Monday, December 23, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

With The Rise of Skywalker J.J. Abrams returns to close-out the sequel trilogy which began with Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Not content to end just this series, Abrams intends the film to work as the climax to all nine of the Star Wars films featuring mentions, Easter Eggs, and callbacks from every film (and even some of the various animated TV series). The shift also forces a change in the tone of the arc of the series as Rian Johnson's look to the future is replaced with a story tied very much to the past.

One of the complaints some had to The Last Jedi was the film wasn't fan friendly enough. The Rise of Skywalker goes a bit overboard in attempting fix a problem which in my opinion didn't exist in the first place. The result is a final entry to the franchise that feels like an attempt to placate more vocal fans by asking less of them the final time around and offering up a heaping of nostalgia and fan service instead. It's more Return of the Jedi than Star Wars. On an emotional level, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker works. It's a cathartic farewell to these characters. Story wise, however, it's the weakest of the three sequel films.

One of George Lucas' most famous quotes was "faster, more intense." This, more than anything else, it looks like Abrams took to heart. Pushing an insane amount of plot and locations into the film, and racing through them all, The Rise of Skywalker rarely has time to delve more deeply into characters, locales, or larger themes that made-up so much of the previous film. A perfect example of this is the opening scene on Mustafar that is raced through without explanation or even a single line of dialogue (but didn't it offer nice shots for the trailer?). Speaking of wastes, can we talk about the Knights of Ren who now officially become the most useless characters in Star Wars canon? Their inclusion appears to be at least part of the reason for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) unnecessarily bringing back his mask. I say unnecessarily because the script does away with it in all the major scenes centered around the character (other than him walking down a Star Destroyer corridor with his boys).

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker begins with the announcement Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) lives. As in Return of the Jedi, a character with few real ties to previous two films is inserted as the main villain. This time around the Emperor wasn't even alluded to in either of the previous two films (at least The Empire Strikes Back introduced the character). What this allows is a familiar villain to fans (although the explanation for his existence is never properly explained other than a guess that he may be a clone), but just like Jedi did with Darth Vader this undercuts the role of Kylo Ren as the trilogy's main villain.

Since we saw him last, the Emperor has been living on the hidden world of the Sith known as Exegol, only accessible through a special form of technology known as a Sith Wavefinder (unless, you know, fly around the space cloud that is only surrounding the planet on one side), building a new fleet. Despite his rather vocal opposition to working with another Sith, Kylo Ren teams up with the Emperor who wants Rey (Daisy Ridley) killed. Or does he? His motivations are actually hard to decipher for most of the film. Why he wants Rey, or wants her dead, becomes more obvious over the course of the film as it dives back into her genealogy that apparently wasn't answered well enough in Abrams' opinion.

Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca, BB-8, and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) all file into the Millennium Falcon in search of a Sith Wayfinder. R2-D2 is conspicuous by his absence (he's not involved in any storyline whatsoever), but his absence is required to allow one of the film's shakier plot points to play out. On their journey they will meet new and old friends including Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and a pair of characters tied to Poe's past (which forces him to be even more Han Solo-like) in Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) and Babu Frik (Shirley Henderson). They will also hunt for a Jedi Bounty Hunter and get their hands on a knife which is used in the most ridiculous way possible in a Tomb Raider-esque method of searching for buried treasure. Along the way there's also a fairly ridiculous escape from a Star Destroyer that steals plot from Star Wars Rebels and the apparent loss of characters. I say apparent because Abrams' script makes recurring theme out of "killing" characters on-screen only to show them as perfectly unharmed moments later.

Abrams does build on the connection between Kylo Ren and Rey built-up in The Last Jedi, getting quite a lot out of both characters. While others play a role, this is Ridley and Driver's film and neither disappoints. Poe is given more to do this time around than in Abrams' previous film, and the film acknowledges the core friendship between Rey, Finn, and Poe. Through the use of CGI, Carrie Fisher is brought back into the fold in an important role to continue Rey's teaching that also confirms Leia's own training as a Jedi (which some fans were confused about in the last film). She won't be the only original character brought back to make one last appearance in the franchise. It's in these character-driven moments, and some fairly good space battle sequences, that The Rise of Skywalker works best.

Along with just who, or what, this version of the Emperor is, the film also offers several perplexing questions about the character. Just how did he build this insanely large fleet. Out of what materials? Where did he get the soldiers, mechanics, and engineers? And how, given only two Sith Wavefinders exist, did they all end up on Exegol along with the swarm of Sith loyalists? The size of the fleet, which is actually larger than anything ever shown in the original trilogy, pushes the odds for a Rebellion victory far out of reach. And Abrams unwillingness to acknowledge Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill) legendary stand at the Battle of Crait lessens the impact of what could easily been used as a reason to explain the rebuilding of the Rebellion and its allies.

The Rise of Skywalker is a flawed film. It relies too heavily on events from previous films and while I think the rewrite of Rey's legacy is one of the better options if you are forced to define it, it detracts from the totally unexpected, and far more interesting, version Johnson gave us which opened up the world to so many more possibilities (and still would have allowed for the same final scene). That said, it does honor the Star Wars Universe and the characters that have come before, even if doing so leads to some questionable script decisions. There are quite a few emotional moments here, and even if some of them feel a bit forced, they hit the mark. While about on par with the mixed success of Avengers Endgame, I actually enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker more as it really does feel like a heart-felt celebration of what came before. With more and more franchises continuing with indefinite sequels or being resurrected or rebooted, the film does offer a cautionary tale about how much effort you put into fan service versus the amount of time into making a good standalone motion picture.

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