Monday, April 13, 2020

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Let's start with a spoiler warning, because if I'm actually reviewing a movie from last year as it's hitting blu-ray, I'm going to talk about content. Also let's throw in a "what hell am I reading?" warning, because - like Rise of Skywalker - this "review" is going to meander around its subject matter and discuss a lot more than the movie itself. This is, after all, the capstone to the "Skywalker Saga," the nine films that are retroactively being framed as one continuous story.

But let's start with Rise of Skywalker, a movie that failed to meet audience, critical, or studio expectations. A movie with serious editing issues and some baffling writing choices. A movie that inexplicably abandons the established rules of its series, altogether dropping the pretense of science fiction and replacing it with the most ridiculous epic fantasy tropes imaginable...

I kind of loved it.

Okay, I'm going to need to elaborate, because I definitely didn't love everything about this movie. I spent most of the first half staring in confusion, trying to imagine the logic driving the endless series of unnecessary plot complications and meaningless twists that seemed to draw out the run time. This movie has an over-complicated backstory to justify an elaborate hunt for a McGuffin whose ultimate purpose is to act as a map to ANOTHER McGuffin, which is also a map. I didn't check the time, but I'd estimate around an hour was spent on these two objects. Meanwhile, we never get clear answers as to how Palpatine is alive (he basically returned off screen between movies), or how Rey being his granddaughter makes a damn bit of sense.

To be fair, you can piece together some explanations reading between the lines and digging up lore from other sources. I'm going to break with most reviewers (and audiences) and say I'm actually okay with this. It's perfectly reasonable to be upset with the movie for these choices, but it just doesn't bother me. I enjoy expanded universes and lore, and I'm more forgiving than most around omitted details.

Personally, I was more bothered with that editing. Again, I'm mainly talking about the first half of the movie here - everything gets significantly better around the halfway mark. But until then, everything feels choppy and disconnected. This isn't just an issue pertaining to the story - the individual action beats don't flow together, which makes it borderline impossible to be pulled into scenes. There's a desert chase sequence that attempts to mashup the Jabba's palace and Endor speeder bike scenes from Return of the Jedi, but nothing quite clicks together. It all looks gorgeous, but the geography, physics, and timing feel staged. It's not uncommon for a movie's pacing to feel like it's impacted by reshoots, but the first half of Rise of Skywalker feels like it's comprised of nothing but reshoots. It's dizzying.

Fortunately, the second half is a major improvement. The editing and writing are still hit or miss, but the issues become less omnipresent. There are definitely some sequences towards the end that don't work, but there are a lot more that do, including a jaw-dropping lightsaber duel in the midst of a raging ocean. The resolution and final battle with Palpatine get a little too silly even for me, but it could have been a lot worse. If the choices for beating the emperor were melodramatic fantasy nonsense or a CG-heavy lightsaber fight a la Yoda vs. Dooku, I'll happily take the nonsense.

But the movie's real saving grace came from where I least expected to find it: the emotional journeys of Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo actually worked. I want to pause to state for the record that Abrams made a huge mistake going this way. The Last Jedi offered a more satisfying origin for Rey and put Kylo Ren on a more interesting path. Her parents should have remained unnamed nobodies, and Ren should have been the one true villain of this movie.

For whatever reason, Abrams wanted to tell this story instead, and - to his credit - he made it work. I found Rey's journey compelling through this film. For the first time in the series, I actually believed a Jedi might give into anger despite their training, because (unlike Luke and Anakin) she understood that she might be drawn to the dark side and didn't care. I bought that there was a voice in the back of her head telling her to "remember her training," and that she was constantly telling it to shut up.

Likewise, Ren's redemption was surprisingly effective, in part because it occurred quite a bit sooner than I expected. They didn't just photocopy Vader's turn in the throne room - they set it earlier and made it (mostly) work as a culmination of his story. It also helped that it was capped off with one of the movie's best decisions: leaving it ambiguous whether Han was appearing to his son as a ghost or a hallucination.

In short, I liked this installment. It embraced the space opera side of Star Wars and delivered a weird, interesting experience. Yes, it went a bit too far at times (Palpatine draining the force from Rey and Ben to regenerate then shoot cosmic-force-lightning was astonishingly silly), but it seems a little late to be overly critical of Star Wars being absurd.

On top of all that, I should address the invisible space-elephant in the room. It's easy to understate the importance of visuals to genre, but that's a large part of the appeal. And, frankly, this is among the best-looking installments in the series. I'll admit that aspect is undercut by the editing (it's harder to be pulled into imaginative worlds when the movie fails to uphold continuity of action and spacial geometry) but even at its worst this is magnificent to look at. Same goes for the score, but at this point that feels like stating the obvious.

If this were any other movie, this would more or less be where the review wraps up with me encouraging you to set reasonable expectations and track this down if you skipped it in theaters (or if you were unable to get to the theater due to a seemingly endless barrage of baby-related illnesses). Of course, if this were any other movie, this review wouldn't exist at all, save perhaps as a couple paragraphs in a wrap-up post.

But as I said at the start, this is ostensibly the last chapter of a saga that began in 1977 and defined the format and tone of modern fantasy and science fiction films. And as such, it's part of something bigger, and I've got thoughts outside the scope of this singular chapter.

Of course, I'm not alone. If you spent any time on Twitter in December and January, you most likely already know quite a few people have chimed in with their thoughts on the Disney era of Star Wars, which a vocal handful of fans have already decried as the worst of the three trilogies.

