Film Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: It’s A Trap
A Non-Spoiler Review of ‘The Rise of Skywalker’

‘It’s a trap!’

I was keen to blurt this out on the bus home after watching my first midnight screening of The Rise of Skywalker.

‘It’s a puzzle!’

On my bus home, ruminating on my second viewing of the movie, the idea formed in my mind that this will be the most talked about Star Wars movie among fans, film students and pundits, ever. So different was my return to the cinema that writing this review has been an overtly dramatic experience. Let’s start at the beginning …

It was indeed a trap, one carefully laid out by Disney using the familiar snares of nostalgia and promise crafted to the hefty multi-million dollar amount. I’m not dismissing Hollywood’s investment in these movies being inherently wasteful, not when stories are truly the nucleus of how we the masses creatively process the chaos that is the world.

Uh, uh.

What I’m saying is that you’d better treat all those people that pile into the big dark room with respect, cos in this world of starvation, climate change, rueful politics and war, we ought to have stories that resonate with us long after the blue credits have rolled on up.

Did this movie do that?

star wars (Medium)

I’ll conclude with how Disney seeks to please its audience and why that idea might be corrosive for any big franchise going forward. Now, have a read of this worthy boulder of a quote from Rian Johnson, director of the fanbase divisive ‘The Last Jedi’.

“I think approaching any creative process with [making fandoms happy] would be a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result. Even my experience as a fan, you know if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like ‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me.

I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard, I want to have things recontextualised, I want to be challenged as a fan when I sit down in the theatre … What I’m aiming for every time I sit down in a theatre is to have the experience [I had] with ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ something that’s emotionally resonant and feels like it connects up and makes sense and really gets to the heart of what this thing is and in a way that I never could have seen coming.”

I was aware of this quote going into watching ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ and despite the spaceships blasting each other to hell and the revelations about a character’s past vying for my attention, Johnson’s quote kept rising (pun very much intended) to the forefront of my mind.

Let’s call it out: Kathleen Kennedy and JJ. Abrams were on a mission to course correct the franchise. If only they concentrated on the depiction of understandable motivations and complications erupting from the ensuing drama. And just how did I react to my first viewing online? Buckle up if you don’t follow me on social media, as these comments might just make you think about going to watch ‘Knives Out’ or some other movie this season:

star wars boyega

‘The Rise of Skywalker’ made ‘The Phantom Menace’ look like a masterpiece. The movie is more like an unintentional comedy. No one makes decisions without force related malarkey or convenience from the help of the plot gods. The acting is spoiled by bad dialogue and the only saving grace is the visuals. It’s a bad computer game written by a dark side obsessed thirteen year old who needs to observe people more.’

Want more? Well, O.K:

‘Don’t go into this thinking it will cheer you up post-election. You’ll come out wanting to write the angriest music ever about this funhouse version of reality that we’ve slipped into.

‘Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh!’

And that’s how I felt for about the last hour and a bit where the movie does the cinematic equivalent of wanking itself to bloody death with razorblades.

I would upload a spoiler review on my YouTube channel as planned, but I don’t want to be associated with this demon spunk any more than this final word implies.’

… But here I am writing this thing. So much for my final word.

‘If you want a decent end to a sprawling epic fantasy re-watch ‘Endgame’.

‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is in fact the descent into farce. Turning your brain off is kind of impossible with a movie of such heritage, and at least ‘The Last Jedi’ tried to do new things. This invents strange new rules and breaks them upon their reveal/inclusion. I need to have a shower, but I could feel this unclean for life.’

star wars driver

A fan of the franchise shared a GIF of Padme exclaiming that Anakin was breaking her heart, as if to imply that I was doing that same thing. I replied with ‘I won’t break your heart. The film will try though. Relax, there is another #themandalorian’

Man, I was on a roll right into the dark side of hating on a movie. Little was I aware of what would happen upon my second screening, but we’ll get to that. Yeah, there’s A LOT to get through.

This seemed to me to be capitalist nonsense of the highest order. The prequels had better scripts but poorer execution. And to be fair to JJ. Abrams, there was a heck of a lot of plot to resolve and he ought to have been in charge of all three movies. I really enjoyed ‘The Last Jedi’, but it was very much a dismantling of Star Wars ‘The Force Awakens’ and would pose anyone following it with the intention of wrapping the whole saga up with a thankless task. Daisy Ridley offered some insight as to JJ’s proposal for episode VIII:

“Rian Johnson and J. J. Abrams met to discuss all of this, although Episode VIII is still his very own work,” Ridley said. “I believe Rian didn’t keep anything from the first draft of Episode VIII.”

