Timely Movie Review: The Rise of Skywalker

*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*

“The dead speak!”

The first line of The Rise of Skywalker‘s opening crawl was an immediate red flag.

In Episode IX, the dead don’t just speak.  They give speeches.

Much as I did with The Last Jedi, I made it to The Rise of Skywalker without any significant spoilers.  And, much like Episode VIII, the Rotten Tomatoes score seemed to be telling.

In case you don’t recall, The Last Jedi scored very well with critics, but fans rated it poorly.  The Rise of Skywalker was the reverse—the audience score stands at 84 percent, while critics rate it at just 55, which is about the same as the worst-reviewed live-action Star Wars film of all-time, The Phantom Menace.

In the case of The Last Jedi, I agreed with the audience.  In the case of The Rise of Skywalker, I agree with the critics.

My biggest issue with TLJ was its frustrating story structure, which was particularly puzzling, given that Rian Johnson had also written and directed the excellent Looper.  The enjoyable, recent whodunit Knives Out proved that Johnson’s pre-TLJ work was no fluke.  But, for whatever reason, he just didn’t “click” with Star Wars, at least not as far as the audience (myself included) was concerned.

I can say confidently that Episode IX didn’t suffer from the same flaw.  J.J. Abrams put together a competently structured story, especially considering that the actor playing one of the key characters was, in fact, deceased at the time of filming.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from numerous other flaws, some small, others more significant.

The most pressing big-picture challenge is that Abrams seemed to be trying to cram two movies’ worth of information and story into one film.  This is very likely because Episode IX is at least a partial repudiation of Episode VIII (with some Episode VIII plot points actively overwritten, such as Rey’s non-origin).

As a result, nothing in Episode IX ever really has time to breathe, and almost everything feels rushed.  Yet, simultaneously, some things that seemed as though they would be very important when introduced in the present trilogy (e.g. the Knights of Ren) are barely referenced, ignored, or dealt with in summary fashion.

It reminded me a bit of the one mild criticism I had of the brilliant finale of the television show The Shield: The character Julien’s struggles with his sexuality had been a main subplot of the first three seasons of the show, only to be back-burnered during the action-packed later seasons.  In the finale, there’s a moment where Julien almost absent-mindedly looks out the window of a patrol car to see a happy same-sex couple, an acknowledgement by the show’s writers that “no, we haven’t forgotten this, but we just don’t have enough time left to delve into it fully.”

That’s what a lot of Episode IX felt like.  I mean a lot.

The Last Jedi got dinged by some for killing off Snoke without giving us his backstory (I actually thought that was clever and interesting), and TROS “cleans that up” by heavily implying that Snoke was literally created in a lab by Palpatine, complete with showing some spare Snoke-parts in a tank!  This actually happens in this movie!!!

Likewise, I was admittedly no big fan of Rose, but her relationship / connection with Finn was a big piece of TLJ, and it’s barely even referenced.  Ditto Finn’s obvious Episode VII crush on Rey, which is referenced (somewhat implicitly), but never resolved in any way.  Similarly, Keri Russell’s character gets introduced, Poe’s scoundrel backstory is discussed briefly, but their relationship never really gets paid off, either.

Meanwhile, Rey and Ben curiously share a passionate kiss near the end of the film, which felt like a totally unnecessary pay-off (I think the character relationship between Rey and Ben works much better as that of non-romantic adversaries and/or allies).

These sorts of “we kind of understand the ‘notes’ of this song, but not the order or volume at which to play them” is a running theme.  By and large, TROS felt like Disney and/or J.J. Abrams said, “Ok, Episode VIII wasn’t a hit with the fans.  What do people love about Star Wars?” and someone replied, “Space-based action mixed with wise-cracks!”

As a result, we have a movie in Episode IX that resembles a Star Wars film as if it were assembled by someone having Star Wars described to him second-hand—all while rushing to get from plot point to plot point.  Frenetic action, sometimes-forced jokes that usually don’t land well, and any “downtime” scenes hurried to the point of panic.

As a contrasting example, think of the Return of the Jedi sequence in which the rebels land on Endor, then plan their next moves.  Yes, there’s a speeder-bike chase in there, but the second act of the film is largely about fleshing out details of characters, motivations, and story arcs.   That’s just good storytelling, something George Lucas always nailed (as previously noted, Lucas’ weakness was dialogue—but story is more important).

