Monday, December 23, 2019

Review | Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It's here!

Episode IX of the Star Wars saga arrived last weekend in the form of The Rise of Skywalker, the J.J. Abrams-directed "final" installment in the (recently made up) "Skywalker Saga."

First off, I had a blast.

I understand some fans have a lot of complaints. That's fine. This movie stuff is subjective. These days, people think we have to have a "hive mind" on big-ticket genre stuff, and it's pretty ridiculous.

Love The Last Jedi? You're not a real Star Wars fan.

Hate The Last Jedi? You're not a real Star Wars fan.

That's kind of the world we live in these days, this hyper-polarized "us vs. them" mentality that makes it impossible to discuss a movie on its merits. It's either "The Best Thing Ever" or "The Worst Thing Ever" with no room for criticism or nuance.

The unfortunate thing about this movie is that you can't really discuss it without discussing The Last Jedi. In a normal world, this wouldn't be an issue because, naturally, you'd look at the second movie in a trilogy and see how it informs the third movie in the same trilogy.

The problem is The Last Jedi and how people feel about it.

I'll just say this: The Rise of Skywalker felt like a Star Wars movie to me in ways The Last Jedi didn't at times. How you will feel about the new movie will largely depend on how you felt about The Last Jedi. If you hated it but liked The Force Awakens, you'll probably like this one. If you felt The Last Jedi challenged the Star Wars status quo and set a bold new direction for the franchise, you probably won't like it that much.

In general, though, I'm very positive on The Rise of Skywalker. Let's dive a little deeper below...

First off all, the biggest buy-in for this movie is that Emperor Palpatine is back. It's asking a lot from the audience, given that this wasn't really set up in any meaningful way in the movies that came before. There is a lot of canon/expanded universe stuff about the Emperor's plans for the Empire after his death--he definitely had something cooking--but this is the primary thing fans have to accept and just kind of "go with" at the beginning.

(One of these days, I'll get into a discussion about Disney's befuddling approach to creating this sequel trilogy without giving it a unified vision, but that'll have to wait.)

If you can accept that Palpatine--or at least his spirit--survived at the end of Return of the Jedi, most things in this movie will work. If you can't, then it probably won't.

While it's never explicitly stated in the sequel trilogy that Palpatine's alive, it does make sense. I don't think a powerful being like Snoke could exist in the universe without Palpatine knowing about it. Palpatine says he created Snoke--cloned him--and that would work a lot better if Snoke had been portrayed differently in The Last Jedi. Palpatine's plan revolved around resurrection through his granddaughter, but I got the feeling Snoke planned to destroy Rey if he couldn't turn her, so that contradicts the Emperor's plot. In fact, Snoke was going to have Kylo kill her until Kylo, um, sort of swerved from that. I can't really buy the Emperor "foreseeing" all of that, but, you know, okay.

In The Last Jedi, "master of subversion" Rian Johnson failed to pick up a lot of threads from The Force Awakens or took them in a much different direction (some in ways that infuriated fans). In turn, Abrams strays quite a bit from the things Johnson set up to close out the trilogy, which really feels like two movies that are similar in tone (The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker) with a middle child that kind of does its own thing (The Last Jedi). To me, you have to think of The Rise of Skywalker as a direct sequel to The Force Awakens that sort of acknowledges that some things from The Last Jedi happened.

It's not a smooth transition in tone at all. I have no problems admitting that.

Not having an overall plan for this trilogy showed. You couldn't avoid it. Tonally, Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are all over the place, with The Last Jedi really feeling out of place since Johnson has such a distinctive creative voice. TLJ is meandering and takes its time with characterization while Abrams wants, in George Lucas "faster, more intense!" fashion, to move things along, boom, boom, boom. There are quiet moments in Abrams' films, yes, but overall, things are propulsive. You can't say the same about Johnson's approach in The Last Jedi.

So, okay, you get the point, right? This trilogy has to have a messy ending because of the messy way its individual parts were assembled and built upon one another.

That said, I'm a big fan of The Rise of Skywalker! As I wrote earlier, it felt like Star Wars to me in ways the last movie didn't. The main characters spent a lot of time together, something we didn't get a ton of in the previous two movies. There are some incredible callbacks. The Kylo Ren/Ben Solo stuff is phenomenal (and Adam Driver is incredible). Daisy Ridley shines as Rey. The dialogue is fun and quippy, classic characters get incredible moments, and we learn Leia went through full Jedi training.

