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Film Review – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019; Directed by J.J. Abrams)

The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth film of the main-thread “Skywalker saga” and the eleventh film in the Star Wars movie franchise, which has grossed $9 billion at the box office over more than four decades. Star Wars is a proven money machine, but what else is it? Is it fanciful and immature escapist entertainment, carrying no deeper narrative or thematic significance or cultural importance than any other lucrative blockbuster product fundamentally aimed at children and full of furiously expensive action sequences, only treated like it is more because of its massive success? Is it deceptively simple but actually rather profound and richly politically applicable pulp storytelling, carrying resonant messages about hopeful resistance to tyranny, generational inheritances and grappling with complex legacies of the past, and glimmers of pop-Freudian psychological struggles of fear and self-doubt? Is it all an elaborate, eternally recurring, only half-purposely cyclical exercise in transmuted nostalgia, encoding halcyon memories of cinematic adventures past (swashbuckling Republic serials, Hollywood westerns, WWII epics, and Kurosawa’s samurai films) into the DNA of the saga’s earliest films and then the already-allusive genes of those earlier films into the later ones? Is it an ongoing, flawed, messy, conflicted filmic conversation with its own legend, a fluctuating, externalized internal battle with alternating comfort and discomfort under its own long narrative and thematic shadow? Is it all of these things in varying degress to millions of people from numerous generations around the world, who bring to Star Wars as much or even much more than it brings to them, who let it down when it rises, and rise when it lets them down?

Whatever their flaws and compromises, the first two films in the contemporary Episodes VII-IX sequel trilogy, 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2017’s The Last Jedi, were at least honest attempts to grapple with some of these questions, to forge an at least half-new identity for the franchise under the ownership ambit of entertainment mega-conglomerate Disney and away from the direct creative control of the big-screen space-opera universe’s flawed-genius auteur giant, George Lucas. The Force Awakens, directed and co-written by hit-and-miss mainstream franchise mogul J.J. Abrams (he of the infamous “mystery boxes”), could lean in on easy, indulgent “remember this?” callback moments, but it also embraced its new generation of characters and their distinct-if-mirroring journeys alongside the original trilogy’s legacy leads, finally earning its unfailing instinct for crowd-pleasing. Rian Johnson’s arresting The Last Jedi turned a productive self-critical eye on the franchise, dialing up to klieg-light brightness a healthy glare of skepticism for the intellectual property’s less-flattering aspects: its occasional cynical exploitation of past glories, its thoughtless power-fantasy hero worship, its erasure of difference, its blindness to the structures and processes of systemic injustice, its soft-eugenicist elevation of a privileged, supremacist hereditary elite who control the tenuous fate of the galaxy through mystical inheritance.

A portion of the franchise’s fan base despised Johnson’s probing thoughtfulness and upending of expectations, and reacted with the visceral distaste of those whose precious and fragile assumptions are rarely challenged (one might say that they are “snowflakes” who were “triggered”). Another portion of that fan base was rapturous in its praise for and newly loyal to Johnson’s creative vision, finding new reflections of themselves in the broadening arcs of its characters and of their perspective on the world in this weary, wary take on Star Wars, dragged kicking and screaming to the precipice of hard-won adulthood. Surely many fell in the middle, agreeing with intent but questioning execution or admiring execution but uncertain about intent. The Last Jedi split Star Wars fandom in a way that seemed to blindside its corporate overlords in the House of Mouse (with implications both immediate and further-reaching, as we will see), but whether a hater or a lover of the movie, no one could deny that Rian Johnson made Star Wars contentious again, worth debating and thinking about. For once, a saga forever facing the past seemed to be turning inexorably towards an unpredictable and even exciting future.

