One of the first viral videos I ever experienced, possibly before the term had even been established, involved some proud family recording their child’s very first steps in the world. The kiddo in question slowly found his footing using a couch as a crutch before wobbling forward on his own, a landmark moment for anyone, while the family cheered with excitement off-screen. The family dog, one of those small yippy ones that no one who isn’t the owner really likes, walked casually into frame, hunched up his back and proceeded to drop a few rounds of freshly digested Kibbles and/or Bits alongside this child’s first real accomplishment in life. The family roared with laughter, of course, (how funny!) and the child seemed to sense he’d lost the spotlight without knowing how or exactly why. So, disoriented, the child tries to reposition, loses his balance, and falls ass-first into the dog’s droppings, and his loving parents lose their ever-loving shit, all while making no effort to assist the kid in his new predicament.
If this story seems out of place in a review allow me to clarify. Going into The Rise of Skywalker, I perused some high level reviews and scores and got the sense that what I suspected after the first trailer was released, that it would be bad. Very, very bad. The Force Awakens, in this example, is like that child in the viral video, in the beginning unsophisticated, well-meaning, but not in anyway reinventing the wheel or impressing anyone who wasn’t already completely invested in the end result. The Last Jedi is that dog. Now, I’ll still defend that movie to some Star Wars fans if only by saying that while I think it’s a better movie than audiences give it credit for, I’ll admit it’s a very bad Star Wars movie; it’s incongruous with the rest of the canon, it undeniably shunted contemporary social politics into a space opera about wizards and robots, and it is guilty of being, in the end, pedantic and joyless. But it is also a surprising and I’d argue bold head-fake. Just like that damn dog when it pulls up to do his business, no one viewing it didn’t go, ‘Wait, what am I watching now? This is not what I expected,’ which doesn’t make it good automatically, however it does take some real shots and I’ll respect a film that takes the wrong shots over none at all, he said, looking conspicuously in the direction of The Force Awakens.
It’s just too bad that neither that first or second act of this trilogy appeared to have an endgame in mind, nor did their directors JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson, seem to have compared notes at all while making entries in this, you know, massively influential billion dollar franchise and cornerstone of modern pop culture. This has resulted in wildly disparate takes on the same characters and story arcs, such as they exist at all and while the blame for failing to coordinate a singular tone or narrative theme is theirs to own, I don’t hold them ultimately accountable for the sequel trilogy’s failures. The guilty persons or person in this situation are the studio heads in Disney and Kathleen Kennedy herself for not doing one simple thing at the beginning of this whole goddammer, and that’s find a Kevin Feige. One creative talent to rule them all, to conceive some incarnation of the Hero’s Journey, the thing that so thoroughly and effectively permeated the original trilogy and, shockingly, is even portrayed adequately with some fits and starts in the prequel trilogy, which failed for entirely other reasons. Reason. One reason, (George Lucas).
I am no Lucas fanboy, far from it clearly, but after the resurrection of the Star Wars Universe in the 90s turned one of the greatest villains in cinematic history into an obnoxious little kid and then a petulant, hormonal teenager, and then child-murderer I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, and that the quality of the original movies was somehow tarnished by these hours long toy commercials with razor thin plotting and cardboard characters.
One of the great things about growing up is learning how to admit when we are wrong, and boy was I ever. As much as the thought of watching the prequels again makes me mildly nauseous, I have to at least give Lucas credit for having some vision for how his characters would develop. for having some direction. Anakin’s failure to save his mother feeds into his drive to save the love of his life from the same fate, whatever the cost, Obi-Wan’s desire to train Anakin despite the Jedi Council’s warning, and the Council thinking they know what’s best because they are all knowing and have this spectacular view of Coruscant, all of this is pretty good stuff. This is obsession, hubris, arrogance all the things that lead to the downfall of the Republic, all good intentions gone awry while again, badly written and directed but at least composed of fundamental storytelling techniques. At least there seemed to be a point.
Back to the little kid and that goddamn dog. The Rise of Skywalker, fortunately or unfortunately for my analogy, is not quite the small child tumbling into a pile of dog shit that I was anticipating now that I’ve seen it. I may get some heat about this and also some distrust, since I also said that I liked The Last Jedi when it came out but I honestly enjoyed this last entry far more than I was expecting. Is it flawed? Oh, most definitely. Is it a return to the fan service pandering that littered The Force Awakens? Spectacularly. Is it entertaining, though? That’s the real question and I’ll answer with this; yes, yes it is. Come at me, bro. I won’t suggest for a second that JJ Abrams is a more intelligent director than Rian Johnson, but he is just a better entertainer when it comes to this kind of material. This is crowd pleasing, cacophonous, emotionally manipulative fluff and it’s right in JJ’s wheelhouse, it’s how he dragged the Star Trek Universe back from the bold frontiers of exploring science and the human condition down into the dregs of garbage, soulless action films akin to The Fast and The-… YES, I admit again that I am primarily a Star Trek fan (*produces a switchblade, inexplicably, and retreats*).