Let's dig into a few different topics...

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. If anyone comes out of this sequel trilogy in flawless fashion, it's Adam Driver's character. He's incredible. He goes from villain to doubting villain to lost hero to redeemed hero in a good three-movie arc. His internal struggle between the darkness he clings to and the light we know must be within is one of the most compelling things in the trilogy. I feared a redemption arc for Kylo Ren, indeed I dreaded it for many reasons, but it worked.

Rey Jakku Scavenger Jedi Trainee Palpatine Skywalker (fit that on a business card). Since The Force Awakens, we understood there was something special about Rey. She was immensely gifted in the Force, much like Anakin and Luke. Many fans thought she had links to a classic character, such as the Skywalkers, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Palpatine (yep, some people thought it a long time ago). She gets her answer in The Last Jedi--she's no one, her parents are nothing (although Kylo's admission, "Not to me," is very stirring). The Rise of Skywalker goes a different direction here, fudging the "no one" stuff by saying her parents chose to be no one because she was Palpatine's granddaughter and they wanted to protect her from him. I will say that in The Last Jedi, Luke notes that Rey went "straight to the dark" when training her--something you could view as evidence of her bloodline.

Giving Rey lineage is controversial for some fans who liked Rian Johnson's approach. However, I feel like The Force Awakens wasn't going in that direction at all. Abrams reclaimed this for himself instead of going with what Johnson established. The message, though, is essentially the same: no matter who Rey is, she gets to choose her path, either as no one or as the granddaughter of the most powerful Sith who ever lived.

I find it kind of weird, though, that Leia knew this and never told her. Given the Skywalker family history, that seems kind of hypocritical to hold that back, no matter the "certain point of view." On the other hand, I can also see that Leia felt it was important for Rey to choose her own path without having to worry about the baggage that goes along with being a Palpatine.

I'm not mixed on the lineage--if you're going to make Palpatine the big bad again, it makes a lot of sense--but it did feel a hint clumsy in execution.

Emperor Palpatine. How is Palpatine back? I'll go with "ancient Sith magic," "cloning," and "because." Don't overthink this because the movie sure as heck doesn't. Again, you have to "just go with it" and accept that, in a world with the powerful, mystical "Force," things like this can happen. I couldn't help but think of the old Dark Empire comic in which the Emperor had the ability to project his consciousness into a series of clone bodies. The Sith were obsessed with learning the secret of immortality, and based on the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis, I think Palpatine mastered this (until at the end?).

Oh, there were also Sith cultists or acolytes or something.

Listen, it was a pleasure having Ian McDiarmid back. I don't think that was the Emperor's original body but rather a cloned vessel that was malformed and deformed by dark side corruption. The Emperor was crazy powerful, too, summoning a Force Lightning Storm capable of destroying capital ships! Was he ever that powerful? In the old Expanded Universe, he could definitely pull off these types of things.

C-3PO. If you liked the droid pairing of C-3PO and R2-D2, you didn't get to see them spend much time together. Threepio tells Artoo he's been his best friend, and it's a poignant moment, especially after you find out Threepio has to get his memory wiped. I thought Threepio was the best he's been since Return of the Jedi. I'm also glad Artoo was able to restore his primary memory, although "mind-wiped" Threepio was pretty funny. When they fell into the sand cavern and Poe asks everyone if they're okay and Threepio tells him he's fine even though Poe didn't mention him by name, I laughed.

Is this Star Wars or National Treasure? The first part of the movie involves a series of fetch quests for an important item (the Sith Wayfinder that leads to Palpatine's new digs on Exogol). There's a dagger that plays an important role, too, and our heroes have to go from one place to another to decode ruins and find the next clue. I felt like, if this trilogy had been planned out, this idea could have played a small but important role in the previous movies.

That Han Solo scene. My favorite 20-minute span of the movie involves the lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren, Leia's death, Ben Solo's redemption, and Rey's return to Ahch-To to visit with the Force ghost of Luke Skywalker.

I couldn't believe Harrison Ford came back for a final go-round as Han Solo. I imagine him, in his grizzled voice, telling Disney to keep backing up money trucks until the pile of cash was large enough to suit him.

