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How ‘The Last Jedi’ became the most divisive Star Wars movie yet

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" sees Luke Skywalker back from isolation and the farewell of Princess Leia. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
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Spoilers abound.

IN THE immediate aftermath of “The Last Jedi’s” historic opening weekend, the most eye-popping numbers aren’t necessarily the box-office tallies, but rather the gap between many reviewer and fan reactions. By some audience metrics, this is the most polarizing Star Wars film ever.

Which raises the question: Just what did writer-director Rian Johnson do to create such a hotly divisive movie?

As “The Last Jedi” was opening to the second-biggest domestic weekend ever ($220 million) without accounting for inflation, and nearing the half-billion mark worldwide, it was retaining fairly sterling reviewer scores on MetaCritic (86) and Rotten Tomatoes (“93″ percent certified “fresh”).

Yet on those same sites, the audience reactions were resulting in a lowly 4.9 out of 10 user score on MetaCritic, and a slumming-for-Star-Wars 56 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. That latter number represents not only the site’s lowest number ever for a live-action theatrical Star Wars film; it also is one end of the largest Rotten Tomatoes disparity ever for a Star Wars film (37 percentage points), within a franchise that generally finds critic and civilian viewers far more closely aligned. (For comparison’s sake, 2015’s “The Force Awakens” had a disparity of just 5 percentage points, with an audience score of 88 percent.)

Where does "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" rank among the other Star Wars movies? The Post's Comic Riffs duo square off as they rank all nine films. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Those online metrics do diverge greatly from some better-known exit-polling scores. Opening-night audiences gave “Last Jedi” an “A” grade, said CinemaScore, and according to comScore’s PostTrak metrics, 2 in 3 viewers judged the movie to be “excellent” while 79 percent said they would “definitely recommend” the movie, reports Variety.

So it bears noting that such sites as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and (where “Last Jedi” scores a strong 7.9 out of 10, on par with the 8.1 for “Force Awakens”) don’t rely on scientific means, leaving the sites with self-selecting audiences especially open to trolling.

Yet the audience reactions on sites like Metacritic, where the “positive” and “negative” reviews for “Last Jedi” were running neck and neck, point to reasons why the film was proving divisive on social media as well.

On MetaCritic, commenter “LukeIsTheBest” wrote: “They literally destroyed the entire Saga.” One Rotten Tomatoes commenter, “Cynthia R,” wrote in criticizing a run of plot points: “So, let me get this straight. The guy [Luke] who helped take down the Empire has a bad day and he turns into a recluse? . . . And you wiped the extended universe just to find out that Rey’s parents are nobody after building up the mystery? . . . Your casual fan base will enjoy this movie. But this movie does a disservice to loyal geeks.”

The bottom line is Johnson, through his creative choices, refused to play it safe. He killed off central characters, such as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Snoke (Andy Serkis), many fans hoped to have around for J.J. Abrams’s next episode in 2019. He challenged the mythology and traditions surrounding the Force and the Jedi Way. He questioned whether some Star Wars legends are really heroes at all.

Mostly, Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper,” “Breaking Bad” episodes) broke hard from so many fan expectations.

At nearly every step of the way, in fact, Johnson telegraphs he’s upending so much of what came before.

Take Abrams’s literal cliffhanger at the end of “Force Awakens,” as Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracks down reclusive Luke on remote Ahch-To and hands him his fabled lightsaber. The moment suggests the follow-up might unfurl Luke’s grand Jedi training of Rey. Except . . .

. . . Early on in “Last Jedi,” this would-be momentous exchange is reduced to a visual joke. Luke casually tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder like a junked trinket. He, like Johnson, is throwing out so much if what Star Wars fans have long clung to as Jedi-sacred.

Johnson also opens the movie with a joke, as Resistance flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) mocks the Empire’s General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson).

“One of the most rewarding things at the [film’s] premiere was that first-scene phone call with Hux and Poe,” “Last Jedi” producer Ram Bergman tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “The minute you hear the audience laughing, you know we’re going to be fine [and] get a good response. If we don’t get the laugh in that sequence, then we’re in trouble.”

With that insight, Bergman knows: The kind of fan who is feverishly down-voting “Last Jedi” on Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t laughing at that opening jokey sequence. Nor at Luke’s lightsaber gag. Or at the visual gag of a topless Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Or at the fact that Johnson depicts Rey and Kylo’s deeply personal communications like some sort of ongoing FaceTime — “ForceTime”? — conversation. 

Yet Johnson isn’t simply joking here. To make sure fans understand his commitment to rejuvenation by jettisoning much of the past, the ever-wise Yoda ghost-returns to burn it all down, while the “sacred” Jedi texts represent dusty tradition. Johnson might as well be burning George Lucas’s original scripts before our eyes while giddily asking: “Why so Sidious?”

To be clear: Hamill, returning to the role after a 34-year hiatus, wasn’t initially down with Johnson’s vision for Luke’s next chapter.

“When he read the script, it’s not what he imagined,” Bergman says of Hamill’s reaction. “He made Rian defend why he wrote what he wrote” — including Luke’s death scene that speaks to the film’s theme not of relentless attack, but of the art of retreat.

Ultimately, Bergman says, Hamill came to completely trust Johnson. “Mark was truly was such a great sport and partner. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him.”

Johnson also spent long hours at Carrie Fisher’s home, making sure she was on board with his vision for Leia. “She would give him so many notes,” Bergman says. “They could communicate as writers.”

Johnson proved to be a strong collaborator for the studio, Bergman says, checking in frequently with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and other executives, including at Disney, to make sure everyone was aboard with his daring choices geared toward the next generation.

His reward? Last month, Kennedy announced Johnson had been handed the creative reins to the next Star Wars trilogy, which will begin after Abrams concludes the current trilogy in 2019.

The old writing adage advises of precious prose: “Kill your darlings.” In the name of building new stories, Johnson’s pen is willing to kill fans’ darlings, too.

Read more:

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