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 exactly surprising, but in this case it's notable, if only because the movie itself has been so divisive, especially among lifelong Star Wars 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, it turned out, 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, admitting that he was initially disappointed with where Johnson decided to take his character's story ("He's not my Luke Skywalker") before quickly recanting.
Granted, many of "The Last Jedi's" detractors have valid points: The movie isn't perfect. It's too long by at least 20 minutes, contains a time-wasting trip to a poorly conceived space-casino and, most confoundingly, kills off at least one iconic character while letting another survive into another chapter. But much of the backlash echoes Hamill's own candid 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 emotionally loaded 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, turned to me and 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 own idiosyncratic 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. It can be a tricky perceptual exercise: Even the most objective elements of filmmaking, like camerawork, sound design and story structure, are ultimately evaluated according to whether they work or don't work for the individual spectator. But the most crucial starting point for viewers should be going into the theater as a tabula rasa, as blank a slate as possible, the better for a film to leave them surprised, delighted and perhaps permanently changed.
A few weeks before I started my first job as a full-time critic, a dear friend gave me advice that 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 actually 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.
I may not be a huge science-fiction fan, but that doesn't mean I couldn't be impressed — and, ultimately, deeply moved — by such breathtaking films as "Gravity" and "Arrival," each of which elaborated on familiar sci-fi conventions to ponder what it means to be human. I wasn't a citizen of "Harry Potter" nation, but could still appreciate the craftsmanship and brilliant casting and performances, especially in the later films of that series. As a lifelong devotee of "Anna Karenina," I had my own expectations going into Joe Wright's 2012 adaptation. Rather than a straight narrative, Wright confected a highly stylized, jewel box-scale compression of Leo Tolstoy's novel that, while unconventional, wound up being improbably appropriate for distilling the dauntingly dense source material. Wright's Anna wasn't my Anna, which turned out to be a revelatory, thought-provoking gift.
So, what was Rian 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's "The Force Awakens," needed to thread a vexingly tricky needle: Service the fans, but not slavishly; respect George Lucas's master narrative but push it forward; have fun but take the characters seriously; create sounds, images, characters and a story that can engage hardcore aficionados and newcomers alike; honor but innovate.
And, perhaps most challenging, put a personal artistic thumbprint on a movie that could easily 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.