on: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

[Major spoilers abound. They are necessary because imma do a full dissection of this coprolite up in here.]

Part I – JJ Abrams killed Star Wars

1. The Rise of Skywalker (henceforth abbreviated to RoS) is awfully generous. I was planning to start this review by saying that RoS‘s villain being a zombie version of the original trilogy’s villain was a perfect metaphor for this movie and the sequel trilogy as a whole, but waddya know, RoS proceeds to give me an even better one! So here we go – early in The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) repairs the helmet that he smashed in The Last Jedi (with obvious sear marks), which he proceeds to wear for only a few scenes. This is a perfect metaphor for The Rise of Skywalker and the sequel trilogy as a whole – clumsily put together, obsessed with retconning[1] itself, and existing only to remind viewers of the original trilogy. One of the (many, many) good ideas of Rian COTBESWMSEYITSEYBSO[2] Johnson’s The Last Jedi (henceforth abbreviated to TLJ) was having Ren smash the helmet, which only existed because he was mimicking (both textually and meta-textually) Darth Vader, thus establishing him as his own villain. And JJ Abrams makes a point to walk it back. For approximately two scenes, with little to no narrative purpose. Just because. The fact that this movie has multiple examples of its own pointlessness is no accident. It speaks to the utter dearth of creativity in this trilogy (barring one single, shining exception that it now treats like a red-headed stepchild). It speaks to the fact that this franchise only serves to fellate an increasingly toxic fanbase who prioritises being congratulated for being one of the unique few to be fans one of the world’s most popular intellectual properties over, I dunno, interesting storytelling. It speaks to the fact that Star Wars as we know it is a zombie franchise, an undead thing that shambles around with no discernible plan other than an insatiable hunger. The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst Star Wars movie (not when Attack of the Clones exists). But it is certainly the least interesting. And that is the greater crime.

Pictured: Useful metaphor.

2. So, the movie itself. Where to begin? Should I start with the fact that the first fifteen minutes are some of the worst edited sections in Star Wars, because JJ Abrams needs to desperately squeeze in every detail that he wishes was actually in Episode VIII? This is not hyperbole, by the way. Shots bear no connection to each other. The movie starts with Kylo Ren cutting through a bunch of aliens on one planet and then arriving at a different planet to meet Emperor Palpatine (and we will talk about that, believe you me). Did he kill the aliens because they were guarding the secret of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)? Were they guarding him? If so, then why were they on a different planet? It’s all a beautiful mystery. After which, we get a bunch of exposition with various characters on various planets. There are no establishing shots, so when Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) exchange information with another ship, I cannot tell you whether it takes place on an asteroid, a planet, or a moon. I just know it’s icy. Abrams attempts to hide this by using nauseating handheld camerawork and ADHD cutting, but it just adds more confusion. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has a conversation with Leia (Carrie Fisher), where she vomits exposition to Fisher’s body double before we cut to a reverse shot of Leia nodding or saying one line that bears little connection to what was said before. Obviously all scenes with Leia had to be cobbled together due to Fisher’s untimely passing, but did it have to be so shoddily done? Characters run around a lot and shout at each other unnecessarily to create the illusion of narrative momentum. It is all very loud and very pointless. And these are just the first fifteen minutes!

