My relationship with Star Wars has, like many fans, been in a strange state of flux over the last few years. I was absolutely enthralled by Rogue One, particularly for its adult aesthetic and tonal consistency with the classic films – a shining example of how style will always trump substance (which has always been my fundamental approach to any art form, and also explains the overwhelming success of The Mandalorian TV series). I fiercely championed Rogue One, and consider it my #2 favorite Star Wars film only behind Empire. I also really liked The Force Awakens for the first few “honeymoon” months of its release, but my passion for it began to wane as I realized the totality of its rip off of A New Hope – but hey, it’s only the first act so who the hell cares? I really liked Solo for its adult tone and smart blend of western and gangster genre themes. I was also totally swooned by Donald Glover’s near-perfect portrayal of Lando Calrissian, which brought tears of joy to my eyes. However Solo was minorly plagued by a kind of Ron Howard-ey blandness that left me wondering what the film would have been like had Disney not scrapped the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I really wanted to like The Last Jedi – but found it to be a tonedeaf non-story that, aside from a bizarrely written Luke Skywalker, added little depth to its characters, and felt more like a vanity project for director Rian Johnson than a sincere attempt to deepen and enrich the characters and mythology of the previous films. Not to mention the insultingly delivered “diversity” themes that relegated minority characters to a disposable comedic sideplot – a sad but delicious irony coming from the self-congratulatory paragons of “social justice” at Disney. Most tragically, The Last Jedi was marred by its presentation of a flawless and therefore uninteresting protagonist, exempt from adversity (her adversity is implied, not shown). Nor does she require any meaningful training from the only Jedi Master still in existence. What should have been a movie rich with meaty, elegant discourse discussing the complexity of The Force, was reduced to a classless litany of hipster rants and lame jokes. A colossal missed opportunity that will quietly haunt Rian Johnson for the rest of his career.
The Middle Act Problem:
I recently re-watched The Last Jedi after having seen The Rise of Skywalker, trying to view it with an open mind, within the fresh context of its successor. And I will admit that within context, some of its flaws are somewhat softened – “a thousand generations live in you now” admittedly carries more weight now. However, I still found the movie incredibly problematic, unfulfilling, and essentially unwatchable. Not necessarily because of its story, but because of its aesthetic. The awkward, tonedeaf humor, the “punching bag” bad guys – essentially memes of themselves – who, with the exception of Snoke, inject zero fear or tension into the movie. The “social” themes, which Rian Johnson delivers with all the subtlety and nuance of a fifth grader (Canto Bight/capitalism, Admiral Holdo/toxic masculinity). Now, I absolutely support socially progressive themes in movies – a hallmark of science fiction – however when those themes are so eye-rollingly obvious as to insult the intellect of the audience, the message gets defeated. This is story-writing 101 folks. Children are not as dumb as you think.
The Last Jedi is essentially the North of Star Wars movies – both smugly conceived stories about lost children in search of their parents, both movies too full of themselves to realize their own dreadful sense of humor (except only one of these was intended to be a comedy). North was one of the rare movies to ever get a zero-star rating from Roger Ebert, and his gloriously scathing review essentially echoes mine for The Last Jedi:
“Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
– Roger Ebert’s review of North
The Last Jedi is further handicapped by its lack of any meaningful flashback or historical explanation, which fail to make us believe in its story – most notably Luke’s jarring character shift, and the necessity of The Resistance. As a result, the movie feels weightless and fails to command our investment. It’s doesn’t earn its story. The Last Jedi resorts to spoon-feeding the viewer what to think instead of smartly weaving its themes into the slow-burning nuance of the narrative, thus amplifying their effect when the viewer discovers those themes for themselves (as the original trilogy skillfully did). Instead of showing us its story, the movie merely tells us what to think – the cardinal sin of any artform. And that is why The Last Jedi fails.