I loved, loved, loved this scene. Adam Driver sells it so hard here. The conflict. The regret. The pain. It was a perfect mirror to The Force Awakens, only this time, Ben Solo makes the right decision. He could've turned away from the Dark Side earlier and returned to his parents, but he did what he thought he had to do to serve his dark master. The fact that he got to make amends, even if it was just to a memory of his father, was deeply touching. I cried in the theater; Anne gave me a napkin to dry my eyes.

If this scene hadn't worked, Ben's redemption wouldn't have worked. But to have his mother gather her remaining Force energy to reach him and then have him talk to his father was very impactful.

That Luke Skywalker scene. Rey's return to Ahch-To was expected, but I thought she'd go there specifically to consult Luke. Instead, after learning her true heritage, she goes there to live out the rest of her life without having any impact on the galaxy. She even throws away her lightsaber, which Force Ghost Luke catches (giving a not-that-subtle dig about how a Jedi should take better care of their weapon). I was glad to see Luke come back as a Force ghost, and I was glad Rey got to see him again. This was an evolution of his arc in The Last Jedi, in which he learned he was wrong to give up on the Jedi and the galaxy at large. And then he raised his own X-Wing like Master Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (music cue included) so Rey could fly it. Red 5, standing by!

Jedi Master Leia. Luke trained Leia! It's been a thing since after Return of the Jedi, yet no one mentioned it. I'm fine with a retcon, especially a good one, and I feel this is a great one. It also fixes the out-of-left-field Mary Poppins scene from The Last Jedi. At the time, I thought it was just a reaction from Leia, who was strong in the Force. However, The Rise of Skywalker proves she was powerful in the Force and had been trained. Probably one of the changes TLJ diehards will support.

You broke my heart, Chewie. Chewie's breakdown upon learning about Leia's death may have been the most heartbreaking visual in the new trilogy. This really hit me--the mighty Chewbacca driven to his knees in pain and anguish. Hasn't this poor Wookiee lost enough?

Lando! Billy Dee Williams had the time of his life. I liked how he first appeared in disguise, which reminded me of Return of the Jedi. I kept wondering, though, it he'd stayed on the desert planet for years waiting for someone to pick up on Luke's search for the Sith Wayfinder. However, he does mention in a throwaway line that Leia contacted him, so I'm guessing he simply beat Rey and the others to the planet and was watching out for them. God bless you, Billy Dee.

Wedge! The most exciting two-second cameo of my life happened when Wedge Freaking Antilles showed up in the movie. He'd appeared in some of the canon Star Wars novels, but Denis Lawson turned down the chance to reprise the role in The Force Awakens. I'm glad he came back...even if I wanted MORE WEDGE ANTILLES. It gave me the same feeling I had when Gold Leader and Red Leader showed up in Rogue One.

Feel the Force, Finn. Finn's Force-sensitive, right? I feel like this seed was planted in The Force Awakens and abandoned in The Last Jedi in favor of whatever the hell Canto Bight was supposed to be. Was that what he wanted to tell Rey? Why didn't we get closure on that point? Did he want to tell her he loved her? We may never know.

Poe Dameron, intergalactic spice runner and spurned ladies' man. Will someone kiss Poe already? I don't think it's a big deal that Poe used to run spice (it's a sort-of-contradiction of established canon, but it still kind of works). I do think it's a big deal that Zorii Bliss is immune to his obvious charms. Zorii was pretty cool, by the way, as was Babu Frik (freakin' adorable!).

Voices of the Past: At the beginning of the movie, Rey begs past Jedi to "be with me." No one answers. She feels she's alone. At the end of the movie, when it seems like all hope is lost, Jedi throughout the history of Star Wars deliver a poignant pep talk. We've got Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), Yoda (Frank Oz), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness), Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson)--basically your Jedi All-Star Team.

But that's not all! Some deep cuts are in there, too, along with characters who got a lot more screen time in TV shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels: Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Aayla Secura (Jennifer Hale), Luminara Unduli (Olivia d’Abo), and Adi Gallia (Angelique Perrin).

Forced Perspective. I feel like the menu of movie-used Force powers expanded significantly here. We got Lightsaber Throw (Darth Vader used a version of this in Jedi), Object Transference, Force Heal (a staple of video games and also seen in The Mandalorian), Force Lightning Storm, and Dark Side Transference. As a longtime player of Star Wars video games, I found this pretty satisfying.

