Review and Analysis – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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I haven’t written about movies in over a year and a half, so please bear with me. I just couldn’t let a Star Wars movie pass without making an attempt. This first review section will be spoiler-free, while the second section will be spoiler-filled and have ample warning before you get to it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a mess. It’s also highly enjoyable. It is satisfying. It is disappointing. It is lazy, pandering, and focus-grouped. It is emotional, heartfelt, and genuine. It honors the legacy and themes of the entire saga. It misunderstands what Star Wars is about. It is silly and dumb. It is a thought-provoking discussion-starter. It is unpredictable. It is so predictable. It wastes characters. It gives characters the opportunity to shine. It answers many questions. It wastes many opportunities. It is the safest Star Wars ever. It is the craziest Star Wars ever.
The best description of The Rise of Skywalker is one I’ve seen making the rounds quite a bit. It is “a lot.” I truly did enjoy it but I can’t honestly say it’s very good. One of the benefits to it simply being “a lot,” jam packed with plot and answers and action and humor and moments to cheer, is that there’s something for almost everyone to like. Conversely, there’s something to bother almost everyone. I feel like The Rise of Skywalker, and perhaps the sequel trilogy as a whole when people look back on it, will end up being a Rorschach test for how people feel about Star Wars and how they approach storytelling generally and the revival of beloved franchises specifically.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. It has humor and heart, it serves as a broadly satisfying close on the story of the Skywalkers, and it is generally fun. It has some of the best performances of this sequel trilogy, particularly from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, while Anthony Daniels gets to shine as the inexhaustible C-3PO. JJ Abrams and company manage to do a good job crafting a final role for Leia from Carrie Fisher’s deleted scenes from The Force Awakens, and it would have felt wrong for her not to be there. There are moments in the film that made me cheer, made my heart swell, and brought tears to my eyes (an admittedly easy feat).
But I wouldn’t call The Rise of Skywalker a particularly great movie. The script from Abrams and Chris Terrio is riddled with coincidences, plot holes, unexplained important events, and occasionally flat dialogue. Rose has been relegated to a criminally minor supporting role, but even Poe and Finn (who had great arcs in The Last Jedi) are mostly misused. There are new characters like Naomi Ackie’s Jannah and Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss who are nice additions but aren’t given much of a chance to make an impact in a script that is too stuffed to let things breathe. So much of the movie is devoted to action/plot or to the Rey/Kylo/Palpatine triangle that there’s hardly room for anything else.
The Rise of Skywalker has about 50% too much plot. It’s too obsessed with answering questions that didn’t need answering, and with throwing bones to fans who didn’t like The Last Jedi. It’s never openly antagonistic to Rian Johnson’s vastly superior film, but there’s enough of a course correction there to please fans who felt burned by the previous movie. It feels like it was constructed by committee who sent out surveys to fans on what they’d want to see from the final chapter and wrote the script based on the statistics of the responses. The result isn’t bad, per se, it’s just lazy and pandering, not to mention often extremely predictable.
My ultimate conclusion is that JJ Abrams is a great trailer director. What I mean by that is that he knows how to engage an audience from the start, and he has far less interest in the story as a whole or its conclusion. (And this is coming from someone who deeply loves Super 8.) The sequel trilogy suffers from not having a plan from the start, with Abrams doing his thing (like he did on Lost) getting the ball rolling and letting other people sort things out from there. It really illustrates the limits of “mystery box” storytelling, and I hope Lucasfilm finds a new method going forward. The trilogy was redeemed in my eyes by Rian Johnson’s middle chapter, and from that perspective The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but only serviceable finale.
I’m sure my thoughts and feelings about this Episode 9 will change over time. I wasn’t particularly a fan of The Force Awakens when it first came out, and some things about it still bother me, but it’s grown on me over the last few years, largely due to the strength of the characters it created. I went into The Rise of Skywalker with lower expectations than I usually would for a Star Wars film, and came away generally pleased and entertained. My childhood wasn’t ruined, the sequel trilogy wasn’t ruined for me, and I’m eager for more Star Wars in the weeks, months, and years ahead. It’s still a mess, with some objectively bad mistakes and missteps as well as some things that just didn’t work for me personally, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. The last four years have brought us five Star Wars movies, ranging from spectacular to just fine, and if this is the way this period ends I’m ok with that.
B+
 