I must admit, The Last Jedi killed much of my appetite for Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker. A strong middle act that evokes tension and fear is the most critical part of any three-act story, and is precisely the reason I am so hard on The Last Jedi. Corporate media told me it was because of my bigotry and toxic masculinity. But maybe I was just getting older, desensitized with age, my threshold for good storytelling too high? Perhaps it was the confluence of those things with the cynicism of dawning midlife that seems to plague many childless 30-somethings of my demographic? But for the first time ever, I found myself barely drawn to the trailers. I had checked out. I couldn’t even remember the date I’d bought tickets for. Thankfully my wife reminded me the week prior. But still, like a good fan, I donned my ironic “Chewie, we’re home!” t-shirt and, accompanied by three fellow Star Wars geeks, surrendered myself to my local Alamo Drafthouse theater on a cool December night in Corpus Christi, TX…
The Rise of Skywalker begins promisingly, with a rushed but visually cool sequence of Rey undergoing some actual, physical Jedi training under the tutelage of her new master, Leia Skywalker. The scene concludes with Rey delivering the much-needed line, “I will earn your brother’s saber”. Key word being earn. Upon hearing this line, I immediately knew JJ’s head was in the right place, and my optimism piqued. This seemingly innocuous line effectively summarizes the totality of the new trilogy’s fatal flaw – which is the erasure of the fundamental ethos of Jedi Knighthood – the idea that Jedi Knighthood is earned, and not given (or stumbled upon, like in Rey’s case). Unlike superheroes, a Jedi must master his or her power through training, discipline, growth and adversity – you guessed it – the hero’s journey. And it is precisely this theme that made the original Star Wars films so powerful and lasting. They gave us a modern myth, dressed in a dazzling blend of space opera and New Hollywood grit, that resonated the “hero’s journey” within our own lives. It was essentially Rocky in space – a deeply human story drenched in blockbuster spectacle. This new trilogy struggles to connect with audiences precisely because of an excess of the latter, and absence of the former.
With the exception of this first scene, the initial half of The Rise of Skywalker feels scattered and rushed, told in the usual neurotic visual style of Abrams with nonstop quick-cuts that leave the viewer with little time to catch their breath. It all looks beautiful, but we’re not given enough time to process what we’re seeing. The film resorts to lame scavenger hunt plot tropes of “find the artifact/person to find another artifact/person to lead you to the goal”. The attempts at character-building for Poe and Finn, as told through the introduction of female characters Zori and Jannah, run lukewarm at best. The movie disappointingly fails to capitalize on the opportunity to explore Finn’s Force sensitivity as hinted at in The Force Awakens. Instead, the film seems more preoccupied with making Threepio funnier than he is, with many jokes feeling forced, sometimes reaching sophomoric Rian Johnson-levels of cringe.
I do applaud Abrams for having the guts to go big by bringing back Palpatine – a respectful take on the beloved 1991 Expanded Universe classic, Dark Empire by Dark Horse comics, written by Tom Veitch. Unfortunately, the reveal feels hokey and rushed, starting with ridiculous eye-roller of a line, “The Dead Speak!” on the opening text crawl. Palpatine’s thousand-strong star destroyer fleet rising out of the water also presents a distracting plot hole. Where the hell did he get the manpower for constructing this fleet without signaling his existence? Surely one of those millions of crewmembers or construction workers would have snitched? However General Pryde is a welcome addition, as we’re finally given an austere and competent sub-villain (not the miscast punching bag lightweight Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux). The movie does make an earnest attempt to slowly unravel the Palpatine-Rey-grandfather connection as told through a few bait and switch scenes between Rey and Kylo. However there simply isn’t enough time, and the epic reveal feels predictable and underwhelming. If only there was a middle film that could have handled this buildup?
However the movie makes a miraculous comeback in its second half. A massive tonal shift occurs precisely when Rey discovers the Emperor’s throne room within the wreckage of Death Star II. The scene is accompanied by those beautiful, haunting pizzicato strings softly plucking “The Imperial March”, directly referencing the Vader unmasking scene from Return of the Jedi. And at this point the film finally begins to slow the hell down and breathe. The music cuts, and the film begins to focus. We are treated to a short but much needed scene with Rey facing her internal demons, personified by “evil Rey” wielding the memefied “swiss army knife” red lightsaber. This is followed by perhaps the best (only) lightsaber duel in the new trilogy, where a reinvigorated Kylo Ren, flanked by mountains of sea spray, appropriately bests the lesser-experienced Rey in combat. An overwhelmed Rey kneels in defeat, only to give in to her hatred as she fatally stabs a distracted Kylo in the chest. For this brief moment, we finally see a flawed protagonist, and thus momentarily, she earns our empathy.