I'll pause to give you time to throw your head back in laughter.

The idea centers on the claim that Disney failed to make a blueprint for these films before starting, and that this lack of planning is to blame for whatever failings the movies might have. And while that may sound like a reasonable argument, you should know the Venn diagram between people making that argument and people using misogynist labels for Rey has quite a bit of overlap.

I'm not saying these movies are beyond reproach or even that Disney couldn't have done a better job producing them, but I do question the motives of people blaming Kathleen Kennedy for the shortcomings of three movies directed by men.

I also think it's worth noting that this trilogy adhered closer to a blueprint of sorts than the original did (in case you forgot the Emperor was barely mentioned in A New Hope). Even the decision to make a trilogy instead of an ongoing series seems to have been a relatively late change - there was a time Boba Fett was envisioned as the main antagonist of the film that turned into Return of the Jedi, with the idea being that a final Luke/Vader showdown wouldn't occur until later.

A lot of decisions in the Disney trilogy were made by the individual directors, but it's worth noting they envisioned this as three movies where the first focused on Han, the second on Luke, and the third on Leia. Despite losing Carrie Fisher, they basically stuck to that plan, with Leia remaining the spirit of this installment. To be frank, that's more structure than the original trilogy had in 1977.

I give the original trilogy a lot of credit for having grown into a sort of shared cultural mythology, but it's important to recognize this elevated status makes it all too easy to delude ourselves into perceiving structure, planning, and intent in places where it doesn't really exist. If you go back and watch the three movies as independent works, it becomes clear they had wildly different tones, used different genre conventions, and were trying to exist as pieces of very different stories. A New Hope is essentially a serial, Empire is a more mature space romance, and Jedi is basically a cartoon. None of that's intended critically - I love all three films - but the idea they represent a single, unbroken story with fundamentally consistent elements is absurd.

Structurally, I'd argue the Disney Star Wars movies follow that blueprint (or lack thereof) relatively faithfully. Only the prequel trilogy followed any sort of plan for the meta-plot, and even then, there were massive course corrections and changes. It's also worth noting that the prequels were by far the worst of the series.

I know there are a handful of people out there who argue Rise of Skywalker is worse, and...

Okay, Skywalker probably has the worst editing and structural writing of the franchise. But even setting aside the far superior artistic design, I don't think there's a scene in the entire prequel trilogy that's half as good as Rey and Kylo's battle in the skeletal remnants of the Death Star. Or, hell, the moment when Rey defers to C-3PO on their odds of success and he realizes that everything will be for nothing if they can't get at the data in his head. Rise of Skywalker has a lot of dumb moments, but it's also got several that really connect emotionally. I don't think you can say the same for the prequels. If the editing and structure issues are a deal-breaker for you, or if that's the bulk of your good-bad spectrum for movies, I can't really argue with you dismissing Rise of Skywalker. But personally, I think the good outweighs the bad.

I'm certainly not suggesting the prequels were bad because they adhered to a plan, nor am I suggesting the originals were good because they didn't. In writing, outlines and blueprints are best understood as a tool, as are instincts. The quality of a story or movie or series doesn't hinge on which tools you use but on how well you use them. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, in my opinion, used them very well. The Rise of Skywalker was clearly more hit-or-miss, but that's due to the filmmakers fumbling elements of this installment. Hell, the elements that most deviated from the last movie - Rey's lineage and Ren's redemption - were among the movie's most successful elements. The worst elements revolved around unnecessary side-stories and Sith artifacts that could have been excised without impacting any of the rest.

Assuming you agree with that assessment, you most likely agree it's not essential for these to work as an uninterrupted story. And that's good news for Rise of Skywalker, because the bulk of this movie feels like it materializes out of thin air. The Last Jedi took a lot of flack for going rogue, but I honestly think that's overblown. While it introduced new themes and made tweaks to the setting similar to the ones Empire made to New Hope's, it actually works relatively well as a direct continuation, certainly compared to the other non-prequel installments. Rise of Skywalker, on the other hand, basically throws out the majority of Last Jedi's changes. Maybe that's to be expected, given Abrams was returning, but I was a bit surprised this wasn't really tethered to The Force Awakens, either. Instead, Skywalker is essentially centered on an entirely new premise that has very little to do with either of its predecessors.

Again, this wasn't really a problem for me. Rey and Kylo's stories still feel like continuations from the last two movies, so it's not like there's no connective tissue at all. And while I don't think the ending of Skywalker knocks it out of the space ballpark, I think their resolution is satisfying enough to deliver something of an ending to the trilogy.

As for the crazy metaphysical revelations and twists around Palpatine, the Sith, and the Jedi... honestly, it's growing on me. I mostly disliked it while I was watching, but as a bombastic finale to a space opera, it's probably as good a tone as any to end on. Yeah, it's sillier than I'd like, but I'd rather spend some time trying to sort out what all that nonsense meant than mourn an ending that felt small and reductive. I'll take magic-space-pillar-lightning from a regenerating mega-Sith over a return to midichlorians any day.

At the start of this review (or article or whatever this is) I insinuated that the "Skywalker Saga" is itself a ridiculous idea, and I'll stand by that. This whole "9-film arc" is more marketing than reality, even before you start questioning whether it actually makes sense to consider these separately from Rogue One, Solo, The Clone Wars, Rebels, The Mandalorian, and everything else in the franchise. But if we're really playing along, I'd argue this is a fine finale. It would have been nice to end on a great movie, but even with all the issues (and there are many), I'm already eager to give it another viewing.

No comments: