Everyone loves Star Wars. Everyone hates Star Wars? Everyone can improve /abolish/change/adapt/feel inspired by/shun/worship..the Skywalker/Lucas/Disney brand..
They are ALL right. And they are all WRONG. And they are all somewhere in between. Because there is a third way. One CAN go into a Star Wars film, with low to zero expectation, bored of saturated hype; with a fatigued feeling that this whole franchise is now evolving into a more tele-visual format. And you can come away, rejoicing, refreshed, renewed and with a sense of new..hope. It’s do-able. Possible. How do I know, you ask? Because I am talking about..me!
I LOATHED the trailers for RISE OF SKYWALKER. It looked rushed, tired, jaded and a pointless afterthought. It presumed a connection to characters we simply did not have and heralded the return of legacy figures (Lando, Emperor Palpatine) without the joy of seeing Luke/Han/Leia together again. I had not been overly impressed, either, by either Force Awakens or Last Jedi.
The former was a satisfying action film with distinctive lighting and visual schemes and it was great to see Harrison Ford front and centre of that, with hints of his Indiana Jones creeping into the Han Solo characterisation, thereby giving us two for the price of one in ageless heroics and comedy charisma. But it lacks imagination in story arcs and character positioning and confuses echoing the ‘spirit’ of Star Wars with repeating, beat for beat, the structures of a previous film but devoid of the innovation, innocence and joy.
Seriously. Force Awakens is DARK. Destruction of planets, on massive yet personal scale. Genocide, via Nazi parallels that go a bit too far. Blood stains. Slavery. Patricide. Not QUITE as bad as Revenge of the Sith, but equally nowhere near as fascinating and experimental and joyous as Phantom Menace and nowhere NEAR the genius of the original (‘second’) trilogy. Seriously..re-watch it. If you must. Don’t say I failed to warn you.
The latter (Last Jedi): Unfairly maligned for the wrong reasons and defended for the wrong ones. Luke Skywalker IS basically King Arthur in space, so having him on an island, a husk of his former self, actually DOES make sense as Arthur did the same, post fall of Mordred / failed Grail Quest but returns to the battle field one last time, refreshed, before Avalon, as does Luke. Perfect. The casino scene was fun, too. But that Crimson Tide in space midway lull? Awful. And it did not play on the mythos; it cut and pasted it in a different key. Subvert my bottom.
So I was surprised, pleasantly, in just about every way, by RISE OF SKYWALKER: our focus here. It FINALLY ‘gets’ what the sequel trilogy NEEDED to do from day one and that was to somehow, organically, FROM adversity, be both nostalgic and inventive. You do not ‘subvert’ expectations; you FULFIL them. Remember this was made in a rush, under ferocious stress; as was A New Hope back in the 70s.
So this innovates AND gives fans what they wanted. One feels like they are watching a self contained successor to the ‘legacy’ films, trading on the imagery we love; playing in the same toybox and yet emphatically, doing something new with the old. Critically, that old sense of kinetic action/adventure and joyous optimistic love of life, friendship and fighting for a just cause are there and it’s a delight.
There is a clean slate of sorts in the plot, which yes, is a macguffin quest. But so what? This is serial cinema at its heart and that format had both cliffhanger continuity and self contained episodes that nonetheless cohere with a story arc. And so it is, here and indeed benefits from such a transition. You hit the ground running and the pace never relents. Not once did I check my watch or feel I was being bombarded by filler. Is there gibberish exposition? Sure! But that’s fine because it is delivered with vitality by ALL concerned.
See, at its heart, (and this is perhaps WHY the brand is now transitioning TO the Disney Plus / tv platform?), Star Wars was ALWAYS a fusion OF television tropes TO cinematic passions and history. George Lucas’ original film in 1977 is meant to summarise ALL genres of film and story-telling, a way of awakening family imaginations and pointing them BACK to the source material. War movie western swords and sorcery samurai fairy-tale in outer space whilst feeling cohesive.
Today? Star Wars is of course PART of the cinematic and television pop culture landscape so it makes sense that all filmmakers look to it as one of the greats. But a key mistake has been either over-reverence to the brand as the beginning and end of all film (resulting in endless imitation) and /or the brand itself becoming the font /source of new film-making ideas. It’s neither. No director, writer or actor should get a medal for copying Star Wars unless they also copy the sources that themselves inspired said mythological development in the first place!
JJ Abrams seems to understand that subtle yet sure formulaic balance. What he has provided, albeit in many scenes, meta-textually, is a tribute to Cinema itself as much as any kind of Star Wars fanboy wish-list wrap up of ‘the saga’. Such a shame that ‘ONLY AT THE END, MY BOY’ do you understand that, JJ. But understand it, he does! Somehow, against all odds /expectations/time limits, he has pulled off the impossible.
You get plenty of tributes to fan service requests, for sure. But they are punctuation points and method aids rather than ends in themselves. This is not auteur direction as such and nor should it be. But it feels at once fresh and nostalgic without being too daring or lazily devolving ‘tribute’ into thinly disguised ‘cash in’ or ‘remake’, either.