Those iconic John Williams strings kick in and what follows is perhaps the heaviest five minutes of the new trilogy. Rey makes an unexpected admission to Kylo while a dying Leia, sensing her son in need, heroically summons her last ounce of energy to perform a deus ex machina force projection of Han’s spirit in order to thaw Kylo’s charred, blackened heart – a scene which totally sounds hammy AF – but is delivered with an uncharacteristic pathos and dignity previously unknown to this new trilogy. Adam Driver absolutely owns his performance, and elevates what would otherwise be mediocre material. His lines feel authentic, and believably convey the inner torment one would feel from murdering their father for the supposed higher calling of the dark side. In what could have easily been a forced and distracting scene, Harrison Ford delivers a surprisingly sincere performance, tastefully concluded by cutting off his son with that legendary “I know”, as Kylo searches for the strength to say “I love you” – effectively finalizing Kylo’s catharsis and redemption to the light. One can clearly sense that Ford is referencing the real life death of Carrie Fisher, which makes his few lines that much more wrenching. This entire sequence felt like Star Wars, and I admit, I got choked up. You could hear a pin drop in the packed theater. Nearly one hundred minutes in, and the movie finally commands my full attention. And no, that’s not nostalgia speaking – that’s the confluence of good acting, writing and directing.
The momentum injected by these scenes eventually dissipates, however the movie continues to run on fumes for remainder of its much better second half. Rey makes one final trip back to Ach To where a Force ghost Luke Skywalker provides her a pre-fight pep talk while making a delightful wink-wink rebuke to the mishandling of his character in the previous film. Rey’s eventual confrontation with the Emperor – implied to be a clone – is as good as one might expect given the time constraints of the movie. Here it is revealed that Rey and Kylo are two halves of an exceptionally rare “dyad” in the Force which, admittedly, is a legitimately cool and interesting concept that reasonably explains the extraordinary bond between Kylo and Rey. The concept of a “dyad” serves to further the idea that the Force is, in fact, a living, organic entity, transparent to the observable world, but instead exists on some invisible macro level in much the same way that a sphere appears flat when viewed on a small enough scale (sorry flat earthers). The notion that living beings are merely elements of “Force DNA” genuinely intrigued me, and served to enhance the mythology of the Force while satisfactorily explaining Kylo and Rey’s evolved ability to “force skype” with one another and physically manipulate objects. Two halves of a rift in Force-time? Perhaps a bit of a stretch, and a lazy substitute for a far more powerful brother-sister narrative, but I’ll buy it.
Rey’s confrontation with the Emperor feels like a lazy cop out the Return of the Jedi playbook, complete with a concurrent space battle and recycled Faustian rhetoric about sacrificing one’s self to save one’s friends, but the azure-tinged scenes are stylized and delivered powerfully enough for me not to care. The heroic arrival of newly redeemed Ben Solo – no longer Kylo Ren – is satisfyingly kickass. The way he cockily hand gestures “come get some” before dealing whoop ass to the Knights of Ren was a delightful throwback to his antihero progenitor – like father like son I guess. The lightsaber “hand-off” was quite cool as well, and I liked how Rey and Ben needed to team up to defeat the Emperor, which felt like the only natural conclusion to their dyad bond. Their defeat of the Emperor using lightsabers to deflect his Force lightning was a fitting reprise to the mode of his original disfigurement, at the hand of Mace Windu in Revenge of the Sith (“unlimited power!”). Their victory concludes with the abrupt death of Ben Solo, presaged by Adam Driver delivering what I earnestly believe might be the most authentic post-kiss smile I’ve ever seen on film. And I truly didn’t mind the “Reylo” kiss, especially given all the sh*t they’ve gone through, and given how many times they’ve either spared, taken or saved each other’s lives. Hell, who wouldn’t crave a cathartic makeup kiss after that? Platonic or otherwise. Gutsy move, I liked it.
However, I can’t stop thinking about how bold of a plot twist it would have been to instead make Rey the martyr, thereby allowing Ben to redeem his family legacy by restoring the Jedi order, thus literally being “The Rise of Skywalker”. To have allowed Rey to make the heroic sacrifice would have immensely deepened her character, and would have served to subvert her oft-criticized image as the flawless victor. Nonetheless, I must admit that I had no major heartache with the film concluding with Rey inheriting the Skywalker mantle. Despite the flawed execution, I generally agree with the new trilogy’s fundamental premise that a “nobody” can transform into greatness. The democratization of the Skywalker name – the idea that family can transcend bloodline – is kind of cool. I can live with that. Unfortunately the lack of depth to Rey’s character certainly dulls that grand premise, but those tastefully delivered final scenes on Tatooine were enough for me to forgive and forget. A careful eye will notice how these scenes are laced with “duality” motifs – two lightsabers, two moisture vaporators, two suns, two companions, two Force ghosts – perhaps to highlight Rey and Kylo’s dyad bond and the larger theme that great feats are never accomplished alone (“Always two there are; no more, no less. A master and an apprentice”). And that epic closing shot – the indelible image of those twin burning suns emblazoned triumphantly over Rey and her loyal companion, elevated by the heroic swell of Williams’ orchestral strings – was so powerful and skillfully realized, that all my criticism momentarily dissolved. Good one, JJ – you got me (I truly am easy to please).
