Saturday, December 21, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (2019) Is Not The Finale You're Looking For

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker movie review
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Since legendary filmmaker George Lucas changed movie history with a little space opera called Star Wars (1977), generations of fans have been obsessed with the imaginative sci-fi universe he created.  Slated to tell the story of the Skywalker clan over the course of nine movies, it’s been written in the stars that the epic saga would eventually close this chapter forever. Expected to stick the franchise’s landing with the latest trilogy The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017), its final film The Rise of Skywalker is not the finale many of us were looking for.

In 2015, the Star Wars legacy was reignited with director and writer JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens. A ragtag group of heroes fighting against the Empire 2.0 hit too close to home with A New Hope, but offered a chance to connect with a younger generation of characters and explore new plots. Namely, why did Luke Skywalker disappear? How did Ben Solo’s relationship with his uncle turn him to the dark side of the Force? Who was Rey from nowhere? The film was filled with endless possibilities that unraveled in the divisive follow-up The Last Jedi. Trying to answer as many questions as possible while also subverting expectations, director and writer Rian Johnson planted fresh ideas about failure in the Star Wars mythos. It gave us the chance to imagine Star Wars if it didn’t act like a formulaic blockbuster Star Wars film. Given full reigns to reinsert his own character development and plot, Abrams returned to throw everything at the wall and give fans the climatic finale they wanted. But it’s also one that we never imagined and might not have realistically needed.

After The Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) escapes The First Order, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is tasked with completing her Jedi training to take down Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When the prince of darkness makes an unexpected reunion with the invincible Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine, both Rey and Kylo's connection to The Force will drive them to confront their biggest fears and darkest secrets.

This review contains spoilers from the film - read at your own risk.

The Rise of Skywalker achieves something that no other Star Wars movie has done before, and that is to outdo itself in every conceivable way imaginable from world-building to character development. From the get-go, the plot tries to compensate a story that was already layered and compelling, and cram two movies of limited-to-zero foreshadowing into one climatic showdown. Abrams's version of what the story should've been all along without Johnson becomes a dream fanfiction that is confusing, shocking, and regressive.

Despite all the signs pointing for Rey and Kylo to explore their lack of roots, both of their development is unevenly stilted. Nearly every revelation about Rey's identity is told to her in rapid exposition almost like Cliffnote summaries. It's not something that she actively explores, and not something that the audience gets to chew on before adding a new twist to the mix. Mostly, in an effort to avoid the Mary Sue comparisons and fans trying to explain why she was so effortlessly powerful, Rey's skills couldn't stem from being a naturally gifted nobody, it had to be because she was related to someone powerful. This should be the end-of-story for her Jedi training, but the script offers more problems than her being Palpatine's granddaughter or mentored by Luke and Leia. When she's challenged to face her doubts or fears, she just gains more power before swiftly moving on to the next thing. There's nothing really stopping her from being as invincible as possible; gone is the heroine who was questioning her place in the world, and enters the heroine who answers everything with a The Force flowing through her. And with Skywalker/Organa  conveniently available to her at a moment's notice when she needs them, nothing deeply stunts her growth or introspection of self.

The same consideration simply isn't applied to Ben. Even though greatness by the light and dark side is thrust upon her, as the rightful heir to the Skywalker/Solo name, Ben is mostly abandoned and abused by his mentors once he's manipulated to joining the dark side, and is treated as if no one should go near him within five star systems. I guess committing galactic genocide can do that to someone, but in contrast to Rey, Ben is gruesomely affected by his choices and regrets, and yet there's no one except a brief vision of Han rehashing their reunion in The Force Awakens to help him see the error of his ways. The people that his arc depended on the most are shockingly absent, and there's not a lot here that makes me feel like Rey was the right or only answer to all of Ben's problems. The only shining moment that Ben gets is unexpectedly completing the path Anakin set out to stop the one he loves from dying. But even that feels unearned when he's killed two seconds later and doesn't even become a Force Ghost or reunite with his mother as a consolation for his only selfless sacrifice (which would've honestly made me overlook or feel the film's other faults were justified).

Individually, it's hard to root for Rey when everything comes to her so damn easy, or feel like Ben's path is fulfilling when no one gives a damn about him. It's even more mind-boggling to root for them as a couple when the importance of their union or separation was danced around for two whole movies. Additionally, there's nothing even interesting occurring politically or strategically between The Resistance/The New Republic falling apart and The First Order/Emperor Palpatine rising to power to even make us care as to why the former should inherently win. Instead of connecting the leads to what they're fighting for or actively choosing their own destiny instead of being cornered into it, Rey and Kylo's Ying-Yang duality culminates into Romeo and Juliet mostly predicated on Force Skype. Their kiss, Rey's ascension to Jedi Master and Ben being bounced from one manipulator to another until his death is so poorly crafted for shock value and to satisfy Reylo shippers, it makes the Game of Thrones's finale look coherent. In the long run, their ancestry doesn't preordain who they choose to become, but their arcs are so thin, they're transparent.

A case could be made that the young cast is the best part of the sequels so far, and leading this parade would be Driver. He gives us every reason to fear him as Kylo, but root for him as Ben. Being so far removed from having anyone grounding him to family or humanity, Driver is mostly left to rely on himself to carry the weight of two characters separated by a mask, and he does an absolutely incredible job - one of the best performances of the series and the year, honestly. While Ridley is meant to carry the film as Rey, she fares well but not as fresh or lively as in her debut. Rey’s kindness, frustration, and confusion are all present, but Ridley's mannerisms and behavior come across as repetitive (a step up from robotic in The Last Jedi) and lacks the depth Driver exudes. And Ian McDiarmid’s latest turn as Palpatine is so cringe-worthingly over-the-top as a Sith Lord on a Crane, it knocks down the manipulative politician he used to be in the prequels; he’s not scary or intimidating, nothing more than a master behind the curtain with the weak motivation of wanting to live forever through Rey.