3. The problems with the narrative do not abate, though I’m happy to say the filmmaking gets more competent as the movie progresses (barring a desert chase that I would say is edited like a Michael Bay scene, except Bay would probably have done a better job). There is an axiom that the best storytelling does not use ‘and then’. It uses ‘but’, ‘however’, and ‘therefore’. One thing leads to another. RoS is a story held together only by ‘and thens’. It is a movie full of incident with little plot. It contorts itself into knots to provide fanservice, even when said fanservice is completely illogical. Why does Rey return to the Lars homestead to mourn Luke and Leia, when Leia had never been there and Luke wanted nothing more than to escape it? Why, so that Abrams can repeat the shot of his protagonist backgrounded by the twin setting suns, that’s why. Why does Maz Kanata give Chewbacca a medal saying ‘you deserve this’ at the end of the movie when no medals are given out? Why, so that we can undo the fact that Chewbacca didn’t get a medal at the end of A New Hope, that’s why. RoS has a screenplay holier than the Temple Mount, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and St. Peter’s Basilica combined. Things happen because they have to, not because they make sense.[3] Perhaps nothing sums up RoS‘s failure of storytelling than this. When the big reveal (and of course there’s a big reveal, because JJ Abrams believes in his impossibly stupid mystery box storytelling technique) arrives, it landed with the force of wet tissue paper falling onto a carpet. Two people in my theatre chuckled at it. And speaking of the big reveal …

Part II – Rian Johnson killed Star Wars

4. Let’s cut to the chase. The fact that Rey is Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter is the most monumentally idiotic decision in the Star Wars franchise. It just creates more questions than answers. Why is this the first we’ve heard of this nine movies in? Aren’t Jedi (and the Sith) celibate? At what point was this whole ‘secret Emperor family’ supposed to take place? I’ve tried parsing the timeline, and it makes no sense. And finally, who the hell would want to bone the Emperor? Above all, it walks back one of the (many, many) great ideas in TLJ – that the Force is not hereditary, that Rey could come from nothing and be powerful, that (to paraphrase another great movie) not everyone can become a Jedi, but a Jedi can come from anywhere. Now, we are back to this. It’s all in the blood. The Force is basically the divine right of kings. It shrinks a universe of grand scope into the petty squabbles of two families. Ah, but I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as though millions of voices suddenly cried out in pedantry. “But JJ Abrams intended it that way from the start!” you say. Indeed he did. And it was a fucking stupid decision then, as it is now. Rian Johnson fixed it (see seven lines above for how). And then Abrams unfixed it, because that was supposedly the masterplan.

5. It is remarkable how thickheaded this retconning is. Abrams makes a buffoonish decision in The Force Awakens (henceforth abbreviated to TFA). Johnson fixes it in an elegant manner in TLJ. Abrams then unfixes it inelegantly in RoS. Let’s count them. We’ve talked about Rey’s parentage already. Snoke was a mere copycat of the Emperor, so he got (in one of the few genuinely shocking moments in this damn trilogy) offed and the much more compelling Kylo Ren was elevated to head villain except no wait, turns out the Emperor was pulling the strings of everything in the background all the time![4] Luke’s in hiding and will come back to save us all but he’s a crabby hermit who messed up big time (the only vaguely interesting consideration of how these characters might have changed in the meantime) oh no wait here’s his wise sage Force ghost to inspire Rey again. The swaggering big-dicked rogue hero archetype learns a lesson about taking a step back to consider the ramifications of his actions and of course he bloody well doesn’t in this one, haven’t you been paying attention? The Last Jedi was not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it was daring, clever, unique (especially for a franchise movie), and a genuine breath of fresh air that looked like it could liven up an increasingly stale franchise.

6. In contrast, what RoS represents is a retreat to safe mediocrity. It is a sequel to TFA in text (it essentially cuts out TLJ to form it’s own weird ‘duology’) and in tone, by avoiding the merest hint of anything interesting to regurgitate the plot, structure, and sometimes even shots of the original trilogy. This risk-aversion can be seen in how steadfastly it avoids having its characters face any consequences (I dealt with something similar in my Joker review) for their actions. Oh no Rey lost control of her powers and killed Chewie … and he’s revealed to be alive in literally the next scene. Oh no C3PO has to sacrifice his memories for the mission … and nope R2 has a backup (why?) of his memories saved. Oh no Poe lost his (very hastily established) ex-girlfriend jk she’s alive and somehow got off the exploding planet even though it was established earlier that she could not fly away how did she do that hey look it’s Billy Dee Williams! Yet, RoS lacks TFA‘s surface-level pleasures, largely because while the latter film had the benefit of a blank canvas to breezily zip across, the former has to sweatily wrap up all its half-baked plot threads, which bogs it down in a narrative mire. In many ways, JJ Abrams is paying for misusing the opportunity Episode VII provided him to create a mere facsimile of A New Hope, because without establishing anything new, how is a sequel trilogy expected to dig itself out of the rut of simply repeating the same thing over and over again?

