Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I joked about avoiding this review last week because, well, the discourse around this movie (and it’s predecessor) has become a bit of a battleground in the culture wars, which are totally not as fun as the star wars these movies are talking about. As a child of the 80s, I can’t help but hold a special place in my heart for Star Wars, and so there’s this never-ending reserve of goodwill towards new installments in the series, even when they don’t hold up (like, say, the prequels). As such, I found Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker a cromulent enough entry into the canon. That being said, it’s clear that the film and the trilogy it purports to cap off is janky as hell, mostly because there didn’t appear to be any real plan.

  • In fairness, J.J. Abrams was dealt a pretty weak hand. Disney originally brought him in to kickstart the relatively dormant franchise, which plays to Abrams’s strengths. He’s rejuvenated franchises before and he’s infamous for creating tantalizing mysteries at the beginning of a story. So it wasn’t surprising that The Force Awakens was a massive hit. It was severely dependent on (verging on a remake of) the original Star Wars movie, but that seemed to suit the franchise well. Then Disney brought in Rian Johnson to follow up Abrams with The Last Jedi. Regardless of what you may think of that entry (and I liked it a lot!), it’s clear that it didn’t strike quite the same chord with audiences, though to my mind, Johnson left the third film wide open to do something new and exciting, not as bound by the shape of the original trilogy. The third movie was planned to be written and directed by Colin Trevorrow (presumably based on the success of Jurassic World), but like most of the Disney Star Wars movies, this movie had a troubled production and Trevorrow left/was-fired/whatever, and Abrams was brought in to save the day. Add to that the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, and things get really complicated. Abrams, not known for ending stories well, was brought in to an unpopular but relatively clean slate, inheriting a troubled production that had based the story on a character whose actress was no longer with us (in as much as the Disney trilogy had a shape, it was based on the original three characters: Han in Force Awakens, Luke in “Last Jedi”, and presumably Leia in this third installment), thus forcing a large rewrite on a shortened timeline. Given the constraints, Abrams did a fine job bringing this home, even if a lot of the movie doesn’t quite gel for me.
  • It has become abundantly clear is that there was no overarching plan or vision for this trilogy. I’m not sure who’s to blame for this, though the obvious choices are Kathleen Kennedy and Bob Iger. Still, this sort of thing gets complicated, so I’m sure there are tons of other folks who played a role in muddying the waters of the trilogy. I mean, some of the poor cards in Abrams’ hand were dealt by Abrams himself. In the end, it still feels like the overarching vision for Star Wars at Disney was “Make boatloads of money!” Which, to be fair, they’ve certainly accomplished. But have they done so only in the short term? The grand majority of the issues I have with the new trilogy emerge from this one decision to just sorta wing it for this trilogy.
  • The bit about the production being rushed should not be underestimated. One thing Abrams had mentioned about Force Awakens was that while he obviously didn’t plan for Harrison Ford to get injured, having to slow the production down actually helped make the movie better, as they had some more time to iron out details. This sort of story isn’t unusual in Hollywood either. John Carpenter’s The Thing famously benefited from the unexpected luxury of time. On the flipside, rushed productions can have an inverse effect. One recent example was Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies. How could the guy who made The Lord of the Rings work so well fail so completely at The Hobbit? Well, he inherited a troubled production and didn’t have as much time as he did with the previous movies (which, to be sure, probably isn’t the only reason those movies were so flabby, but definitely a key part of it). There have been lots of interviews indicating that the rushed schedule of Rise of Skywalker presented a struggle, particularly for the editing (which was partially done in parallel, on the set, due to the time constraints – not a good sign). Again, this is a part of the hand Abrams was dealt. He did a pretty good job considering this constraint. But should we be considering this sort of constraint?