Because the leads take up most of the plot, the final entry of the Skywalker legacy never truly figures out what made the originals work in the first place: the sense of family and camaraderie outside of the chosen ones. Other cast like John Boyega and Oscar Issac share electric chemistry as usual, but their characters, without arcs of their own, are props in the grand scheme of things. Due to the passing of Carrie Fisher, the legendary Leia Organa is only available from the footage they had to work with; she's featured more than I anticipated, but her journey hardly does her character justice on the same level as Ford's Han Solo and Hamill's Luke Skywalker. (And for all the criticism and backlash Hamill threw Johnson's way, it's surprising how much more pleased he looks as a two-second Force Ghost  rather than the intricate arc laid out for him in The Last Jedi.) Other familiar faces such as C3P0, Rose, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, Jannah, General Hux, and the rest of the crew mostly chase the plot crumbs and leave so much to be desired, it’s not even worth going into.

The Rise of Skywalker has some semblance of brilliance such as certain beats of dialogues, interactions between new and familiar characters, and going all out with how epic the adventure strive to be. But for every emotionally satisfying high, there’s a twist around the bend to plummet it into a disappointing low - Chewbecca dies! but not really. C390’s memory is wiped!! but not really. General Hux was a spy?! but it doesn’t amount to anything. Rey dies, Kylo brings her back!!, and then he dies?! Resistance allies hide from facing off against a handful of First Order ships, but emerge out of nowhere to defeat a new enemy no one knew existed and is 1000x greater than anything that has come before?? FinnPoe is non-existent, but a random lesbian couple kissing in a sea of random Resistance members is equal to 'LGBTQ representation'?? And the list goes on and on. Having bought a lifesized R2D2 on opening night, I had to give it to my sister at one point, so I didn’t throw it at the screen. I didn't know what in the ever-loving FORCE was going to happen next.

But that's not even half of my problems with this installment. While the first act is driven primarily to dole out exposition and the second thrusts into Rey vs Kylo showdowns, the third act becomes an emotional rollercoaster ride where everything becomes implausible. Actively retconning its own rules, apparently everyone knows how to use The Force just by tuning into it without training and defy physics with horse-led fights on top of a Star Destroyer in the middle of space. The film touts Rey and Kylo achieving balance in The Force, but can’t discern what's the litmus test between too much power or too little – Leia can survive the vacuum of space, but dies making a weak Force transition to Kylo? Ben practiced using the Force longer than Rey, but because Palpy drains a little life out of him, he uses five seconds of light energy to revive Rey before dying? There's so many inconsistent choices, it's shocking how much the finale thinks it all adds up.

As much as the film tries to be as original as possible, one of the most disappointing elements to me is building the characters and plots around fansservice. I know I'm one of the few who believe this, but I don't go to the movies to feel vicariously high-fived and winked at by the story because of my love for a fandom. I expect to live in the world that I love and let it play out naturally. Contrary to popular belief, countless 15 second clips of convenient throwbacks or wish-fulfilled theories rounding the outside of a doughnut can’t make up that the story’s true unfulfilled potential becomes the doughnut hole. And a lot of The Rise of Skywalker is this kind of cheesy, phoned-in storytelling, that I didn't find it rewarding.

Falling into Martin Scorsese's criticism of theme park movies, The Rise of Skywalker offers very little outside of the traditional blockbuster formula. Not only does the script crunch plots together that weren’t relevant in the first two movies, Abrams doesn't make up for the bloated story with interesting visuals and feels like it's in a race against itself to get the plot over with already. For better, it’s a big, bold, colorful, and action-packed tale that unfolds at an unrelenting pace. Its homages will make us feel like a kid again, and maybe that’s all Star Wars entertainment is supposed to be now. So I should just chill? For worst, when the dust settles, the script leaves questions about if the passing of the lightsaber was done respectfully as well as cohesively, and the answer is almost entirely 'No'.

On its own, The Rise of Skywalker had enough to grapple with. Not because The Last Jedi "cornered the franchise's future", but that it rushed to wrap the production, to rake in money from fans who hated TLJ, and to write itself out of a problem it didn’t have in the first place. As entertaining as the film is in certain places, it's ultimate aim was to hit a checklist of tributes and keep you on the edge of seat by any means necessary. At the end of forty-two year saga, somebody supposedly had to save Star Wars's skin. But Abrams was not the guy to do it, and unfortunately flyboys and flygirls, R2D2 and C3P0 can't help us escape this garbage chute.

Please note: As ya'll know, I'm a Star Wars fan, and was genuinely conflicted about what kind of review to post. Should I have kept it short and sweet in the same vein of *high pitched Luke Skywalker* What a piece of junk!!!, or cackle like crinkled Palpy and go all out. Clearly, I did the latter. But as long as this post is, my criticism does not come from a place of hatred or failed expectations, not even really disappointment as much as it was bewilderment and genuine jest. I'll always be a Star Wars fan and will be in my throne room worshiping the prequels, originals, and The Last Jedi until Disney flubs the Obi-Wan spin-off. Oh god, I need a drink....Who knows, I might live-tweet this drunk a long, long time in the future.
Rating: ★☆☆

Have you seen The Rise of Skywalker? What did you think?

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