Pictured: Creativity. See the Death Star was a space station, but Starkiller Base is a whole planet instead. Clever, no? 

7. Yet, I have some marginal sympathy for the task that Abrams has. How exactly does one tell the opening and closing chapters of a story with no control over the middle, especially when the person in the middle has such radically different ideas from your own? As much as I enjoyed (and more importantly, respected) Johnson’s direction, there is no doubt that it was a huge departure from Abrams. Furthermore, Johnson closed off many of Abrams’s plot threads, such as Rey’s parentage and Snoke’s presence, and set up a brand new status quo that rejected the old Jedi-Sith dichotomy and replaced it with the idea that there were multiple Force-sensitives in the universe. This was clearly not the story Abrams wanted to tell, so I find it hard to really blame him for wanting to start from whole cloth. As much as I consider his plotting and themes hackery of the highest order, he should have had the opportunity to make the slavishly copycat mediocre trilogy he wanted to.

Part III – Disney killed Star Wars

Please don’t hurt me, Mickey

8. This brings us to the very obvious question. Why did Disney, upon buying the Star Wars IP, structure the new trilogy in this format? To jog your memory, Disney had initially announced that Episodes VII, VIII and IX of the new trilogy would be written and directed by JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow respectively – three directors of varying styles and skill levels. Trevorrow eventually left the project over ‘creative differences’. I’d like to imagine those ‘differences’ included someone watching Jurassic World and realising just how terrible it was. Abrams was then announced to take over Episode IX. So … why? How on earth did this make any sense? The original trilogy and prequel trilogy were, for better or worse, George Lucas’s vision. Sure they had different writers and directors (at least for the OT), but they were unmistakably shepherded by Lucas in all aspect – narrative, characterisation, design, etc. Even looking at the current cinematic landscape, the best-run franchises all have a single creative person or team guiding them – Kevin Feige for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie for the Mission Impossible series, James Wan for The Conjuring, Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves for the John Wick series. Who is this person for Star Wars?

9. The obvious answer here is Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm and producer for all Star Wars media since the Disney sale. Now, while Kennedy is a terrific producer (made clear by her filmography), there has been no evidence so far that she has taken as active a role in charting the narrative course of Star Wars as Feige has for the MCU. Indeed, both Abrams and Johnson (and Trevorrow, while he was still attached) seem to have had quite a bit of free rein to develop the sequel trilogy in whatever way they saw fit. I’m not saying this cannot work. The DC films have been greatly improved ever since they binned Zack Snyder and allowed filmmakers like James Wan, Patty Jenkins and David F. Sandberg to develop their own very different movies, with upcoming ones by James Gunn and Cathy Yan to follow. But while such an approach makes sense in a sprawling extended universe, it does not when telling a single coherent narrative. Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan did not let somebody else direct The Two Towers and The Dark Knight respectively. Also of note is the high praise that has been heaped on The Mandalorian (full disclosure, I have not seen a single episode yet, so I might not actually like it), with many reviewers taking special care to point out that the entire series has been managed by showrunner Jon Favreau. If it works so well for TV (with an inherently more diffuse creative process), why do something so different for the movies?

I sense your attention flagging, so here’s a picture of Baby Yoda.

