Tuesday, January 21, 2020

"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker": review

[WARNING: spoilers. But I just don't care.]

The capstone of what has been called the Skywalker saga, "Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker" débuted in the United States on December 20, 2019. As of this writing, the film—which has a budget of $275 million—has already crossed the billion-dollar mark, so in terms of its worldwide earnings, "Skywalker" is a resounding success.

That may be the only metric by which the movie can be considered a success, though. For me, "Skywalker" is a resounding failure, the ignoble death rattle of a long-moribund trilogy of trilogies. The prequel trilogy (1999-2005) had its flaws, but as other critics have pointed out, those three movies at least had a coherent vision. The sequel trilogy, by contrast, has shown itself to be a stillborn monstrosity—a vernix-covered, five-legged horse carcass with fangs and maggoty eye sockets, a rotting chimera that is the result of a creative tug-of-war between two directors while a hapless Disney Studios stood by and let it happen.

One of those two directors, the director of this film, is JJ Abrams. Abrams gained a great deal of fame for his work on the TV series "Lost," and then he took over the Star Trek franchise to make the first two of three Trek reboot films, replacing the stodgy old Enterprise crew with a fresh, young cast, and forcing every cast member to move from place to place at a dead run. Abrams's directorial style takes its cue from the kinetic camera work of Steven Spielberg, who launched a whole generation of Spielberg clones, including Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future," a movie with a distinctly Spielbergian feel to it). Abrams, coming from the same artistic school of thought, successfully internalized the need for energetic movement, but he failed to understand that relentless action, when not interspersed with moments of quiet depth, is little more than fluff. When the audience isn't allowed to catch its breath and ponder what's just happened, the result of too much action can be, paradoxically, boredom and disengagement. It doesn't help matters that Abrams has proven not to be all that creative in his attempts to bring new luster to old material. His Star Trek films are energetic to the point of being frenetic, but they don't contain much depth or warmth. "The Force Awakens" is merely a retread of 1977's "Star Wars: A New Hope," and "The Rise of Skywalker" contains many of the beats and tropes found in 1983's "Return of the Jedi."

A very quick partial synopsis of "Skywalker" might go like this: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), long thought dead after the events of "Return of the Jedi," has announced his return. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), having eliminated Supreme Leader Snoke in "The Last Jedi," is now the new Supreme Leader, and he sees Palpatine as a threat to his own power. Ren finds Palpatine on the ancient Sith planet of Exegol, and Palpatine—now little more than a zombie version of his old self—tempts Ren with the prospect of enormous power, for the old Sith master has an armada of Star Destroyers, each equipped with its own planet-destroying Death Star superlaser. Elsewhere in the galaxy, Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training under the guidance of Leia (Carrie Fisher). The Resistance learns, thanks to Poe and Finn (Oscar Isaac and John Boyega), that Palpatine is on Exegol, and much of the middle of the film is devoted to a series of adventures in which our heroes chase down special items that help them piece together the path to Exegol, which is an uncharted world. Kylo Ren ends up rejecting the dark side, and it turns out that he and Rey form a "Force dyad"—a single Force being in two separate bodies. When Ren and Rey confront Palpatine on Exegol, Palpatine drains them of their life force as a way to reconstitute himself. While Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams—82 years old!) brings a gigantic fleet of starships out of lightspeed to confront Palpatine's armada, Ren and Rey must face off against the Emperor, who claims to have been working behind the scenes this entire time, constructing that armada and even creating Snoke through cloning. Along the way, we get fan-service moments involving C-3PO, Luke Skywalker's ghost, and many other callbacks to previous Star Wars movies.

Director Abrams had crafted "The Force Awakens" in such a way as to keep the audience's interest by posing potentially interesting questions: what was Snoke's back story? Who were Rey's parents? How did Maz Kanata get hold of Luke's old, blue-bladed lightsaber? Then along came Rian Johnson and his "The Last Jedi," and it sure seemed as if Johnson devoted much of his energy to knocking over all of JJ Abrams's sand castles. Johnson killed Snoke, snuffing him out before we could learn his back story; he had Kylo Ren tell Rey that her parents were nobodies, i.e., she wasn't the noble progeny of a Force-strong lineage. In fact, Force-strong lineages turned out not to be that important: in Johnson's version of this universe, anyone had the potential to be a Force user. When Abrams was brought back in at the last minute to rescue the franchise from the mess Johnson had left, Abrams crafted the final movie as a series of severe course corrections. If this final trilogy could be likened to a sailboat, then the trilogy's trajectory would look like a sailboat helmed by an angry drunkard, tacking wildly left, then right, then left again.

You can't tug violently at a culturally iconic story like Star Wars without causing some serious rips in the narrative fabric. I've seen plenty of pundits blame Disney, and Disney's takeover of Lucasfilm, for the current mess, but my own impression is that Disney gave the two directors, Abrams and Johnson, far too much leeway to yank the narrative in opposite directions, and the result is a very lame story arc that has no idea what it wants to do, be, or say.

Why on earth did Abrams bring Palpatine back? Probably for the obvious reason that Kylo Ren was too whiny, emo, and inept to be the main villain of the final film of the Skywalker saga. As we discover, Snoke himself was one of many Snoke-clones created by Palpatine, and there may be an implication that Palpatine is also inhabiting a cloned body—a reference to an old graphic novel called Dark Empire, in which we learn that Palpatine's spirit can transmigrate to different cloned bodies when a given body of his is killed. This fails to explain why Palpatine's body, in "Skywalker," looks as damaged as it does: shouldn't a cloned body look young, fresh, vigorous, and unmarred? All the same, the lameness of Kylo Ren is no justification for bringing Palpatine back: the old Sith's return unmakes and cheapens the sacrifices made by Luke and Vader in "Return of the Jedi": Vader loses his life, and Luke loses his father, but now, none of that matters.

