Matthew Hoemke

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Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker : ***

For the past 42 years, audiences have been treated to George Lucas’s visionary reinvention of the classic Flash Gordan serials from his youth, infused with the cinematic scope of Akira Kurisawa’s Jidaigeki film language, slung around the skeletal structure of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. What he invented was a space fantasy that was distinct from similar genera fare and with that came a promise of a Trilogy of Trilogies, the last of which has finally hit theatres. Along the way, the story behind how this Space Opera came to be has been mythicized in the public zeitgeist, audiences have ebbed and flowed towards this series and the public reception of these films have become as embattled and the Jedi and Sith themselves. For better or worse, The Rise of Skywalker brings closure to that galaxy far, far away in a story that is not the climax the audience probably needs, but rather delivers an ending that is predictable—but warmingly so.


To dissect this film, we really need to break this review into three parts. The first part is a non-spoiler review of the film, second is an overall analysis of the Sequel Trilogy as it has reached its conclusion (this is where spoilers may rear their ugly head, but I will make sure to clearly note where is and is not safe to read) and last is what the legacy will say about these films and the franchise as a whole.


Review

The Rise of Skywalker is a breathless plunge into the familiar that strikes a perfect balance of containing exactly what is best and worst of this franchise. It has many scenes that are truly inspired and thrilling but has just as many that I downright loathed. It picks up with time having passed since The Last Jedi and in that time Emperor Palpatine has returned. No genuine answer is given as to why he has returned except what might be the laziest bit of dialogue ever written; “I died once but the Dark Side of the Force is the pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” Regardless, Palpy’s back and has concealed a masterplan this whole time but needs Rey dead to do it. For this, he partners with Kylo Ren and the story kicks off. Kylo Ren reaches out to Rey to team up in an effort to overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy as equals. Rey declines and what is set in motion is a McGuffin quest for the ages as Rey must track down the coordinates for a secret map to the Sith home world. Along the way, revelations are made and how you feel about these revelations will really guide your stance on the film. I was left mostly underwhelmed, but we will come to that. The film concludes with what can be argued as the definitive Star War.


As you can kind of tell, the screenplay is all over the place. One might even argue that it is the worst screenplay of the series (not dialogue, mind you but plot). It is often clashing with the previous films and itself to guide the film to where director J.J. Abrams wants to take it. Two major flaws with the film stem from the screenplay and that it very much panders to select voices in the audience that demand The Last Jedi be retconned and the fact that it really tries to be The Last Jedi Take 2 while also being Episode IX and thus crams about five hours’ worth of film into two and a half hours. The film is breathless and not in a good way. Sometimes the film needs time to breath and the screenplay doesn’t allow for that.


That said, the film does come together in a few key areas. The use of most of the Legacy characters here is excellent. Lando is fun and C-3PO and Chewie actually have things to do in this movie. Not R2, though. He lay forgotten in most of this Trilogy (which is sad as Lucas has said that R2 is his favorite character). But the Legacy standout is Leia. She has a full character arc in very little screen time that is woven seamlessly into the fabric of the film in a lovely and satisfying way. Leia is one of my all-time favorite characters and I worried that she would not get the send off she deserved, but the filmmakers and editors were able to use her beautifully.

The Sequel Trilogy characters really soar well in this film as this is really their time to shine and own the movie on their own merits. Rey is played beautifully by Daisy Ridley. She breaths life and optimism into that character which is lovely to see. Poe is also a standout for the Trilogy. He is the most fun of the bunch and Oscar Isaac plays him perfectly. He has some really neat stuff going on in this film with the introduction of a new character played by Kerri Russel and his character really drives the conclusion. The breakout character of this Trilogy would have to be Kylo Ren and he delivers some great material here. It is not the arc I would have given him for this film, but he owns his role and commands as the fulcrum the film pivots on.

