Star Wars: The Last Jedi has opened to a big box office take that has already seen it get the second biggest opening weekend ever after its own predecessor, The Force Awakens. Disney and Lucasfilm certainly must be happy with that result as the cap-off for a year that’s seen some difficult news on the Star Wars front, and it probably doesn’t hurt that the film has been widely embraced by the entertainment press and culture writers, with professional film critics handing the film overwhelmingly positive reviews and a 93% positive score on the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.
However, it’s not all good news on the review side: The “User Reviews” sections of Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and The Internet Movie Database – all of which let users leave scored reviews regardless of credentials or official status on the web – are uniformly on the more mixed side as the film enters its second day of release, marking the widest disparity between critic and “audience” scores for a Star Wars movie in Tomatoes’ history in particular. Granted, the film has proven more divisive among many fans than the previous installment, with unexpected character turns and further cementing of the push for a younger, more diverse cast of new generation heroes – but this level of disparity has raised eyebrows.
But while The Last Jedi would hardly be the first blockbuster to have a significant disparity between its reception by critics and by audiences (though it typically occurs in the opposite direction), the split became more puzzling still when the exit polling firm Cinemascore released results of its opening-night surveys that gave the film a respectable “A” rating much more in line with the critical consensus. While both Cinemascore and aggregate site user ratings purport to collect the opinions of ordinary filmgoers, Cinemascore operatives take in-person opinion surveys from audiences exiting theaters at the conclusion of the films in question; in other words: The Cinemascore “A” would imply that real-life audience opinion is much more in line with the critics than the online User Scores – suggesting that something fishy might be amiss.
It’s a given that the behavior of largely anonymous “Users” of any given website is difficult to track or the codify, since the use of everything from “burner” accounts to multiple names to automated bot-posts are lately being identified as wreaking havoc on everything. So it’s not too surprising that the specter of so-called “brigading” or “review bombing” – wherein users of a similar mindset for or against a film (or game) mobilize to artificially inflate or depress User Score numbers via those very tactics.
Accusations of such activity are currently being leveled on social media by culture-commentators like activist Peter Coffin, who compared the proliferation of anonymous reviews name-checking the same set of points repeatedly (references to “forced diversity” and “SJWs” abound) to more explicitly politically-motivated “brigading” attacks from earlier in the year related to elections and social movements. The deeper recesses of Reddit and 4chan are indeed littered with threads in which enraged “ex”-fans organize campaigns in an attempt to control the narrative and create a situation wherein the idea of the new Star Wars Trilogy as “poorly received” can overtake the reality of its reception in the public discourse.
UPDATE: The Facebook page “Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys” claimed to The Huffington Post to be in part behind the reviews in response to the film’s alleged political agenda and it’s disregarding of the Expanded Universe.
The term “Sad Puppies” has been raised, a reference to a collective of right-wing fiction writers who gained fame by manipulating the Hugo Awards several years back, along with the GamerGate and ComicsGate social-media movements. Some point to the aforementioned politically-tinged reviews as evidence of motive, while others allege that some of the brigading has been conducted by fans of Justice League seeking revenge on the critical press for its negative reviews. Also posited is that this comes from anti-corporate activists who see the recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox by Disney as the rise of a dangerous monopoly.
Coincidence? Conspiracy? Coordinated attack? It could be all of that, or it could be none. In the end, the question of whether or not User Score algorithms actually have been weaponized to negatively impact the film’s cultural impact (which, it must be said, wouldn’t appear to be working given an already over-performing box office) is perhaps less interesting than the incontrovertible evidence that such a thing is indeed possible. While fans and web-savvy users have long learned to pay little attention to User Scores for this very reason, the traditional media is often slow to catch on to such things. And in a business where perception is everything, it’s no wonder that Hollywood Studios continue to view engaging with audiences via the web as a tricky prospect – and it seems unlikely that this will change anytime soon.
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