Do Force dynasties matter, or don't they? The final moment in "The Rise of Skywalker" shows Rey telling a random passerby that her name is "Rey Skywalker." Having learned that she is genetically a Palpatine, Rey rejects her Force-powerful lineage to align herself with Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa—the two figures who came closest to being like a father and mother for her (well, more Leia than Luke, really). What message is the trilogy giving us about the heritability of Force powers? Does it matter whether the Force runs strong in a given family? Some critics and fans have complained that Rey ought to call herself an Organa, given her emotional bond with Leia, or she should just own up to being a Palpatine and do what she can to rehabilitate that name. Personally, I'm not all that exercised about the surname issue: in terms of Force theology, Rey was half of a Force dyad, and when Kylo Ren—with his Skywalker lineage—transferred his remaining life force into her, she became a complete being, a Skywalker in all sooth. Overall, Abrams's vision seems to drag us back toward a less democratic, more dynastic way of viewing the Force and its transmission through generations of living beings. One wonders what Rian Johnson thinks of all this.

Retconning Leia to have been a vigorous Jedi-in-training under Luke is partially justified by the so-called Expanded Universe novels (now no longer canon according to Disney; the Mouse hath spoken), but even in the novels, Leia puts aside her training to work as an activist, organizer, diplomat and yes, occasionally, a military general. Handling Leia's presence in the final movie's story must have been a delicate issue, given that actress Carrie Fisher had passed away in 2016. Abrams apparently had leftover footage from his making of "The Force Awakens," and he repurposed much of it to bring Fisher to life for one last performance. In the movie, Leia dies during an act of Force projection similar to Luke's act in the previous film: she makes soul-to-soul contact with Kylo Ren while he's fighting with Rey, and this is what prompts Kylo to step back from the cliff's edge of the dark side and return to the light.

"Skywalker" is one long litany of lost potential, of chances unseized. Rey could have had a romantic storyline with either Poe or Finn, but she ends up with neither, receiving only a kiss from Kylo Ren as he dies after transferring his life force into Rey. We never learn the story behind Luke's lightsaber, and how it ended up in Maz Kanata's possession. Snoke's back story could have been fleshed out far more deeply. JJ Abrams could have wasted less time creating and promptly undermining seemingly tragic moments (like the apparent death of Chewbacca, or the temporary memory-wipe of C-3PO)—moments that could have resonated with emotion had Abrams actually made the tragedies stick. Abrams had also had the chance to give us a finale with no goddamn Death Star, but I guess he couldn't help himself, so instead of a single Death Star, we now get a thousand little Death Stars in the form of Palpatine's armada. Also: while Billy Dee Williams is a comforting, authoritative presence whenever he's on screen, his character is shamefully underused.

Much of the movie's plot and conclusion failed to make sense. I've already mentioned the cloning problem: why would either Palpatine or Snoke look so disfigured? Then there's the question of Palpatine's drainage of Rey and Ren's life force: why didn't this kill either of them? Why did Palpatine enjoin Kylo to kill Rey at the beginning of the movie, then tell Rey he wanted her to kill him so he could inhabit her body? Why not save himself the trouble of having Rey kill him when Kylo Ren already wanted to kill him? He could have simply possessed Kylo. Why did Palpatine announce his return to the entire galaxy instead of lying low and doing what he'd done best during the prequel trilogy, i.e., manipulating events from the shadows? Who were all the Sith beings in that auditorium during the final battle between Palpatine and Rey, and why was it fine for Rey to bring the temple down on them, murdering thousands of people? Wasn't it something of a gamble to rely on a Sith dagger whose carvings matched the contours of the second Death Star's wreckage? What if that wreckage had shifted in a significant way? What does it even mean to "bring balance" to the Force? How can a cosmic principle become unbalanced? Most important: how did Palpatine survive being cast down by Vader? Does this mean Vader had actually failed to bring balance?

As with many Abrams films, "Skywalker" doesn't really hold up under scrutiny. It moves along at an extremely brisk pace, offering us both fan service and some truly amazing visuals, but it's in need of a better story that is less of a course correction for Johnson's "The Last Jedi" and more of a conclusion worthy of this sprawling saga. If you read my novel-length review of "The Last Jedi," then you know that I did find some redeeming elements in that movie. But now, with the arrival of Abrams's film, I can't help but view the sequel trilogy as a whole with distaste. Two directors had the chance to produce a single, harmonious vision, just as George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand managed to do with the original trilogy. Instead, Rian Johnson and JJ Abrams each decided to insist on his own vision, and the awful result is laid out before us.

All of this is depressing enough that I have little desire to get into a nerdy exploration of the theology of the Force or of other, equally meaty aspects of the film. It could be that Abrams had little to work with, given Rian Johnson's decision to redirect Star Wars down a subversive narrative path. It could be that the pressure to create an awesome finale to the Skywalker saga was too much for Abrams & Co. It could be any number of things, but the end result just leaves me feeling sad and hollow. One critic noted that it may be necessary to wait twenty years to see how younger fans react to the nine movies. For them, the sequel trilogy might make more sense and won't produce the revulsion it's produced in my age group (we were in elementary school when 1977's "Star Wars" came out). I don't know; I'll likely be dead in twenty years. For the moment, all I can say is that "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" proved to be a crushing disappointment. Any hope for the franchise now lies in all the spinoff efforts currently under way, such as the Disney Plus series "The Mandalorian." All hail Baby Yoda.

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