As the capstone of the sequel trilogy (and thus of three trilogies), The Rise of Skywalker is at once imbued with this promise and burdened by the weight of a fractious legacy. It also faced production challenges that the prior two entries in the saga had the good fortune to avoid. Rian Johnson was slated to write the film, but then was not. Original director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World, The Book of Henry) was removed from the helm during the development process (fired directors being a common feature of the concurrent anthology films), although he retains a story credit, and Abrams was brought back to conclude what he began. Perhaps most significantly, original trilogy star Carrie Fisher passed away a year prior to The Last Jedi‘s release. This sad loss supposedly had major implications on the structure of Episode IX, which was initially planned to feature a central role for her General Leia Organa in its narrative and themes in much the same way that The Force Awakens centred Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and The Last Jedi centred Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.

All of these problems were then, of course, eclipsed by the The Last Jedi schism. If Disney felt a need to course-correct its mega-lucrative franchise after Johnson’s basket full of risks sparked a toxic vehemence in some quarters of the notoriously demanding fandom, then it could not have signalled its intent to do so more clearly than by rehiring Abrams, many of whose puzzle box mysteries from The Force Awakens were discarded by Johnson in The Last Jedi with the casually unimpressed indifference encapsulated by Luke tossing away the lightsaber that his putative apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley) held out to him with such dramatic portent in the nearly-literal cliffhanger that ended Abrams’ first film. The most cynical predictions for Abrams’ approach to The Rise of Skywalker ran in the direction of the stubborn reinstatement of every cherished puzzle box that Johnson roughly kicked under the bed, especially the mystery of Rey’s parentage, the puppet-strings-pulling main villain Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the helmeted Darth Vader cosplay of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the return of his shadowy circle of warrior-brothers, the Knights of Ren. Abrams checks every one of these boxes with dull dutifulness: he revives the question of Rey’s lineage (in an extremely boring and dispiriting fashion that Emily Todd VanDerWerff gets into at Vox, with spoilers that I won’t bother with here); retcons Snoke (sliced in half by Kylo Ren in one of The Last Jedi‘s best moments) into an apprentice of the previous trilogies’ Big Bad, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), himself mysteriously reincarnated as this film’s primary villain; and within 15 minutes of the opening crawl, Kylo has welded his helmet back together, covered his head with it again, and surrounded himself with his Knights of Ren, who aid him in hunting Rey, with whom he shares a Force-psychic connection and heaps of sexual tension.

Of greater concern to the slice of Star Wars fandom heartened by Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi was the possibility that Abrams would take the frequently bad-faith criticisms of the trilogy’s middle chapter from its most toxic detractors and act upon them, seeking to appease their grievances and assuage their concerns. Sadly, he did exactly that. Johnson split up his heroes in order to give their character arcs time and space to develop and deepen; The Last Jedi‘s casino planet subplot came in for particular criticism as a pointless sideline, but not only did it ask pointed political questions about the capitalist underpinnings of the franchise’s neverending wars, it also provided more development in the arc of Finn (John Boyega) than either Abrams entry does. But it seems superficially like more fun to have all of your heroes adventuring and quipping together, like in the original trilogy whose highlight elements are referenced constantly in Abrams’ films in the series, so that’s what Abrams does here, to the detriment of most of their character journeys. Denied Snoke as a nearly-all-powerful (but frightfully dull) main villain, Abrams just slots in Palpatine in his place, regardless of whether anyone in the story gives an ounce of care about him or what he represents. In a more minor but still very unfortunate move, Abrams essentially condones the hatred (much of it racist and sexist in nature) for the thematically key character of Rose in The Last Jedi and the reprehensible social media abuse of the actress who plays her, Kelly Marie Tran, by online trolls, shunting her very noticeably to the margins in The Rise of Skywalker.

