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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

NOTICE: While I will do my typical best to dance around spoilers, be advised that anything already spoiled in the previews and commercials is on the table. Also, anything from the previous films will be considered fair game. You’ve been warned.

It’s easy to forget that when Disney, Bad Robot, LucasFilm, et al. decided to move ahead on a third Star Wars trilogy, they had an impossible task ahead of them. They had to make something that would satisfy old fans while bringing in new ones. It had to fit with the previous material while breaking new ground. It had to ditch the uneven and often contradictory EU material and replace it with something just as good.

Luckily, the PTB were apparently smart enough to figure out that they didn’t need to do all of this in just one movie.

Remember, The Force Awakens came out thirty years after Return of the Jedi, and 15 years into the ongoing damage wreaked by the prequel trilogy. Before accomplishing anything else, Episode VII had to get the franchise back on the rails, and that’s what J.J. Abrams did. He elegantly pulled from the tropes and story beats we all know and love from the original trilogy and used them to make a natural extension of what had come before.

Of course this comes with some obvious drawbacks, and they all boil down to this: It’s a new trilogy, and new ideas are required. Killing off Han Solo was a good start, but that alone wouldn’t cut it. So, now that the franchise is back on firmer ground, it’s a perfect time to introduce “let the old ways die” as a prominent theme.

To be clear, The Last Jedi is a perfectly good movie. Bloated, sure, but still more than dazzling and exciting enough to be worthy of the franchise. Moreover, I’ve already stated that the third trilogy had to break new ground, and Rian Johnson proved himself a fine choice to do it. For instance, I don’t know if anyone else would’ve been bold enough to make Luke Skywalker into a morally conflicted hermit afraid of his own legacy, yet it worked surprisingly well with his streak of reckless pride in the original trilogy. Additionally, introducing the “war profiteer” angle, the dilemma of bartering lives for victories, and the conflict of taking initiative versus taking orders… all of these introduce shades of grey perfectly at home in a war film, though they’ve never before been explored in the swashbuckling four-color Star Wars franchise.

On the other hand, while I wasn’t opposed to Admiral Holdo in principle, dressing her up for royalty instead of military was a rookie mistake. And there’s no reason why she couldn’t have simply charged the cruiser into the Mega Star Destroyer — upgrading her suicide run into a lightspeed WMD retroactively upends an entire franchise’s worth of space battles. From here on out, there will always be the question of why nobody can ever do that again, or why the Rebellion couldn’t have done that against either Death Star. Hell, why did the Empire even NEED the Death Star if that was an option the whole time?!

Elsewhere, we’ve got killing off Luke Skywalker, an ignominious and practically offscreen death for Admiral Ackbar, destroying Luke’s lightsaber, a droid (namely BB-8) piloting an AT-ST… I’m just saying, an argument could be made that maybe Rian Johnson went a little too far in shaking up the franchise.

Put it this way: When The Force Awakens came out, I heard umpteen million complaints about how it was a carbon copy of A New Hope. I didn’t hear anything like that about The Last Jedi. Sure, the third act had salvaged a few parts from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi — just enough to be recognizable as part of the same franchise — but Episode VIII was still very much its own thing.

It’s a sure bet that Abrams and Johnson would have made many very different decisions on how to move forward from TFA. Abrams introduced the core triad of Rey/Finn/Poe, and the three of them still haven’t spent much of any screen time together in two films. TFA introduced Snoke and Phasma, each of whom got maybe five minutes of screen time in TLJ before getting killed off. As for Kylo Ren… sweet mercy, Rian Johnson really fucking loathed that helmet. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who hated Jar Jar Binks or the Ewoks — and with far better reason! — like Rian Johnson so visibly and violently hated Kylo Ren’s helmet.

Oh, and Carrie Fisher died in between movies. Throw that on the pile of things to deal with in the next entry.

So now we come to Episode IX. And gentle readers, it’s very important to understand and accept that this is not a Rian Johnson movie. This isn’t even a situation where Johnson was involved for a brief time before he got kicked off the project (that would be Colin Trevorrow, and good riddance). Johnson was not involved with this, he was never involved with this, and he was never going to be involved with this. I can’t possibly overstate how important it is to get it through your head right now that if you’re going into Episode IX expecting a Rian Johnson movie, you should’ve spent your ticket money on Knives Out instead. (Which you should spend money on anyway, because that movie’s fucking awesome.)

