Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – Take Three

Buckle up kids. It’s gonna be a long one. Luckily that means that spoilers won’t start popping up until about 2400 words in. Enjoy!

In 1977 I stood in line with my family to see Star Wars (before it retroactively became A New Hope) and had my nine-year-old mind blown. It was one of the most important pop culture moments of my childhood, alongside discovering things like Claremont and Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men, Disney’s Robin Hood, Star Trek, Zorro, and the original Planet of the Apes.

Yes, I’ve always been a nerd.

Star Wars hit me right in my sweet spot. Swashbuckling space heroes fighting an underdog battle against a Galactic Empire? It was my own personal nirvana.

I grew up with the original trilogy, although the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi was a mixed bag. Even as a child, I knew that toy sales and merchandising was a huge part of the Star Wars experience. But it wasn’t until Return that it really hit home just how important it was to the way George Lucas thought about telling his stories.

I was fifteen when capitalism stole my virginity.

After that, Star Wars wasn’t really important to me anymore. It was still cool and I still enjoyed watching those films, but they weren’t at the center of my pop culture experience. I’d moved on to indie comics and classic movies (with Raiders of the Lost Ark supplanting Empire Strikes Back as my favorite film around this same time).

By the time 1999 rolled around, I was ready to dip back into the swashbuckling adventures of the Star Wars universe (having skipped out entirely on the Expanded Universe novels, the comics, and whatever else was going on to keep Star Wars relevant to young audiences through the Dark Years). I was just past thirty and I anticipated getting a little bit of that childhood idealism back by watching The Phantom Menace.

Well, that was a mistake.

I recently wrote about my experiences with Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, so I won’t bother recapping here. In short, I was done with Star Wars. Couldn’t care less about it anymore and even the original trilogy lost its luster to a degree.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, I still just didn’t care. Lucas had exposed himself as being creatively bankrupt and maybe even a fraud and I didn’t really think Disney could do any worse. Having seen some of the Clone Wars cartoon at the time it was clear that Dave Filoni is the man who really has his finger on the pulse of what Star Wars is and what it can be. So when The Force Awakens was released without Filoni’s name attached, I didn’t give a shit.

It was the first Star Wars film I didn’t see in the theater.

Part of that was because of J.J. Abrams’ involvement. As a director, I didn’t think much of him. His work is more often than not derivative and uninspired, relying on nostalgia to make up for a lack of actual directorial vision. His best film had been the Star Trek reboot, and even that was extremely problematic, as while it was entertaining, it was clear that he didn’t really seem to understand Star Trek at all. Star Trek Into Darkness really drove that point home, signaling that not only didn’t he understand Star Trek, he just wasn’t a very good director.

So, yeah. Didn’t see The Force Awakens in the theaters. Didn’t see it until months later on home video and it was a remarkably forgettable experience. I really wasn’t interested in a beat-by-beat remake of A New Hope. But when you hire Abrams to direct, you’re going to get nostalgia and fan service at the expense of narrative and logic. What we ended up with was a serviceable Star Wars experience that was really carried by the charisma and talent of the new main characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac). If it hadn’t been for them bringing more levels to the stock characters they were given in the script, the film wouldn’t even be worth watching.

As it is, upon revisiting it to prep for The Rise of Skywalker, I found it to be a pleasant enough experience. It was fun, fast-paced, and captured some of that swashbuckling heroic energy that for me, was the heart of Star Wars. I actually like all of these characters. If we had to have a heroic trio to carry us through the sequels, we could do worse. I have no problem with Finn and Poe’s bromance and wish they’d had the guts to make them a romantic couple. I also think Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a fantastic character and a great role model for little girls.

Then it was announced that Rian Johnson would be writing and directing The Last Jedi, but that there was no overall story plan behind the trilogy. He would be left to his own devises when coming up with the next installment of the Skywalker Saga. This was, to my mind, going to be a problem because while Johnson is a fantastic director with a very nice visual style, he isn’t really that great a writer. He likes his narrative gimmicks a bit too much to worry about the internal logic on his way to a predetermined end result.