As unnecessary as he was in bringing back, Ian McDiarmid makes for an extraordinary villain in Palpatine. He works so successfully and plays the character so vile that his return almost gets a soft pass, but really falls apart when applying any thought to his presence. It becomes very plain that Abrams wanted a supervillain and since Rian Johnson took Snoke out of that equation he used the only character that made sense for him to use and he does so but without any attempt at justification and it just rings hollow. The plot does tie meaning into his presence in this film to one of the characters, but that also really hurts the film.


What really swings the film into the positive side for me was the final thirty minutes. The final battle in this film worked for me emotionally. Its ties to the franchise as a whole tremendously (though I would have liked the film to have committed to the concept visually a little better). Sure, the climax of this is a fair bit similar to the ending of Avengers Endgame, but it is able to stick the landing and separate itself enough that it doesn’t feel tired.


As far as final chapters go, the film is well meaning. It is definitely misguided at times and almost abusive to its predecessor but does deliver on offering closure to the franchise as a whole. The score soars, the visuals dazzle, the time spent with your friends one last time holds weight (largely) and the Force lives on inside of you as you watch the credits roll. Is it the perfect conclusion? Not at all. But it is serviceable and offers enough to satisfy die-hard fans.


Analysis

The Sequel Trilogy comes to a close and so does the Skywalker saga, but the question I am left with is, was any of this earned? Did audiences benefit from these sequels? I think the answer is a sad no.


These sequels are plagued with questions left unanswered. Most of this has to do with Abrams’ obsession with mystery boxes. I mean, we never do find out why or how Maz had the Skywalker lightsaber. It is ultimately something that doesn’t matter a whole lot, but it is left unaddressed and leaves a thinking viewer frustrated. All the mystery boxes plagued The Last Jedi and helped to lead to that film’s poor reception. The fact that these films were guided by two filmmakers who conflict in their filmmaking process does not help matters.


J.J. Abrams is not unlike an ameba. He has no backbone and when he boarded The Force Awakens he was terrified of making something that would upset anyone so he delivered a soft reboot by swapping the gender dynamics of the characters and slinging the meat on the structure of A New Hope. It offered almost nothing new, even to the frustration of George Lucas himself. Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who dissects and subverts genre with each film he makes and took to his Star Wars film to chisel away all the maudlin excess the franchise had been carrying since Empire, really, and excavated the skeletal core of what Star Wars was really designed to be in its original conception. Put another way, you have Abrams who understood the feeling of what it was like to see Star Wars when he was ten and impart that feeling on an audience so that they, too, felt like ten yearolds in awe; and then you have Johnson who firmly understood the philosophies, lessons and meaning of the original movies and was able to strip away the excess in order to communicate to the audience on an intellectual level what the Hero’s Journey is really about. Neither approach is a poor take on the subject. Both are valid, but the fact that they conflict with each other is unfortunate because the Trilogy doesn’t meld into a cohesive unit. The fact that J.J. gets final say makes it feel as if Johnson’s take is incorrect, but it is not.


The Last Jedi suffers from the fact that most people don’t understand it. If you listen, really listen, you will find that what it is trying to say is quite profound. Most objections fall on the handling of Luke, Rey and Kylo Ren. Most people think that the film is trying to say, “Destroy your past; Kill it if you have to,” which is quoted by Kylo Ren. That isn’t the assertion that film makes at all. Luke and Kylo Ren seem to be viewing the franchise through this prism, but people seem to forget that Luke asserts that Kylo was wrong to think this way during their showdown (and implying that he, Luke, was also wrong). This follows with a similar lesson Yoda imparts onto Luke; “Heeded my words not, did you. Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher failure is. Luke we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” The better summation of the film would come from Rose with; “We are not going to win this by killing what we hate but saving what we love.” The film is not about killing the past but embracing it and learning from it. It is saying that it is ok to have such reverence of this universe and characters but learn from them. Allow growth, not stagnation. So, the film trims the franchise fat by doing away with the concept of having an overarching Big Bad, allowing for an interesting and flawed character like Kylo Ren to just be a villain and not a shadowy figure worth saving, and cuts away familial lineage. I love that the film made a point to say that Rey’s parents were nobodies. It sets up so much meaning that has been lost since Vader said, “I am your father.” Rey was a hero because she just was. She is powerful not because of divine birthright.