10. It is also impossible not to consider the behind-the-scenes shenanigans for the other Star Wars films outside of the sequel trilogy. Rogue One had to undergo reshoots with director Tony Gilroy (formerly not involved with the film) so extensive that Gilroy actually ended up with a screenwriting credit. These reshoots included the famous Darth Vader scene at the end, which serves as a microcosm of the issues plaguing Star Wars in the Disney era – obsessed with providing fanservice at the cost of narrative, thematic and tonal coherence.[5] Solo was even more of a clusterfuck behind-the-scenes, with writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller unceremoniously fired midway after it emerged that Lucasfilm disagreed with the way Lord and Miller were making the film overtly comedic. Y’know, because you hire the creators of The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street to make serious drama. All this leads me to two conclusions – Lucasfilm (and Disney) are embarking on the production (and in some cases even post-production) of these movies without having a confirmed story (let alone a complete trilogy arc), and are appallingly inconsistent on when they exert creative control. The whole point of the ‘Star Wars Story’ imprint was to allow for different types of stories to be told in the Star Wars universe, such as a war movie and a comedy. This would allow differentiation from the more tightly managed sequel trilogy, which would be more in line with ‘Star Wars‘ as we knew it. So it is mindboggling that Lucasfilm meddled so much in Rogue One and Solo, which were the movies intended to be divergent, and took such a seemingly hands-off approach to the plotting of the sequel trilogy.[6] It is such an ass-backward approach that reveals volumes about how little Lucasfilm cares about narrative and story.

Part IV – We killed Star Wars

11. But if Lucasfilm does not care about the story of Star Wars, then what the hell is there to care about? The answer, if you have been paying attention to this overlong tome, is obvious. They care about (again, aside from one shining exception) pleasing the fans in the most base and slavish manner. So Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, Threepio, Artoo, Lando, Palpatine, Vader, Maul, Obi-wan, even fucking Admiral Ackbar must return, regardless of whether they serve any narrative purpose, or even worse, walk back much of the character growth of the original trilogy. Someone must say ‘I have a bad feeling about this.’ The Falcon must fly. The new characters must sit, starry-eyed, and listen to the tales of old. Lightsabers. Twin suns. Now that’s podracing … no wait, they didn’t dare callback to that one, the cowards. And so these symbols appear onscreen and the audience claps and we move onto the next action scene to pass time until the next symbol appears. Above all, the audience must feel special for being catered to, for being in on the world’s biggest in-joke. Abrams has justly received flak for TFA essentially being a remake of A New Hope, but considering the vitriol poured onto Johnson by so many snowflakes unhappy that their safe space has been invaded (yes, I went there, because nothing gives my shrivelled heart more joy than reflecting nonsense back on the people who spout it), who can blame him?

12. The mandate for Episode VII clearly was to make something as safe as possible, to reassure fans after the disaster of the prequel trilogy. Now, I’m not contrarian or bonkers enough to defend the merits of the prequel trilogy. They are bad films. But they tried. Goddammit, they tried. Trade embargoes and discussions over voting blocs in the Galactic Senate were boring and convoluted, but they were signs that Lucas actually tried to tell a complex and challenging story. The reason why the prequel trilogy is memetic as hell is because of this effort. Susan Sontag famously said that pure Camp is unintentional, and boy oh boy do the prequels meet that definition. It is the overreaching ambition, the corny dialogue that has no idea it is corny, the touchingly stiff performances and the bizarre gobbledegook (midichlorians?) of the prequels that has ensured their immortality in a thousand Internet memes. Ironic. The sequel trilogy could save Star Wars from death, but not itself from fading away into irrelevance, while the prequels will live forever. Nonetheless, the screeching horde gnashing its teeth about the prequels (I will admit I was one of them) seems to have scared Lucasfilm into playing it as safe as possible, a pattern which was repeated when TLJ dared to colour outside the lines. And so, this is Star Wars. The ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Forever consuming and regurgitating itself to the delight of many, and more importantly, to the tune of billions of dollars for Disney shareholders.

It me.

