Star Wars: The saga ends with a whimper (despite a screen full of bangs)
(aka Star Wars: Rise of the Jump Cuts)
(I sense great SPOILERS in this review…spoilers lead to anger, anger leads to hate, etc…)
I’m not sure what I was expecting in a movie that aimed to finish off a story I’d been waiting some 40 years to see conclude, but sadly, Rise of the Skywalker didn’t deliver much except for pretty visuals, set piece after set piece, and lots of stuff blowing up. I suppose these last three films are no exception to the schema of Star Wars trilogies: an engaging first movie, a very strong second film, and a third one that is more flash than substance.
I know JJ Abrams was a late-to-the-table directorial choice, and I think his ambivalence shows — he (or whoever wrote the story) doesn’t seem to know what to do with this movie. The first twenty minutes or so is just a series of migraine-inducing jump cuts and flashes of light, surprise-shoving the whole “Emperor Returns” plot at us completely out of the blue. I get the tradition of picking up a story “en media res,” but we are given no time here to get emotionally invested…and the setting keeps shifting too frequently for us to find our footing.
The plot careens along in a forced, “ok, now we have the red key, but we need to find the blue key to unlock how to work it” plot-coupon-y fashion, where it’s just dreadfully obvious that “these are the hoops we need to keep jumping through to get to the end”…there is no sense they arise from any organic, believable motivations of the characters.
I realize that battles in Star Wars are always a little over-the-top and stylized — no one expects Saving Private Ryan level realism in this setting — but Rise of the Skywalker’s battles are SO far over the top that it’s hard to take them seriously. It’s too obvious the good guys are going to win, and there is so much joking the heroes themselves don’t seem to take it totally seriously, plus they are always saved from the consequences of their sacrifices (Chewbacca, 3PO)…it means that most of the time, that fragile but necessary sense of tension just isn’t there.
The most watchable and compelling moments of the film were character-based: Rey’s quest for self-knowledge, her passionate confusion about her relationship to/with Kylo Ren, Finn’s loyalty and devotion to Rey (not quite romantic but not quite unromantic), and of course Ben’s chat with his father’s ghost…these spots are where we actually cared most about the characters (it helped that the acting was good enough to rise above the limited script). It was extremely weird to invert the usual Star Wars pattern, where the characters are just archetypes and what you’re watching for is the plot — this time around, the plot, such as is was, made me yawn, but I stuck around for the characters.
Although it was laid on pretty thick, I did appreciate the continuing Star Wars-as-metaphor-for-current-times thread. The first three films were about the Cold War (or possibly WW2), the struggle for freedom against an Evil Empire. The prequels were about the war in Iraq and the slow crumbling of democracy in the face of fear and indifference. The last three films have been about life in the postmodern Trump era: the questions are, who are we, who gets to define who we are, and how can we stand up to foe who seems unbeatable, how do we keep on fighting when we just lose and lose, and all our friends and allies have abandoned us? The mantra of Rise of the Skywalker was: “They want to make you think you’re alone. That’s how they win. But there’s more of us.” (that sentence is never resolved…more of us than there are of them? more of us than we think there are? both?) A nod, maybe, to Hillary’s (and Al Gore’s) popular vote victories — that there are more people who don’t want the Bushes and Trumps of the world in charge but for some reason they can’t get their sh*t together to win?
If you indeed treat this film as political allegory, then the most powerful part may be that what really “wins” the day in the movie is reaching out and forgiving/healing your enemy; that’s how Rae turns Ben back. She sees a vision of herself if she keeps being the fighting avenger — she’ll win, yes, and become the very thing she hates the most — but in choosing to heal him, she prompts him to choose to heal himself. You have to reach across the aisle and make peace. Palpatine, as always, wins if you give in to your hate.
Of course, this is all undercut in the end when Jedi-charged Rae kicks the sh*t out of Palpatine for the win …but you can TOTALLY tell the writer backed himself into a corner…”oh sh*t, if she refuses to fight, the Emperor wins, and I can’t think of how she gets out of this, so…um…Jedi possession, twin lightsabers, she kicks his ass, hooray!” How this doesn’t fulfill Palpatine’s plan to have her strike him down and embody the Sith in his place is bafflingly unclear…did the Jedi just possess her first and there’s no more room inside her soul? Did the Emperor win after all, and now we’re set up for a sequel? Or…um…hand wave hand wave, look over there, Star Destroyers are exploding, pay attention to that!
By the way, what the hell is with the Emperor’s plan, anyway? Build a zillion planet-destroying Star Destroyers and…just have them sit there hovering in the atmosphere, for YEARS, doing NOTHING? And then release one or two to make a demonstration (“Pleeeaaasse don’t destroy the planet Basketball!”), but that’s it? It reminds me of how in Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, the Romulans from the future come into the past, kick Starfleet’s ass and then…um…wait twenty years until Spock is born, and then try and destroy Earth? Okay, you could argue they wanted to wait until Spock was alive so he could SEE them blow up planet Vulcan…but what the hell is Palpatine’s excuse? He just wants to first get inside Rey’s body (cough! cough! cough! jeesus, that’s not even slightly subtle!)? He wants Kylo Ren to accept him as a daddy figure and bless his venture? Or is this all just because even the Dark Side must bend to the will of the Needs of the Plot?
