Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth film in the chronicles of the lightsaber-wielding Skywalker family, is at once a very good movie and also a tedious letdown that reeks of corporate and creative cowardice. I find it the most infuriating of the nine movies because of this contradiction.

I fell in love with Star Wars (before it was Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) as a child and saw Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the theater. I played with the toys, my dad built me a homemade Sarlacc Pit playset out of wood scraps from the garage, and so, for me, those movies will always be colored by nostalgia and warmth. And yet, I believe that I can say with some semblance of objectivity that they are good movies — well-made, compelling adventure stories with engaging, charismatic characters and an evocative sense of imagination. But as I discussed in my analysis of Attack of the Clones, my excitement for the prequels and the promise of new Star Wars movies shriveled on the vine while watching the very first opening day midnight screening in my city of The Phantom Menace. I believe that I can say, and defend my position in so saying, that the prequels are bad movies. They are poorly written, poorly acted, very expensive toy commercials.

What then was I to feel when I learned that Disney planned to make a new trilogy, hanging out three more bolts of cloth on the Skywalker mainsail of their $4 billion Star Wars ship? I was worried going into The Force Awakens, but I walked out with the feeling of excitement and exhilaration that I had so hoped to find in The Phantom Menace. I understood the criticisms that said it was just a blow-by-blow rehashing of the first film, that the original trilogy had relied tediously on not one, but two Death Stars, and this was just a new, bigger Death Star to contend with. I totally got it. But I dug the movie. I loved Rey, I liked BB-8, and if it was a variation on a theme, I had liked the theme and I liked the variations, and I was into it. It grabbed me again. I didn't ask my parents for toys like I had in 1983, but you get the picture.

I appreciated The Last Jedi, and though I found it imperfect and over-long, I really, really dug what it was trying to do. It inverted tropes, broadened the scope of the story in a way that was thoughtful and offered insight (very much unlike the prequels), and elevated characters we've never seen lionized in a Star Wars film while showing real, painful consequences for the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-dick-swinging-cowboy MO that has characterized the traditional Star Wars hero. More than anything, The Last Jedi got me excited for the next movie. Rey's parents being nobodies was such a great, bold choice. It made the Force bigger than one bloodline, which I believe the franchise needed desperately. Beyond Daisy Ridley's magnetic performance, the character of Rey, this unknown nobody with tremendous gifts (like Luke before her) was a huge attraction in The Force Awakens. Rey as a unique vessel for this universal power, coming from humble origins, just like Luke, felt right, and it felt invigorating.

So I was really excited for...well, not The Rise of Skywalker. Whatever the next, logical movie after The Last Jedi would've been...that would've been cool. But instead of that hypothetical movie, instead we got The Rise of Skywalker.

Now, The Rise of Skywalker is a good movie. There's a scene early on where Poe and Finn return in the Millennium Falcon, and Rey is pissed when she sees the damage on it. Poe gets pissed when he sees how damaged BB-8 has become. The two of them talk past each other while Finn tries to mediate. The dialogue crackles, it's very smart, the actors do a great job with it, and the camera is constantly moving. This one scene is something that George Lucas never could have written or pulled off in a prequel. It's exciting, professional big budget filmmaking, and it's what J.J. Abrams does. The whole movie crackles like that. It whisks you along on the ride and keeps you swept up in the action and characters while cutting constantly between plotlines. It's so effective at creating momentum that should your mind wander just before Poe says something like, "The future of the Resistance depends on this plan," and then you pause it and turn to your wife and say, " the plan? That the whole Resistance is counting on?" she'll respond, "I think it's just go find Rey and see what she's doing on that other planet? Maybe?"

That's not great! So what remains is an expertly produced movie that is all surface, because it takes a big, stupid mulligan on all of the interesting choices Rian Johnson made in The Last Jedi. But internet trolls and a loud minority of fanboys who were all offended by the upending of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-dick-swinging-cowboy MO that has characterized the traditional Star Wars hero yelled "Nuh-uh! NUH-UH!" into the ones and zeros so loud that Disney went, "What?! Oh no! Well, shit. Then the beginning again. Bring the Emperor back. Bring the whatever else. Maybe have a Death Star on every ship in the fleet? Just do the same! MORE OF THE SAME!!!"

I mean, they barely even take a passing swing at explaining why or how Rey could be a Palpatine. It is...gestured at, at best...and instead of trying to make sense of it or explain it, or make it make sense after The Last Jedi, the message seems to be, "Because. Come on. Just go with it. It's movie nine." The same goes for Kylo Ren/Ben Solo's redemption arc, where people keep telling him, "It's never too late. No one is ever gone." I mean, sure, but...remember all the genocides? He could renounce the Dark Side and dedicate his life to library science or some shit, but he's killed billions of galactic citizens. I'm thinking a war crime tribunal doesn't get erased by Dad's Force Ghost handing out hugs.

So in the end, The Rise of Skywalker is...fine? A perfectly engineered Star Wars outing designed to be so unchallenging that no one could possibly be offended. Strong women had their turn in the last one, so let's say that box is checked (sorry, Rose!) and let Rey and the boys blast it all out and bring the Star Wars ship into the harbor so we can launch all the TV shows ever. It is neither the Star Wars movie I hoped for, nor one I particularly like, but on the final balance sheet, it turns out I actually dislike more Star Wars movies than I like. Yes to the the original trilogy. Hard pass on the prequels. Yes on The Force Awakens, coin toss on The Last Jedi. I liked Rogue One and disliked Solo so much I turned it off. And Rise of Skywalker particularly grinds my gears because the franchise set us up for a graceful and maybe even powerful conclusion, forty years in the making. Rose's line toward the end of The Last Jedi, that they'll win by saving what they love, not by destroying what they hate is meaningful. It's a powerful insight in a movie whose reach might exceed its grasp...but at least it was reaching for something.

Something more than brand management, anyway.

"You killed your dad and did genocides!"
"But my dad's ghost says he still loves me and I'm nice!"

Posted by Vance K — co-founder, co-editor, and arguably the grumpy, hirsute co-pilot of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.