Rian Johnson was only onboard for the one movie. After that, it was up to the next writer/director to pick up the torch and make something of it, or run it into the ground as Abrams saw fit. Fans of comics and TV shows have been familiar with this concept for decades, and now fans of franchise cinema had better get used to it.

We’ll never know what Johnson would’ve done next because he was never planning on doing anything next. Then again, neither was Abrams, until The Book of Henry happened. None of this happened like it was supposed to, and yet here we are. So how did Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker turn out?

Well… we got a J.J. Abrams movie.

Let’s start with the elephant in the throne room. It’s in the trailers, it’s in the opening text crawl, it’s in the very first sequence of the movie: Palpatine has returned to life, complete with Ian McDiarmid reprising the role. No, it’s never explained how exactly this is possible. Then again, cloning has been a well-established aspect of the lore since Day One, and Palpatine clones have a strong precedent in the old EU material. I digress.

Anyway — surprise, surprise! — it turns out that Darth Sidious was manipulating everything behind the scenes all along, directing the First Order so the foundation could be laid for the grand triumphant return of the One True Emperor. For the past several decades, what appears to be several million die-hard imperialists have been at work reviving Palpatine and rebuilding the Imperial Fleet to be bigger and badder than ever. And now Palpatine is ready to come roaring back to take over the galaxy, pitting the last few remaining Resistance fighters against hundreds of planet-busting Star Destroyers.

With that in mind, can we circle back a bit and talk some more about Johnson and Abrams?

Take a look at Rian Johnson’s filmography. Between Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, and Knives Out, Johnson’s entry in the Skywalker Saga is the only one of his films that could be remotely considered “kid-friendly”. Compare that to J.J. Abrams, whose filmography is so bright and bursting with nostalgia that it’s literally glowing from all the lens flares.

Rian Johnson made a film for the adults that Star Wars fans have grown into. J.J. Abrams’ muse has always been the excitable eight-year-old kid that every Star Wars fan either is or was. Of course Abrams was never going to make a film about war profiteering and the moral complexities of war, he was always going to gravitate back to the high-flying, good versus evil, whiz-bang science fantasy that made Star Wars fun. That’s exactly what made him such a piss-poor choice to run the Star Trek reboot, and it was easily his greatest strength in directing The Force Awakens.

Which brings us back to the initial question: What did we get with this latest movie? We got a film from the guy who made The Force Awakens. You remember the comparisons to A New Hope that I was mentioning earlier? A New Hope is to The Force Awakens, as Return of the Jedi is to The Rise of Skywalker. That’s the simplest, most accurate, least spoiler-y description I can conjure.

A lot of critics have already cried foul, calling Abrams out for undoing Johnson’s work in TLJ and flipping the bird to the previous filmmaker. It’s not quite that simple. Except for the part where Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, of course) reassembles his helmet — that was a pretty clear “fuck you” to Johnson. Otherwise, I’m not sensing a whole lot of malice here.

Take, for example, Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell). She’s a morally grey badass with a murky backstory who doesn’t really do much except stand around in a mask and look cool. Apparently because Abrams had a perfectly good Boba Fett stand-in with Captain Phasma, until Johnson went and killed off that character, so Abrams had to go and make a new one. It’s a course correction, yes, but that doesn’t make it actively spiteful.

Then we have the matter of Rose Tico, played once again by Kelly Marie Tran. The character is sidelined, practically to the point where she may as well not even be there. It’s disappointing, especially considering that Rose was such a wonderful character and Tran more than earned her place in the cast. Even so, while I regret that the character got short-changed, I understand why it had to happen.

For one thing, Rose is very much an engineer by trade, clearly more at home on the back end than on the front lines. And while Kelly Marie Tran is a great many things — all of them wonderful — she’s certainly not a viable action star quite yet. In TLJ, the character was designed and cast for infiltration, espionage, and sabotage, all while serving as a kind of moral compass. Compare that to this film, in which the core trio spend so much time running and gunning that they don’t have a lot of time for philosophical ruminating. Square peg, round hole.

