Monday, January 6, 2020 02:11 PM
(Last updated on Monday, January 6, 2020 02:22 PM)
On the Viewer - Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
 by Fëanor

I meant to see Rise of Skywalker again before I wrote about it, but... whatevs. It's a pretty good movie - certainly a better movie than any of the prequels - but it's also often very silly, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.

I mean, right off the bat (and I don't think this is a spoiler, given the trailers and the opening crawl and all), they bring back the Emperor. Which is like, what? That is frustrating. We killed that guy. He was the bad guy for six movies, but then he died. His story ended. Anakin's final act was finishing him off. That was his redemption arc, for God's sake! Why are we bringing this guy back? How the hell is he supposed to have survived falling down an endless pit and blowing up? There's no real explanation.

This is a problem sequels often have, where they kind of undo things you thought were resolved in the previous movie, and take away some of the satisfying completion and finality that movie had, retroactively messing it up. I mean, Return of the Jedi is certainly not the best Star Wars movie, but I love it for what it is, and the death of Palpatine is such an important capstone on Anakin's story.

Honestly, I was worried about Rise of Skywalker as soon as the title was announced. Skywalker? Uh, I don't know if you heard, but Luke died at the end of the last movie. Anakin's been dead for a while. We all know Carrie Fisher died, so she can't have a huge part here. The Skywalkers are done. That story ended, dudes. This new trilogy is supposed to be about new characters. We're supposed to be leaving the Skywalkers behind, moving on, passing the torch. The Last Jedi was all about the way the past can drag you down, and how, yeah you have to bring some of it with you, deal with it in some way, but you've got to be able to also set a lot of it aside and move on to get anywhere. So what the hell is Skywalker doing rising? And why is Palpatine back??

Ahoy and avast: there be spoilers on the horizon.

Sadly, J. J. Abrams is not terribly interested in moving on or focusing on new characters. Instead, he goes and brings back, not just Ian McDiarmid's Palpatine, but also Billy D. Williams' Lando Calrissian (and don't get me wrong, it was great to see him again, but still), Nien Nunb, Denis Lawson's Wedge Antilles (who I just barely recognized as he flashed past), Warwick Davis' Wicket the Ewok, and the voices of many Jedi past (most of whom I didn't recognize; you can read about them here). Abrams even manages to give Leia a number of scenes despite the fact that the actor playing her is dead. In fact, every major character that died in the previous movies gets to appear in this movie - by which I mean, both Luke and Han. Meanwhile, Rose Tico, an interesting new character introduced in the last movie whose relationship with Finn had just begun to go somewhere, is left completely on the sidelines. The relationships between all of the new characters - Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe Dameron, Rose Tico - are all left unresolved. They toy with having Finn express his true feelings to Rey, but never actually go there. I mean, they do develop some of these relationships. There's a lot of fun chemistry between Rey and Kylo, and between Finn and Poe, and between Finn and Rey, and even between Rey and Poe, and there are a number of fun, emotional, and funny scenes where these characters get to interact. But in the final movie of a trilogy, and the final movie of a saga, I kind of expected some more... consummation? I don't know.

And I know I was complaining about all the old characters being brought back, but there's also too many new characters introduced. New characters would be fine, if we didn't already have so many, and if the movie had the time to devote to them, but we do, and it doesn't. It turns out Poe has a sketchy past (which comes out of nowhere) and an ex he left behind - Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell, apparently, although we never even see her whole face, thanks to the giant helmet she is always wearing). The movie only has time to sketch out a really generic "old flame" story between the two of them before it barrels on to other things. Then there's Jannah (Naomi Ackie), another former First Order Stormtrooper. Which, hey, cool idea! You could do a lot with that, and with the connection that creates between her and Finn. But the movie just... doesn't. And why give Finn yet another semi-romantic entanglement when he already has like three other ones? And why, at the very end of the movie, throw in the fact that Jannah doesn't know who her father is, and have Lando offer to help her figure it out? What is the point of this? According to what I've read, it's revealed in a Star Wars book somewhere that Lando himself is actually Jannah's father. I'm really glad they didn't try to shoehorn that into the movie - I'm so tired of the surprise parentage shenanigans in Star Wars - but if you're not going to fit that in, why mention her parentage at all? This is just a plotline you clearly did not have time or space for, so why even bring it up?

And speaking of annoying surprise parentage reveals, surprise! Even though we already established in the previous movie - again, in a scene I really, really liked - that Rey's parents were nobodies, we now reveal that Rey's grandfather is the Emperor. Are you serious? I literally gave the movie the raspberry and a big thumbs down when this came out. I mean, that is just dumb as hell. It sounds like a bad fan theory. Just stop it.