Rise of Skywalker is every bit as much JJ’s love letter to Hitchcock, Spielberg and many more sources of cinematic lore as it is his sequel to a sequel in a jumbled Star Wars canon. And it captures the beats of a solid television soap opera serial ‘space opera’. I was reminded of Doctor Who here on a larger scale. But Gooooood Doctor Who (2005-10) rather than the awful stuff they now churn out. It’s interesting that Lucasfilm did once approach Russell T Davies with a view to his writing some content for them (I think he declined, but this movie could be one of his, easily?).
Also note: a wee lil bit of James Bond at work here ‘the dead are alive’ from SPECTRE: which did not quite work in that genre nonetheless works perfectly here with a sci-fi / fantasy/even horror sheen. The price for that is the ‘I was behind it all from the start’ rushed ret-con resurrection of an old villain trope. But done with style and scope and scale and above all: with HEART, WIT and SOUL.
Matters helped here, hugely by John Williams’ score. Whilst one does not take away a new tune to sing in the shower, you get a constant sense of action / atmospherics THROUGH the pace of every note and sequence from his composition. Listen to it either in or out of context and it works. Great work out / clean the house music; equally perfect as the in flight accompaniment to the film, in universe, in context. Wonderful work!
Needless to say: effects are perfect, both in CGI and ‘real’ puppet work etc. Visually this film is truly stunning, though sometimes a tad crammed in its camera shots of landscapes. The desert and rain/ sea stuff is breathtaking. The forest scenes look lower budget, so to speak? But all good.
The cast are all equally adept. Daisy Ridley is adorable. Is she sometimes a BIT flat /wooden in delivery? Sure! But so what? She will improve in time and the core skill and screen presence is there, as is an athletic, beautiful, graceful elegance.
John Boyega convinces as an action hero in waiting and he remains charming and funny, which is why it’s a shame that this whole trilogy did not stretch him more in developing the character? But hey, I suspect he will be back in this universe. Just a hunch, like. And they do leave strongly hanging hints about how that could happen. Fret not!
Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine is of course entertaining and funny and genuinely, compellingly scary here. Is his sudden appearance inexplicable? Sure. Does it undermine the whole era of Supreme Leader Snoke /Kylo: yep. But does it make thematic, philosophical and sci-fi sense and is it delivered with skill and conviction: definitely, totally and far better than in a whole batch of preceding films. That does not undermine the legacy films at all. It in fact makes a logical coda to ALL previous episodes in the series and indeed somehow, also captures the entire back story / mythology from every cartoon, comic and the like. Genius, I think. Scary and fun, too!
Carrie Fisher is done justice here as is the character of Leia. The fact that they did that without recasting (Sally Phillips, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep?) is truly remarkable. It makes plot sense and fits, in universe, same way many of the ground breaking twists and turns in the original films responded TO the problems and outside factors that faced the production as they went along. Billy Dee Williams is as cool at 80 as he was 40 years previously and still a vital character and actor here, full of charm and soul and swagger.
Oscar Isaac by contrast is still served poorly. WHY did they write ‘Poe Dameron’ in such a slipshod manner? He started as an elite military officer class /pilot. Great! So his ‘arc’ should be that the grit and grime of war on the ground is NOT for him and he should learn from Boyega’s Finn, maybe even becoming the first gay couple in the series? But no. They make him yet again, word for word, Han Solo. And that fails, badly, as does dressing him like Indiana Jones. That’s NOT Isaac’s fault. Indeed, he’d have made a GREAT baddie! Except that slot and indeed, that of swashbuckling star du jour, goes to Adam Driver. This is HIS film. From start to finish, even when he is not onscreen, he is ‘there’.
Adam equally convinces in the swordplay and flying/falling/floating/ A N Other action scenes, perhaps due to his real life background as a Marine? A true star: Driver = Keanu Reeves via Charles Bronson, dash of Harrison Ford and Errol Flynn and still his own man. He’s THAT good and right up there in the pantheon of great actors /stars. ‘We will watch this one’s career with great interest!’.
Overall? THE FORCE IS WITH THIS FILM. BEST OF THIS NEW SEQUEL TRILOGY / DISNEY STAR WARS ERA.
Yes, it’s rushed. Yes, one can nit-pick, endlessly and it feels dramatically cut off from its preceding films. But that’s not a criticism OF the film so much as it is meta-textual engagement with a now all too powerful and yes, sometimes, toxic, ‘fan’ base. Watch the film, on its own terms, just like you did the 1977 original and..feel it! THEN watch the endless YouTube debates if you need to sleep.
STAR WARS 9: RISE OF SKYWALKER WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH, CRY, SMILE, CHEER, JUMP..MULTIPLE TIMES! DON’T GIVE INTO HATE! GO SEE THIS. NOW! MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU 🙂