  • As mentioned above, one of the things I actually liked about Rian Johnson’s entry into the series was that he sorta cleared the slate, opening up a lot of opportunities to do something new and interesting in the third film. For example, the notion that Rey was a “nobody” frees that character up to choose her own path. The familial connection bit seems quite overplayed these days, and while it was a key component of the original trilogy, there’s no real need for it here. Of course, then Abrams goes and informs us that no, she’s only a nobody from a certain point of view, and in fact, she’s a Palpatine. Now, this isn’t the worst idea in the world, and there were pretty intriguing fan theories way back during the Force Awakens timeframe that speculated on this, but it very clearly wasn’t the intention all along. I don’t know, maybe Johnson threw a wrench into some sort of original plan, but from everything I’ve seen, that’s not actually the case. Whatever the case, in this movie it just feels rushed and unnecessary. A perfunctory twist that doesn’t actually add anything, other than vaguely recalling the Luke/Vader revelation in Empire. It’s not strictly bad, but it contributes to the overall jankiness of the story.
  • Abrams approach to this movie feels very similar to his approach to Star Trek into Darkness. Abrams managed to breath new life into the Star Trek franchise with his fun, action-packed Star Trek flick from 2009. One of the mildly clever things that story did was to introduce a plot device that freed the filmmakers from the continuity of the earlier Kirk/Spock canon. What did Abrams do with that newfound freedom in the sequel? He remade The Wrath of Khan. Similarly, Johnson seemed to free up the playing field for Abrams in the third movie, and Abrams took that freedom and punted. You could say that Johnson did his bit in a way that alienated too many fans or cut off too many avenues or whatever, but I suspect there could have been a way to do something new and interesting in the third movie that would have underlined and reinforced what Johnson did, such that people might have changed their mind about it. Instead, Abrams seemed to be actively hostile to Johnson’s efforts, almost trying to make the third movie more of a direct sequel to Force Awakens than to create a cohesive trilogy. I don’t want to be too hard on Abrams here though, because The Last Jedi clearly wasn’t as popular as The Force Awakens and my thoughts here verge on me just harping on what I want rather than Abrams doing what he wants. However, all of this goes back more to the whole “no real plan for the trilogy” idea than anything else, and again, Abrams was dealt a bad hand with respect to timing and an untimely death.
  • The dead speak! I have to admit, I kinda loved that opening line of the crawl. I mean, sure, Palpatine coming back makes no sense whatsoever, but handling it at a remove in the crawl is actually pretty fun. Just kooky enough to grab my attention and honestly it sorta hedged against my fears of Palpatine as a character in this. Which were justified, to be sure, and honestly I still think the Palpatine concept is a bit much, but if you’re going to do it, go all the way, and they did. I can kinda, sorta retcon the whole thing in my head by involving cloning and some sort of weird collective Sith hive mind concept (i.e. he’s not just Palpatine, but rather all of the Sith, which is literally mentioned but somewhat unclear in the movie proper). Also, it’s worth noting that Ian McDiarmid is an excellent actor and he really makes Palpatine work through his performance (which is something we never really got out of Snoke).
  • Kylo Ren continues to be one of the more interesting parts of this new trilogy. He’s got an actual arc in this movie, but unfortunately, it’s an arc that would have worked better with more Leia interactions, which was just not possible (and I respect that they minimized CGI Leia stuff here). Like Poe’s arc in The Last Jedi, I can see the shape of what they were going for here and it works, but the execution is a bit off, which sorta mutes my response. That being said, Adam Driver puts in a great performance, and almost manages to pull it off all on his lonesome. His relationship with Rey has a similar feel, though it comes off a bit better. I’m not entirely sure the kiss was earned, but everything else works. That lightsaber fight on the old death star was pretty darned cool too.