WHAT I WRITE NEXT WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!!! JUMP TO THE NEXT SECTION TO SKIP ON SPOILERS!!!


This concept gets warped once Rey is established as the granddaughter of Palpatine; the final film’s biggest injustice. This is problematic for two reasons. The first being, they try to keep what Kylo Ren said as true; that her parents were nobodies, but I am sorry—no, that does not work. The mere fact that Palpatine had a child makes them not nobodies! They can’t be nobodies and yet the film treats them as such. It is also problematic because it slights any feministic leanings the films try to assert with Rey’s character. Her being powerful without justification for that power is a powerful stance to take and wonderfully welcomed. By saying, ‘No, she isn’t powerful because she just is but rather because she is the granddaughter of the Big Bad,’ diminishes her importance. Yoda is unquestionably powerful, as is Obi-Wan and Mace Windu. Nobody questions why they have so much power. No one needs justification for this. Hell, Yoda has absolutely zero back story, but Rey is required to have justification and that is unacceptable to me. I will offer two solutions that the film could have used to make this work a little better.

First off, I don’t buy that Palpatine would have ever gotten down to the sexy funky fun times. That is just hyper unbelievable and that is saying something considering that this franchise is built around space wizards. However, we know that Palpatine manipulated the Force to create Anakin. Why not just state that when he magically returned to life that he did it again with Rey? Or how about this idea? The prophesy of The Chosen One was that they would bring balance to the Force. Everyone assumed it was Anakin. But what if it wasn’t? We already know that Anakin was created by Palpatine. What if Rey was so powerful because she was actually The Chosen One created by the Force and not Palpatine and was the balance to the imbalance Palpatine caused by creating Anakin? But to do either of these stories, you really have to acknowledge the Prequel Trilogy and that is not something Abrams is interested in (unless feebly using a direct quote to justify the return of Palpatine of course).



Another big issue the Sequel Trilogy has is that it has no real use for Finn. John Boyega plays the character very well but no one knew how to write him and that is because his existence is kind of in conflict with the point of the Original Trilogy. His introduction in The Force Awakens is nothing short of fantastic. He was a First Order Trooper, but then snaps out of his brain washing. This is where one would imagine that the thematic thread of Redemption would have continued from Return of the Jedi. If this Stormtrooper could be reformed, why not more? Well, that is tossed aside shortly into the narrative of the film as Finn blasts other Stormtroopers that they have now in cannon established as brainwashed folk. I thought they might play with that idea again in Rise of Skywalker, as they introduce several more characters (all of which seemed to be of color which had me side-eyeing the screen) that were brainwashed former Troopers. I was like, this is where they do it. Some of the Stormtroopers will resist or revolt and turn on Palpy. Yeah, no. That doesn’t happen. So, instead were are shown three movies where it is established that the Troopers are real people who are being brainwashed into servitude under a grand narrative thread of redemption and yet never acknowledges anyone besides Finn and a handful of other (mostly) nameless characters as real people. Not a good look. It just shows how little thought they actually put into this Trilogy.


Lastly, people seem to complain that there was really no where to go after Last Jedi, so of course they would have to turn to this route. I would like to offer a direction that was sadly not taken. A point that The Last Jedi touched on was that the Jedi were an inherently flawed and misguided group. Their religion was egocentric and had disastrous consequences. Many people, in the lead up to Last Jedi, wanted Rey to establish herself as a Grey Jedi. That doesn’t really fly for me. What would have been a more compelling story would be that Luke finally imparts his full knowledge of the Force and history. Using the teachings of the failures as well. The Jedi teach that Love is Forbidden, but the suppression of those feelings led to the rise of an Empire and the embrace of that love allowed for Anakin’s redemption. Anakin and Luke were never really Jedi because they refused to embrace a few key conditions that were required as Jedi. Rey seemed to follow in this line of thought. You hit balance, not when you reject all dark and only embrace light (or vice versa). No, you hit balance when you accept both and do so from a standpoint of Love and Optimism or Hope as Rey does through all three films. She should shed the Jedi religion, incorporate its teachings and lessons but rechristen herself as a Skywalker (not in familial lineage as the film has her do, but in a system of belief). This would have made for a compelling continuation of the values exposed at the end of The Last Jedi.


