Why is ‘The Last Jedi’ the Most Divisive of the Star Wars Movies?
This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Like many others who have seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I recall walking out of the cinema in a daze. At that point, I was only sure that it was an entertaining film, but I couldn’t articulate my amazement quite yet, and was hesitant to pass judgement on how it fared against the expectations upon it as a part of the Star Wars saga. It was great, but it was different—different from any other episode in the franchise—and I wasn’t immediately sure about what that meant and how I felt about it.
As someone who grew up with Star Wars (the prequel trilogy in cinemas, the original trilogy on laser discs), I didn’t expect to feel that way. I thought that I would either erupt by the end of the movie, squirming and squealing wide-eyed at new developments and twists and loose ends, or else leave disappointed.
And yet for everything that it was and wasn't, the movie didn't disappoint. The Last Jedi refused to indulge us in theory confirmations, ceremonious lineage reveals, and Qui-Gon Jinn involvement (okay, this one was just me; I bet hard on it, for no reason), and instead went off on its own path. Still, after a bit of reflection and two more screenings, my doubts were allayed. The Last Jedi really is an incredible film.
But as it turns out, not everyone agrees.
The reception has been vastly mixed. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie currently holds a 92 percent Critics’ Score and a 52 percent Audience’s Score—a stark 40-point difference. Positive reviews glow with the light of two suns; negative reviews have sentenced the film to be slowly digested over a thousand years.
Entries that comprise those scores have called The Last Jedi “an unfocused, contrived, and inconsistent dumpster fire of a movie,” saying it has “butchered the Star Wars mythology,” and bemoaning its “feminist left wing agenda”. More articulate distaste for the film came from Richard Brody of The New Yorker, a prequel trilogy apologist who called it “ironed out, flattened down, appallingly purified.”
On the other hand, there is an equally resounding chorus of fans calling it the best episode since The Empire Strikes Back, if not the best Star Wars movie ever. The Last Jedi has been lauded for its unique take on the franchise, for nailing “the balance between novelty and nostalgia,” and for being “a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption.”
"On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie currently holds a 92 percent Critics’ Score and a 52 percent Audience’s Score—a stark 40-point difference."
There’s about as much praise for the movie’s new and forward-moving approach to Star Wars as there is repugnance at it. Which begs the question: Why is The Last Jedi so polarizing?
One could argue that it’s precisely that approach—its newness, its forward motion—that has left fans so sharply divided. Both in its story and in itself as a film, The Last Jedi leaves the past behind and heralds a drastic new direction for the widely-beloved sci-fi saga—one that dares to reflect the world’s sociopolitical situation, to assert an opinion of it, and in doing so, to abdicate all the expectations of its own fan base. The Last Jedi leapt far, and not everyone agrees about whether or not it stuck the landing.
Part of those unmet expectations—and indeed one of the main reasons for the great divide—is the film’s refusal resolve the burning questions that Star Wars fans have been asking since The Force Awakens: Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Who are Rey’s parents and why did they leave her on Jakku? Who are the Knights of Ren? Because fans staked so much on The Last Jedi providing the answers, they were sorely let down when it didn’t. It was, to them, a wasted opportunity, and an affront to the title's mythology.
Conversely, others feel that the refusal to answer those questions (at least to the standards that we were all expecting) poses an even more captivating and unexpected one: did those questions ever really matter, and isn’t it better that they don’t? When you consider the film in its entirety, are those questions not just trivial matters of fandom obsession? Isn’t there so much more to the essence of Star Wars than just bloodlines and subplots? I myself was looking forward to better answers to those questions too, but now, I’m even more glad that the film didn’t yield.
But there are also more fundamental reasons for the division—perhaps even political ones. More than any of its previous installments, the Star Wars sequel trilogy is loud and clear on where it stands on ethnic representation and gender equality. Both The Last Jedi and its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens, are characterized by a diverse cast of characters and strong female leads. The Last Jedi is easily the most feminist episode in the saga, with several subtle repudiations of mansplaining through its four strong female characters: Rey, General Leia Organa, Admiral Holdo, and Rose Tico. There’s also a little detail in the promotional materials for Episode 8 that suggests Poe Dameron could be Star Wars’ first gay character, and at the very least, that's a worthy effort to denounce heteronormativity.
This installment makes no secret of the bold new politics of Star Wars, necessarily (and perhaps willfully) alienating conservatives, including and especially the conservative baby boomers and gen-Xers who were alive to see the original trilogy when it first came out. Many negative reviews blame SJWs (social justice warriors, a pejorative term for internet liberals) for ruining Star Wars, because as of The Last Jedi, it’s clearer than ever to right-wing conservatives that their beloved sci-fi saga disagrees with them.
This progressiveness also carries over to the movie’s greater moral themes. The old Star Wars that conservatives knew and loved was defined by its binary oppositions: the Jedi and the Sith, the Dark Side and the Light, blue lightsabers and red lightsabers. In all previous films, the lines between good and evil were always cut clear. The Last Jedi challenges that duality by recognizing the hubris of its heroes, and allowing us to hope in its villains. In doing so, it also challenges the conservative frame of mind, which is typically more wary of moral relativism. Necessarily, it appeals to the progressive frame of mind, which more readily acknowledges gray areas. For the first time, our real-life political inclinations are reflected by how much we enjoyed or hated a Star Wars movie.
These disagreements and diametrically opposed opinions are only exacerbated and radicalized by nostalgia, which at this point, is inextricable from any Star Wars movie. Tom Marks and John Borba of IGN.com argue, vis-à-vis The Last Jedi, that nostalgia distorts objectivity, and that it clouds judgement both ways. Citing the very early positive appraisals of The Phantom Menace, Marks and Borba think that it’s possible to feel too good about a Star Wars movie just because it is a Star Wars movie, even if in the face of glaring flaws. That deep and abiding nostalgia for Star Wars also fosters an entitlement to the direction it takes, which feeds our expectations, and causes us to feel as if anything else than the fulfillment of those expectations would be a deep betrayal. The result: people on both sides feel more extremely about their opinions, and the divide is even more clear cut.
"The great irony of it all, though, is that The Last Jedi's ultimate message—to me, its greatest triumph—is that we cannot move forward if we are blinded by extremism and absolutism."
The great irony of it all, though, is that The Last Jedi's ultimate message—to me, its greatest triumph—is that we cannot move forward if we are blinded by extremism and absolutism, or if we allow ourselves to get carried away by our beliefs and our differences. It happened to the film's purest protagonist in Luke, who was corrupted by his own vanity and his commitment to the Jedi Order; and to its antagonist in Kylo Ren, who ends the movie as a radical progressive leader so intent on "letting the past die" that he misses his mark. It happened to Rey, who was fixated with finding her parents, and it's happening to the fans who are too consumed by their idea of what Star Wars should be to see the merits of its eighth episode.
But even that virtue is tempered by the movie's depiction of the errors of moral relativism, shown in Benicio del Toro's DJ, who refuses to pick a side, and only lives for himself. "Good guys, bad guys—made up words," he says, after betraying Finn and Rose. "It's all a machine, partner. Live free, don't join." It's clear through him that while The Last Jedi stands against believing too much, it also stands against believing too little. Balance, as always, prevails in Star Wars.
This conscientious moderacy is the perfect message for a world divided—and it gets across in The Last Jedi because it is Star Wars, but also because it is no longer the Star Wars we once knew.