Yes, the core trio of Rey/Finn/Poe (respectively played once again by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac) is front and center this time. Hell, they practically get a whole trilogy’s worth of action and screen time together in this one movie. It works beautifully, and all three of them are dynamite.

I feel that kudos are also due to the puppeteers and practical effects artists who brought all the droids and aliens to such vivid life. And none of them deserve more credit than Anthony Daniels — the man is over 70 years old at this point, and he’s STILL acting like a star through that restrictive and uncomfortable C-3PO suit in every shot. Of course, it helps that Threepio actually gets something to do in this picture, and no shortage of great lines. That’s a huge step up from the previous two films.

R2-D2’s screen time and plot involvement are curtailed, alas, and it didn’t feel right to have C-3PO get such a dynamic arc without his Astromech counterpart close at hand. Speaking of which, BB-8 gets a new robot buddy (D-O, voiced by J.J. Abrams himself), who isn’t really useful for much of anything until he suddenly is for all of one brief plot point going into the third act.

I could go on and on, listing all the cameo appearances and inside jokes packed into this film. Of course it’s a given that Billy Dee Williams reprises his role as Lando Calrissian, mostly to provide the Resistance with a bit of support and morale in the climax. And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that Mark Hamill does indeed return as the Force Ghost of Luke Skywalker, because how could the filmmakers not do that?

But then there’s the hundred-million-dollar question: What about Carrie Fisher? Well, I’m glad to report that the filmmakers didn’t cast another actress or go the CGI route (with the exception of one brief flashback, in which CGI would’ve been necessary anyway). Rather, the filmmakers utilized archival footage, presumably from whole plotlines that were shot and cut from the previous two films.

(Side note: It’s my understanding that every individual copy of the scripts for these movies is written with different scenes and plotlines, so that no one actor or crew member has the complete and accurate picture of what the final film will be like. I expect that several of these dummy plotlines were actually shot, just to keep up appearances.)

Of course I’m glad the filmmakers went this route and sent off General Leia Organa with her iconic original actress. That said, it’s apparent that Fisher is playing Leia like she’s in a different movie altogether, there’s some obvious use of body doubles, and we get a lot of other characters speaking on Leia’s behalf. The filmmakers did the best they could with what they had, and for all my nitpicking, the results are pretty darn good.

Speaking of nitpicking, there’s easily the biggest problem with this movie: The plot. Specifically, the plot has a nasty habit of looping back on itself, consistently making choices and taking actions that are swiftly undone ten minutes later. It quickly got very annoying to see something destroyed or lost, only to quickly find a substitute or a workaround immediately available for use without cost or consequence.

There are of course precious few examples I can get into, but a fine case in point is the “death” of Threepio. This was explicitly alluded to in some of the trailers. Anthony Daniels himself talked about retiring the character. A huge chunk of the second act is devoted to this grand heroic sacrifice Threepio may have to make. And does it happen? Well… yes and no. Let’s just say it’s one of many frustrating plot cul-de-sacs. More importantly, this means that the filmmakers get all the shock factor of huge seismic shifts, without actually changing the status quo or dealing with any consequences. It’s cheap, it’s lazy, it’s spineless, and it’s frankly quite insulting.

On the other hand, every one of these plot loops means another action sequence. Another chase sequence, another rescue mission, another fight scene, another planet to visit, another moment of character development, and so on and so forth. Yes, the movie is bloated at two and a half hours, with plenty of sequences that could’ve been cut, but it feels so exhilarating in the moment because this picture moves. It’s so much harder to even notice the dangling plot threads and the lapses in basic logic, because the film is in such a constant rush to get to the next big set piece. Even when it’s just a scene of the characters talking, the stakes are so high and the performances are so passionate that it always feels like something huge is happening.

What’s even better is that when the huge plot upheavals do stick, they work exceedingly well. My personal favorite example concerns a Resistance mole within the First Order. Of course I’m not going to spoil the identity or the ultimate fate of the mole, but those reveals were masterfully handled and beautifully paid off a whole trilogy’s worth of setup.