For example, every ship in the fleet has only enough fuel for one jump? Of course not. But because his story depends on killing off the majority of the Resistance, he has to get them all on one ship, when all of the ships could have jumped away to different points to rendezvous later safely. Only the lead Destroyer was tracking them, after all. And Finn and Rose have no problem jumping away and back. It’s nonsense on the scale of anything in any of the other films, including Rise of Skywalker, but it’s hailed by fans for its originality. Oh look! A low-speed chase through space!

Johnson has his fans, particularly in the indie film community, but after Looper, I had no faith in the man.

It should be noted that I think this year’s Knives Out is his best film and an overall treat. It’s like something created by an entirely different writer/director and I look forward to see what he does in the Star Wars universe when it doesn’t involve the Skywalkers.

Because in my mind, he made a pretty film, but he seemed to be actively hostile to everything that made the original trilogy great back in the day and what the animated TV series Clone Wars and Rebels had grasped almost instinctively. Star Wars is about underdogs fighting and overcoming authority – individuals overcoming fascism – strangers becoming family – and finding spiritual meaning in a hard, cold, materialistic universe.

The Last Jedi was about none of that. Johnson either forgot, or didn’t care, that Finn was noble and heroic, choosing to abandon the fascism of the First Order to stand with the Rebellion, that Poe was the best pilot in the Rebel fleet and a hero in his own right, and that Rey was our new Luke, idealistic but longing for connection, and oh yeah, also a hero. Instead, The Last Jedi portrayed the characters as bumbling jokes (Finn), hotheaded assholes (Poe), and obnoxious (Rey). In Empire, the heroes lost and the film ended on a dark note, but they lost because the opposing forces were overwhelming and a step ahead. They didn’t botch the job. They did the best they could, but were outmaneuvered.

In The Last Jedi, the Rebellion lost because Finn and Poe were failures. Fuck ups who failed at everything they tried to do. The lesson was to not question your superiors because they know more than you do. Shut up and do as you’re told. By breaking off on their own, like our original heroes would have done back in the day, they condemn thousands of rebel soldiers, friends, and families to death. Every death is on their heads. Every failure is their fault.

It’s just nihilism in the face of idealism and hope. The whole “kill your past” idea, while notable depending on the situation, is a terrible one in the context of Star Wars. It’s a meta-narrative theme crafted by someone who apparently was embarrassed to like Star Wars and all its kid stuff. And those people who say that The Last Jedi established that you don’t have to be from a noble family to become a Jedi or a hero, well no shit. That’s been established practically as long as the films have been around. Where do these people think all those kids at the Jedi Academy came from? Or where did those kids Luke tried to train came from? The idea that these films should stop focusing on the Skywalker family is a nonsensical argument, since the Skywalker family history and destiny is the REASON THESE FILMS ARE BEING MADE.

If you want to explore darker, more adult themes then that’s what things like Rogue One and The Mandalorian are for. The Skywalker Saga is for Skywalkers. It’s simple. And honestly, Rogue One and The Mandalorian are superior to pretty much every other film in the franchise, except, perhaps The Empire Strikes Back.

I did like pretty much everything to do with Rey, Luke, and Kylo Ren. But the rest of the film could have been jettisoned and I wouldn’t have missed a thing. In fact, ending with the cliffhanger of whether or not Rey would take Ren’s hand would have been a much stronger ending.

But when are you going to talk about The Rise of Skywalker, you ask? Ha! Just kidding. I know nobody’s still reading at this point.

So the not-so-talented director with an obsession with nostalgia who kicked off the new trilogy was brought back into the fold to helm the final film in a nine film saga stretching back over 40 years. What could go wrong? Well, given that fan outcry over how The Last Jedi subverted almost 40 years of Star Wars storytelling and mythology, turned Luke into a curmudgeon drinking blue milk practically straight from the teat of disturbing beasts, and steadfastly refused to allow anyone other than Johnson’s own creations to do anything even remotely heroic – not to mention that toy sales and other merchandising took a major hit – it’s not surprising that Kathleen Kennedy opted for the safe route, especially after kicking Colin Trevorrow out of the writing and directing chairs.

