Into a divided pop culture landscape, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has arrived as an apparently unifying force, crushing the box office in its opening weekend ($220 million) and drawing raves from film critics (93 percent “fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com).
But the praise for the ninth film in the 40-year-old space saga isn’t universal: Plenty of people say the latest “Star Wars” installment is riddled with problems — and many of those folks hail from the right side of the aisle.
The list of authors of less-than-stellar “Last Jedi” reviews reads like a who’s who of contemporary conservative criticism: Kyle Smith of the National Review, Sonny Bunch of The Washington Free Beacon, Ross Douthat of the National Review, Harry Khachatrian of The Daily Wire, Jonathan V. Last of The Weekly Standard, Leon Wolf of The Blaze, Alex Griswold of The Washington Free Beacon — even Commentary Editor John Podhoretz (on Twitter, anyway).
Count conservative writer Jesse Kelly among them, and the Marine combat veteran thinks he knows the reason for the split in “Jedi” reviews.
“The movie felt like a lecture,” said Mr. Kelly, pointing to the film’s weak male characters, a subplot involving endangered horselike creatures and a Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who comes off like a whiny old man.
“It turned into a women’s march,” he said, adding that the latest movie does not reflect the franchise he’s grown to know and love. “It’s been apolitical [up until now]. That’s the reason it’s gotten so much popularity. It’s right and wrong, men and women … sometimes evil wins, sometimes it doesn’t win.
“It’s a nice escape from reality,” said Mr. Kelly, a writer for the conservative site The Resurgent.
With its tales of derring-do in a galaxy far, far away, the movie franchise would seem to be all about “escape from reality,” even though filmmaker George Lucas said his ire toward the Nixon administration flavored his original trilogy and his maligned prequels gently targeted former Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.
Still, Mr. Kelly said he doesn’t mind the film’s focus on strong female characters, citing Carrie Fisher’s long run as the tough, heroic Princess Leia throughout the saga. “Jedi” boasts not just Fisher but also Laura Dern as a new Rebel leader and Kelly Marie Tran as a resourceful tech.
That narrative element won over Vanity Fair. The left-leaning magazine cheered on “The Last Jedi’s” gender politics with a story headlined, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi Offers the Harsh Condemnation of Mansplaining We Need in 2017.”
Mr. Khachatrian of The Daily Wire, meanwhile, said one story subplot “jumped out at me instantly” as politically charged, when “Jedi” characters Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Miss Tran) visit a casino where the ultra-rich cavort midway through the movie.
“This film was clearly more political than the last one,” Mr. Khachatrian said of what he dubbed a “typical liberal trope.”
“That wasn’t the reason I didn’t like the movie,” he said. “The liberal messaging didn’t stand out as much as the storyline of the film itself was all over the place.”
Mr. Last of The Weekly Standard watched “The Last Jedi” with his equally underwhelmed son.
“There are story problems in every act, in every plot,” Mr. Last said.
He suggests that some die-hard “Star Wars” fans might be convincing themselves that “The Last Jedi” is worthy of the original trilogy.
“They can’t bring themselves to not love it. We saw that with ‘The Phantom Menace,’” he said, referring to the 1999 prequel, which is now universally panned.
Neither does he think the film’s diverse cast is a problem for conservatives.
“I haven’t heard anybody on our side complain about the diversity stuff,” he said. “It didn’t bother me.”
Shawn Robbins, chief analyst with BoxOffice.com, said “Star Wars” has used political themes since its inception, but not in ways that necessarily interrupt the good versus evil motifs.
“The core of the franchise is focused on individual character arcs, but they’ve always been set against the backdrop of a much larger canvas that subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, offers a reflection of certain ideological divisions in our real world,” Mr. Robbins said. “As the audience, it’s simply up to us to interpret the final product in our own way and decide what to do with that.”
Mr. Kelly suggests the audiences are speaking up via the RottenTomatoes.com rating system. While the film’s critical footprint is overwhelmingly positive, the reader rating on the site is much lower — 55 percent liked the movie. Some suggest the low rating is because of an orchestrated effort to sink the movie.
Mr. Kelly thinks another factor is in play.
“The way conservatives feel about [a] movie is the way the general public mostly feels about it,” Mr. Kelly said.