Two tidbits of media promotion serve to contextualize J.J. Abrams’ approach in The Rise of Skywalker and nod towards why the film doesn’t work, and indeed may be the worst Skywalker Saga film since Attack of the Clones. One is recent, a pull-quote from Abrams in a New York Times story about the coming release of the trilogy-ender suggesting that The Last Jedi, despite its bold choices, erred in telling its audience that Star Wars didn’t matter. That is the last thing that Rian Johnson’s film was saying; indeed, it was saying that Star Wars mattered a desperately great amount, and that’s why it took such great chances and made such sacrifices to try and make it better, to shepherd it towards earning that larger significance. It’s a bald misreading/mischaracterization by Abrams, who might be hurt that Johnson didn’t think that his cherished story enigmas and fan-servicing hits of weaponized nostalgia mattered much and expanded those personally-significant elements to constitute all that Star Wars does and ever could represent. The second and even more revealing press quote (which I came across on Twitter but cannot now locate to link to, frustratingly) was from Chris Pine regarding some direction given to him by Abrams during filming of his 2009 Star Trek reboot, a film whose success directly paved the way to the director’s Star Wars gig. Required to pause in the midst of a kinetic action scene to read a line of exposition, Pine (like a good thespian) asked Abrams about Captain Kirk’s background and motivation in relation to this specific bit of information: how did he know about it, what did it mean to him, anything at all that might aid Pine in improving his conviction in delivering the line. Abrams told him that it didn’t matter; just speak the line as clearly and seriously as possible, and the audience will hear it, absorb it, and forget to care about it a moment later. In summary, storytelling doesn’t matter except as a fleeting magic trick, certainly not in any sort of sustained or supported fashion.

If this anecdote is at all accurate, it would shed plenty of light on The Rise of Skywalker, in which characters are constantly shouting out exposition in the midst of huge, putatively exciting action sequences and no time or effort is expended on establishing why anything that happens matters, why or how it’s happening, or how those things that are happening reflect the perspective or psychology or changes of the characters. It doesn’t help matters that the film is chocked full of McGuffins and successive quests requiring whiplashing switches in objectives and settings, more a video game structure than act-based movie construction (Abrams’ co-writer is Chris Terrio, also co-scribe of the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which was notorious for plots of this sort). The Rise of Skywalker is not complex but it is complicated, and its dramatic stakes are constantly undermined by its forward momentum as much as by the Abramsian tendency noted by Pine to privilege that motion, that superficial sense of kinetic exhilaration, over emotional or thematic meaning. This approach might work fine for boilerplate action entertainment (Abrams made a relatively well-regard Mission Impossible movie, after all), but it’s fatally misguided for Star Wars, whose every moment is pinpointed and microanalyzed and expanded to mythic vitality by a fanbase far more obsessive and passionate and witheringly difficult and critical than any other in popular culture.

This is one of the things that makes Abrams’ sops to certain segments of that fanbase in The Rise of Skywalker so disappointing and even depressing: they’re not even likely to satisfy them, and not only because a lot of these fans, by their very natures, can never be satisfied. If “fans” who have spent the past two years endlessly harping on the “plot holes” in The Last Jedi (which aren’t) have any modicum of consistent intellectual honesty (they don’t), they will tear the loose, lazy, dropped-in-a-moment narrative logic of its sequel to tiny shreds. Many critics of all stripes will delve into these numerous issues in the months and years to come, and it reflects neither my specialty nor my interest to get into them here (I imagine that the best among them will look more than a little like YouTuber Jenny Nicholson’s pre-release dissection of a laughably awful Episode IX script treatment by sci-fi writer Alan Dean Foster, which resembled the final film in more ways than it has any right to). Suffice it to say that little of what happens in the movie either makes sense on the surface or holds up to even the barest amount of scrutiny. This is why this review hasn’t gotten into the plot at all, let alone those fearful spoilers. If the director of the movie won’t approaches these details like they matter, why should anyone else? If cinematic storytelling is such a painfully cheap trick to J.J. Abrams, why give it a second thought, let alone a third or a fourth?

