franchise that generally finds critic and civilian viewers far more closely aligned.

For comparison's sake, 2015's The Force Awakens had a disparity of just 5 percentage points, with an audience score of 88 per cent.

On MetaCritic, commenter LukeIsTheBest wrote: "They literally destroyed the entire Saga." And one Rotten Tomatoes commenter, Cynthia R, criticised the plot points: "So, let me get this straight. The guy (Luke) who helped take down the Empire has a bad day and he turns into a recluse?... And you wiped the extended universe just to find out that Rey's parents are nobody after building up the mystery?... Your casual fan base will enjoy this movie. But this movie does a disservice to loyal geeks."

The bottom line is that Johnson refused to play it safe. He killed central characters, such as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Snoke (Andy Serkis), whom many fans hoped to have around for J.J. Abrams's next episode in 2019. He challenged the mythology and traditions surrounding the Force.

And mostly, Johnson (Brick, 2005; Looper, 2012) broke away hard from fan expectations.

Take Abrams' literal cliffhanger at the end of Force Awakens, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracks down reclusive Luke on remote Ahch-To and hands him his fabled lightsabre. The moment suggests that the follow-up might unfurl Luke's grand Jedi training of Rey.

But early on in Last Jedi, this would-be momentous exchange is reduced to a visual joke. Luke casually tosses the lightsabre over his shoulder like a junked trinket. He, like Johnson, is throwing out so much of what Star Wars fans have long clung to as Jedi-sacred.

Johnson also opens the movie with a joke, as Resistance flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) mocks the Empire's General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson).

"One of the most rewarding things at the premiere was that first-scene phone call with Hux and Poe," Last Jedi producer Ram Bergman says in an interview.

"The minute you hear the audience laughing, you know we're going to be fine (and) get a good response. If we don't get the laugh in that sequence, then we're in trouble."

And with that insight, Bergman knows: The kind of fan who is feverishly down-voting Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes wasn't laughing at that opening jokey sequence. Nor at Luke's lightsabre gag. Nor at the visual gag of a topless Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Nor at how Johnson depicts Rey's and Kylo's deeply personal communications like some sort of ongoing FaceTime - ForceTime? - conversation.

Hamill, returning to the role after a 34-year hiatus, wasn't initially down with Johnson's vision for Luke's next chapter. "When he read the script, it's not what he imagined," Bergman says of Hamill's reaction. "He made Rian defend why he wrote what he wrote" - including Luke's death scene that speaks to the film's theme of the art of retreat.

But ultimately, Bergman says, Hamill came to completely trust Johnson. "Mark was truly such a great sport and partner. I'm sure it wasn't easy for him."

Johnson also spent long hours at the late actress Carrie Fisher's home, making sure she was on board with his vision for Leia Organa. "She would give him so many notes," Bergman says. "They could communicate as writers."

And Johnson proved to be a strong collaborator for the studio, Bergman says, checking in frequently with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and other executives, including at Disney, to make sure everyone was on board with his daring choices geared towards the next generation.

His reward? Last month, Kennedy announced that Johnson had been handed the creative reins to the next Star Wars trilogy, which will begin after Abrams concludes the current trilogy in 2019.

The old writing adage advises of precious prose: "Kill your darlings."

In the name of building new stories, Johnson's pen is willing to kill fans' darlings, too.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'The Last Jedi - the most divisive Star Wars movie'. Print Edition | Subscribe