Movie Review: Star Wars IX The Rise of Skywalker

Fair Warning: This review contains major spoilers because it was nearly impossible for me to say anything useful about the film without explaining what it contains. I’m posting more than a month after the premiere to give people a fair amount of time to see it. You have been warned.

Short version: on your first viewing, go in without expectations; otherwise, you’ll just get frustrated. Accept it for what it is, and you’ll be fine. The space fantasy comes to a reasonable conclusion.

The longer version runs north of 2,000 words because that’s how I am. This review was originally a lot more critical and harsh. However, I decided to give Star Wars IX The Rise of Skywalker (hereafter TROS) a second viewing in the theater, this time with a conscious effort to turn off my writer/critic brain. I loved these stories as a kid. And while I refuse to give Episodes I-III any more of my time or money, I liked this new generation of characters/actors. If this proves anything, it’s that if I like someone, I’m a lot more forgiving than if I don’t.

As a fan and someone who has had zero input to or control over the movies for 42 years, I should’ve known better than to let my expectations affect what I saw, but they did.  After my first viewing, the movie disappointed me as a literary critic. It left too many questions unanswered; created more questions that were not resolved in the film; spent a little too much time offering nostalgic flashbacks than introducing something new; and wasted the potential of characters and storylines created in the previous films. My goal is not to be “toxic” here but to share my feedback as a 42-year fan, should anyone at Disney/Lucasfilm care.

What the Film Got Right

As the final chapter in the Skywalker family saga, TROS does the important thing: it defeats the bad guys and shows a hopeful future for our heroes. It offered a dignified ending to the life of Leia Organa with a surprising amount of previously unused footage from previous films to minimize the use of a CGI “ghost” of Carrie Fisher.

I liked most of what they did with Poe and Finn as characters. I’ve liked Rey, Finn, and Poe from the start, and that didn’t change here. I also liked the fact that they gave Threepio something interesting to contribute, and it was nice to see Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) again.

Also, the film has a lot of references to places and events that happened outside the narrative, leaving sequel writers (professionals and amateurs like me) the opportunity for more places to “play” in that universe.

The visual effects, of course, continue to wow, as does the soundtrack by John Williams.

There were some cute little bits in the film. Some call them callbacks or “Easter eggs”…I’d call them continuity links to previous movies: aliens, character interactions. Another term I’d use is nostalgia triggers. It was fun to see the Porgs again. I was slightly less thrilled to see Ewoks again, but then if one of your settings is Endor (more on that in a bit), they were going to be more or less a given.

However…

Another term for including all those cute little callbacks is “fan servicing,” where the filmmakers pepper a film with lots of little continuity links to previous films to amuse fans and maybe test them to see how many bits they can catch. However, you can do this a few too many times before it starts to feel like pandering or self-indulgence. “We know you love these films, we know which little bits you like from them, and so we’re going to cram as many of them into one movie as possible so you can get all of  your favorites in one place and we can please everybody.”

Eventually, it becomes too much. It can even distract you from the actual storytelling, as it did for me. Knowing from the commercials that Lando Calrissian would make a comeback, I could guess within a few lines of dialogue when he would appear. I don’t want to be able to anticipate such things. I like a few surprises.

I went to the movie the first time with the goal of watching and enjoying the story without thinking about it too much. However, if a piece of the filmmaking becomes so out of synch with the rest of the story that you lose your willing suspension of disbelief, you start to pay attention to the mechanics of the storytelling rather than the story itself. This happened to me on my first viewing through (of all people) my favorite character, Han Solo. They brought back Han through a vision, but the fact that Harrison Ford was on the screen at all was jarring and not in synch with the rest of the story. It wasn’t just unexpected, for me it was gratuitous. I began to notice the fan servicing–I began to feel manipulated.

Once you notice you’re being manipulated, you start seeing other gratuitous things:

  • Luke raising his old X-wing from the bottom of the sea of Ahch-To…a deliberate callback to The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda raised Luke’s ship from the swamps of Dagobah (even down to John Williams using the same musical riffs). The ship in Empire actually came out looking worse than it did in TROS,  and it was only in a swamp for a few days as opposed to under the ocean for years. No live algae? No alien barnacles? Come on. And you know it’s a bit ridiculous that the thing was still flyable after X years…even a non-space-minded friend of mine caught that. Mind you, it was equally silly that a ship could fly after being underwater on Dagobah, too, but I was a kid when I saw it the first time, and my understanding of reality was different (that’s a discussion for another day).
  • Starship fetishes: Some fans out there are really attached to the ships in space movies. Some folks even create cuts of SF movies on YouTube where they show only the scenes with spaceships in them. This might explain the ridiculously large fleet of Stardestroyers Palapatine manages to assemble…and the equally massive, quirky fleet raised by Lando Calrissian to combat it. The movie also had an explosion fetish, but that’s been true of action/adventure films for decades now. Another word for it is “disaster porn.” Yeah, this film has a lot of that, too: objects, ships, planets–nothing was safe from the pretty orange flames. (Related philosophical discussion for another day: why are we entertained by this?)
  • Ewoks…Endor…bringing back Emperor Palpatine from the original trilogy…that whole thing. They don’t really satisfactorily explain how he survived his fall into the Death Star 2 in Return of the Jedi…or who went about restoring him. And then there’s my writer’s question of why bring him back when you had a much more interesting and conflicted “Supreme Leader” in Kylo Ren? He’s a villain who had already proven himself to be more interesting than Snoke who could have been developed minus the presence of Snoke…why bring back an old villain? You might note, for example, that the first scene in the movie is Ren heading off to kill Palpatine, not join him. It’s sort of like, “Okay, Boomer. You had your moment, but this is my Empire, my story, my movie. What the hell are you doing here?”
  • And then, after bringing back Palpatine, they decided to ignore Rian Johnson‘s (wise, IMHO) choice of making Rey a nobody from nowhere and instead made her Palpatine’s granddaughter. That was straight fan servicing because the fans went berserk over Rey’s “nobody” status in The Last Jedi. I liked having a nobody from nowhere become a Jedi Knight. It’s a hopeful thing for the audience because it means that anybody could use the Force if they just learn and believe. It was an equal-opportunity thing, not something that required you to be born with it. But then Mr. Lucas himself muddied the waters by adding “midichlorians” as a source of the Force. Part of Luke Skywalker’s appeal was that he was a nobody from nowhere and yet he was able to learn how to access mysterious powers.