***Spoilers Below***
 
So Rey is a Palpatine. It was one of the popular theories, and one that seemed more and more likely to me once it was announced that Palpatine would return for TROS. (Even if I originally assumed she was Luke’s daughter after TFA.) Generally, I’m ok with her being a Palpatine even if it wasn’t what I would have preferred. I liked the idea from TLJ that she really was a nobody, and the idea that you don’t have to come from some famous background to be a hero or be important. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the more broad idea that you’re not defined by your background, and your name or your parents are not responsible for your legacy. Rey is able to set aside her shameful family name and her evil grandfather and choose a family and a name that has more meaning to her. Star Wars has always been about the families you create being more important than those you’re born with, so in that sense it fits thematically.
Rey’s struggle throughout the trilogy has been about identity. First she defined herself solely by the parents she was waiting for and the longing she had for a family that wanted her. She learned to stop waiting for that family and went looking for “someone to show me my place” in TLJ. But she eventually learned that she alone was enough, and she didn’t need to be defined by a family she had waited for that would never come back. In ROTS she learns she’s a Palpatine and that her parents abandoned her for her own safety, which is kind of a cop out from TLJ’s claim that they sold her for drinking money, but both have enough truth to work with the “certain point of view” theme that is a constant through Star Wars. And I could totally see how choosing the Skywalker name could feel like a step backwards for many people, but I look at it as coming full circle for her, not waiting for someone to bring her meaning, and no longer feeling like she has to stand alone, she chooses to take the name of those who meant so much to her, to keep what they fought for alive in a way that is stronger than blood.
I appreciated the return to Tattooine as a fan, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a final resting place for the lightsabers from Rey’s perspective. Leia has no connection to the Lars homestead, but whatever. It’s symbolic more for the story than for the literal actions of the character. What I don’t understand is people claiming online that the scene means Rey is going to now live there? That doesn’t seem implied or stated by the scene at all. I guess it comes from the title of the track on the soundtrack, “A New Home,” but I think believing Rey is actually going to live there seems like a misreading of the character even in a movie as messy as TROS. I kind of hope that she took the kyber crystals from the two sabers and is using them in her new, yellow saber, though.
Then there’s Ben Solo. I haven’t been a fan of Kylo Ren at all. I thought he made for an interesting villain, but I wasn’t eager to see his redemption and I certainly didn’t ship him and Rey. But I very much enjoyed his arc in TROS, and especially Adam Driver’s performance. I appreciate that he was able to be redeemed as Ben Solo without an unrealistically happy ending after participating in the murder of billions with Starkiller Base. I don’t think I would have been able to buy that, though had he survived and gone into hiding to do atone in secret I could have accepted that too. There’s definitely some nice parallels to Anakin with Ben having the power to bring Rey back from death, and his sacrifice was a fitting end to the Skywalker line, a line of Jedi who came into being to balance out Palpatine’s rise and which ended with Palpatine’s fall. I can get on board with that. The scene with his memory of his father was an emotional, but predictable, surprise, and I especially love that his mother was the one to turn him and Rey back from the darkness. Driver really sold the transformation, and his wordless performance as Ben for the rest of the film was truly special.
I’ve admitted to not being a Reylo shipper, and I’m happy to admit that shipping has never been a particularly passionate thing to me in fandoms generally. I enjoy the anticipation of possible relationships, and I definitely have couples I ship, but I’m rarely too upset when things don’t work out. But I also recognize that as a man there is probably something significant I’m missing in Reylo, so I’m trying to do my part to listen to why some people are so upset. I know many women identify with Rey and were thrilled to have a character they could see themselves in in Star Wars. So I can see how it feels like a betrayal that the relationship between Rey and Ben ends in tragedy because it feels like the powers that be are saying to women that they simply can’t have it all. They can be heroes but they have to be alone. I don’t personally read the story that way, but I can definitely see how it would feel like that kind of statement and I have no interest in dismissing that pain or that interpretation. I believe and I hope that Rey goes on to a full and happy life with her friends Finn and Poe and Rose and the droids, finds love and happiness and family and gets to continue being a hero to the galaxy. I don’t think the film contradicts that vision, it just doesn’t take the opportunity to show that a woman can have it all, which is understandably like a betrayal to many.
Speaking of Finn and Poe, what a wasted opportunity for the two of them. There are racial implications to Poe’s backstory as a drug smuggler that I don’t feel qualified to address and which I admit didn’t occur to me until they were pointed out. After all of his growth in TLJ, he basically became Han Solo this time around. Finn had one great scene with Jannah about leaving the First Order, but that was most of his story, too. Apparently his secret for Rey is that he’s Force sensitive? I don’t have an issue with it, but it didn’t add anything to the film and felt kind of tacked on. Really, the biggest missed opportunity was for Finn and Poe to become a couple, which would have worked so well in the film’s finale, but I have no doubt the powers that be weren’t ready to go that bold. LGBTQ+ representation is extremely important, and it’s no small deal that TROS has the first onscreen same sex kiss for Star Wars. But how awesome would have been for Finn and Poe to kiss upon their reunion? That could have been Finn’s secret.
I don’t really know what to say about Palpatine being the puppet master this whole time. It seems like it was the easy decision for the production team to make to please fans and find a way to wrap up the trilogy where they clearly didn’t have a plan. I don’t particularly care that Snoke was grown in a vat, but I don’t have a problem with it either. I can accept Palpatine surviving the end of Return of the Jedi even if it’s inherently silly. It’s just… fine. The Palpatine stuff was the least interesting aspect of the film for me, and this is from someone who loves Palpatine in all of the Lucas films. He’s a fascinating character in the prequels and in ROTJ, but here he was just kind of cartoonish. He’s probably the only villain that would have felt big enough and provide enough of a threat to work with Rey and Ben’s story, so it’s fine from that standpoint, it just wasn’t super interesting to me.
I was kind of overwhelmed by the Jedi voices encouraging Rey, so I’ll have to pay closer attention on the next viewing, but I love that they brought in more than just the obvious ones from the films. Nice to hear Ahsoka and Kanan! As far as other cameos, it was nice to see the Ghost from Rebels and Wedge return in the finale (though right after Wedge lost his adopted son, Snap), and I’ll be curious to watch people dissect the footage as time goes on to see what other hidden gems are scattered among the fleet. I loved the “They’re not a navy, they’re just… people” line so much, and it was one of the most Star Wars lines in the film. The idea that “Rebellions are built on Hope” is one I cling to desperately, and I loved the idea in this film that villains win by making people feel alone.
There’s a lot of healthy debate going on about how much TROS was intended to undo TLJ, but a lot of that comes from having lived the fan backlash the last two years. It would be impossible for the experience of watching the movie not to be colored by everything that has happened. But for the most part I read a lot of the “corrections” as growth and development rather than antipathy towards TLJ. Things like Luke preventing Rey from destroying the lightsaber feel like Luke acknowledging his failures, something that feels very in tune with his character growth in TLJ and Yoda’s lesson for him. I choose not to buy into the theory that JJ and Rian hate each other and there’s some kind of war between them. That’s just silly to me, even if they have very different styles of filmmaking and storytelling.
In all, I’m curious to see how and if my feelings about The Rise of Skywalker change with time and repeat viewings. I know I won’t become more accepting of things like the sidelining of Rose or the flattening of Poe and Finn. But things like the overstuffed plot and the Palpatine stuff that I’m neutral on now could go either way. Could I go back in time I would have given this trilogy to a single director, or at least found someone with a singular vision for the sequels. I don’t begrudge anyone being disappointed or hurt, but for now I’m choosing to be positive. It doesn’t undo the things I found most meaningful in The Last Jedi, particularly Luke’s story. It gives Leia a loving ending and Carrie a beautiful sendoff. It leaves the door open for more adventures while putting a reasonably satisfying cap on the Skywalker Saga. And Rogue One still exists. I can be happy with this messy, pandering film for now, and maybe one day I’ll grow to love it.

