Star Wars, Episode 8.5: Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes

People liked the non-spoilery thoughts on The Last Jedi, so here’s a brief follow-up.  There’s also some politics involved below, for those of you fearing I’m straying.

Some people are wondering about the seeming chasm between critical opinion and audience opinion on TLJ as registered at Rotten Tomatoes.  Currently, the topline scores are 93% from critics and 56% from the audience.  But that gap probably isn’t as large as those numbers suggest.

For starters, the topline numbers are a raw count of positive vs negative reactions.  The actual “score” from critics is 8.2/10, while the audience is at 3.3/5.  The difference between 82 and 66 is significant, but not as large as the topline suggests.

Second, some speculate that there’s some sort of concerted trolling effort afoot.  Perhaps, though with almost 100,000 audience comments it seems like an effort on that scale would have been detected.

The answer here probably doesn’t require an organized effort.  As I suggested on Friday, there seems to be the sense among some fans of the franchise that people overloved The Force Awakens and that TFA hasn’t aged well.  TLJ may be paying the price among this group.

Next, there are casual Star Wars fans — and ordinary moviegoers who may have enjoyed the level of fan service in the prior episode (including the triumphant ending) and like this one less by comparison, especially without Han Solo on the scene.  It’s a version of the larger “Act II” problem that originally beset The Empire Strike Back, which divided critics and fans alike initially.  TLJ is no TESB, of course.  But the principle may be the same.

Then there’s the basic dynamic of the internet and the attention economy that forces polarization.  People won’t spend time expressing their opinions on the ‘net unless they both care and believe that others need to be exposed to them (myself included).  Famed Star Wars nerd Kevin Smith understood this years ago.  The fanboi/gurl vs hater dynamic of the internet era may have finally reached what was thought to be an untouchable part of pop culture.

In this regard, note that TLJ received an “A” CinemaScore and high marks from similar survey services.  These services have a plus and a minus.  The plus is that we know these respondents — unlike those chiming in on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic — actually saw the movie.  The minus is that these are people who wanted to see TLJ right away and invested money in enjoying themselves.  Again, TLJ is not an “A” installment in this franchise, let alone an “A” movie.

My guess would be that audiences are enjoying it more than Rotten Tomatoes suggests, but perhaps less than CinemaScore suggests once they’ve had time to reflect on it.  We really don’t know.

Furthermore, the general sort of fanboi/gurl vs hater dynamic may be getting fueled in part by politics.  Some conservatives have been tough on the movie (quasi-spoiler warning) and some progressives immediately knee-jerked their way into hot takes about the right being racist, sexist, etc.

Most of the conservative critiques of TLJ have nothing to do with identity politics.  There is some Social Justice Star Warfare going on in TLJ, primarily in the Finn and Poe plotlines.  But the problems conservatives have with these plotlines generally do not address the politics, despite the fact that they arguably are one source of the film’s weaknesses.

For example, I have seen conservatives critique the effect of Finn’s plotline on the overall narrative, rather than on the politics of that plotline.  But one wonders whether the politics are there to shore up the weakest parts of the film.  Were I progressive, I might ask why Finn gets saddled with this plotline; doesn’t he (and we) deserve better?

Similarly, in Poe’s relationship with Vice Admiral Holdo, I’ve generally seen conservatives take Poe’s side and progressives take Holdo’s.  But the nature of the drama there would largely exist regardless of the sexes of the characters (there is one scene suggesting sexism as an issue here).

Indeed, as The Federalist’s Ben Domenech suggested on Twitter, the end of Holdo’s arc would have been more meaningful if played by Admiral Ackbar.  Maybe that entire plotline would have played better with Ackbar (keeping Leia constant in this scenario), which again raises the issue of whether politics diminished the film’s drama.

Ironically, conservatives seem happiest with Rey’s plotline, despite Rey coming into TLJ as a Mary Sue.  I’d suggest that has little to do with identity politics and everything to do with it being the most compelling of the three plotlines.

As an aside to the Rey plotline, I’ve noticed that some conservatives (and perhaps other Star Wars nerds), including Sonny Bunch (spoilers), dislike the treatment of the villainous Snoke in TLJ.  I cannot bring myself to get particularly worked up about it, insofar as the treatment he gets is ultimately not all that different from that of Palpatine/Sidious in the prior installments.

However, the complaint about Snoke may raise a larger point about how questions or expectations implicitly raised in TFA get resolved in TLJ.  I don’t mind the occasional bit of surprise or heresy in my space opera, but I can see how others may view it as reflecting badly on the vision of those steering this multi-billion-dollar franchise.

I can also see why these types of issues might bother conservatives more than progressives, on balance.  Demystification and heresy generally don’t appeal to a more conservative mindset and perhaps TLJ goes too far in that direction.  As I noted on Friday, this film’s theme regarding how we address the past is “a fairly audacious subject for a multi-billion dollar franchise now thoroughly steeped in nostalgia.”

In this vein, the Cato Institute’s Aaron Ross Powell argues that TLJ betrays the original trilogy and its heroes.  I don’t buy the auxiliary points about Snoke for reasons stated above.  But if one accepts the basic argument, I’d argue TFA betrayed the original trilogy, just not overtly as TLJ does.  Powell lets TFA off the hook by writing (otherwise correctly) that movie just didn’t care about that betrayal.

Ultimately, of all of the various factors that may be turning some off TLJ, this is probably the most underestimated.  TFA was the foundation for this new trilogy.  The weaknesses of that foundation, encompassing its overall narrative and its new main characters, were going to create problems for whatever Disney tried to build on top of it, even if those weaknesses went unnoticed by some last time.  This is why my earlier non-spoilery thoughts emphasized TFA being one of my major benchmarks for TLJ.

Pre-publication update: Alyssa Rosenberg has a spoiler-loaded column up at the WaPo that agrees with much of the critique of Finn’s plotline and with some of Powell’s broader critiques.  It’s nice that Star Wars criticism can transcend ideology; I hope her friends don’t call her a bad progressive for noting some inconvenient points.

Rosenberg also makes some points about Poe’s plotline at the end of her column that warrant comment.  In a spirit of comity, I agree that the end of Poe’s arc here makes little sense dramatically.  She also makes a larger, identity-related point about the Resistance that I would not make, given the state of the Resistance at the end of TLJ.  The movie stacks the deck in favor of Holdo’s decisions, which is fine for the narrative.  But the new sequels both imply that the Resistance’s intelligence ops pale in comparison to those of the old Rebellion.  As a result, the Resistance loses its primary advantage as an insurgency and suffers heavy consequences.  Leadership, regardless of identity, needs to be accountable for these failures.

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