Where Do We Go From Here?
Despite the commendable strength of The Rise of Skywalker’s second half, time will likely prove unkind to this new trilogy. It will be remembered as a scattered and unfocused group – not trilogy – of three loosely related films that failed to capture the cohesive vision and tonal elegance of its New Hollywood-era forebears. The proof is not in the loudness of the haters – but in the silence of the supporters. Where are all the fun, passionate fans gathering in droves outside movie theaters, espousing their sincere love and praise for these new stories? Certainly not online. And when they do show themselves, they’re rarely articulating their love for the new movies, but instead, are usually trolling dissenting fans with tired variations of “no one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans” (as if expecting quality work from an established franchise with unlimited resources was such a crime). Or they’re posting intellectually lazy memes about “fans hating Star Wars for being the same, but then hating it for being too different!” But what they fail to grasp is the simple fact that different isn’t always good. To be different is not enough. The novelty must also be delivered compellingly. Adam Sandler could easily make a Happy Madison Star Wars trilogy starring Allen Covert and David Spade, which would subvert all expectations and probably be funny as hell – but would it be good? The “professional” critics did little to help. Their reviews were mostly airless and corporate, blandly focusing on the politics – the “wokeness” – not the aesthetics, mythology, world building – the artistry – of the new movies. They hide behind overused catchphrases like “fan service”, as if to insultingly suggest that nostalgia is the only thing Star Wars fans want. Try this for “fan service” – give us a skillfully directed, written and tonally mature movie that feels like Star Wars and you can write a Star Wars story just about anything, and I guarantee fans will generally like it (The Mandalorian, Rogue One, Clone Wars, Rebels). We aren’t that hard to please.
To this new trilogy’s credit, I sincerely commend Disney’s costly decision to use real models and puppets instead of lazily abusing computer generation. That is no small feat, and the films all look gorgeous because of this – but alone, that is not enough. I’ve always maintained that this new trilogy’s story could have truly worked had the delivery been more focused and mature. But at the end of the day, if your product doesn’t look, feel, smell, sound, and/or taste good – no one is going to buy it. Period. Style. Is. Everything.
Casual fans and critics always like to dismiss Star Wars as “silly kids’ movies about space wizards and laser swords” – and they’re not wrong – but they understate the enormous influence and immediacy these movies have over the culture, particularly with children. I know because I was one of them (surprise), growing up in 1991 when I first saw Empire Strikes Back one night on TBS. I still vividly remember sitting in front of my giant, ugly-ass wooden CRT television, my vacant six-year old mind captivated by the strange images of a scarred rebel hanging upside down in an ice cave, reaching out for some mystical power; a cyborg’s pristine obsidian helmet glistening in the white lights of his starship; the eerie sounds of Tauntauns, probe droids and Imperial walkers; the haunting clash of sabers in smoky chambers; Mark Hamill’s blood-curdling scream after the grand reveal; the confusion and boredom I felt during the Dagobah scenes – elegant and mature passages that my six-year old mind was incapable of processing, but are now some of my favorite scenes as an adult; my inexplicable aversion to C-3PO and the nightmares I had about him as a child. No kidding, there was something about C-3PO’s soulless golden face that absolutely terrified me as a kid (we’re cool now though). That is how my love affair with Star Wars began, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, how it became one of the most influential experiences of my youth.
As a child I had always dreamed of becoming a military pilot, a dream seeded in no small part because of Star Wars (and probably all the awesome video games it inspired, all of which I became obsessed with, much to my own social detriment). Through luck and hard work I was able to achieve that dream, and I attribute much of that success to the aspirational values of perseverance and self-discipline that Star Wars instilled within my vacant six-year old mind. Yes, I realize how cringing and earnest that sounds. Yes, there were many real human beings that carried me along the way. And yes, I am a huge believer in the value of dark, realist, non-aspirational movies about downfalls and cautionary tales (Taxi Driver, Scarface, There Will Be Blood, Barry Lyndon, Raging Bull, etc). But having the power to positively shape young minds is something filmmakers should not take lightly. Not a responsibility, mind you – as art need not always be socially conscious – but a due consideration when making films intended to inspire young audiences.
It remains to be seen whether or not the story of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren will inspire new generations of young minds in much the same way that the story of Luke, Han, Leia and Vader inspired mine. A rich irony indeed that children’s movies about “space wizards and laser swords” can make men out of boys and women out of girls. Such is the awesome power of great storytelling – of great filmmaking. May it never be forgotten.