Instead, J.J. wanted to revise The Last Jedi and make a movie about family lineage and redeeming a flawed villain. The journey Kylo Ren takes in The Rise of Skywalker is moving but really only works if you watch this film alone. When you pull back and think about it; this Trilogy spans the course of 7-10 days. Force Awakens and Last Jedi encompass 5-6 days. Day two has Kylo meeting Rey for the first time, Forcing her to sleep where she wakes up to his face and him saying “I could do anything I want right now,” as he tries to penetrate her mind but she blocks him out with the Force. Super rape-y and yet this is the romantic entanglement that the last movie wants you to invest in. Later that day, she slices him with a laser sword and spends the next few days mind melding with him from afar and learns he is a very conflicted fella, but when they meet again, he swings to the bad side. That is why I don’t buy her loving him in this last entry. I believe that she would care for him, as she is a caring person and would try to pull him into the light. But I do not believe that those feelings would bend romantic on her end. His is another story. He very much falls in line with Anakin and the conclusion to his story is wonderful payoff to the scene in Force Awakens where he pledges himself to Vader’s mask that he “will finish what you started.” Ben Solo does. He keeps the ones he cares about from dying. Beautiful symmetry.


The film also breaks Luke. He is easily the least effective character in Rise of Skywalker. He is full reversal from The Last Jedi, and it strips his character arc in that film of any emotional weight. Hamill kills it, but his contribution to this film is pointless. He doesn’t even offer any insight that Rey didn’t already know. His scene wasn’t in the movie for Rey, it was there as an apology to Last Jedi dissenters and I hated it.


DONE WITH THE SPOILER-Y BITS! IT IS OK TO READ BELOW THIS LINE SPOILER FREE!!!


LEGACY

So, with all that being said, where does that leave the Legacy of these movies? The Sequel Trilogy will walk very much the same line as the Prequel Trilogy, in my estimation. You have three incredibly divisive films that are all static from each other in tone and quality. This series will have the benefit of being slicker looking with solid acting in all entries, but all lack cohesion. The worst thing to happen to Star Wars came in threes. The first was that Fans decided they knew better than the creators and the people in charge listened to the detriment of the films. The second was that the original films got placed on a pedestal and embraced with reverence that they were never designed for. They were flash pulp. But we made them high art and cried out when each subsequent film didn’t recapture the level of art that we thought the series offered and condemned the films that tried to match pace by being artful in their narrative approach. The third is when fans turned on each other and the franchise for not being able to sustain itself through infighting of what the words Star Wars represent. 


Where I personally land on all of this is that the first movie is the purest Romance and Adventure film that has been made. It is fun, brilliant at times, and has one of the best climaxes of any film ever. The second film is the bold embodiment of The Perfect Sequel. It expands on everything that worked with the first film and is the best-looking film of the franchise. The third was fun but problematic. As ‘The End,’ it works swell. Episode I is not as bad as people give it credit for and is a visually pleasing example of the power of imaginative filmmaking. Episode II is pretty much a dud. Solid concepts executed poorly. Episode III is one of the stronger installments and has the finest action of the series. Episode VII is the laziest film of the saga and my least favorite. Episode VIII is probably the best film of the bunch and acts as a perfect sequel to the original film in a lot of ways. Episode IX is a serviceable mess that I will be able to complain about for the rest of my life, but as I love this saga and these stories and, too, get caught up in the nostalgia frenzy can’t help but find that adoration buried beneath the film’s injustices. What I am left with is balance. And with that, I am One with the Force and the Force is One with me.