Admittedly, they almost do some interesting things with the idea. Rey has to struggle with the fact that she comes from this incredibly evil man, and that that evil might live on in her, and she might not be able to escape it. In one scene, Rey lets her anger get out of control, and she shoots a transport with Force lightning by mistake, blowing it up. The movie leads us to believe the transport contains her friend Chewbacca, and that she has just killed him. On the one hand, if they had really killed Chewbacca, I might never have forgiven them. (I actually turned to my brother and said, "If they kill Chewie, I'm walking out.") But on the other hand, this would have been an interesting thing for the characters to contend with: the fact that Rey, in a moment of anger, let her incredible power get away from her and accidentally killed her friend. In a real Star War, this is a thing that could happen! But the movie steps away from actually contending with this, and it turns out that Chewie was on a different transport. I was relieved, of course, as I was supposed to be, but it also felt like a cop-out. (And I'm pretty sure they stole the entire sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Must have switched baskets.")

Admittedly Star Wars plots are often pretty flimsy, but this one hangs almost entirely on a single object: a Sith dagger that is not only, improbably, the very weapon that killed Rey's parents, but also the key to discovering the location of the Emperor, complete with a secret map device that springs out when you push the right bit. Which feels like another thing out of an Indiana Jones movie, actually.

A lot of things come out of nowhere in this movie, and just as quickly disappear. Somehow Luke's old saber is back, despite the fact that it got torn in half in the previous movie, in one of my favorite scenes in that movie. Why bring this back, and with no explanation? The answer is, the movie wants to have Rey struggle with the idea of earning this saber, of living up to the Skywalker legacy. But couldn't we do that another way that wasn't a retcon? Why not have Rey build her own saber as part of her training? Maybe she could even incorporate part of the old saber into hers. (She does, in the very last scene, reveal that she has built her own saber, and even flicks it on really quick seemingly for no other reason than to show it to the audience, but this just feels really tacked on.)

Also, suddenly Rey has a bunch of old notebooks Luke used to record his search for an ancient Sith planet which we've never heard of before. Where did these come from, and what the hell? Also, we suddenly learn that Luke trained Leia as a Jedi and she had her own saber and had a vision about it and made a prophecy that Rey is going to fulfill. While it is very cool, actually, that Leia was trained as a Jedi and had a lightsaber of her own, why are we only just now hearing about it? Why only after she's dead do we finally get to see her come into her power? We give Leia a saber, and then in that same moment retcon a reason for her to have never wielded it? Lame. It's also pretty lame to reveal a prophecy was made only at the moment you're claiming it's being fulfilled.

Also, the weird psychic Force link between Rey and Kylo, which we were told in the last movie was a thing Snoke created to trick them, turns out to now be a totally different thing called a Force dyad. What? Where did this come from? I mean, I'm not that mad about it, as I really like their Force connection - it's a neat idea and makes for some great visuals and great drama. Plus, their fight that they have across space, where items from each of their locations spill into the other, is cool as hell. I'm also kind of okay with Rey (and later Kylo) suddenly having Force healing powers. They actually set this up a little bit in The Mandalorian, and anyway, pretty much every Star Wars movie has revealed some new Force power; it's kind of a tradition. But having the healing power show up along with all the other random new stuff does make it feel a bit like just another wild plot device dropped onto a pile of wild plot devices.

Speaking of wild plot devices, the movie throws so many of them at us during the wild conclusion that it's hard not to laugh. The Emperor explains that he has all the Sith inside him (?), and that Rey needs to kill him so he can like... sort of possess her? Then she'll be Sith Lord, but kind of also he will be. But then Kylo shows up and suddenly the Emperor can suck out their powers because they're a dyad? So now apparently the Emperor doesn't want Rey to kill him. And now, because he doesn't want her to, it's okay for her to kill him? And also to commit mass murder against all the Emperor's followers, who are watching from the stands. Which, okay, where did all these guys come from? Do they live here? What do they eat? And where did the resources come from to build this enormous fleet of Star Destroyers with Death Star lasers stuck on them? How did no one know about this fleet until now? And why, no matter what, is there always another goddamn Death Star??

