Emotionally, I escaped the backlash to “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” when it came out in 1999, mostly because I was 8 years old, dumb and loved dumb movies. But “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which hits theaters Friday, is a movie that I sincerely and desperately want to be very good. (Full disclosure: Disney owns Lucasfilm, which makes “Star Wars.” It also owns ESPN, which owns FiveThirtyEight, which pays me. I also really enjoy Star Wars.)
And this is the life of a modern-day movie-lover: Cherished films are almost never completely in the past. Movies aren’t movies, they’re franchises, and they never die. I wrote about this just before “Jurassic World,” which continued the Jurassic Park franchise, came out. That movie turned out to be really good; it blew past all expectations with a 71 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts a number to the renewed enthusiasm for the franchise as a whole.
But while lots of franchises have bad movies, Star Wars has seen some shit, particularly compared with the brilliance of the original three films. The path of your average Star Wars franchise fan has been … rocky.
There’s just no taking back the prequels. Those are out there in the world. They exist. Based on a real-time rolling Rotten Tomatoes average rating, the prequels tanked the overall average rating of the Star Wars series by about 11 points. It’s mathematically impossible for “The Force Awakens” to cancel out the prequels’ effect on the franchise’s overall average (more on this in a moment).
Here’s how the films fared among critics:1 “A New Hope” — the first “Star Wars” film to be released — pulled a 93 percent fresh rating, “The Empire Strikes Back” pulled a 96 percent, and “Return of the Jedi” stumbled, earning a 79 percent positive rating among critics. If the producers had let it be, the average rating of the franchise would have been 89.3 percent fresh. But then George Lucas, the franchise creator, had to imitate his buddy Coppola and go back to the well. “The Phantom Menace” set the franchise low with a 57 percent fresh rating. That was followed by “Attack of the Clones,” which received a dismal 67 percent. And although it is the object of some justifiable anger, “Revenge of the Sith” was up there with the original movies, beating out “Return of the Jedi” with an 80 percent rating. But “Revenge of the Sith” was never enough to restore what once was, and the franchise sits at a 78.7 percent fresh rating.
That brings us to the latest installment. Here’s the math of it:
- If “The Force Awakens” gets 79 percent fresh or better on Rotten Tomatoes, it will be a positive force for the franchise and pull the aggregate score higher. That’s our benchmark for minimum success.
- If it gets an 80 percent fresh, it’ll be better than the worst film in the original series, “Return of the Jedi.”
- If it gets an 81 percent fresh or higher, it’ll be better than every prequel film, too.
- But the magic number here is 90 percent fresh. If the film is 90 percent fresh or higher, it’ll be on par with the average quality of the first three movies. That, I imagine, has been the goal all along. Anything higher than that is frosting.
It would take a Rotten Tomatoes score of 153 out of 100 to completely wipe away the stain of the prequels and restore the franchise’s post-“Return of the Jedi” 89.3 percent fresh average. As a math guy, take my word for it, that’s not possible.
But we can use that original baseline of success — 79 percent fresh — to determine exactly how much “The Force Awakens” redeems the series from the excesses of the prequels. For every percentage point above 79 percent that “The Force Awakens” gets, it’ll redeem about 1.3 percent of deficit resulting from the prequels. If the film gets an 84 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, it’ll cancel out about 8 percent of the effect the prequels had dragging the average down. If it gets a 90 percent, that wipes away 20 percent of the deficit. A score of 78 will do nothing to redeem the prequels’ effect on the Star Wars franchise, while a perfect score of 100 percent would wipe out almost 29 percent of the negative effect the prequels had.
If J.J. Abrams can pull off a redemptive turn for the Star Wars franchise — and, my god, do I hope he does — it was totally worth wiping out most of the entire canon in the process.