You’d have thought that Trevorrow’s nostalgia-friendly approach would have been welcomed (given that Jurassic World made a ton of money, despite poor reviews), but the critical drubbing that The Book of Henry (2017) took probably forced Disney to take a second look and decide that he wasn’t the right fit. However, after the chaos that ensued from giving Johnson a free rein, whomever took over the final film would have to toe the company line. Even Johnson, who was initially supposed to be involved with the final film, was removed – maybe he quit, I don’t know – before Abrams was announced as the new, returning director.

It’s probably for the best, really. Trevorrow is an even less talented nostalgia-whore than Abrams.

To help get the ship back on track, Disney’s Star Wars Story Team even consulted with George Lucas, to get his insight into how to land the finale of the Skywalker Saga. This, even after everyone and their brothers know the prequel trilogy went off the rails. Although, to be honest, he at least knew how the thing was going to end – Anakin was going to be in the Darth Vader suit, by hook or by crook. It was just the road getting there that was a train wreck. Maybe this time we’d already hit the train wreck part of the journey and Uncle George could help us stick the landing.

I’d say, long story short, that the landing hits its mark, but it’s not clean by any means.

What The Rise of Skywalker does, is dip into and draw inspiration from a variety of Star Wars projects from the years just after Return of the Jedi, particularly the Dark Empire saga from Dark Horse comics written by Tom Veitch, and Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy of novels, Heir to the Empire (1991), Dark Force Rising (1992), and The Last Command (1993). Now since Disney took over, all the Expanded Universe novels and comics had been retconned out of canon, but Thrawn had already been reintroduced to canon in Star Wars Rebels so Disney was not averse to picking and choosing where to draw inspiration (thanks, Dave Filoni).

When Veitch was pitching projects to Lucas back in 1990-1991, he was given carte blanche to come up with a way to bring the Emperor back as the Dark Empire big bad (there was cloning involved, but that’s all I’ll say about that). So from the very beginning of post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars, The Emperor was always in play so far as Lucas was concerned. Bringing him back for the final film is not a stretch of the imagination, and I have no doubt that Lucas encouraged the idea.

Of course, since Johnson had done everything humanly possible to derail any plot lines Abrams had established in The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker was going to have an uphill battle trying to tell a story that adhered to the general storytelling themes of Star Wars, that brought the stories of Rey, Finn, and Poe to satisfying conclusions, while also making the fans happy.

It appears that a calculated risk was made, allowing Abrams to lean into his wheelhouse of nostalgia and fan service, in the hopes that those fans who loved The Last Jedi for all the things it did to subvert Star Wars storytelling were just more vocal and less numerous than the fans who longed for the return of tradition and heroism.

And mythology. Let’s not forget that these films are about space wizards and spirituality. That’s another point Johnson abandoned when he decided to focus on demystifying the legends of the past.

As I write this, The Rise of Skywalker stands at a 57% positive rating on the review aggregater Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t really surprising given the critical darling that The Last Jedi was. The mainstream critics aren’t really interested in Star Wars films as a franchise, but did appreciate Johnson’s attempt to do something new with the brand. But novelty and subversion don’t necessarily equate to good film making. The fan response is more telling, here, as The Rise of Skywalker currently stands at 86% positive. And this is in a post “review-bombing” age of Rotten Tomatoes.

Suffice to say, most contemporary critics don’t have their fingers on the pulse of fandom. This becomes even more obvious when we look at the history of the franchise and see that the critics and fans sync up more than one might imagine for every entry in the franchise – even the TV shows, Solo, and Rogue One – with the only real disparity coming with The Last Jedi (91% for critics compared to 43% from fans) and The Rise of Skywalker.