I’m not saying don’t watch it. I think people should go and make up their own minds but be truly mindful of expectations. If ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ had been fan fiction, fair enough. But Jesus, no one made any sense. If the movie wasn’t called Star Wars I wouldn’t have stayed in my seat.

‘If only the movie showed restraint. Thirteen year old me would have accepted the logic on display and applauded the movie.’

‘Give it a chance. I did, and it opened its cheeks above my face, said ‘open wide’, and proceeded to expel its dark and smelly innards.’

Perhaps it may treat you differently.

‘This film was made to fix the fanbase, but it has sacrificed logic for fan service.’

star wars ridley

All this hate for a film that seemed to be a checklist of all the things the fans wanted, and yet, I found myself sitting in another cinema to watch it again.

The true star of this film is the undeniable portentous score by John Williams. Only the wild use of strobe and composition in the cinematography compares in attention grabbing movie magic. The sweeping broad strokes of the orchestra have always been a potent character in these films, and listening to the soundtrack now it’s difficult to easily critique the movie after watching it twice.

This time all the exposition (as obvious as it was) answered questions as to the re-emergence of the villain, probably my biggest issue with the movie. The questioning of choices rooted themselves more in sympathy as I’ve found that you don’t always get to choose all the elements of a piece of art or truly direct it when in collaboration. It’s safe to say that my love of all the bold choices of ‘The Last Jedi’ were swept away using exposition or were not addressed at all. The cave scene with Rey in ‘TLJ’ is rather meaningless now.

Do you want to have every fan theory uploaded to Reddit to be served up? If the idea of a good Star Wars movie is to have a greatest hits version citing the emotional highs/story beats punching you in the face every other scene, then you’re in luck. It’s not my idea of fun, but undeniably this simulacra of the Star Wars experience is easier to swallow once you know the taste of the meal. Fast food isn’t something to really talk about, but now that I know that this film is effectively that and nothing more, I can eat it. If only I’d never had the taste of the rather delicious ‘The Force Awakens’ in my mouth, or the subversive sweet and sour ‘The Last Jedi’ still in mind. Sweet and sour source is a western invention, as is the fortune cookie, but let’s not chase the metaphor into wastebasket.

I wish I was allowed to enjoy the spectacle without having to do so. Avengers ‘Endgame’ relied on fulfilling my movie going experience by following through on seeded ideas rather than introducing them in one film and then expecting them to have again those words, emotional resonance.

Disney has bowed to fan theory and dreams of what they want to see rather than honouring episode eight’s promise. If you’re keen on watching marketing rather than story take place, then hey, this episode might just do it for you. I only allowed myself to enjoy it once my bar was lowered significantly and I ‘turned my brain off’.

O.K, so who wants spoilers?

star wars chewie

Spoiler Review

Don’t read beyond this point if you’ve not seen the movie. but definitely return here so you can help me figure out how the big mouse used millions to make a film which offers Pop Culture a spectacular looking surface level adventure.

SPOILER TALK:

People angered by Rey’s power levels will find some solace in her lineage being what it is (heavy signposting/fan service to eagle eyed fans of The Empire Strikes Back). They might appreciate the fact that she has found a Jedi Master in Leia, but the use of flashbacks and exposition was never used in the original trilogy with such abandon. Were we watching a film intent of revelation through action and character, or did we experience the barely baked script designed to retcon the deconstructionist attempts of Johnson’s ‘The Last Jedi’?

My biggest issue with our protagonist is her attraction to Kylo Ren, or to use her correction, Ben Solo. Is it just me, or don’t we root for a couple to get together because they have things in common? We can visualise them being a good couple, a paragon of a good relationship and for that model to be something worth fighting for.

Not here.

This level of devotion and THAT kiss are plot driven moments that ought to have come from a character place. Why does Rey need to have a love interest? Someone tell me how this served her character development?

No amount of force related lineage about the ‘two being one’ is enough justification for their eventual saliva swap. People laughed at this during my second viewing. How else can people react to something which seems so unnatural? Life just doesn’t work this way, and although this is a space faring movie for kids, it’s also for people who used to be kids watching it. Perhaps it’s not unfair to ask for those people to be satisfied as well, given that a child of today is more likely to be an Avengers fan. Yup, in my opinion kids don’t need Star Wars quite the way Lucasfilm perceives them to. Hopefully that will change once a new trilogy with less baggage arrives.

star was kylo ren

Now as for Kylo, what does he want? Power. How will he get it? By any means necessary.

Does he care about Rey?