This movie really brings forward a logical/ethical problem at the center of a lot of the Star Wars movies, and makes it an even bigger problem than it has ever been before. It's the problem of the very black and white distinction between the Dark Side and the Light Side, but the very thin line drawn between the two. The question that a lot of the movies end up asking implicitly is, when is it okay to kill somebody? When is the act of killing evil and when is it good? Let's look again at that big final scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. This is another scene where the Emperor is goading a Jedi to kill, because killing would be evil, and it would turn that Jedi to the Dark Side. In this case, Luke is supposed to kill Vader. But Luke sees at the last moment that through this act he is becoming like Vader, so he refuses to kill, throws his weapon away, and becomes a Jedi. But, of course, this now means the Emperor is going to kill Luke. Except Vader, standing on the sidelines, finds he cannot watch his son be murdered, so he picks up the Emperor and tosses him into a pit.

The movie clearly wants us to believe this killing is good, and that murdering an old man is in fact an act so good that it redeems Vader and brings him back from the Dark Side. But why was Luke's potential murder of Vader bad (even though Vader certainly seemed to be trying to kill him), while Vader's murder of the Emperor is good? We can certainly come up with answers - Luke would have been killing his own father, who at that moment looked pretty defenseless, while Vader is saving his son from death, and eliminating an undeniably evil person who is responsible for mass murder - but the fact that murder was Anakin's redeeming act has always made me a bit uncomfortable. In Rise of Skywalker, the whole question is even more... questionable. One minute, it is capital "B" Bad to kill the Emperor, and then not even ten minutes later, it is capital "G" Good to kill him, along with all of his friends. How does that work? Who is the arbiter of what is Light Side murder and Dark Side murder? Is it all about timing, or how you feel in the moment? Can you challenge? Are there instant replays?

While all this is going on, there is of course also a gigantic space battle, as is customary. We are told that, for reasons, the good guys need to blow up a single tower to stop the bad guys (because the bad guys always have that one little weakness that will totally obliterate them), but then later on, that tower gets turned off, and now they need to blow up a different tower. Okay. Then the Emperor is shooting all the Resistance ships with lightning (somehow he has become super uber powerful from sucking Force dyad energy or something. Sure) and it looks like the Resistance is doomed and lots of people are dying. Then, despite the fact that the Resistance was utterly destroyed in the last couple movies and nobody else in the galaxy offered to help before, all the sudden Lando manages to whip up an absolutely enormous fleet out of nowhere, and then everybody is okay again despite the lightning attack earlier and now the good guys are winning. Rey beats the Emperor, but dies (because she used too much power maybe?), but then Ben climbs back out of an endless pit (like you do) and heals her back to life, and they finally kiss! And all the Reylos out there cheer! But then he dies, I guess because he gave her all his life force. And all the Reylos boo. We're all the way down, then we're all the way up, then we're all the way down again! It's like riding a really dumb roller coaster.

But I don't mean to trash the movie so hard. There are a lot of parts I really enjoyed, and that I found really moving and well done. Kylo Ren/Ben Solo's arc through the trilogy is strong, Adam Driver is great, and the scene between him and Harrison Ford's Solo, which is an echo of their scene in Force Awakens, with a callback to that most famous of moments between Solo and Leia in Empire Strikes Back, is so powerful. And even the parts of the movie I thought were dumb at least look really cool. The effects are great, and the visualization of the resurrected Emperor, hanging off a giant metal claw, and the Sith planet, with its huge imposing temple and throne, is just amazingly well done. There's also a lot of humor here, what with C-3PO losing his memory and refusing to translate evil languages. I also loved the wordless moment at the very end where Poe gives his ex a questioning sexy look, she shakes her head in answer, and he shrugs and walks off.

Also during this final celebration scene there is a much vaunted lesbian kiss between two tertiary characters. Which, okay, that's cool. Baby steps, I guess. I'm glad we finally got something explicitly gay into Star Wars. But, come on. What about Poe and Finn? Why don't they get to make out? Or even, have Poe and Rey and Finn all make out together! Get Chewie in there, too, what the hell! But no. That would be too much for people, I guess. Sigh.

Oh hey, the Knights of Ren are also in the movie! They are hilarious. They just kind of prowl around in the background like a vaguely threatening goth emo band, and then eventually Ben kills them all. I wanted more out of them, but they're just another thing this trilogy introduced and then never really did much with.

Anyway, I did enjoy the movie, despite how it may sound. I will certainly buy it on blu-ray and watch it again. But it did disappoint me, too. It's interesting to think about what Rian Johnson would have done if he had been in charge - if he'd been able to deliver another movie as great as The Last Jedi. But I guess we'll never know.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)



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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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