It took only two weeks and change for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" to become the highest-grossing movie of 2017, with the latest installment of the 40-year-old action-adventure serial now having earned more than half a billion dollars at the box office. The success of "The Last Jedi" isn't surprising, but in this case it's notable, if only because the movie has been so divisive, especially among lifelong fans.
When "The Last Jedi" opened in mid-December, it earned mostly positive reviews: Impressed by director Rian Johnson's wit, visual style, old-school cinematic references and clear devotion to the Star Wars universe, critics were nearly unanimous in declaring it a home run. The fans weren't as thrilled: Turned off by everything from plot holes and unsatisfying character arcs to a bizarre scene of someone milking a saggy, baggy thala-siren, so many viewers declared "The Last Jedi" a failure that some started a petition to have it removed from the canon. Even Mark Hamill piled on at one point ("He's not my Luke Skywalker") before recanting.
Granted, many of "The Last Jedi's" detractors have valid points: The movie isn't perfect. It's too long, contains a time-wasting trip to a poorly conceived space-casino and kills off at least one iconic character while letting another survive. But much of the backlash echoes Hamill's admission: This isn't my Star Wars. Subtext: Because Star Wars is all about the fans, and because it doesn't adhere to this fan's deeply personal expectations, sense memories and demands, it can be rejected with extreme prejudice.
The critic-fan divide around "The Last Jedi" has reminded me of a moment long ago when I began reviewing movies for a living. My then-young nephew, trying to wrap his head around getting paid to watch and write about films, said, "So you basically say whether a movie sucks or not."
Well, yes. But really, no. The challenge of critical thinking is to take pure subjectivity out of the equation so that your biases, blind spots, fetishistic likes and dislikes are, if not erased, at least put to the side, to better allow the movie be what it set out to be.
A few weeks before I started my first job as a full-time critic, a dear friend gave me advice I've been following for 20 years: "Before you review any film," he said, "ask yourself three questions: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he or she achieve it? And was it worth doing?" I later learned that Goethe first offered that template as a way to analyze theater; but the formulation has held me in good stead throughout a career in which I've had to be as fair as possible to films I never would have watched at my own discretion.
So, what was Johnson trying to achieve with "The Last Jedi"? He did not issue a director's statement when the film was released, but he has responded to the backlash, tweeting that "the goal is never to divide or make people upset, but I do think the conversations that are happening were going to have to happen at some point if (Star Wars) is going to grow, move forward, and stay vital."
That's a refreshingly nondefensive response from a filmmaker who had a nearly impossible task with an installment of Star Wars that, after the much-needed restoration of J.J. Abrams' "The Force Awakens," needed to thread a vexingly tricky needle: Service the fans but not slavishly; respect George Lucas' master narrative but push it forward; have fun but take the characters seriously; create sounds, images, characters and a story that can engage hard-core aficionados and newcomers alike; honor but innovate.
And, perhaps most challenging, put a personal artistic thumbprint on a movie that easily could be discarded as simply a marketing tool for merchandise, apps and games. It's true that Johnson didn't make my "Star Wars," or yours. He made his. And that's eminently worth doing.