Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Produced by Walt Disney Pictures, Lucasfilm, and Bad Robot
December 20, 2019
Once I start talking about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, it will begin to sound like I didn’t enjoy this movie, but I swear I did. I laughed, I whooped, I shouted, “Oh no, Poe’s beautiful bicep!” When other fans asked me what I thought, I told them, “It’s absolutely a Star Wars movie.” And through that particular alchemy of fannish shorthand, this was received as a somewhat positive review. But the days wore on, and I kept jotting down notes on the movie, and I started to question exactly what I meant by that. What do any of us mean when we say that we got what we expected out of a Star War?
It does the pew-pew is a widespread expectation that viewers bring to anything set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. “The pew-pew” is something I define as a mix of blaster battles, lightsaber duels, daring escapes, and wily escapades.
Rise of Skywalker foregrounds its pew-pew, opening on a scene of Kylo Ren saber-slaughtering his way through a field of faceless combatants, for the sake of unearthing the movie’s McGuffin of choice: a Sith Wayfinder. We reconnect with Rey as she’s undergoing pew-pew training from Leia, and then with Finn, Poe, and Chewbacca as they pew-pew their way across half a dozen blink-and-you’ll-miss-it landscapes. Each of these openings are perfectly serviceable, although none are particularly memorable.
I’m willing to say that about the movie as a whole, in fact. Each of its scenes are perfectly serviceable, but none are particularly memorable.
One reason for that is that the entire movie seems to have been directed and edited as if it were one long pew-pew scene, with just enough frames allowed for each actor to fire off their lines before the camera moves on. Scenes that should carry emotional weight, such as Rey talking to Leia about her frustrations with her Jedi training, are instead cut within an inch of their lives. Conversations that should be a turning point, like Lando coaching newly appointed General Dameron through a crisis of faith, are short enough to miss while double-checking that your phone’s ringer is off. Meetings that should have been huge and revelatory, like Finn learning that Jannah and her entire company of Stormtroopers had defected from the First Order just like he did, and were stolen by the First Order as children, just as he’d been, were bare-bone, one-minute affairs. Each scene just long enough to acknowledge a character, a relationship, a theme, but none with the breadth or depth to explore them.
I found myself wishing that Rise would outright cut a couple of its action set pieces in exchange for the time to let its characters breathe, let them connect with each other, and give the viewer time to feel something.
The least effective pew-pew scene that could easily have been the most effective is Rey’s first use of force lightning. As she struggles to ground the ship where Chewbacca’s been taken prisoner, Kylo Ren in turn struggles to lift it from her grasp. Desperate, under intense pressure, Rey reaches with everything she has, and is horrified to see lightning arc from her fingertips and utterly destroy the ship and everyone aboard it. It could have been a wrenching loss, a horrible guilt, something to truly drive the plot and characters forward. But instead we learn one scene later that Chewie is perfectly fine. He was aboard a totally different ship that nobody saw, despite lifting off from the open desert. It’s an act of complete narrative cowardice, and it’s not the last.
That thing where a ludicrous pronouncement is made, and everyone just goes with it is one of my favorite Star Wars constants. Whether it’s Qui-Gon Jinn explaining that midi-chlorians are the powerhouse of the cell, the mere fact that the big bad spaceship in Return of the Jedi was literally just another, bigger Death Star, or Snap Wexley gravely presenting the Resistance with holograms showing that Starkiller Base was roughly one billion times the size of the Death Star, there’s an element of whimsy masquerading as earnestness that characterizes a Star Wars movie.
Rise of Skywalker gets its first ludicrous pronouncement out of the way in its opening crawl: Palpatine is somehow alive, and he’s broadcasting his manifesto galaxy-wide. Poe Dameron gives us this information again about ten minutes later, just in case we didn’t read the crawl, or were sure that we’d read it wrong. A quick line a little later serves up my favorite ludicrous pronouncement of the movie, a contender for the most ludicrous of the franchise. A First Order officer revels in the idea of joining Palpatine’s fleet to their own, saying this would increase their numbers “ten-thousand-fold.”
Incredible. Amazing. The choicest sort of ludicrous pronouncement. In case this is unfamiliar phrasing to you, please know that “-fold” simply means the number is multiplied that many times. A fleet of one ship, multiplied ten-fold, becomes a fleet of ten ships. No matter the likely number of ships the First Order had at the beginning of Rise, to multiply it by 10,000 makes the resulting figure hilariously large. If they had a modest fleet of 1,000 ships, then they were planning an instantaneous increase to 10,000,000. Remarkable. Stunning. How would the First Order staff such a fleet, especially considering that each Star Destroyer is the size of a city, and the Order draws much of its manpower by raising children into soldiers? A Star War does not offer the answers to such questions, because a Star War is not concerned with such things.
Rise of Skywalker raises dozens of similar logistical questions, and answers none of them. Where did the thousands of Sith living on Exegol come from? Does the giant stone cube they live in have adequate catering and plumbing? Why was Lando at the Aki-Aki Festival of the Ancestors that happens once every forty-two years? At what point does each additional planet-killing ship become superfluous, if there are fewer than 10,000,000 life-bearing planets in the galaxy? What actually is a “Knight of Ren”? Star Wars does not care to answer any of these questions, and I am perfectly content with that. Star Wars has other priorities.