Epilogue – Star Wars killed itself

13. Famously, George Lucas only wrote Star Wars because he could not get the rights to remake the Flash Gordon serials he watched on TV in his youth. With Star Wars (and later, Indiana Jones), Lucas sought to replicate the same sense of wonder and adventure he felt as a child watching these adventure serials. It worked. It was also the death knell of one of the most exciting periods of cinema, the New Hollywood movement of the 70s that produced luminaries like Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Altman, and yes, Lucas himself. Star Wars (along with a little movie directed by Lucas’s good buddy Steven Spielberg called Jaws) radically shifted the landscape of cinema, ushering in the blockbuster age. Films became targeted at youths rather than adults, focusing on big budgets and high concepts that played to the back row. My entire movie-watching life has been in the blockbuster age. The first (non-animated) movie I remember watching is Terminator 2, which might be the quintessential blockbuster. It thrilled me to my core, as did Jurassic ParkGhostbusters and yes, Star Wars. We have now moved past that stage to what can only be described as post-blockbuster or the franchise age. These properties (and that is precisely what they are, in the most Marxist sense of the word) are now self-sustaining, cannibalising their imagined glorious past to approximate the same feeling its audience had when they first encountered the (genuinely visionary) movies I mentioned. And they will fail, because the only thing that can spark such joy again is the rush of the new, the surge of experiencing a true act of creation rather than reheated leftovers. But they will keep coming and coming, and we will keep grasping for that fading feeling as original ideas wither by the wayside because no one wants to take that risk any more. But you and I will never again feel the same way as Lucas did watching those Flash Gordon serials or when Luke first stares out into the twin sunset with that soaring John Williams score. It will just slip away from us like the shifting sand.

And I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and it gets everywhere.

Addendum – A note of positivity

Fine, it’s not all bad. Rapid fire, here are the things I like about Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.

  • The cast is still great. Ridley and Driver in particular are fully committed, and they almost (almost!) sell a lot of the nonsensical plotting and characterisation through sheer charisma and force of will.
  • Keri Russell’s voice.
  • The idea of Hux being the spy out of sheer spite and hatred towards Kylo Ren is inspired. The execution of it is not.
  • Ian McDiarmid’s voice.
  • Ben Solo is so much fun. After watching Driver grimace his way through three movies, it feels genuinely rewarding to see him do the whole charming confident hero thing. Pity it only happens for five minutes.
  • The mirror of the Han/Kylo scene from TFA is very well done. Figures that the only callback Abrams could milk for proper emotional resonance was the one he created.
  • Some of the shots are pretty, though nothing even comes close to the visual grandeur of the Holdo manoeuvre or the throne room scene in TLJ.
  • The new cast has wonderful chemistry with each other, as forced as some of their banter is.

And that’s it. See you all in a year for the bloody Obi-wan movie, I suppose.

P.S. My top films of the decade list drops soon. Spoiler alert – this movie is not in it.

[1]Retcon is slang for ‘retroactive continuity’, or when a new instalment in a narrative series (e.g. comic books, TV shows, films, etc.) goes back and tweaks the plot of a previous instalment.

[2] Creator of the best Star Wars movie since Empire yes it’s true stop embarrassing yourself by saying otherwise.

[3]By sense, I mean narrative sense, not that annoying type of ‘logic’ beloved by Internet pedants. I mean things like setup and payoff, emotional arcs, thematic coherence, action and reaction, and so on. Y’know, basic writing.

[4] This plot device was stupid in Spectre, and it’s equally stupid here too.

[5]Yes, I know many people love it. Here’s why I don’t. Imagine if Saving Private Ryan ended with a scene of a Nazi super-soldier gunning through an entire Allied platoon in a triumphant ‘badass’ manner. Jarring as hell, right? There you go.

[6] The best piece of evidence I have for how slapdash and unplanned the sequel trilogy was is this interview with Ian McDiarmid (who plays Palpatine), which more or less confirms that the Emperor (who, may I remind you, is supposed to be the Big Bad of the entire trilogy) was added in when Abrams and Terrio were writing the screenplay for RoS. That’s right. They decided on the ultimate villain while writing the last movie.






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