Also, if Palpatine had a kid (Rey’s mom? Her dad? Never specifies just who was the Palpatine heir there), why not take over THEIR body instead, 20 years earlier? Why do her parents seem like perfectly nice, moral and moreover HELPESS people, just there to get knifed and killed by villain-we-just-met-who-lives-and-dies-in-the-backstory-and-therefore-is-meaningless? And who the hell was the mother of the Emperor’s kid, anyway? The thought of Palpatine getting it on with someone is creepy AF, sure, but can we have SOME background here? Or did he just “will” the kid into being, the way a cut scene from the prequels suggested he willed Anakin into being? (in which case, why is Ben not also as much his heir as Rey?) And Leia apparently knew all along that Ben was going to turn evil but just let it all happen anyway because…um….plot?
The movie just stubbornly refused to care — “ok, just shut up, kids, it’s the Emperor, he’s evil, he’s back, Rey’s gonna lightsaber him in the end, the rebels are gonna fly in and destroy the main reactor core, the good guys will win and you’ll buy the damn toys and video games.” Disappointing.
Not that there weren’t some nice moments thrown in there…one of Abrams’ strengths, as demonstrated in his earlier Star Wars and Star Trek films, is his obsessive nodding to continuity. Luke raising the X-wing from the water, dripping with seaweed, is SUCH a nice homage to the scene in Empire when he tries and fails to lift it with the force, and Yoda succeeds, telling him the problem was he didn’t believe in himself. Now, it’s Rey who needs the reminder…and Luke looks pretty damned satisfied at his own well-earned evolution in this moment. It’s very, very nice.
In a similar vein, the single best moment in the film was when Ben finally decides to turn to the good side…when he struggles to tell the memory of his father that he loves him, Han’s ghost smiles and says, “I know,” which of course evokes the legendary, smug-as-hell last words he tells Leia after she declares her love, and then her gets frozen in Carbonite. Here, it’s not smug at all…it’s forgiveness, even grace, and I actually did tear up a bit.
And yes, Ewok cameo, and Jawas saying “woo-tidi!” (it got cheers from the audience) and a score of other similar coolnesses. The slamming of the second star destroyer into the sand on Jaaku (as in, “ok, really, NOW the empire’s gone, seriously! and STAY down! At least until we need to make more money in a sequel…”)
I will admit that I actually didn’t see General Bill Weasley’s betrayal coming, although now it makes total sense. I also appreciated that Rey didn’t end up as Ben’s sweetheart by the end…he does wind up paying a price for his crimes…and that she doesn’t end up with Finn, either (how he sort of gets “randomly introduced and totally undeveloped Black girl character” as a “consolation girlfriend” is more than slightly racist, although by the end it seems that Lando — the only OTHER black dude in the galaxy — swoops in to put the moves on her first. Whatever happened to Rose, “only Asian girl in the universe,” as his p.o.c.-appropriate girlfriend? Sigh. The Racism remains strong in these ones). Rey going off to make her own way mirrors Elsa’s striking out on her own at the end of Frozen 2. Okay, Hollywood has figured out that Strong Female Protagonist doesn’t have to end up married and re-domesticated at the end (cough, Mulan, cough), but hasn’t really figured out what to do with her instead. Um, folks, it IS possible to be in a relationship and not be neutered by it. Someday, perhaps.
I was even able to forgive how obviously awkward and forced it was to build those scenes around the existing Carrie Fisher footage, because come on, they did the best they could.
Overall, hardly a worthy conclusion to the series…watchable but just barely. Still better than all the prequels, I suppose.
It was kind of touching when the cavalry comes at the end and Grand-Moff-Totally-Not-Tarkin says, “What, where did they get a navy?”, and his underling responds, “It’s not a navy…it’s just…people.” Granted, tons of people who somehow freaking own military-grade fightercraft — was the whole point of this film a defense of the Second Amendment? As in, “hey, in a universe where everyone has their own personal nuclear-weapon-equipped cruiser, tyranny will never be tolerated?” But the idea that what really saves the universe isn’t an elite cadre of specially destined force-wielders (except, actually, it kind of is), but just people who finally get up off their asses and stand up to oppression…that’s kind of cool. That the movie can’t quite figure out whether that’s enough on its own, or if you still need the magic lightsaber hero, is kind of immaterial…maybe you need both. The Jedi fell because they became elitist, out-of-touch snobs…the Empire/First Order/Final Order fell because eventually people got tired of its bullsh*t and woke up to overthrow it…
…so what takes its place? Star Wars never really offers us an adequate answer. But it tries, in however flawed a fashion, to remind us that we have now isn’t the best we can do, and that we the power to change things to try and find out.
That message, I guess, will have to last me the next 30 or 40 years until we get a new trilogy…even if by then I’m dead and have to watch it as a force-ghost.