Apparently, and only because of what she can give him. Perhaps he’s invested in a future vision of them sitting side by side ruling the galaxy? The film prefers to suggest that maybe, just maybe, he wants her for who she is rather than what (even though he doesn’t really know her).

Let me state that again for dramatic overture: HE. DOESN’T. EVEN. KNOW. HER.

Even if he’s pricy to her thoughts, we as an audience are only shown that through exposition rather than genuine shared experience. We are for the most part cut out of his view on her as a person rather than the objectification he clearly indulges in. Not sexual, nor romantic, just as a means to confirming his right to power.

The film wants us to believe that he will rush to her aid after making peace with a vision of his father.

Maybe we’re suffering as film goers because we’ve not spent more than a flashback with ‘Ben Solo.’ Add to this the barely visible knights of Ren and an inexplicable shared disappearance of Leia’s body with his (Perhaps she was waiting to pass onto the other side with her son), and you have more questions than answers. Note, the aforementioned questions do not arise from a movie with psychological layers. No, we have gaping holes of logic that will fray over time unless you ‘switch off your brain’.

His fighting style does reveal his character somewhat (brash, unrelenting and overly savage), but in scenes with Rey he is somewhat muted?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ has a duel which depicts Luke being a talented but rough round the edges fighter in stark contrast to his father; graceful, in control for the most part, because of his experience but also due to his plan to turn him to the dark side. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ was focussed on character being more important than serving the audience what they wanted (Scroll up for that Rian Johnson quote).

star wars rey ren

These clashes make for palpable storytelling whereas Rey and Kylo – albeit mirrors of each other – offer no creative tension in their conflict. A lesson that could have been learned from the spectacular but ultimately empty ballet of Anakin’s and Obi-Wan’s clash in ‘Revenge of The Sith’ has escaped the attention of the script/fight choreographers.

Our man Finn is a character pushed down the comedy route with moments of potential drama, far better set up in The Force Awakens. He meets a whole batch of people who like him have turned their back on the empire. And that’s it. Sure, it’s good to have him run around a First Order ship with his chums in homage to ‘A New Hope’, but we may as well have been handed control pads to control his actions. There was barely any movement for his character arc. Did he actually have one?

John Boyaga was wasted.

By the way, what he wants to tell Rey could be that he loves her, and the fact that Rey doesn’t get to reply with ‘I know’, a nod to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is a good example of fan service. More nuance and less obvious call backs would make for a more involving movie.

Po is another case of a character who got very little mileage in this movie aside from being part of an adventurous team. Seeing them all together was fun but hollow, because aside from a few jokes and them solving problems together, I don’t really care for them. Death is broken in this universe, and so is any real sense of threat (blasting Stormtroopers to death is halted with said troopers taking the insurgents prisoner without any real boon spouted by off-screen commanders).

Yes, we find out about Po’s not so honourable past, but it doesn’t impact his character or call into question his loyalty or placement in the overall drama. One of the more frustrating scenes involves an old flame who with very little resistance agrees to pledge her life to the cause of the rebels. We go along with it because the plot needs us to be carried along without questioning such a turnaround. If only the film had less need for forced drama that it couldn’t resolve believably.

star wars po

The crushing weight of filling Leia’s command rears its head during the big battle in space, but is no real concern for the audience as all the major decision making is taking place between the Emperor and Rey on the planet below. Now, about the Emperor …

… Perhaps the biggest nonsensical item in the entire franchise. At the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi’, the Death Star blew up! How the hell are parts of the throne room on a moon (was it a planet? Does it matter?) still intact? How he survived really does ‘break death’ in this universe. I appreciated the lines regarding Sith using dark science and cloning to bring him back, but I have a feeling that Snoke being killed was not something that Abrams had in mind.

Also, because I need to address this … The Emperor’s plan is the most convoluted idea ever hatched by a super-villain. He’s lured Rey to his lair to have his spirit live on through her after tempting her to strike him down in hate. Like it’s some kind of ceremony complete with background Sith Lords chanting in stalls dark coliseum style. Er, O.K, we have to make up new rules to have the bad guy pose a threat.

That’s another one for the plot gods.

Oh wait! There’s more! He’s become an energy vampire that doesn’t need to kill Rey, not now that Kylo has arrived to save the day. With the power he sucks from them, Palpatine proceeds to deplete energy from ships overhead in a fantastic display of overpowered ability. This pulls the thrill/threat out of a story which has no respect for character drama being inherent to Star Wars’ better moments.

Sorry to turn your brain off apologists: This franchise has long since proved it’s worth as a family based psychodrama. The least it can do is deliver what’s become synonymous with the elements it has in its playpen.

