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WATCHING THE MOVIES: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Stop breaking the world.

I haven’t written one of these reviews in a while. But I had to come back for this.

Star Wars is the American epic, the single greatest generation-spanning cinematic storytelling achievement our country has ever produced. The first film blew up from an arthouse filmmaker’s love letter to Flash Gordon serials into a true cultural phenomenon thanks to a near-Herculean editing effort. The second’s landmark twist ending solidified this weird space opera about monsters and empires and robots and knights in our collective consciousness. And the third had Ewoks.

After over a decade off, George Lucas circled back with a trilogy of prequels so bafflingly overcomplicated and poorly scripted that they split the fanbase in half. But with six films under his belt, like the original Creator, George was happy to rest instead of making a seventh effort.

(Yes, I just compared George Lucas to God. I’m very very sorry about this and I won’t do it again.)

When Lucas sold the Star Wars franchise to Disney, its fans hoped the House of Mouse would be their savior. Instead, the latest and final trilogy of films got off to a safe start with The Force Awakens, then promptly shot itself in both feet with The Last Jedi.

I rewatched this sprawling series over the last few weeks. All of these films have been talked to death. So here’s my very quick take on each one, in story order.

  • The Phantom Menace: A boring, painful, muddled mess with a really good lightsaber duel that you do not need to ever watch again. 2/10
  • Attack of the Clones: Forced love story, poorly written script, bad acting because of poorly written script. The visual-effects-laden action is tolerable. 3/10
  • Revenge of the Sith: Actually tries to be a good movie. A few emotionally resonant scenes drowned out by the continued cacophony of overcomplicated plot. 4/10
  • A New Hope: A near-perfect version of a good old story we’ve seen a thousand times. 9/10
  • The Empire Strikes Back: A perfect movie where the world feels real, the characters all grow, and the plot takes incredible, difficult turns. I still can’t find anything wrong with it. 10/10
  • Return of the Jedi: I have a soft spot for this one. It’s a lot of fun without overstaying its welcome. 7/10
  • The Force Awakens: Really suffered on the rewatch due to the writer’s pathological fear of explaining things and the “back to square 1” feel of its plot. 5/10
  • The Last Jedi: A self-inflicted wound of a film that makes every wrong story choice, breaks its universe’s rules, and lacks interesting character journeys when it doesn’t actively ruin them. 3/10

I could also talk about Rogue One, Solo, or even The Mandalorian. But I’ll stay focused on the trilogy.

So after that gigantic intro, how does The Rise of Skywalker, Disney’s attempt to land this lumbering franchise’s ending, turn out?

In general, it’s a frenetic flailing tornado of nonsense that learns nothing from its predecessor’s fatal mistake. Its sheer audacity and disregard for its source material are so amazing to behold that you have to laugh or you’ll cry.

It’s big, it’s bombastic, and it’s bad.

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The superstructure of the story revolves around a video-game quest to get a thing that will lead the heroes to Emperor Palpatine, now back from the seeming dead (never explained) with a gigantic fleet of Star Destroyers (also never explained) manned by a bunch of new red-clad bad guys (ALSO never explained) that all have big guns that can blow up planets (ALSO NEVER EXPLAINED).

My point is that so much of this movie comes out of absolute nowhere with no establishment. That’s why it feels unduly rushed, I think. Zero room to breathe or to understand why anything is happening.

Director J.J. Abrams quite obviously has little respect for the direction Rian Johnson took The Last Jedi. And that’s fine. Some of that movie needed to be clawed back. For instance, side character Rose now does very little for most of the film. Anakin’s lightsaber is now fully reconstructed from the break it garnered after Kylo and Rey pulled it apart. Even the exceptionally lessened Resistance seems to have recovered to a respectable state after losing nearly everyone.

The Last Jedi‘s biggest mistake was its failure to maintain suspension of disbelief. A good story has clear rules and a well-defined, interesting universe for its characters to grow within. This allows us to focus on and identify with the characters, and not become overly concerned with their surroundings. Put simply: a well-made world lets our brains accept fiction.

This mental agreement with the story can be broken, though, if something consequential happens that runs directly counter to the story’s rules. For instance, imagine Iron Man suddenly breaking into a choreographed musical number with Captain America and Thor to defeat Thanos with the power of song. That’s a really exaggerated example of world-breaking, a storytelling device that should be used sparingly if at all.

One world-breaking twist can revolutionize a story, if it can be explained. One too many and the story collapses in on itself like a dying star.

The Last Jedi indulged in it every five seconds and called it “subverting expectations.” This movie does the same thing, but in a slightly different way.

While The Last Jedi mostly broke fundamental rules about the world like how hyperspace, laser beams, and shields work, Abrams is far more ambitious. He’d rather make Darth Vader’s climactic Emperor-killing sacrifice and turn back to the light in Return of the Jedi completely meaningless. He’d rather give the Force new facets that look cool and serve the story but lack any explanation. He’d rather let Rey remain a flawless angel, let Finn stay a gormless plank, and transmogrify Poe into Discount Han Solo.

And The Rise of Skywalker lacks a “how” or “why” for nearly every major thing that takes place. Steve Berman wrote a great review of the film that speaks to just this tendency: here (as the title crawl says) the dead speak, but their voices whisper so low that they can’t be heard through the story’s deafening need to rush to a conclusion.

That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have epic, emotionally impactful moments of action and excitement. It is to say that those moments are frequently reached at the expense of the overall plot.

The Rise of Skywalker feels thin and bloated all at once, a shambling plot and overburdened script Frankensteined together with the usual impressive visual effects and solid acting. But now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad this story’s finally over. It’s sad to see something I love end this way, limping to the finish line, but at least it crossed.

And at least I can drown my sorrows in The Mandalorian.

RATING: 4/10

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