Article Thumbnail

Three Thoughts About… ‘The Last Jedi’

Let’s have a virtual water-cooler conversation about the latest ‘Star Wars’ sequel

There are few pop culture happenings anymore that unite our disconnected, splintered society. We’re all too busy binging on our own Netflix shows or checking out our individually curated Spotify playlists to be anything close to a monoculture. (Not to mention arguing about pretty much everything else on social media.) Star Wars, however, is usually the one thing that brings us all together.

Well, at least it used to.

The latest installment, The Last Jedi, just hit theaters, receiving ecstatic reviews from critics, including me. And yet, even though the film did incredible business this weekend, grossing an estimated $220 million, there’s been a bit of an online rift over the fact that a certain portion of the audiences doesn’t seem to like the movie at all. On Metacritic, the user score, as of Sunday night, is 4.9 out of 10. On Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score sits at 56 percent. Those are pretty low scores for a huge smash that’s also a critical hit.

So what’s going on?

Fanboy sites and industry trade papers have tried to explain this discrepancy for a film that received a glowing “A” grade on Cinemascore, which actually polls audience members as they’re leaving the theater. So why, then, are Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes registering such mixed-to-negative reviews for The Last Jedi?

I have a few pet theories.

The first is that we’ve got another Gamergate-like situation going on. You may remember that there was an angry, repugnant section of the audience that freaked out when The Force Awakens dared to feature, gasp, a black Stormtrooper (John Boyega). There were calls to boycott that film, which did very little to dent The Force Awakens at the box office. (It earned $2.1 billion worldwide.) But that doesn’t stop bigots from writing negative reviews on websites.

The second is that some diehard fans are taking issue with how The Last Jedi dares to subvert some of the mythology of Star Wars in order to create more complicated, nuanced characters. On the film site Movie City News, there’s a whole thread of angry fans yelling about the fact that Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson somehow betrayed the franchise’s legacy, which is a weird thing to say considering that Johnson has been a lifetime Star Wars fan. It’s possible that some fans are so beholden to their idea of what Star Wars is that they’re not happy when anyone dares tamper with it.

Finally, there’s always the possibility that general audiences just saw the movie differently than critics did. Even among the MEL staff, there’s been grumblings that The Last Jedi was “an hour too long” and that “none of the decisions/plot felt earned.” It’s anecdotal, but the general vibe I get from viewers is that they’re left underwhelmed by the experience, although I’ve talked to some people who absolutely loved it — if anything, they think I’m too hard on The Last Jedi in my review.

All of which basically means that we can add Star Wars to the list of things we can no longer agree about.

Below are three of my takeaways from The Last Jedi, including which actor is tops among the ensemble, the scourge of the Porgs and why we need to get over the idea of spoilers. (And, yes, there are spoilers in this piece.)

#1. Adam Driver Is the Best

Whenever you like an actor who’s been in lots of good, smaller things, there’s a worry he’ll get swallowed up by the big blockbusters and suddenly be a lot less interesting. (This is more commonly known as Chris Pratt Disease.) That’s why it’s great that Adam Driver — who audiences know from Girls and last year’s intimate Jim Jarmusch drama Paterson — has lost none of his spark in these Star Wars sequels. In fact, he may be the most exciting character in this new trilogy. It’s the Driver we’ve come to know, just super-sized.

As in The Force Awakens, he plays Kylo Ren, son of Han Solo, who very, very badly wants to be the Darth Vader of the First Order. (He’s even got a scary-looking black mask, although one of The Last Jedi’s best jokes is how his master Snoke enjoys clowning him about it.) Driver has often played soulful, complicated guys, and that proves true here as well. The Kylo Ren of Force Awakens was a moody twit trying to prove how much of a badass he was — it was almost touching what a poseur he was. But in Last Jedi, although he’s still trying to live up to Vader’s legacy, we also see exactly how he got to be so screwed up — Luke Skywalker, his alleged mentor, tries to kill him in his sleep once Skywalker realizes the Dark Side is strong in this one. (Depending on who’s telling the story, there’s a little more gray area, but that’s more or less how it goes down.)

Like Adam Sackler in Girls, Kylo Ren is dark but also deeply wounded, and so his desire to destroy Skywalker is mitigated by his unexpected, deeply intimate connection with Rey. He’s the bad-boy dreamboat of the Star Wars universe, and Driver has the dramatic chops to give that conceit some real heft. It’s the one thing Kylo Ren may actually have in common with his hero/grandfather Vader: They’re both more nuanced villains than we first realize.

#2. Death to Porgs

I know they’re supposed to be cute — just the way the Ewoks were in Return of the Jedi — but I can’t get with the Porgs. This is bad news for me, because I’m never going to be able to escape them. There are already Porg throw pillows, Porg coffee mugs and Porgs with suction cups that you can put in your car. It’s the latest example of the shrewd/crass Star Wars merchandising ethos that’s best captured by this Spaceballs bit:

In general, Star Wars never really works when it’s geared toward kids. Three particularly unforgivable examples: Jar Jar Binks, little-kid Anakin Skywalker and the Star Wars Holiday Special. I have a sneaking suspicion that Porgs will end up being the New Coke of the new trilogy — something we look back on with embarrassment.

I also suspect that Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson may understand where I’m coming from. One of the biggest laughs in the movie is when Chewbacca enjoys a little campfire-grilled Porg — to the horror of some Porgs who walk by and take notice.

Maybe I’d like a Porg more if it was between two pieces of bread.

#3. I Don’t Care About Spoilers

For both The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens, I decided I wouldn’t watch any trailers or TV commercials before seeing the movies. My reasoning was that since I was so excited to experience the films, I wanted them to be a complete mystery when I did see them. And for both films (and Rogue One), part of the enjoyment was that I was surprised by stuff that other people already knew about months ago.

But I also understand that (1) Not everybody feels that way; and (2) it’s not the world’s job to adhere to my very specific, preferred way of watching highly anticipated films. I know that when a new Last Jedi trailer comes out, I have to exit social media for a few days, but I don’t get mad at everybody for discussing the trailer or the latest behind-the-scenes news item — it’s on me to shield myself.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how the world operates. Whenever reviews break for a big movie, there’s always a vocal contingent complaining online about things being spoiled. One prominent recent example came from 500 Days of Summer screenwriter Michael H. Weber, who pleaded with critics and journalists on Twitter not to talk about The Last Jedi:

I get that frustration. But we as a society have to get over this idea that it’s other people’s responsibility to protect us from stuff we don’t want to have ruined — and that they should know exactly what constitutes a spoiler for us.

Years ago, I remember a West Coast friend getting angry on Facebook that her East Coast friends were talking about the latest Mad Men episode online. “Hey, we haven’t seen it yet,” she scolded. “Can’t you wait for us?”

That’s a reasonable request, but where does it end? Wouldn’t the easiest thing be simply to remove yourself from the equation?

Because Spoiler Alert: Once you get home after watching The Last Jedi, all the commentary and takes will be there waiting for you.

Oh, and Luke Skywalker dies.