The other big examples pretty much boil down to Rey and Kylo Ren. There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether or not Ben Solo would ever get a redemption arc, or whether he’d get some kind of romance with Rey. Without getting into spoilers, we get firm answers on those questions, and all of those answers are for keeps. And of course Adam Driver has come so far as an actor that he’s able to play the hell out of what he’s given.

Then there’s Rey. It may not surprise you to hear that the big reveal about her parentage in TLJ wasn’t exactly the full picture. While it is true that her parents were nobodies… they were somebodies before that. Yes, alas, the filmmakers gave Rey a parentage that ties directly back to the original trilogy, but perhaps not in the way that you’d expect.

On the one hand, this takes away from the potential theme that anyone could be a Jedi, anyone could change the fate of the world, any peasant can rise up to fight an evil power, and so on. It’s unfortunate to lose that, and I get the frustration.

On the other hand, the Skywalker Saga has always been a family feud writ large, and this reveal puts that into a whole new perspective. On some level — most especially from Return of the Jedi onward — Star Wars has always been about whether our lives are dictated by fate, by choice, or by the circumstances of our birth. We’ve already seen it play out with Ben Solo, heir to the greatest heroes of the Rebellion, running as hard and fast as he can toward the Dark Side against whatever intractable inner voice is telling him not to.

No matter who Rey’s parents were or where she came from, she would always have to make a similar choice about what if anything she was going to do with her prodigious abilities. Or if she can properly handle her abilities when the only one who might be able to teach her (namely Leia) was never even a real Jedi. This aspect of the story was always going to be there, but this particular reveal puts Rey in a unique position as Kylo Ren’s exact opposite. It underscores the literal and symbolic conflict between the two, echoing the Luke/Vader conflict from Return of the Jedi in a novel way.

Let’s see, what else…? Finn gets a sweet little character moment in which he meets up with a cadre of other deserting Stormtroopers. That was a neat touch, and a sweet little affirmation of how far he’s developed over the past few movies.

So is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker a good Star Wars movie? Absolutely. Is it a worthy end of a trilogy? Sure. But is it a worthy end to the entire nine-movie Skywalker Saga? Not really.

Consider the recent Avengers: Endgame, which doesn’t stand nearly so well on its own as a film and yet served masterfully as the culmination of the 23-film Infinity Saga. Endgame had a great many plot upheavals with cataclysmic results, and those consequences will have unavoidable repercussions for all the Marvel films going forward. Even when the Blip was undone, it still happened and there was still a tremendous cost.

By comparison, at the end of Episode IX, it feels more or less like the galaxy is right back to where it was at the end of Episode VI. Sure, the Skywalkers and Palpatines are gone, but that’s about it. It certainly doesn’t help that the plot has a nasty habit of undoing itself, without the conviction to take a huge leap and stick with it. And of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the MCU was clearly built from the ground up to pay off with Endgame. I don’t know if there’s any way the filmmakers could’ve retroactively made it look like the previous eight Star Wars films were all made to pay off with TROS in the same way, but this final Skywalker versus Palpatine battle was probably the best we could’ve hoped for.

The film was always going to be controversial, and I understand a lot of the frustrations. Even so, if you’re looking for a fast-paced science fantasy romp through the stars, this one delivers high-flying thrills like the best in the franchise. If that’s enough for you, check it out.

2 Comments

  1. Ping from Joshua:

    Well, good thing you at least liked this film more than I did. My screening turned into what amounted to a WWE event. A really bad WWE main event full of chanting like “This is awful!”, “Boring”, “Come back Lucas, come back”, “You’re not Marvel/You’re not Endgame”, “It’s non-canon”, “You screwed Fox” and “F*ck you Disney” and choruses of boos that drowned out those who were trying to applaud during the most pivotal parts of the film.

    It was simultaneously unbearable, and yet even more entertaining, especially coming from someone like me who has soured on Disney’s SW trilogy. Although TLJ at least had some worthwhile qualities.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    My sympathies. I sincerely hope you’ll be able to give the film another look in more favorable conditions. Then again, maybe the whole Resistance Trilogy will sour in hindsight by then — who knows?

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