Let’s talk about Luke, and other spoiler-filled thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Our son’s name is Luke. I have a ring I wear at all times with his name on it in his memory after he was stillborn nine months ago. And while there were plenty of Luke’s that could have, and did, inspire our son’s name (including the Biblical Luke as well as Lukes Danes and Kuechly), I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t named after Luke Skywalker. It was such an obvious name choice for me that it was set in my mind long before I ever met my wife, and despite never discussing it my best friend still accurately guessed it before we made the name public. My point in all of this is so that when I say that Luke Skywalker is my favorite character from anything I have ever watched, read, seen, or experienced, you understand the depth of what I mean. I’d pick Luke Skywalker over the countless characters who have meant so much to me, from Atticus Finch to Data, more than Hermione, Neville, and Luna, beyond River Tam or Buffy Summers, past even WALL-E or Casey Newton. Luke Skywalker helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life, through depression and isolation. He taught me about storytelling, sparked my love of movies and fanned the flames of my love of reading. So needless to say I had a lot of fear going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi over how my favorite character and my son’s namesake would be treated and used. Ultimately, directory Rian Johnson made a completely different choice than I would have at every possible turn, and the result was a bold, thrilling, adventure that advanced Star Wars in unexpected ways filled with new depths. But I have many, many thoughts to wrestle out with regards to Luke Skywalker that simply couldn’t be discussed in a spoiler-free review. So read on for a more in-depth SPOILER-FILLED look at not only Luke’s story but other aspects of The Last Jedi worthy of discussion.