    Light Saber Battle
  • Rey’s story here is a bit messy, but ultimately works. There’s a couple of bits that feint towards a really interesting “maybe she’ll fall to the dark side” arc, but every time something like that comes up, it’s almost immediately undercut in the next scene. Like when she accidentally destroys a troop transport – she thinks she may have inadvertently killed Chewbacca. But it turns out that she didn’t, it was a different transport, we’re only left wondering about it for a mere couple of minutes, and no thought is given to her murder of an entire transport of stormtroopers. Which, sure, they’re stormtroopers, who cares? But one of the bits that runs through this new trilogy is that the stormtroopers are people too, usually born into slavery and forced into this role. This is one of the things established by the Finn character, and underlined in this new film by the character Jannah, another stormtrooper who disobeyed orders and overcame her conditioning, refusing to fire on innocent civilians (and who references a bunch of other stormtroopers with similar stories). So yeah, killing a bunch of stormtroopers could have been a step on the slippery slope to the dark side, but who are we kidding, there was never really any danger of Rey going to the dark side and the movie doesn’t even pretend to care about stormtroopers. Now, Rey being a “nobody” could have been an interesting starting point, because finding your way in the universe is difficult enough even with guidance from your family, and starting from a literal clean slate can be daunting and scary. Of course, this movie went a different direction, as she learns that she’s a Palpatine. As mentioned above, this doesn’t quite have the same impact as, for example, the Vader/Luke revelation, but it could have been interesting if developed over the course of the trilogy. Unfortunately, it has to mostly happen in this one film, so it feels a bit rushed. It’s ultimately fine, but again, it really underscores the “no plan for the trilogy” bit.
  • Poe gets some great one liners and has some nice back-and-forth tension with Rey, such that it seemed like they were building up a romance angle there, but then that was sorta dumped in favor of Kylo and Rey and Poe and Zorii Bliss? Who’s that, you ask? I don’t know, some woman from Poe’s past. There’s some chemistry there, I guess. It just seems weird to be introducing so many new characters in the final film of a trilogy like this. And really, these movies don’t know what to do with Poe (or Finn, for that matter, but we’ll get to that). So yeah, Zorii Bliss looks cool, I guess, and I always get a kick out of casting a recognizable face in a role where the character wears a mask the whole time, but ultimately she just feels extraneous and introducing a new character while trying to wind down the story seems like a bad idea.
  • Finn gets a couple of decent moments, but like Poe, this series never really knew what to do with him. Johnson introduced Rose Tico as a love interest for Finn, but that’s completely sidelined here (and frankly, that whole plotline was one of the weaker parts of The Last Jedi, so maybe that was a good idea). We get a new character with a similar backstory to Finn, which is the aforementioned Jannah, but this relationship doesn’t progress much beyond an introduction. At the end of the movie, there’s a bunch of character interactions, and it seemed weird that Jannah’s final bit was her discussing her past with Lando (rather than Finn) and then literally asking the audience to subscribe to Disney+ to find out what happens (ok, fine, it wasn’t a literal thing, but the implication was so strong that it sure felt like one). Anyway, there’s also this bizarre dangling bit about Finn having something to tell Rey, but then not actually telling her? And it’s not, like, one line, but rather repeated a couple times throughout the movie. There’s some notion out there that Finn’s secret was that he’s Force sensitive, but once again, this is not something that’s particularly supported by the trilogy and a clear indicator that there was no plan for these three movies (or that the plan was abandoned or something).
  • There’s probably a much shorter version of this trilogy that you could make (maybe you could even do it Phantom Edit style?) that just totally downplays Finn and Poe, putting more weight on Rey/Kylo. That might actually be a better film. One of the big challenges of this new trilogy goes back to one key decision: they wanted to include the original trilogy characters of Han, Leia, and Luke in very prominent roles, which really constrains options for the whole trilogy, but particularly for the new trio of characters (I went over this in more detail for my TLJ review). As a result, only Rey and Kylo got the depth and focus needed throughout the trilogy. The more I think about it, the more I think that a major flaw of The Last Jedi is that Poe and Finn are separated throughout most of the movie. One thing that is nice about The Rise of Skywalker is that our three new heros spend a fair amount of time with each other. There’s a scene when they’re in a cave and need light, so Rey fires up her light saber and Poe clicks on a flashlight and it’s way funnier than that sounds, and it’s nice to see our characters interacting in fun ways like that. We haven’t gotten much of that throughout the series, and there’s a bunch of it in The Rise of Skywalker, which is to be commended.
