The movie business is a fickle beast subject to change moment from moment. Without a doubt, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was the most anticipated film of 2017 for many moviegoers. But now that it has arrived, it’s also proving to be one of the most polarizing pictures of the year. The movie boasts a 96 percent from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but just a 55 percent audience score. It has an equally dividing score of 86/100 on Metacritic. It is both beloved and hated by the fandom in a way few other recent Star Wars entries have been.
Is this what Disney (DIS) and Lucasfilm wanted, a movie that would challenge people’s perceptions of the franchise? Or did they want an easily digestible product for the masses?
“Rian Johnson, the cast and the Lucasfilm team have delivered an experience that is totally Star Wars yet at the same time fresh, unexpected and new,” Dave Hollis, Disney’s president of theatrical distribution, told Deadline. “That makes this a Star Wars film like audiences have never seen—it’s got people talking, puzzling over its mysteries, and it’s a lot to take in, and we see that as all positive, that should help set the film up for great word-of-mouth and repeat viewing as we enter the lucrative holiday period.”
It’s true that The Last Jedi most definitely has people talking; insightful think pieces have popped up from both factions of the fandom thoughtfully analyzing the film’s strengths and flaws. But did Disney expect this significant of a reaction? Did they have any idea The Last Jedi would be this divisive? They clearly enjoyed working with Johnson and were fond of his final product, enough so that they handed him the keys to an entirely new Star Wars trilogy. Lucasfilm is infamous for its recent string of testy breakups with directors, so the fact that they trust Johnson this much says something.
The Last Jedi is certainly a unique Star Wars film, taking characters in bold and unexpected directions and subverting audience expectations at times. It deserves credit for its earned ambition. But the movie is also flawed, with wasteful plot deviations, tonal miscalculations and squandered opportunity. To us, The Last Jedi‘s lows are lower than The Force Awakens, but its highs are higher. The studio has been criticized by fans for being reluctant to try anything new or outside of its comfort zone in recent years and it is now being criticized for taking a gamble on a fresh approach. Fans can’t have their blue milk and drink it too.
The film’s backlash speaks to the challenge of making blockbuster genre fare these days. Studios must carefully straddle the line between pleasing the masses (and generating ticket sales) and making quality films, which aren’t always mutually exclusive but can definitely blur together from time to time. Blade Runner 2049 was one of the best films of the year, but its box office disappointment may spell the end for Alcon Entertainment. Star Wars may be too big to fail at the moment, but you can bet Disney is taking notes on audience complaints for Episode IX.
Then again, perhaps the studio doesn’t care a lick what we think. The Last Jedi just earned the second-biggest domestic opening ever ($220 million) and a top-five worldwide first frame ($450 million). So ratings scores be damned, they probably can’t even hear us over the sound of all of that box office money flowing in.