Friday, December 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (spoiler review)

This review has spoilers. For the non-spoiler review of this movie, click here.

Episode IX is in a tough spot. Not only does it need to finish the much-criticized Sequel Trilogy, it also need to wrap up the entirety of the Skywalker Saga. In order to understand whether or not it does this, we need to understand what narrative promises were made throughout the Saga.

Despite the general feeling that nothing important happens in Episode I (reflected in its exclusion from the Machete Order), for this purpose it is the most important film. While Episode IV was obviously the first movie made, Episode I is chronologically first, and the last movie needs to conclude the story that was started there. I'll return to the Original Trilogy in a bit.

Episode I introduced the idea of Anakin Skywalker as the Chosen One, and it introduced Palpatine. The Chosen One's destiny to bring balance to the Force never made much sense - at the time of Episode I, the Force's imbalance was decidedly in the Light Side's favor, so balance shouldn't have been desirable from a Jedi point of view. Regardless of this, Anakin died in Episode VI with no balance in sight - Luke was the only known trained Force-user at that point, and he was definitely Jedi-aligned. Episode VII flipped the balance, removing Luke from the Force and leaving Kylo Ren as the only active Force-user (not counting Leia and the Knights of Ren).

Rey's arrival then brought something similar to balance, or at least opposition, but there are two issues. The first is that the implied consequence of the prophesied balance is harmony, which the Rey-Ren dynamic certainly lacked. The second is that Rey is not a descendant of Anakin. It would seem, then, that the only way to pay off the Anakin-as-Chosen-One arc would be for Kylo Ren to revert to Ben Solo (Skywalker), but as something more nuanced than a Jedi. That, after all, was the original problem: the Jedi represent pure good, and the Sith represent pure evil, and extremes don't balance. And that sort of is what happened, but not in the way anyone expected.

The other half of the setup from Episode I involved Palpatine. As the main plot driver for the first six movies, it appeared that his direct involvement was done there. In Episodes VII and VIII, his relevance was tertiary at best - Kylo Ren venerated the version of Vader who was created by Palpatine. Episode IX brings him back, though, and returns him to his place as the primary villain. It then does some serious retconning, both in asserting that Snoke was a Palpatine puppet the entire time, and in declaring that Rey is a Palpatine. This really, really could have used some foreshadowing. Even a passing mention in the Prequel Trilogy that Palpatine had a family would have made this reveal much more palatable.

As a narrative shape, though, this is actually quite satisfying. The Sequel Trilogy is the story of the grandchildren of Skywalker and Palpatine, with the Skywalker as villain and the Palpatine as hero. At the last, the two confront Palpatine together, and here the structure breaks down a little. Rather than Skywalker defeating Palpatine, it is Palpatine who defeats Palpatine, and if you think I'm being obtuse with naming here, I'm doing it on purpose. In part because Sheev is a terrible name, and in part because it's not Rey who kills him. Palpatine kills himself with the reflection of his own power, and that symbology is important. The last act of the last living Skywalker, then, is to give his life force to Rey, and this too is symbolically important. The filmmakers were careful to show throughout Episodes VIII and IX that Rey was not pure good, and Ren was not pure evil. Ben's resurrection of Rey is the payoff of the prophecy to bring balance to the Force, in the person of Rey. Ben was too damaged to play that role himself, but Rey should be able to balance both sides of the Force. The fact that she takes the Skywalker name at the end shows that she aligns with good, but we assume that she will be more moderate than the Jedi of old. Besides, the good guys need to win in the end.

So, Episode IX does indeed wrap up the story set down in Episode I. What of the Original Trilogy, then? Episode IV does not make any narrative promises that are unresolved at the end of the movie. It is the only self-contained story in the nonology. Episode V is the one that made promises and complicated the mythos, which may be why it is so revered. However, all of those promises were paid off at the end of Episode VI. There was not yet any concept of balancing the Force - in those days, a win for the Light Side and a promise of a return of the Jedi was enough. By bookending the Original Trilogy with additional context, promises, and resolutions, though, the narrative importance of those original films is diminished. The good guys didn't really win. No one lived happily ever after. I think this is the root of much of the dissatisfaction of the older generations of Star Wars fans with regards to the new films. We mostly just ignored the Prequel Trilogy, but the Sequel Trilogy makes that hard to do.

How is Rise of Skywalker as a film in itself, though? As mentioned above, Rey's reveal was problematically unforeshadowed, though narratively good. I also have a lot of questions about the dagger - who made that thing, when, and why? It clearly couldn't have been used until after the Death Star crashed on Endor, but who had the knowledge of Old Sith to make it after that? If it was made beforehand, it must have been done as prophecy, and again - why? Other than those two, though, my main criticism of the film is that it is complex. While it's not hard to follow everything, it's a lot to take in.

There are also the usual Star Wars-isms.
An entire fleet of Star Destroyers with miniaturized Death Star cannons? Sure, why not? Who built those things? Who was crewing them at the end? Someone in the New Order noted the need to recruit more, but they had no time for it.
Inexplicable physics? Sure, why not. Hyperspace-skipping is now a thing, purely because it looked cool on film. There is some kind of red barrier between the Core Worlds and the Unknown Regions, because the plot demanded an impediment.

On the plus side, the cinematography is stunning, as has been the norm in the Sequel Trilogy. While not as strikingly colorful as VIII, IX has much of visual interest. And while none of the lightsaber fights stand up to the Snoke's Guards scene in VIII, they don't disappoint. Also, Ren's crossguard gets used for defense, so that's nice.

I've been hard on Adam Driver, but I was very impressed with his last few scenes. The transformation from Kylo Ren to Ben Solo is good acting work. It was nice to see Lando, though I have to try pretty hard not to be creeped out by his last interaction. I strongly suspect that Han's scene was supposed to feature Leia instead, but Harrison Ford did a very nice job there, and it parallels nicely with the scene in VII. JJ Abrams clearly didn't want to feature Rose, but he didn't remove her, he didn't kill her off, and he didn't shove her entirely to the background - generous of him, and nice for the actress.

Overall, I think I liked the film. It has problems, but all the Star Wars films do. It entertains with action, drama, and humor, with only a few jarring bits. And it wraps up the Skywalker Saga, the most dysfunctional set of nine movies you'll ever find, in a satisfactory way.

Not bad.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Ford's cameo. I think it was meant to be Leia, too. But as Han confirms that he is a memory not a ghost, it gave a nice picture of how unstable Ben is, in a very human way, rather than a raging psycho-tantrum way. That "I know" killed me. I think Adam Driver is brilliant.