10:56am PT by Erik Hayden
'Star Wars' Is Like an Etch a Sketch Now
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi]
What's going on with The Last Jedi? Since last Thursday, the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, where the Lucasfilm title boasts a 93 percent critical fresh rating — in addition to a CinemaScore "A" grade — has been declining noticeably and now sits at 56 percent. That's in line with scores for the prequels, which didn't have the same critical accolades.
Why? My colleague Ryan Parker guesses the disappointment lies mainly with "expectations borne out of wild theories stoked by fan sites and YouTube channels." It's not a bad theory. Here's another one: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi didn't sit as well with some fans because the titles haven't addressed enough of what happened in the three decades of events in the Star Wars universe after Return of the Jedi. That's the foundation the two new films are based on, with everything leading toward Episode IX.
The conclusion of 1983's Episode VI left Luke, Han and Leia in a "happily ever after"-type ending while X-wings zoomed across the sky with fireworks trailing in their wake. When 2015's The Force Awakens arrived, it had the unenviable task of creating a new generation of likable characters, developing their backstory, creating credible villains and figuring out what to do with the original trilogy characters.
Critics agreed at the time that director J.J. Abrams was generally successful at checking those boxes, resetting the Star Wars plot like an Etch a Sketch. Lucasfilm has tried to do the same since 2014, when the company unveiled plans to change canon for the franchise. At the time, it said, "to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe." That the sole purpose of the discarded Expanded Universe — over the course of authorized Timothy Zahn sequel novels beginning in 1991 and many, many others — was to just explain what happened in the aftermath of the original trilogy didn't help temper fan expectations for the new films.
That left The Last Jedi with the job of explaining questions like: Why did the universe go to hell again? How did the Rebels go wrong after beating the Empire? Weren't they in charge of the galaxy with something called the New Republic? How did the First Order conquer the galaxy, and what is its motivation? How did the new big bad, Snoke, take over everything? Why is the entire Rebellion/Resistance five ships now? And, after flashbacks in The Force Awakens, what happened to Luke Skywalker's Jedi Academy?
Those are, admittedly, questions whose answers may not make for good filmmaking. Perhaps the Lucasfilm brain trust took to heart how critics skewered George Lucas' ponderous focus on trade disputes, political intrigue and galactic Senate squabbles in the Star Wars prequels and steered clear of trying to use the franchise films to spend time on world-building. There are plenty of spinoff books, comics and games that fill in the backstory of what is now the canonical story.
The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson smartly addressed this line of thinking from a filmmaking perspective, commenting on the death of Snoke. "It would have stopped any of these scenes dead cold if he had stopped and given a 30-second speech about how he’s Darth Plagueis,” Johnson told EW, referring to a character that has never been seen in a Star Wars film and is supposedly the big bad behind the big bad in the prequels. “It doesn’t matter to Rey. If he had done that, Rey would have blinked and said, ‘Who?’ And the scene would have gone on.”
But that approach leaves jarring transitions from film to film. The Force Awakens has Han and Leia separated and no longer speaking, Han having returned to smuggling for some reason. Their son is trying to be a Sith lord. There were about five lines of dialogue explaining this. Similarly, in The Last Jedi, Luke is not only a broken man, he only slightly acknowledges the death of Han, and he swears off the religion that ties all of the films together. Those are difficult character transitions to explain away with a few exchanges and one look back at the burning Jedi Academy.
A recurring theme, at least on some social media threads, is that the old trilogy characters have been distorted too much from Episode VI to Episode VII, rendering them unrecognizable to an audience that has built them up for three decades. Unlike the development for new characters Rey, Finn and Poe, some old trilogy characters (aside from Leia) are just dropped into the new films as entirely new versions of themselves without much backstory about why. No wonder Mark Hamill infamously told Johnson at one point during shooting, "I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character."
There was little transition shown for Luke to become a bitter hermit, even if his storyline in The Last Jedi was excellently executed and Hamill was praised for his nuanced performance. There was no real flashback or closure illustrating the family dynamics that led to the dissolution of Han and Leia's relationship, even though both Ford and Fisher did the best they could with what little explanation was given in The Force Awakens. And there was no reason for why Ben Solo/Kylo Ren was trending toward the Dark Side in the first place, even though Adam Driver has, as many critics have said, become the most complex and well-developed character in the franchise so far.
The Last Jedi did attempt some world-building. Although, ironically, critics mostly seemed to dislike the Canto Bight (casino town) plot line, that interlude explained some about others in the universe aside from sneering First Order bureaucrats and heroic, scruffy rebels. There are people who sell weapons to both sides, disinterested and greedy gamblers and a new generation of Force users in the waiting out there in the galaxy. And Luke, while in his hermit state, at least made reference to the plotline of the prequels and original trilogy villain Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine in his explanation of why the Jedi need to go away.
The new entry now has a lower audience score on Rotten Tomatoes than 2005's Revenge of the Sith (65 percent), 2002's Attack of the Clones (57 percent) and 1999's Phantom Menace (59 percent), despite being praised by critics for skilled filmmaking and imaginative direction and cinematography. (Interestingly, 2016's war drama spinoff Rogue One, a story that is entirely a fill-in-the-gaps entry with a storyline focused on explaining in detail a few sentences in the A New Hope scroll, has a relatively high audience score of 87 percent.)
The send-off of Luke in The Last Jedi may have done the most to dent that score. It may have had less impact, at least on first viewing, to see the central character of the saga disappear as a Force ghost with so many gaps still left to fill on what happened to him. It's that story, and others, that a certain set of Star Wars fans would've wanted to see, even if, as Lucas put it recently, the new film really was "beautifully made."