And Another Thing…

This brings me to another major gripe with TROS: the opportunities wasted from Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Here I will no doubt differ from many fans because a lot of them hated that movie.

I liked The Last Jedi because it took some pains to be different from The Empire Strikes Back, which was important to me since Episode VII: The Force Awakens was pretty much a rehash (fan servicing) of the original movie, Episode IV: A New Hope. Unlike the original trilogy, The Last Jedi kills off the supreme bad guy in the second act. That left room, in my mind, for Kylo Ren to become the supreme bad guy, but now able to learn lessons from the middle act and potentially become a bigger, deadlier threat to Rey and the Resistance. Bringing back Palpatine felt (in my writer’s mind) like cheating.

Other characters were wasted as well:

  • General Hux, who had become a better-developed Governor Tarkin for his generation, gets turned, unbelievably, into a spy for the Resistance, with no background built into the story for that switch. And his reason? “I don’t care if you [the Resistance] win. I want Kylo Ren to lose.” Really? He goes from being a serious leader of men and ships to being a petulant turncoat? Sorry, I didn’t buy it. That was one of those moments where I might’ve said out loud in the theater, “Oh, come ON!”
  • One character development opportunity was lost–painfully–when Carrie Fisher died. I would love to read the original concept/script when she was alive and available to play Leia once more. As someone in the production said, that was meant to be “her movie.” Alas, we’ll never know.
  • Rose Tico, who admittedly had some bad/silly choices written for her in The Last Jedi, had the opportunity to become a more believable/sensible hero. In this movie, she is a tad more sensible, but had little more than a supporting role. I could be wrong, but I think Kelly Marie Tran, the actress, even let her disappointment come across in her delivery. But that brings up another thing…
  • The little kid at the end of The Last Jedi is seen moving his broom toward his hand using (presumably) the power of the Force. What happened to him? Again, this would have been a great opportunity to democratize the Force by having many people across the galaxy suddenly using it. Why do you need the Jedi Knights (or, contrarily, should you need to fear an Empire/First Order) if suddenly anybody is a potential Jedi Knight/Skywalker? This would’ve been a great story opportunity, and I had a gleam of hope from reading the title. Perhaps the “rise of Skywalker” might have meant that many hundreds or thousands of people would be able to use the Force? Think about it as a Spartacus moment, where suddenly dozens of random characters stand up to Kylo Ren and the First Order by finding the force within them and declaring, “I’m Skywalker!” one after the other. That would’ve made for a much more interesting story line, and wouldn’t have required bringing Palpatine back from the dead. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi laid the groundwork for telling that sort of story, but the writing team ignored or abandoned it.

Lastly, both the original and the prequel trilogies included love stories–Han and Leia, Anakin and Padme–so I sort of expected to see one here. The third set of stories had numerous potential partners: Rey and Finn, Rey and Poe, Rey and Kylo/Ben, Finn and Rose, even Finn and Poe. None of those happened. They even added a previous female acquaintance of Poe’s and another former Stormtrooper into the mix in TROS as potential love interests for our heroes, and those went nowhere. I’m not certain if that was the result of confused/indecisive screenwriting or a deliberate attempt to keep any heroines from defining themselves by their romantic relationships with men (a recent phenomenon measured by the Bechdel test). I suspect it’s the latter. Note to whoever came up with the Bechdel test: it’s not a sin for people to fall in love. Happens all the time in movies and in the real world. No, really. If that test is going to be applied to all movies from now on, the romantic comedy writers (and movie makers in general) are going to have serious storytelling and attendance troubles in the future.

So if you’re looking for things to be annoyed by in this film, you will find plenty of them. If you can tune out a lot of that–and it is possible–you’ll be just fine.

All That Said…

A story I’ve been following since I was seven years old has concluded. Some of it was unexpected; some of it was fascinating; some of it was badly written or made no damn sense (even the stuff I liked as a kid); some of it actually moved me. However, the stories did what they were meant to do: entertain and provide a sense of wonder and “movie magic” unparalleled for their time. For that I’m duly grateful to George Lucas and the group of professionals who made them possible.

If and when Disney’s Lucasfilm division decides to create yet another set of Star Wars stories, I hope they go back and relearn some of the lessons of what made the original films so enjoyable and memorable in the first place: engaging storytelling, likable characters/actors, and rousing adventures that excite the imagination. It wasn’t all special effects and fan servicing. Now I (and the rest of my generation) need to find new stories to read and write. It’s about time.

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