What’s left, then, is a huge special effects spectacle with some dogged performances from actors fighting upriver against surging currents of cynical indifference. Ridley and Driver are left particularly adrift, but paddle hard in place: the former spares little thought to the exponential expansion of her Jedi powers and sells the (deeply stupid) revelations about her lineage as best she can, while the latter is such a good actor that he still gives a strong performance even through progressively more predictable turns in his character’s path and a complete lack of dialogue through the climax. Boyega is likable, but Finn is just left to the wind, flitting between unspoken (and unceremoniously dropped) affection for Rey, for Resistance leader Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), for the sidelined Rose, and for new character Jannah (Naomi Ackie), whose origin story reflects his own and represents the film’s only attempt to think about the once-promising implications of an Imperial Stormtrooper turned rebel fighter. Isaac’s charisma shines through Poe’s awkwardly-plotted arc, which is largely tied up with a beard-like revived relationship with a former underworld acquaintance named Zorri (Keri Russell). Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO has a substantial comedic subplot, his largest Star Wars role since the 1980s. Billy Dee Williams reprises his role as Lando Calrissian, seemingly to make up for the total hash that is made of Fisher’s role as Leia through the ill-fitting employment of footage shot before her death to try to craft a farewell arc for her. Domhnall Gleeson’s fascistic General Hux is done dirty, almost as an afterthought. There’s various cute things slotted in for cheap colour: toy-store fave soccerball robot BB-8, a new droid that looks like a lamp on a wheel, tiny droid-hacker alien Babu Frik, and Dominic Monaghan.

Also left over is the nostalgia. Heaping, gloopy handfuls of it, splashed crudely in the audiences’ faces like the rainbow goo in the imagination feast scene in Hook. The Rise of Skywalker aims to turn its saturating callbacks into the circle-is-complete resolutions to set-ups from elsewhere not only in the sequel trilogy but in the original trilogy and even the much-maligned prequel trilogy as well. Like Avengers: Endgame did, though not as well (and I didn’t particularly love that movie or how it called back to prior Marvel movies). The message of The Last Jedi was sometimes misunderstood or misstated as Kylo Ren’s line “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to”, when the film had a more complex and conflicted relationship to nostalgia, recognizing that the past and our rose-tinted remembrance of it has an active and essential-to-grasp role in our present as in our future. There is plenty of looking back in The Rise of Skywalker, and plenty of potential in the character arcs of Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo for thoughtful critiques of or at least nuanced expansions on ideas of nostalgia and legacy.

But unlike a cultural work like HBO’s recent Watchmen series (from Abrams’ Lost collaborator Damon Lindelof), The Rise of Skywalker is not about inheritances of trauma and how nostalgic thinking encouraged by enduring power structures elides them. This is Star Wars after all, and that stuff doesn’t matter. The past is good because people liked it, and when people like something, it makes money. Maybe, in 2019, under the aegis of Hollywood’s largest studio and its incipient industry monopoly, this is what Star Wars means, and nothing much more.

The franchise will take a pause after The Rise of Skywalker concludes its latest, sure-to-be-contentious trilogy of films, but there will be more Star Wars, of course. More anthology films are likely (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett are the rumoured subjects, although the latter may have been made redundant by Disney+ streaming television series The Mandalorian, making Pedro Pascal’s helmeted bounty hunter and his adorable meme-ready sidekick the sole torch-bearers of the franchise during the cinematic hiatus); Rian Johnson was announced as the writer-director of a new trilogy of in-universe films after the studio’s initial contentment with The Last Jedi, though that may not be happening anymore given subsequent developments; another film trilogy from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is certainly not happening anymore (probably a good thing, considering how they ended Thrones). The future of Star Wars is uncertain, as it was (in vastly different ways in vastly different contexts) at the end of the original trilogy in 1983 and at the end of the prequel trilogy in 2005. Disney’s Star Wars is a machine for corporate profit, but what kind of story is it, and what kind of story does our culture need it to be? As popular as it is, for the first time in a long time, in the wake of The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars doesn’t feel very culturally necessary. If that’s what was in J.J. Abrams’ mystery box all this time, then it’s quite a shocking twist indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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