STAR WARS is celebrating its 40th birthday this year by proving one truth: It still reigns as an inexhaustible commercial force.
Five years ago, Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion. Now, judging by the massive opening of “The Last Jedi,” Disney will soon pass that total just from the three Star Wars films that have been released since that 2012 deal was struck.
The eighth episode in the Star Wars saga powered its way to a $220 million domestic debut, according to studio estimates Sunday. The only movie ever to open bigger, before adjusting for inflation, is the series’ previous film. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which jump-started the main franchise in 2015 after a decade of dormancy, had a North American opening of $247.9 million.
Part of the emotional appeal of “The Last Jedi” is seeing Mark Hamill’s full return to the Luke Skywalker role after a 34-year hiatus, as well as the last central appearance of Leia as portrayed by Carrie Fisher, who died last December after completing her performance. Luke and Leia are spotlighted in especially dramatic scenes in “Last Jedi,” in which the young warrior Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks Jedi training as Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) help the Resistance try to hold off the First Order as led by Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
After a single weekend, “The Last Jedi” has already grossed $450 million worldwide. Its trilogy predecessor, “The Force Awakens,” went on to gross more than $2 billion worldwide — the only film not directed by James Cameron to do so. Last year’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” a one-shot spinoff from the main saga, grossed $1.05 billion globally.
Domestically, the only other films to open above the $200 million mark (before inflation adjustment) are Universal’s “Jurassic World” ($208.8 million two years ago), and Disney’s “The Avengers” ($207.4 million) in 2012. Thanks to “Last Jedi,” Disney now owns seven of the eight biggest domestic debuts ever.
“Last Jedi” also recorded the second-biggest opening day ever, with $104.7 million Friday — trailing only the $119.1 million tally for “Force Awakens.”
An interesting wrinkle in the reception of “Last Jedi” is the disparity, by some metrics, between reviewers and audiences. As of Sunday, the movie has an average critics’ score of 86 on MetaCritic and a certified “fresh” 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, yet the film gets audience scores of just 4.9 out of 10 and 56 percent (the lowest on any of the live-action theatrical releases) on those two sites, respectively. And on Metacritic, the “positive” and “negative” reviews were running neck and neck.
According to comScore’s PostTrak metrics, however, 2 in 3 viewers judged “Last Jedi” to be “excellent” and 79 percent said they would “definitely recommend” the movie, reports Variety.
“Last Jedi’s” writer and director is Rian Johnson, whose previous biggest film was 2012’s “Looper,” which grossed $176.5 million on a $30 million production budget.
Lucasfilm, led by president Kathleen Kennedy, and Disney announced last month in an advance vote of confidence that Johnson would be handed the creative reins to a new Star Wars trilogy after J.J. Abrams finishes “Episode IX,” set to hit theaters in 2019.
“There are very few people who can write and direct and play in that scope like Rian,” “Last Jedi” producer Ram Bergman told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs on Friday. “If you’re [Kennedy], you say: ‘Let him do his thing.’ ”
The only Star Wars film that Disney does not own full distribution to is the 1977 original, “Star Wars: A New Hope,” which was distributed by Fox. But last week, Disney announced a pending $52.4 billion deal that includes acquisition of Fox film and TV properties — which would include “A New Hope.”