It’s the enduring mystery of ‘‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’’: Do viewers actually hate it, or are its terrible online audience ratings — 54 percent and falling on Rotten Tomatoes — the work of hidden — sorry — forces?
There will be no more Jedi puns in this article. But there will be spoilers, and a journey to a tiny Facebook page whose leader rose to fame by claiming, somewhat incredibly, that he deployed a bot army to ruin the film’s scores in the name of male rights.
With very few exceptions, critics liked ‘‘The Last Jedi.’’
It earned three out of four stars from The Washinton Post’s Ann Hornaday for its moments of humor and gravity — even if it did go on a bit long. (The Globe’s Ty Burr gave it four stars.) More than nine in 10 critics approved of the film by Rotten Tomatoes’s count. And Metacritic’s average score was just a few points lower.
But so much for professional opinions.
Metacritic’s humble users gave the film a failing 4.8 out of 10. (”A repugnant film that shows absolutely zero respect for its legacy,’’ reads a typical nil-score review on the site.) And the popcorn class on Rotten Tomatoes splatted the movie with a 54 percent fresh rating, which The Post noted made for the site’s widest audience-critic gulf in the history of ‘‘Star Wars’’ films.
Deepening the mystery, The Post’s Michael Cavna wrote, real-life viewers polled at movie theaters overwhelmingly liked the film. And its ticket sales have been outstanding.
So some suspect that something strange is afoot with the online scores.
Web voting systems are notoriously easy to manipulate, whether through mass trolling (see the British government’s popularly named submarine, Boaty McBoatface); with computer script; or simply by repeatedly logging on to a site with different usernames.
Last Sunday — two days after ‘‘The Last Jedi’’ opened in theaters, and as its Rotten Tomatoes score plummeted into the 50s — the owner of an obscure anti-Disney forum claimed credit for the purported sabotage.
‘‘Yes it was me that caused this,’’ wrote the anonymous moderator of the not-succinctly-named ‘‘Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys’’ Facebook page, which has barely 300 subscribers.
He claimed to have created a network of Facebook bots that were able to bypass those annoying Captcha puzzles that Rotten Tomatoes and other sites make you fill out to prove you’re human. And, according to him, these fake users were driving the movie’s score down with bad reviews.
The moderator offered no proof for this, and his stated motives were — at first — too obscure to make national news.
He was attacking the movie’s scores, he wrote, to get back at Disney for changes to the ‘‘Star Wars’’ canon (as well as various superhero franchises). It sounded like an ultra-nerdy version of the plot to Stephen King’s ‘‘Misery,’’ and not many paid attention.
But in subsequent posts, the nameless Facebook man added gender politics to his list of ‘‘Star Wars’’ grievances — and suddenly reporters came calling.
‘‘Male leads who aren’t (gay) or colored or both WILL ALWAYS be better than female leads,’’ he wrote. ‘‘They should just stay in the kitchen instead of playing with Lightsabers,’’ he added.
‘‘I’m sick and tired of men being portrayed as idiots,’’ he told HuffPost. ‘‘There was a time we ruled society and I want to see that again.’’
As The Post has noted, ‘‘The Last Jedi’’ features the strongest lineup of female leaders in the franchise’s history - with a wise Leia in command of the Resistance, whose brightest stars are all women, too. The male protagonists, meanwhile, tend to be very flawed. Luke Skywalker spends much of the film stewing in his emotions and regrets, and dies at the end.
That has earned the film some enemies, especially in far-right-wing forums that still revere Hollywood’s old stereotype of the white, male hero, as Polygon reported.
So outlets began to seriously investigate the ‘‘Down With Disney’’ proprietor’s claims.
Eventually, Rotten Tomatoes had to, as well.
Deadline even asked a Disney president to weigh in on the purported sabotage, eliciting a paragraph of PR-speak in which the executive said nothing about bot armies and praised the film because it ‘‘got people talking, puzzling over its mysteries.’’
Quartz discovered that many of the lowest reviews on Rotten Tomatoes came from new accounts, though that alone did not prove that they were bots. A HuffPost reporter interviewed the aggrieved Facebook moderator, who insisted that the details of his scheme were ‘‘classified,’’ and then quizzed a Rotten Tomatoes vice president about the man’s claims.
On Tuesday, Rotten Tomatoes announced that the site had thoroughly investigated ‘‘The Last Jedi’’ review scores and concluded that its defenses had not been penetrated (this is not a Death Star pun).
‘‘We have several teams of security, network, and social database experts who constantly monitor reviews and ratings to ensure that they are genuine,’’ a spokeswoman for the site told Forbes. ‘‘I can’t explain why there’s such a disparity. How we take this is that people are super passionate about this movie.’’
This is undoubtedly true — regardless of whether those passions lead to bot attacks.