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.

Review: The Post

When I tell people that my favorite director is Steven Spielberg, I tend to get a lot of eye rolls from fellow movie buffs. He’s considered too popular or mainstream, he plays it too safe and isn’t edgy or artistic enough, he’s too sentimental and melodramatic, his only interest is in spectacle, etc. Cinephiles love to hate on the man who is probably the most successful (critically and commercially) filmmaker of the last fifty years, and are often quick to point out alternative artists who they feel has a similar career but does everything better (Christopher Nolan frequently pops up in these discussions). But from now on when anyone brings up these hackneyed Spielberg criticisms I will simply point them to one scene from The Post and ask them to show me another filmmaker who could make that scene any better.

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Review: The Greatest Showman

I’ve always loved the phrase “more than the sum of its parts,” particularly when it comes to film. Like any view on movies it’s an entirely subjective opinion, but it’s a phrase I’ve been known to use. I appreciate the fact that it so easily communicates a quality that can be unique to film, that sometimes a movie rises above the potentially mediocre pieces from which it is assembled to become something more. We all have movies that feel this way to us, that have poor acting, an uninspired story, or other faults, yet still manages to capture our hearts. However, there is of course another side to this coin. Some movies have wonderful individual moments, whether great acting, an engaging story, or beautiful production design, yet they leave you feeling disappointed, as though they’re wasting the enjoyable bits. So despite loving much of The Greatest Showman, including its performances, many of its musical numbers, and its message, I was left feeling like it was less than the sum of its parts.

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Spoiler-Free Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the film that finally allowed me to be at peace with the new trilogy of Star Wars movies. There was a lot that I loved about The Force Awakens two years ago. I thought the new cast of characters were all compelling, particularly Rey and Finn. I enjoyed seeing the old favorites back, I appreciated the way it tried to honor the films that came before, and generally found it to be both a fun ride and an emotional experience. At the same time, there were a number of things in The Force Awakens that did not sit well with me, which ultimately served as distractions from the experience. I felt its tone was inconsistent and its humor occasionally felt forced or like it didn’t fit stylistically within the greater Star Wars saga. It occasionally felt too much like fan fiction (and I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it tried too hard to try to distance itself from the prequels. It also was far too much of a remake of A New Hope, which is not a huge deal for me the way it is for other people but which felt kind of lazy. Most of all, it bothered me that they were continuing the main series of films without George Lucas, and in fact intentionally disregarding any plans he might have had for them. I understand why they did it, but The Force Awakens did not justify these new uncharted waters they were sailing. (On the other hand, I 100% love Rogue One, even if its characters aren’t nearly as strong as those in The Force Awakens.)

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5 Things I Love about Moana

In an effort to cut through the backlog of movies left to review after everything that’s happened the last couple of years, I’m going back to movies I skipped and giving them each 5 Things. These can be things I loved, things I hated, or anything in between, they’re just 5 thoughts I had about the movie. Today I’m tackling Moana, one of my favorite movies of 2016, and probably my favorite Disney animated film since Tangled. I gave it an A+ in my movie log at the time I saw it, and I probably love it even more today than I did then. It’s gorgeous, has fantastic music, and characters I find immensely relatable and compelling. So without further ado, here are 5 Things I Love about Moana!

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Review: Geostorm

I’ve never liked the phrase “so bad, it’s good” when it comes to movies, even though I’ve used it myself. The truth is it can occasionally be the perfect description for a movie that is enjoyable not in spite of its badness but because of it. But I don’t subscribe to the notion of film quality as something quantitative that can be numerically measured, even though we all give grades to movies. I especially don’t think that there’s some hypothetical badness line where once you cross it a movie suddenly becomes good again. There are plenty of bad movies that I genuinely like, but also plenty of “equally” bad movies that are just torture to watch with no possibility of enjoyment whatsoever. But beyond this philosophical disagreement with the idea of a “so bad, it’s good” movie, I’m not a fan of movies that intentionally strive to be terrible with the hopes of crossing that imaginary barrier into the “so bad, it’s good” realm. The Sharknado series comes to mind, which works very hard to be bad in order to try to capture an audience that might be out there looking for the next sublime failure. That sort of thing holds no interest to me. “So bad, it’s good” movies are ultimately a very personal thing, just like all movies are. What I might love in an awful movie someone else might find insufferable, and simply having a bad story, bad acting, bad writing, or bad directing isn’t necessarily going to make something likable. Making a great, bad movie is much more difficult than that, but it also requires a very subjective reaction. So when I say that Geostorm is dumb, loud, clumsy, and ridiculous, know that it’s an objectively poor film. But when I also say that watching it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in many years, know also that I enjoyed it both because of its badness and because of my own personal preferences when it comes to bad entertainment.

