Sunday, December 22, 2019

REVIEW: STAR WARS: EPISODE IX—THE RISE OF SKYWALKER




It took me two viewings of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to fully absorb it and to be able to put my thoughts down about it. A primary reason is that I had to get past my own initial expectations and get to a point where I could accept the movie on its own terms. Now that I have, I’ve come to the conclusion that, like its immediate predecessor, The Rise of Skywalker will go down as one of the most divisive, most controversial entries in the series. For me, it’s the least effective episode in the Sequel Trilogy. 

Which is not to say that I think it’s a bad movie, or that I didn’t like it. On the contrary, it’s quite enjoyable, especially the second time around. And I give it a lot of credit for trying to wrap up the Sequel Trilogy—the whole nine-part saga, really—in a satisfying manner. That may well be a fool’s errand, though, given how persnickety, hard-to-please, and, in some cases, downright hostile fans of the series can be when it goes in a direction with which they don’t agree. With 2015’s The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams (who also co-wrote the script with Star Wars all-time MVP Lawrence Kasdan) stuck close to what had come before and was accused of simply recycling the past. With 2017’s The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson tried to do something other than the same old thing, to deepen the narrative and challenge the audience perhaps a bit more than they’re used to—and as a result, was heavily criticized by some corners of fandom, charged with departing too much from what Star Wars is supposed to be, and what it’s supposed to be about. (I won’t even get into the truly sad individuals who had their knives out solely because of the more racially diverse cast in these new movies—particularly John Boyega’s Finn and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, along with the fact the main protagonist is—gasp!—a girl.)

All of which is to say that with The Rise of Skywalker, returning director Abrams (this time co-writing with Chris Terrio) faced an impossible task. He was never going to please everyone. Hell, even series creator George Lucas was unable to do that with pretty much ever Star Wars movie he produced after 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, which is still generally considered the high point of the whole franchise. And yet, with this new movie, it feels like Abrams was determined to win over both factions of fandom. The end result is something that too often chooses to play it safe, retreat to the familiar, and not make too many waves.

My goal is to avoid spoilers, so I can’t really go into details. It’s not a spoiler, however, to discuss the fact that the central antagonist this time around is none other than Emperor Palpatine, played once again by Ian McDiarmid, still alive after his dramatic death—I guess now we’d have to put quotation marks around that word—in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. But don’t expect a particularly satisfying explanation for how Palpatine survived, how he got away, what exactly he’s been doing over the intervening decades, or how he’s been doing it. The audience is given just the barest hint, and left to fill in the blanks for themselves.

(Incidentally, if you want a story that resurrects the Emperor in a well-constructed, logical, and fully-explained manner, read the 1991 comic-book mini-series Star Wars: Dark Empire, written by Tom Veitch and illustrated by Cam Kennedy. It’s not canonical—it couldn’t be, especially after this new movie—but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to experience. Think of it as being set in an alternate universe and just roll with it. End of plug.)

Palpatine takes over for—and reveals the truth behind—Supreme Leader Snoke, the evil Force-wielding head of the First Order who was introduced in The Force Awakens and killed by Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. And the Emperor reveals a lot more—which I won’t get into here, out of consideration for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. I will say this, however: if Palpatine’s return was the only major contrivance that audiences would have to buy into, I don’t think it would be too big a problem. But it comes as a key part of an additional major contrivance, and the two together just may be too much to embrace. I’m still on the fence about it myself.

On top of that, the film meanders a bit too much in certain spots, yet doesn’t take enough time to fully address the ramifications of certain key plot points. (To be fair, Return of the Jedi was guilty of this too.)

I also had some issues with how the Force was depicted in this movie. It reminded me of the most extreme uses of it in the Star Wars novels published during between 1991 and 2014, some of which showed Force users being able to do… well, just about anything. Not only did those moments never really work for me, George Lucas himself made it abundantly clear in the six films he oversaw that, as powerful as the Jedi and Sith are, in the end, they’re people, not gods.  

All that said, the movie is filled with moments that are touching, funny, charming, heartbreaking, heartwarming, bittersweet, and inspirational. These moments are helped immeasurably by a truly wonderful cast.

The chemistry between Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is a joy to watch—we never got to see them function as a trio in the previous two films, and that is corrected here in a big way. 



I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ridley is one of the best performers to ever star in these movies, and she continues her splendid work here. 



Boyega is just so damn likable and believable in his role. And for this movie in particular, Isaac seems to channel Han Solo of the Original Trilogy, revealing little bits and pieces of his history and displaying new levels of mischievousness and charisma, and even a touch of the romantic. I’ll go so far as to say that as an on-screen team, Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac rival the camaraderie that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher displayed in spades in the Original Trilogy.

Speaking of Fisher, Abrams and company did a nice job incorporating unused footage of her to give General Leia Organa a substantial role in this final installment of the Skywalker Saga, and a send0ff that it is respectful, heartfelt, and appropriate to both the character and the actress who played her.


Adam Driver completes the character building he began in The Force Awakens, giving us a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo that just may change how you feel about him without asking you to forget about his past heinous actions. Driver is a powerful and compelling presence throughout the movie, and every one of his moments with Daisy Ridley sparkles.


Then there’s C-3PO, who gets his best role, with Anthony Daniels delivering his best performance, since The Empire Strikes Back (in which the golden droid was used, in my opinion, to perfection). After Empire, C-3PO was often portrayed as too childlike and too dainty for my tastes. I much prefer him to be more mature, with a bit of an edge, able to credibly stand up to someone like Han Solo and to be mildly critical of humans, but still a consummate coward, still a complete fussbudget, and a source of both comic relief and pathos. That’s pretty much the C-3PO I got in The Rise of Skywalker, and I loved it.      


I also have to say that Billy Dee Williams, returning as Lando Calrissian, seems to be having the absolute time of his life. There’s practically not one moment on screen where he isn’t smiling or laughing or experiencing pure joy. Williams has not lost one bit of the charm and the coolness that he exuded all those years ago. I only wish we got to spend even more time with him in this movie. (Wouldn’t it have been a blast if Lando had turned out to be the Master Codebreaker that Justin Theroux played in The Last Jedi, shown hanging out at the casino surrounded by beautiful women?)     


In terms of other familiar faces, Rose Tico shows up but is basically sidelined, and what appeared to be a budding romance between her and Finn apparently went nowhere. One gets the sense that J.J. Abrams didn’t really know what to do with her (she was, after all introduced in the movie he didn’t work on). Billie Lourd—Carrie Fisher’s daughter—is back in a small role as Lieutenant Connix. Domhnall Gleeson returns as the long-beleaguered General Hux, now having to contend not just with Kylo Ren but another top-ranking First Order officer, General Pryde, played by Richard E. Grant.

As for Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor, he gives it his all, as he’s always done. It’s a meaty role, an important one, and McDiarmid still inhabits it completely. He’s riveting, as effective as he’s ever been, and it’s a lot of fun watching him play this character again after so many years. I just wish the movie had not left so many questions about Palpatine and his shocking return unanswered.

The Rise of Skywalker may not end the first post-Lucas trilogy with as much daring and innovation as it could have, but it does bring a 42-year movie saga to an end in a way that does, overall, feel right and true. I’m glad I got to experience the whole thing from start to finish. And yet, with new Star Wars projects coming along like The Mandalorian, the recently announced Obi-Wan Kenobi mini-series, and all the stuff we don’t even know about yet, I’m pleased to know that there will be many more opportunities to visit that galaxy far, far, away.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2019.

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