Yes, yes, yes. That’s all well and good. But are you going to say anything more than the landing hits its mark, but not cleanly, you ask?

I’m pretty much talking to myself at this point, so sure, why not?

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker does everything humanly possible to course correct from The Last Jedi to bring the ninth and final film in the franchise to a close with the intention of satisfying as many fans as possible, as well as maybe making Lucas happy. Abrams has learned the lessons of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and realized that what we want to see are our heroes, together, doing heroic things. We want to see friends become family. We want to see overwhelming odds piling up against them. We want to see each character’s strengths allow them to take on very different roles that all contribute to coming together to defy the forces set against them. We want to see individual people rise up and take down fascists. We want Nazi punching, dammit. And if we can’t get that, then firing laser cannons at shiploads of Nazis will do.

But it’s at the expense of logic. Which I’m more accepting of when it’s in the service of creating heroes instead of tearing them down.

Rise hits the ground running as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is on the hunt for the newly re-emergent Emperor Palpatine. His goal is to kill the old bastard, but he finds himself swayed into at least accepting his aid for the time being, since Palpatine has a massive fleet of Star Destroyers he’s been building for thirty years in the depths of Unknown Space. Is Abrams’ retcon that Palpatine was behind Snoke all along acceptable? It is to me. Especially since they full-on horror in the design work, and the Emperor’s throne room is clearly inspired by unused concept art for Return of the Jedi by Ralph McQuarrie.

It’s true. Nobody and nothing Star Wars related is ever really gone.

Snoke was never fleshed out anyway and was taken off the board too early (thanks to Johnson), and we have to have a big bad. Kylo Ren isn’t going to cut it, since his conflict is the strongest part of the whole trilogy and must have someone or something to push against. Driver especially shines here and brings a natural physicality to the character in the third act. Anyway, since Lucas was happy to bring back the Emperor nearly thirty years ago, I don’t have a problem with bringing him back now. I don’t see it as a lack of imagination. I see it as necessary course correction after Johnson’s narrative sabotage.

Besides, it was great to see Ian McDiarmid chewing scenery again. I wish he’d been in it more and was even more over-the-top.

The film is extremely fast-paced, maybe too much so, jumping from scene to scene with barely any time to catch our breath. As far as the plotting goes, the less time to think about it, the better. This also ties right back into the way Lucas’ own prequel trilogy was paced, with numerous extremely short scenes cutting back and forth, moving the story forward with only the barest amount of lingering shots or long scenes. The difference here is that we have a script that wasn’t written by someone who doesn’t understand how human beings speak, plus Abrams allows the actors to play with the dialogue. The words on the page aren’t the final say, here.

This allows the performances to shine in ways that they haven’t in the prior films. Oh, there’s still clunky dialogue as we get a number of exposition dumps. But given the fact that most of the second film has to be reworked in order to make this one work, I’m okay with that. The second film really only had about half a film’s worth of good material anyway, so if Rise of Skywalker has to take time out of its schedule to fix Johnson’s missteps, it’s a necessary evil.

It’s more like Star Wars Episode 8.5 & 9 all mashed together.

Is there a ton of fan service? Of course there is. It’s the final chapter in a forty-two year franchise. And Rise of Skywalker doesn’t break any molds, but it reworks the molds in ways that are extremely satisfying from this fan’s perspective – so long as I don’t think about them too much. The plot is convoluted, but no more convoluted than any other Star Wars plot, and there are no ridiculously pointless side-quests that amount to nothing like there were in The Last Jedi. Every scene builds toward the climax as one McGuffin leads to another McGuffin leads to another McGuffin. But it really could have been tightened up drastically.

I mean, did we really need to introduce Zorii Bliss? There’s no way that was really Keri Russell in that costume except for the two minutes she lowered her visor. Was she really only in there to establish that Poe likes girls? On the homophobia front, Finn’s awkwardly inserted love interest from The Last Jedi, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) gets totally shafted here, not even getting a hug or any romantic (or character) development. She does get a nice pat on the shoulder as Finn goes off to have adventures, though. Everybody in this film is safely ensconced in the friend zone.