  • Hux is a spy! I actually kinda like this little twist and payoff. Hux and Kylo’s petty rivalry was always fun, and you could argue that Johnson’s use of Hux as a buffoon in The Last Jedi took the teeth out of the character, but I like this bit about him spying for the resistance not because he wants them to win, but because he wants Kylo Ren to lose. Naturally, the movie immediately kills him off in favor of another middle-manager in the empire, General Pryde. I think Hux’s plan to reveal himself and then stay aboard was pretty foolish, and it misses an opportunity for him to have fun interactions with the resistance people by joining them, but whatever. Pryde is played by Richard E. Grant, who actually makes the character memorable and interesting despite minimal screen time.
  • Lando Calrissian is back! This is a statement that is true!
  • Maz Kanata gives Chewie the medal he deserved from the original Star Wars movie, for some reason? Completely unnecessary, but for whatever reason, I always like when Maz Kanata shows up. She’s one of those side characters that gave The Force Awakens a little bit of texture, and I kinda like seeing her again, even if this bit was extraneous.
  • Babu Frik is great. No joke, no snark, he’s great. Despite being part of a video-game-esque fetch-quest sub-plot, this is the sort of new character you can introduce in the third movie of a trilogy and get away with. The D-O droid also works well enough, though he’s a little less successful and probably unnecessary. I mean, we’ve got R2-D2 and C-3PO and BB-8, why do we need to keep adding more droids to the mix.
  • C-3PO is surprisingly fantastic in this. His stuff represents some of the grace notes that pepper this movie and keep it from going off the rails.
  • Snoke was a clone or at least grown in some sort of vat and really just a puppet of Palpatine/Sithhivemind? Sure, let’s go with it. I wonder if all the ships in Paplatine’s new fleet are, like, staffed by Snoke clones.
  • The Knights of Ren are back, and they’re just dudes in fancy suits who represent the boss-battle before Palpatine. Another thing that was sorta set up by Abrams, perhaps squandered by Johnson, but not really paid off much in this movie. But then, they do look cool, and the scene where Rey passes Ben the light saber is awesome, so there is that. And I suppose the whole “dudes in cool costumes without any real development” is a pretty common thing in Star Wars, so these guys are ultimately pretty cool, I think.
  • So remember when people where like “The Force Awakens is fun and all, but maybe there doesn’t need to be a Death Star in every movie?” In this movie, Abrams is like, “Yeah, but what if we had a fleet of 10,000 Death Stars? Wouldn’t that be cool?” And, well, yeah, I guess it’s kinda cool, but nothing about that fleet made any sense. Where did they actually come from? Who is staffing them? I mean, yeah, “the evil space wizard did it” is a nice hand-wavey explanation, but then, why do they need some Star-Trek-esque Tech-the-Tech explanation for why they can’t leave the planet? And what’s the point of this fleet? Palpatine just wants to blow up the galaxy or something?
  • That whole Sith chorus thing, like all the people sitting in the amphitheater on Exegol, those were, like, the spirits off all the dead Siths right? Like, somewhere in there is a salty Count Dooku chanting along with Palpatine? As mentioned above, I found a lot of this stuff interesting because it’s just sorta there and you can fill in the gaps yourself, but that sort of wild retcon might not last. Some people think that the people in the stadium are, like, actual physical people and Sith worshippers or something, but that doesn’t feel quite right.
  • Palpatine has this whole power move thing where he’s like “Strike me down in anger and your turn to the dark side will be complete!” which has always felt like an awkward way to transition power (even in Return of the Jedi), but it kinda fits with the whole Sith are a hive mind thing mentioned earlier, I guess? The notion of Rey not really striking him down in anger, but just sorta reflecting his force lightning back at him works well enough, but the whole thing feels a bit muddy. Also: Force Lightning. Doesn’t seem like the best Force power, seeing as though nearly every time we see it, it’s not really successful. In the prequels, it doesn’t work when he’s fighting Mace Windu, who reflects it back at Palpatine giving him that extra-wrinkled look. I think Dooku uses it unsuccessfully sometime in the prequels too? In the original trilogy, it sorta works, but also convinces Darth Vader to throw him down a giant shaft (and I think some of that lightning also ended up going stray and hitting Palpatine again). In Rise of Skywalker, Rey inadvertently uses it to kill a bunch of people by accident, and Palpatine tries to use it again, and again has it thrown back into his face (and into the sky or something?) Yeah, maybe the Force Lightning isn’t that useful.