The Millennium Falcon's dish is round again. The rectangular dish got knocked off at the end of The Last Jedi. The replacement is circular, which means the venerable old ship looks like it did in the original trilogy. Not a huge deal--just something I noticed.

A new lightsaber. Rey obtains a "new" lightsaber in the form of Leia's old one when Luke gives it to her on Ahch-To. This comes in handy when the redeemed Ben Solo rushes to Exogol to help Rey deal with Palpatine. I love the fact Leia got deep enough into her training that she made her own lightsaber. I also liked that Rey went back to Tatooine and buried the sabers--while showing off one she'd clearly made for herself. Rey's lightsaber featured a yellow (or yellow-orange) blade and appeared to be made from part of her quarterstaff.

Brother and Sister. Luke and Leia are Force ghosts now. Pretty cool, I thought.

Leia footage. I'd be curious what someone who didn't know Carrie Fisher was dead would think of her role in the movie. I think the effects artists did a spectacular job of bringing her back and featuring her. They just didn't have a ton to work with, and it showed a little bit because her reactions and lines were never very specific. Still, as far as reverse-engineered performances go, I think it was successful overall.

Humor. Most of the humor really landed. I think this is something Abrams is very good at--keeping the action going and letting the characters react accordingly. Threepio had some great lines, and Finn and Poe also landed some laugh-out-loud moments (Poe's flashlight comes to mind). Even Ben Solo got in on it--when he jumped from a height on Exogol and landed with an "Ow!" That guy had a tough day.

The Rise of Skywalker isn't perfect! A few nitpicks...

Knights of a Renaissance Fair. The Knights of Ren were Sith cosplayers and nothing more. They looked cool, stood around, and got their asses handed to him when Ben got a lightsaber. This is one of those things Abrams set up, Johnson ignored, and then Abrams didn't have enough time to really dig into because there was so much going on. I'm sure people would've viewed it as a repetition of the really awesome throne room scene from The Last Jedi, but it would've been great if Rey and Ben had to cut through the Knights of Ren together to defeat Palpatine.

And Now Star Destroyers are World Destroyers. Palpatine never met a world-killing superweapon he didn't like. I can buy that decades of construction in the Unknown Regions led to a large fleet of Star Destroyers; I didn't like that each one had a Starkiller Base/Death Star strapped to the underbelly. Isn't a really large fleet crewed by evil Sith personnel enough of a threat, especially given Palpatine's return? It just felt a little excessive, but then again, Palpatine's never been one for understatement.

Death Fakeouts. The movie leans into three pretty significant death fakeouts: Chewie, C-3PO, and Ben Solo. Each of them comes back (Chewie and C-3PO are just fine while Ben eventually dies after he comes back to help Rey on Exogol). I felt like these could've been handled a little more deftly. The Chewbacca one, in particular, could've been excised with little detriment to the plot.

I'm glad C-3PO's memory got restored and am uncertain why we had to make such a big deal about this when it was clear Artoo would have a thumb drive containing Threepio's programming. It undercut the drama and sacrifice.

Reylo. The kiss at the end did not ruin the movie at all. It's not the worst decision in the world. I just felt like it pandered a little bit too much to Reylo fans; it felt excessive. I think it would've been far more effective for Ben to die with their feelings unrequited--it would've been tragic that way. I don't think it was out of character--Rey and Ben certainly had feelings for each other--but a little restraint here would've really paid off.

Plan? What Plan? Rian Johnson didn't leave a lot to be wrapped up, plot-wise, in The Last Jedi. It's mostly a character movie and not plot-heavy. The middle part of a story is supposed to set things up for the home stretch; TLJ doesn't do this. That meant whoever wrapped up the sequel trilogy had to pretty much come up with a plot from scratch. This led to the "Palpatine's back" plot and the fetch quest setup at the beginning. The characters had to have a goal, and Abrams did his best to provide one.

To be clear, the idea that George Lucas had a definitive storyline in mind for the original trilogy is a myth. He made it up as he went along, and it worked spectacularly. Star Wars is pretty much an accident. The major difference--and it's a MAJOR difference--is that Lucas' creative vision oversaw Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi (and The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith). This sequel trilogy lacks that singular creative vision, which is why there is so much tonal dissonance between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and the lack of continuing plot threads from The Last Jedi into The Rise of Skywalker.