Akin to the above is the shattering familial revelation. There’s the classic “No, I am your father.” Then the retroactive “you kissed your twin.” There’s the Rogue One tactic, which was to open with the revelation that Jyn Erso’s father was the designer of the Death Star. And Rise of Skywalker would very much like it if the revelation that Rey is Emperor Palpatine’s long-lost granddaughter resonated just as strongly.
It does not. Certainly, Daisy Ridley does a convincing job of being shattered by the revelation, and Ian McDiarmid chews his way through the brutalist, lightning-lit scenery like he was born to it. But Darth Vader’s revelation to Luke mattered because Darth Vader mattered to Luke, and to Leia, and even to Han. Galen Erso’s shame was Jyn’s shame because Galen and Jyn mattered to each other. Until ten minutes into the final chapter of this trilogy, Rey knew Sheev Palpatine as a distant name in a history book. For all my reservations about whether or not this revelation carries any weight thematically, in terms of story structure it simply doesn’t work. Rey had no established stake in the Palpatine name, and no compelling case is made to give her one.
In theory, it’s a storytelling move that could have worked. If it had been woven into the previous two films, and if this film had spent any time moving beyond the most facile possible approach to this story. Which makes it sound like I hated the entire Palpatine thing! I did not! It was perfectly serviceable.
The thing about being serviceable, and about having particular, unchanging priorities, is that it becomes clear what and whom you are not serving, as well as which sorts of characters and audiences you do not consider a priority.
Carrie Vaugh’s recent review of Terminator: Dark Fate (bit.ly/2tkuV2J) touched on the idea of audience expectations when it comes to a long-lived media franchise. “Dark Fate does what an addition to a thirty-five-year-old franchise ought to do: give us what we loved about the first films [… ] while updating and commenting on its own legacy by incorporating thirty-five years of feminist thinking.” This is the sort of updating and commentary that we started to get from The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, in varying ways and with various degrees of success. We got Finn, who gave an earnest, funny, heartbreaking face to the Stormtroopers, and John Boyega in a role that let Black fans finally see themselves at the center of this epic space opera. Rey, a junk scrapper, a girl toiling in the lowest strata of the Star Wars economy, who would turn the tide of galactic events through sheer force of will. We got a plucky little stand-alone movie that got as close to the nuts and bolts of war as Star Wars ever has, and let us hold the hands of characters who willingly died for their galaxy’s freedom. And we got a story of trying, and failing, but trying again anyway. Trying again, no matter what, because life is worth fighting for. None of those things are what I expected to get from a Star Wars movie. That’s what made them great movies.
What I wanted from Rise of Skywalker was for it to follow the trajectory set by those films. Not simply to meet bare expectations, but to, well, rise. Instead, Rise feels like a step backwards. Finn is afforded no backstory and little interiority. The baffling and unnecessary jaunt into Poe Dameron’s former life as a drug smuggler included more detail than has ever been revealed about Finn’s origins. To some degree, whether or not a viewer is satisfied with this choice will come down to taste. However, from a writerly perspective, it’s bizarre. While Poe is the more secondary of the trio, Finn is unquestionably Rey’s co-lead in the trilogy. And yet, bizarrely, Finn’s entire arc as a character is more or less completed in the first film, and holds static thereafter. In Rise, the effervescent Rose Tico is given a handful of lines that could have been spoken by any unnamed character. In fact, everything that was delightful and captivating about Rose is gone, a blatant and frankly insulting sidelining. It strains credulity that this had nothing to do with capitulating to the subset of vitriolic white Star Wars fans who were so incensed by her addition to The Last Jedi that they harassed actress Kelly Marie Tran until she left social media.
There are two characters, white characters of course, whom The Rise of Skywalker prioritizes: Rey and Kylo Ren. In terms of screen time and narrative importance, they are central. But even they are failed by the movie’s unwillingness to allow anyone to face consequences for their actions. Rey, our much-needed heroine, is given a story that hinges on the desires of the men around her. Kylo Ren finally makes the right call when faced with a choice, but there’s no material reason why this time was different for him than the last time. In a movie where they got the best of it, they both deserved better.
What I expect at the end of a Star War is that in the face of terrible odds, hope wins out. The Death Star and its analogues are destroyed one after the other. Our heroes can grin, dance, and hug. There’s still work to be done, but the future isn’t nearly as grim as it started. Star Wars has a low bar for what this has to look like, and it was set by the awarding ceremony at the end of A New Hope. Rise of the Skywalker shoots for exactly that low bar, and reaches it. The tangible connection that radiates from Finn, Rey, and Poe embracing is as charming as the twinkle in Leia Organa’s eye. In that moment they cling to each other, and each actor does their damnedest to imbue the action with the depth of affection that we the audience were so briefly privy to. And I was taken in; in that moment, I loved them as fiercely as when we first met them.
Somewhere in there, The Rise of Skywalker scored a solid three out of four on my Star Wars litmus test. I’d even throw in an extra 0.5 purely on the strength of how good-looking everyone was. 3.5/4 is a perfectly decent grade. But I have to admit to myself that my notions of what makes a movie a Star War are not the same as my notions of what makes a movie good. And this one, no matter how Star Wars it was, was only serviceable.
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