  • From a nuts and bolts filmmaking perspective, this movie is mostly competent, with some bits remaining janky. It certainly looks… expensive. I mean, it looks like they spent a lot of money on this movie. There are definitely some nice, painterly shots sprinkled throughout. There’s also a fair amount of CGIed pixel stew, but it’s far from the worst in the series in that respect. The editing of the film threw me for a loop during the first half hour or so. It felt so sloppy and uncoordinated. They seemed to right the ship as the film progressed though, and it definitely got much better in the middle of the film. I suspect a good portion of this could be resolved by giving Abrams and co. more time to refine and optimize. Heck, rumors abound of a “Skywalker” cut or director’s cut of this movie, and we might just get that.
  • The film isn’t conversant with cinema history in the way that Lucas’ originals were. Lucas’ callbacks were to old Flash Gordon type serials, Kurosawa movies (particularly The Hidden Fortress), WWII dogfighting movies, and so on. Of course, Lucas sorta forgot all that in the prequels, having become far to enamored with special effects to worry about that sort of thing (though there are occasional bits that jump out, like that dude Obi Wan visits in the space diner – straight out of Film Noir). One of the things I really loved about Rian Johnson’s effort is that he brought back these cinematic reference points. Kurosawa again (particularly Rashomon) and even the worst parts of The Last Jedi have decent cinematic references (think about that Wings-esque shot zooming through that casino on Canto Bight. As bad as that whole sequence was conceptually and story-wise, shots like that kept me into it). The Abrams installments don’t particularly do this sort of thing. The cinematic references in his Star Wars films are to… other Star Wars films. Not a bad idea, for sure, but there’s less to dig into for movie nerds and some of the Star Wars references are a bit on the nose. Or maybe I just need to watch this one again with a eye trained on that sort of thing. I might be surprised.
  • At the end of the film, you see Rey take the name Skywalker, which is a non sequitor but kinda fits thematically and I guess makes the title of the movie work? I dunno, the whole familial thing just feels shoehorned in here.
  • So it looks like there’s a lot of things I don’t like about this movie, and I suppose there are, but I still enjoyed the movie. It’s just that I have sorta mixed feelings about everything. Palpatine being back wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s not the best either. Rey being a Palpaine isn’t bad, but it’s not really good either. And so on. Most of this has to do with the disappointment of the trilogy not being planned or cohesive. You can blame that on Rian Johnson if you want, but that seems more like a Disney problem than anything else. As it is, we’re left with a trio of decent movies (and a couple other movies that are also a bit mixed), which isn’t that bad.
  • I think people are probably just exhausted with Star Wars at this point. It turns out that churning out Star Wars movies year after year for half a decade has maybe diluted the brand a bit. Last week, I got together with some friends at a bar and we chatted for a few hours… and this movie didn’t come up. Now, we’re all nerds. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen the movie. We’ve geeked out about Star Wars on numerous occasions in the past and even gushed over stuff we liked about the prequels back when those were being released. We talked about lots of stuff, even about movies, but Star Wars just didn’t come up. That’s not a good sign for these movies. On the other hand, a counterpoint: The Mandalorian seems to be pretty popular, so maybe people aren’t completely sick of Star Wars…
  • My Humble Star Wars Wish List remains in effect. This movie didn’t really scratch the itch of what I want out of Star Wars, and that’s fine, but The Mandalorian is actually pretty good, so there’s still hope. I suspect future installments will do better when they don’t have to deal with as much baggage from the originals. Onwards and upwards!

I could probably keep writing about this for a while, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

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