Speaking of ROTJ, my biggest issue with Episode IX is the use of the Emperor.  Not only does bringing him back from the dead undermine the weight of the Original Trilogy, but it does so in a very weird way that involves the crucial use of not one, but two heretofore unseen “force powers” (except if you’ve watched The Mandalorian—more on that in a moment).

Introducing new, pivotal plot devices in the ninth and final episode of a movie series should be done sparingly, if at all.  Here, it feels like a semi-lazy way of being able to reverse-engineer certain events in a “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too” cheat, usually involving killing a character only to bring him or her back.

In fact, this happens three separate times in this film, with Chewbacca, C-3PO, and Rey.  In two of those cases, the resurrections occur as the result of a power or feature of a character that never existed before halfway through Episode IX.

This stands in fairly sharp contrast to Lucas’ storytelling.  Think back to the Original Trilogy for a moment.  Again, Lucas understood perfectly how to balance mythology with mystery.  The Emperor doesn’t appear at all in Episode IV, appears only as a hologram in Episode V, and finally shows up for the final battle in Episode VI.  He’s never even given a name!  And the word “Sith” is never spoken—although I guess Abrams made up for that by having Palpatine say it approximately 500 times.

Yet, none of us who saw that felt cheated, or like we didn’t understand conceptually who and what the Emperor was.  Lucas gave us enough, but not too much.

To be sure, TROS isn’t all bad.  I enjoyed the bit with General Hux.  Some of Finn and Poe’s interplay captures a bit of the fun that made Episode VII a successful film.  The Han Solo cameo was actually very good, and the nerd in me appreciated that they made it clear this was a “memory,” and not a Force-ghost (which should be impossible for any non-Jedi).  The final battle was, well, definitive, I guess.

But, by and large, this is a very “busy” film that can barely tell its panicky story in 2 hours and 20 minutes.  It pantomimes every element from the successful Star Wars films, but they somehow wind up feeling like microwaved leftovers.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.  The Mandalorian gets all of these things so right by being a focused, consistent, character-driven tale.  To be fair, the Disney+ offering doesn’t bear the weight of a main canonical story.  That’s a legitimate factor that grants The Mandalorian storytelling leeway that the main Star Wars films don’t have.

In the end, though, I think back to what I said about Episode VII when it came out:

All in all, J. J. Abrams got Episode VII right.  This was a very good movie, and a worthy kickstart for the series.  There were a lot of ways that The Force Awakens could have been botched, but Disney, Abrams, Kasdan, and the strong cast managed to avoid all the major pitfalls.

There was so much potential there.  The new characters were interesting and varied.  There was enough continuity and a connection to the Original Trilogy to keep fans happy.  The only big gripe some critics had about the film was that it was too similar in some respects to the original films.

Abrams left it to Rian Johnson to make an Episode VIII that really forged a new path using the characters Abrams and company had created in Episode VII.  And he did.  Perhaps too well.  From a certain point of view.

The end result was an Episode IX spent trying frantically to pay off threads set up two movies ago, or undoing plot points from Episode VIII.  We’ll never know what The Rise of Skywalker could have been if Abrams had created a firm road map for the entire trilogy.

We’re left instead with a film that, for all its force powers and blasters, falls flat.

Grade: C-minus

______

Athough the list below is subject to change, here’s how I would rate and rank the nine main films in the series.

Final Star Wars grades (for now):

Episode I: C-minus

Episode II: C

Episode III: B

Episode IV: A-plus

Episode V: A-plus

Episode VI: B-plus

Episode VII: B

Episode VIII: D

Episode IX: C-minus

Ranking: V, IV, VI, VII, III, II, I, IX, VIII

 

Here’s the biggest surprise of all:  For all of its clunky dialogue, the Prequel Trilogy winds up better overall than the Sequel Trilogy, even taking into account that I liked Episode VII better than any prequel (although Episode III is darn close).

This is also why I’ll repeat what I said two years ago: Do yourself a favor.  Behave as if the original three are the only three.  If you’ve never seen Star Wars before, just watch Episodes IV, V, and VI and pretend that’s the whole story.  Use your imagination for the rest.

That’s what my generation did for 20 years.  And it worked.  And that’s why, in the end, I’ll happily and lovingly revisit IV-V-VI from time to time, but I’ve probably had my fill of the other episodes.

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