Seriously, SPOILERS AHEAD!

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So, about the ending to Baby Driver…

I really enjoyed Baby Driver. Edgar Wright delivered a tightly crafted, exquisitely choreographed thrill ride of a movie, with a killer soundtrack and some of the best action sequences of the year. I loved the eccentric characters, the chemistry between Ansel Elgort’s Baby and Lily James’ Debora in particular, although at times it felt like it was trying a little too hard to be a Tarantino film, particularly with bits of the dialogue. I’m still amazed by the intricacy of the filming and post production work required to make each moment of the film move in rhythm with whatever song happens to be playing on Baby’s iPod. Baby Driver was a solid A film for me, and I look forward to seeing it again as I know I’ll pick up on many details I missed the first time.

However, I find myself still hung up on Baby Driver’s ending. (Spoilers below, obviously!) Continue reading

Rogue One is not Jyn’s story, it’s the Rebellion’s, and other thoughts

I’ve had all sorts of thoughts rattling around in my head since I first saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I gave it an A in my review, and I stand by that, especially as a reflection of how I feel about the film having now seen it twice. On the other hand, I don’t think Rogue One is necessarily that great of a movie either. It has some major character development issues that are for me its biggest shortcoming, particularly when held up to The Force Awakens whose greatest assets was its characters. So I wanted a chance to talk about the things I love about Rogue One, the things that frustrate me about it, and any other observations I might have. (I did something similar for The Force Awakens.) Needless to say there will be Spoilers Below for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Here, in no particular order, are some Rogue One thoughts and opinions that continue to clog up my brain. And of course, keep in mind that all of this is coming from someone who unashamedly loves the prequels.

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Contact, the Lonely Scientist, and the Loneliness within us all

The Lonely Scientist

This post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehnerand Silver Screenings. Day 1 is all about good scientists, day 2 is for mad scientists, and day 3 covers lonely scientists. 

Scientists are often lonely creatures. Between the time they spend in labs, doing research, sorting through endless data, and working on equipment, it’s easy to see why. But while scientists in the real world often work in teams with others, movie scientists typically don’t have that luxury, making movie scientists some of the loneliest characters onscreen. In the movies, scientists are often at odds with society or those in power, often serving as the lone voice of reason in a chaotic story. Frequently they have to pursue their studies alone, whether by choice or because they’ve been ostracized from everyone else, and sometimes their passions and beliefs make it hard for them to connect to others when the opportunity arises. No matter if the movie scientist is a good one, a mad one, or even an evil one, loneliness seems like it’s typically part of the journey for these characters. And in my mind there’s no lonelier scientist on film than Ellie Arroway from Contact.

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Tony Stark the Mad Scientist – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Peace in our time 

This post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Day 1 is all about good scientists, day 2 is for mad scientists, and day 3 covers lonely scientists. 