Although those emotional looks between Finn and Poe tell another story.

As stated earlier, the idea that anyone can be a Jedi hero isn’t sidelined because of the reveal that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter. Finn’s force-sensitivity is highlighted as is that of my favorite new character, Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who serves as an example that Finn isn’t alone in rejecting the fascist control of the First Order. She and an entire squadron of Stormtroopers all mutinied at the same time, thanks to the influence of the Force and they play a vital role in the grand finale (that actually uses space horses in a way that matters to the plot, as opposed to The Last Jedi, while also recalling the nature vs technology finale of Return of the Jedi).

I’m really hoping that that little throwaway line from Lando (Billy Dee Williams) about finding out where she’s from means that there are plans to continue her story in some other format (or maybe a spin-off?). I don’t for a second think that the scene was meant, as I’ve seen some critics say, to imply that Lando was her secret father or grandfather. If anything it was highlighting the fact that people of color in the Star Wars universe need to stick together. There’s way too many white folks as magical saviors running around.

While some of the footage of Carrie Fisher was inserted into this narrative kind of clumsily, I think that the film does a good job of saying farewell. And let’s not pretend that back-and-forth over-the-shoulder shots aren’t a Lucas tradition. It really made me wish that the second film had spent time developing Leia’s story, especially her Jedi training with Luke. It would have made her surprise space Mary Poppins scene work better and allowed us to see her build a relationship with Rey that could have been echoed in Rey’s relationship with Luke. Her in-narrative death was touching and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Chewie’s reaction to hearing the news didn’t make me tear up.

The theme of rejecting our destinies in order to choose our paths is also highlighted here, which some critics seem to be missing. The entire climax of the film – the whole third act, really – is about rejecting the influence of others to become our best selves. From the moment Rey and the others arrive on the moon of Endor to discover the Death Star wreckage, this film is on point. Even if Abrams does fall back on creating a beat-by-beat remake of Return of the Jedi at this point.  

And if you don’t feel the power of rejecting your family’s influence, your supposed destiny, to take the name of the only people who ever accepted you and became your surrogate family, then I don’t know what to say. When Rey looks over and sees Force Ghost Luke and Leia looking on, it’s magical. She’s choosing who she is and who she wants to be, despite her heritage. You don’t kill your past, you take the lessons and strengths from your past, honor them, and look to the future. If it’s not a perfect ending, it’s close enough for me.

So yeah. I enjoyed it. It’s big and loud and dumb as hell. But it’s the only Star Wars film I’ve seen more than once in the theater since Rogue One. And the only one since Return of the Jedi before that. It’s satisfying and familiar. It doesn’t try to break the Star Wars mold – which, as always, includes a lot of nonsensical McGuffins and a lot more running around and killing people. It does what the finale should do, even if it stumbles around in the dark for a bit, actively and openly rejecting a number of key plot points Johnson forced into the trilogy: it brings the story to a close in a way that both satisfies the new characters’ stories while paying fitting tribute to the history that came before. It’s not the best film in the franchise, and some might not think it’s the best film in this trilogy, but it might just be the best Star Wars film in this trilogy and is still miles beyond the hot garbage that is the prequel trilogy.

I only hope that now that the Skywalker Saga is complete, the future of Star Wars is put firmly in the hands of Dave Filoni and John Favreau. The Mandalorian has shown the perfect balance of nostalgia and original storytelling and is easily better than anything that’s been done in the Star Wars universe since Lucas came up with the idea all those decades ago. I’d even go so far as to say that the directors of the show, Filoni, Rick Famuyiwa, Debora Chow, and Bryce Dallas Howard would all be great picks to take the franchise forward (Taika Waititi would be great too, but I haven’t seen his episode yet. Thor: Ragnarok showed he has the potential for a fantastic Star Wars film in him, too.)

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