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Review: Logan

Note: I’m changing the way I write movie reviews. Longtime readers have probably noticed that I haven’t written nearly as much here on the site as I used to. There are a host of reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact that my wife and I are expecting a baby later this month. I’d like to get back to writing more often, and one of the ways I want to do that is to be a little less structured in what I write. I’ve always felt a need to adhere to a certain formula with my movie reviews, but I’ve realized that I’ve grown a bit weary of the routine. I always have many thoughts about movies I see, but I’m more likely to share those thoughts if I allow myself to be freer. So in my reviews from now on I’m not going to feel the need to talk about aspects of the film that don’t interest me. I’m not going to go out of my way to recap the plot, point out all of the major cast members, or comment on aspects of the production that didn’t provoke a reaction. Also, since I’m a lot slower to write reviews than I used to be, I’m not going to shy away from some minor spoilers. Anything major I want to talk about will still go below a spoiler warning, but I’m going to assume that major spoilerphobes will have seen the film by the time I get around to writing about it. I may also post reviews in a wider variety of lengths, letting myself ramble on when I have more to say but not forcing myself to write more than I want. Hopefully this will all allow for more frequent updates and a more pleasant and interesting reading experience. As always, thanks for reading!

There’s no logical reason for Logan to be as good as it is. Wolverine’s two previous solo outings have varied from mediocre and disappointing to flat-out horrible, and the most recent X-Men movies haven’t been substantially better. It’s been 14 years since the last movie in this disjointed series which I wholeheartedly loved, X2, which still stands as one of my favorite superhero films. Honestly at this point I would be more than happy to see the series die, to give these characters a much needed rest. Logan marks the 9th film in the X-Franchise (not counting Deadpool), and at this point there should be very little left to say about these characters. I know that Hollywood is a business, and FOX will continue exploiting this familiar territory for the brand recognition alone, but they’ve retread the same ground over and over again with nothing new to contribute so often that I’ve grown weary of the entire endeavor. I didn’t even really want to see Logan, I was wary of being burned again after The Wolverine started with such promise and ended up so disappointing. So when I say that Logan is a genuinely good film, and it even has moments of greatness, understand that while this is coming from a place of low expectations I’m not judging merely judging this on a curve. Logan is a fitting companion to the original X-Men films, good enough to almost make it worth slogging through some of the more recent movies in order to reach this point, and far better than it has any right to be.

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Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Harry Potter is back in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! No, wait, this isn’t The Cursed Child, though it is filled all of your favorite Harry Potter characters! Ok, maybe not, but you might recognize a few names here or there. But it is set in the beloved world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series! Well alright, it’s actually set in the 1920s in New York, filled with unfamiliar magical slang and completely foreign to both our protagonist and to viewers. Still, this is the Harry Potter spinoff that everyone has yearned for since the series concluded! No, it’s not? So why should anyone care about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, when it seemingly lacks everything that audiences grew to love about the Harry Potter saga? For starters, it’s an exciting, dark, fun, funny, emotional, and immensely creative film set in a rich and fascinating world that is strong enough to stand on its own. It deepens and broadens the Harry Potter universe, showing us previously unexplored aspects, locations, and eras of the wizarding world providing new insights and a greater context for the events that shaped the life of the Boy Who Lived. And it kicks off a five film series in a way that’s far more topical, political, relevant, and just more interesting than any of the Harry Potter films that came before (matching the tone of the later books much more closely than the movies). And most importantly to me at least, this is the story that J.K. Rowling wanted to tell, that she thought would be the most compelling way to expand and explore the universe she created. As far as I’m concerned she was right, and I can’t wait to see more.

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Review: Doctor Strange

The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding, seemingly showing no signs of stopping. Each new film brings us new heroes to fight new villains, new locations or planets filled with people to save, and new clashes and conflicts to bring characters together or drive them apart. But while Doctor Strange certainly continues the trend, it broadens the universe in entirely new ways, pushing not only the boundaries of superhero storytelling but of visual craftsmanship. It’s a mind-bending head trip of a film, which attempts to introduce a spiritual aspect to an otherwise science fiction series, all while serving up some of the most creative and exhilarating action sequences in recent memory. Doctor Strange may stick to the tried and true Marvel origin story formula, but it’s a fun ride anchored by a strong cast and impressive effects, and it offers an intriguing glimpse into the potential future of this ever-expanding Universe.

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Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The 1960 classic, The Magnificent Seven, has never been a film inconsideration for the title of “Greatest Western of All Time”. It isn’t as iconic and influential as Shane nor as intense or symbolic as High Noon. It lacks the epic expansiveness of The Searchers as well as the gritty, violent realism of The Wild Bunch. It failed to reinvent the genre or subvert expectations like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Unforgiven. Yet in spite of all that, I’ve long counted The Magnificent Seven among my favorite Western films, possibly my very favorite movie genre. The remake of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai combined a talented cast, solid direction from John Sturges, and one of the most memorable film scores of all time to create a fun, exciting adventure with a surprising amount of depth. The new remake of the 1960 remake, therefore, has a lot to live up to, and when it adheres to its predecessor’s formula it largely succeeds, even in spite of a few missteps along the way.

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