The idea of “mad scientists” is probably as old as science, and it’s certainly been around since the beginning of cinema. There are countless iterations, from Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Jekyll, and it’s easy to see why the concept makes for such compelling storytelling. They’re often tragic heroes in the classic sense, full of noble intentions but undone by their own ambition or shortsightedness. The mad scientist is of course distinct from the “evil genius”. Where an evil genius is typically the villain of a story, using their knowledge and ability for nefarious purposes, the mad scientist is typically a character with noble intentions who is subject to the tragic flaw of being unable to see the consequences of their actions until they’re too late. (Then there are good scientists who are just kind of crazy or reclusive, whom I wouldn’t typically classify as “mad.) To me, there’s no better use of the mad scientist trope than in last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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Jurassic Park and the Responsibility of Good Scientists


This post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Day 1 is all about good scientists, day 2 is for mad scientists, and day 3 covers lonely scientists. 

What makes a scientist “good”? Some scientists cure diseases, other scientists research new technologies that help people, while others fight to protect the planet, and we’d probably call all of these “good” scientists. But what makes a movie scientist “good”? In many films about scientists, they’re often using science to overcome impossible odds, or trying to uncover the truth when those in power would rather keep it quiet, but for me the defining “goodness” of a movie scientist is measured by their devotion to scientific ethics, to using science for the betterment of society rather than for personal gain or glory, and to understanding the consequences of science. And in my book, there’s no better example (outside of Star Trek, of course) than the scientists in Jurassic Park. And the qualities that make them good scientists are all on display in one key scene in the film.

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France on Film Blogathon: Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf)

This post is a part of the France on Film Blogathon, hosted by Serendipitous Anachronisms. Day 1 focuses on French cinema, while day 2 will cover France as a film subject.

I can probably count on my two hands the number of French films I’ve seen. I’m in no way an expert on French cinema, despite having a great appreciation for it. I’ve been to France twice, but only as a tourist. I don’t speak the language, and while I know more than the average American about French history I’m sure my knowledge pales in comparison to the average European. Basically, I have no authority to speak with any certainty on French culture, history, or cinema, with one exception: one of my all-time favorite films is French. Le Pacte des loups (in English: Brotherhood of the Wolf), is a bizarre, unique mash-up of period drama, monster movie, and martial arts action film, but it’s also intense, emotional, funny, sexy, and simply gorgeous to look at. And, above all, it feels like the sort of film that could only have been made in France.

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My Top 12 (and Bottom 3) at the Movies in 2015

We’ve almost reached the end of 2015, and it was a big year for movies. It’s been a year of long-awaited sequels, broken box office records, and some really fantastic movies. There was a lot to love from the movies in 2015, and a few things that weren’t quite so good, so here are my favorite and least favorite things from the world of cinema this year. I generally don’t do a “top 10 films” list, because I don’t get a chance to see everything, and many of the so-called “Oscar bait” films don’t get wide releases until after the year is over. Of course, the best part of 2015 at the movies was getting to interact with so many great people here on the blog, and on Twitter and Tumblr, but I lack the words to properly express my grattitude for you taking the time to read what I write, comment, and discuss movies with me. So instead I present my favorite (and least favorite) movie-related items from the year, comprised of films, characters, scenes, events, themes, and trends from 2015. And let’s hope 2016 is even better!

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Complaints, Praise, and Questions for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (spoilers!)

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is almost impossible to discuss without spoiling something, which meant that my review had to be necessarily vague, constraining itself to what we’ve seen in the trailers and basic general knowledge about the film. But I have lots of thoughts still to share, so this article will be filled with spoilers. There’s a lot to discuss in The Force Awakens, both good and bad, and yes there’s actually a bit of bad. I may have given the film an A in my review but I have more than a few complaints, some of which are entirely a reflection of my own views of the franchise but others are legitimate issues with the film itself. I’m not going to dive back into the fact that I consider The Force Awakens to be (really good) fanfiction, but it’s safe to say that the events in the film felt somewhat inconsequential to me knowing that we weren’t seeing the true vision of George Lucas. But I don’t want this to turn into a nitpicky, whining article, because there were many things I loved about the film. And then there are just some observations and questions I was left with after my first viewing. Of course, my feelings on all of these might change the more I see the film, but let’s take a look at some spoiler filled thoughts about The Force Awakens.

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