This bad guy’s visuals were awesome to behold, but ultimately meant nothing in regards to the true zest of what an evil nemesis can bring to a film.

star wars fisher

Leia is the source of my sympathy for Abram’s task. Using bits left over from ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’ to act as key plot points for a film – nay – an advert by the Big Mouse that screams, ‘Everything is just the way you want it to be!’, was always going to be tough. Sometimes her eye line doesn’t match up to who she’s addressing. Sometimes you can’t help but question if the body double for the reverse shots is the right height. The biggest flaw would be why they chose to de-age her for the force ghost scene at the end.

That last issue is just as bad as Anakin being depicted as a young man at the end of Return of the Jedi. I for one am happy that she is a Jedi Master, but I cannot help but hope that her mastery was given more lip service by Luke in the previous film. Not JJ’s fault really, despite me being an unapologetic fan of TLJ.

Mark Hamil’s face during the lifting of his X-Wing was one of cheeky triumph. I enjoyed that. Fan service, for sure, rather than a moment that moves our story forward, but I liked it. Luke is spared my wrath in that his job is to info dump and consult Rey on her parentage not being the variable that defines her. Probably the one true relatable human experience in the 3 hour computer game that is the ending of this saga.

Han: I get it. We want to redeem Ben Solo by having him confront his father (Via Leia’s force powers, right?). Ben from what we were told by The Force Awakens hates his father. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to find closure via a meeting with his mother, or both his parents? Sure, we can’t have that due to Carrie Fisher’s death. I get it. I’d suggest that if the only way Ben can be turned back to the light is through his father, then have Han be in the movie from the get go. Yeah, I’ve got solutions. Which self-respecting film-goer doesn’t?

Have his ghost constantly trying to reach him until Ben can’t escape the truth of where his need for power comes from. Who hasn’t rebelled against a parent in some way and finds that at some point the effort in doing so is fundamentally at odds with moving on from trauma, if not thoroughly exhausting? A real chance to do one of the things that Star Wars does best (address problems within generations) was missed.

All that being said, I did accept a certain character’s about turn upon my re-watch of Game of thrones. This movie, like Endgame relies on its subsequent parts to ‘work’. That’s something I have to accept as a Star Wars fan, but negate as a lover of film.

star wars daniels

C3-PO was used by Disney to tug on the heart strings, but as you who’ve seen the movie know, his sacrifice is sorted out using tech and therefore is no real heroes’ leap. It’s just a device for more comedy. R2-D2 has very little to do.

In a way the metalic duo are not intrinsic to the story in this new trilogy, which is fine. I would have liked to see more of them but the narrative economy has other concerns and rightly so. The droid that Po addresses as ‘Cone-Face’ (don’t remember his name, sorry hardcore fans) is a stand in for an abused pet learning to trust again. Wouldn’t it have been nice if Rey had a one-sided convo with him/it on her to and fro regarding Kylo? He sees himself as someone who can’t get over his pain and distrust of others because of his perception of Luke as a teacher, so having Rey speak these thoughts out loud could lead to her having logical sympathy for his situation rather than us relying on her good nature to act as suitable character study.

Chewbacca got a medal. Chewbacca was thought dead, but survived. Not much to offer from his presence, but he’s always been one of a few mascots and one part of the Fan and Chewie combo rendered moot after The Force Awakens. His display of emotion over Leia’s death was a near perfect stand in for us the fans who now only have Lando and the droids left from the old days. Sure, Wedge is in the film for two seconds, but let’s not split hairs. Lando’s entrance acts more like a reminder of ‘The Return of the Jedi’ rather than an emotionally resonant act in a new movie. I suggest that this advert of a film worked in making me want to re-watch old movies when bolder choices were laid bare in TLJ. Oh well.

Legacy: In closing, my love of Star Wars will no doubt continue through my watching of The Mandalorian, a blissfully simple but involving tale set in the outer rim/wild west of space. No force logic to overheat your brain or guess work to be made of people’s importance via bloodline. I suspect that Disney is all too eager to greenlight other Star Wars material that doesn’t include the Skywalkers and the toxicity that follows in honouring those key characters.

I for one am keen to give the mouse more of my money and willingly walk into danger with the hope that next time I won’t need to scream out, ‘It’s a trap!’

Review by John Clay

John Clay is a full time music video director and journalist. He lives in South London with a number of cats and desires to get over his distrust of their toilet habits in relation to his room. ‘It’s not you, it’s me’.

You can follow him on by entering this hashtag on Facebook #Chemicallysinister

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