Surprisingly, I’m content and thoroughly pleased with this final entry. There is a conversation about identity and fate and the whole Light Side/Dark Side dilemma. It’s about family and blood and how friendship can transcend both those things. A fucking planet gets blown up. And most importantly, to me, anyway, Carrie Fischer gets the right send-off, I couldn’t have asked for a better one, so all glib aside, cheers to Abrams and company for that. It’s entirely possible that my expectations were so low to begin with that anything superior to Jar Jar Binks kicking BB-8 around like a soccer ball for two and half hours while spitting out definitely racist tropes and banter would feel like success, but in all honesty those expectations, in tandem with the almost gleeful destruction of every mystery box/hanging plot thread Rian Johnson could get his hands on in The Last Jedi, (like Edward Scissorhands, he only wanted to love but all did was hurt) has led The Rise of Skywalker to feel almost like a standalone film on it’s own.
We know the characters, we have some idea of the central conflict (First Order = Bad, Kylo Ren = Evil Cosplayer, Rey = Searching for Purpose/Good at All The Things) but what’s been missing is provided in TROS and that’s a true Big Bad, even if JJ had to return to the well to find it. As a standalone affair this last entry has to pipe a ton of exposition into it’s run-time, as well as undo a lot of the damage to the Star Wars Universe done by Johnson. This is largely accomplished with a few offhand comments that attempt to explain away the things that had the more toxic members of the fanbase throwing conniption fits all over the internet for the last two years. And while that same fanbase is going to sing the NUMA NUMA song at the top of their lungs in a perceived victory at Abrams revisions, they are also going to have to acknowledge the narrative tools Johnson introduced that JJ has appropriated, expanded on, and used to great effect in this last film. I won’t go into any more detail than that for fear of spoilers but I was definitely pleased to see more than a little DNA from The Last Jedi leftover in The Rise of Skywalker.
Speaking of which. All the money in my pocket against all the money in your pocket says that they came up for the title of this film before they had a story. I’ve been avoiding negativity here because it all feels like low-hanging fruit but this would be incomplete without some, so here goes. Not enough Rose Tico? I don’t know. It definitely feels like it was written by five different guys as the conclusion to a trilogy written by three other guys. The transformation of Emperor Palpatine and the Knights of Ren into the Night King and the frickin’ Nazgul was a bold choice, Cotton, let’s see if it pans out. Also the introduction of a Sith homeworld with a whole secret entrance or whatever would have been great information if it had been brought to my attention YESTERDAY. Seriously, did we not know about this stuff and why couldn’t it have been set up or hinted at or foreshadowed years ago? Like how Senator Palpatine was hiding in plain sight in the prequels for two whole movies, I mean it was boring but at least it gave us something to look forward to and then the moment came and Sam Jackson got defenestrated and we were all like, well I guess that was worth it.
Seriously, was it really so difficult to explore the First Order and maybe develop some structure or impetus? How about this, after the Empire was destroyed the primary members of the Order came from a single planet or system that was unfairly vilified, disproportionately so by the re-emergent Republic and that resulted in famine and poverty until some charismatic nutjobs came along and whipped everyone up into a nationalistic furor. They started rebuilding and taking back territory while the rest of the galaxy just partied and APPEASED them because they could Not See how powerful they were becoming? Etc. Etc. See the comparison I’m making there? The historical parallel? It’s Nazis. They could have made them Nazis. So that would flesh out the first two entries in the series and, bonus points, contemporary political statement as well, TRIPLE WORD SCORE. But instead JJ and company just couldn’t be bothered.
As much as I probably need to check the movie out one more time to be sure, my affection and legitimate enjoyment of The Rise of Skywalker is apparently the minority opinion. Critically it’s taking a bit of a drubbing and that’s a shame, while flawed and rushed and a dozen other things, the cast and crew clearly have poured their all into this movie and that’s not nothing. It’s also easier for me to sit back and throw a big thumbs up because I don’t feel a sense of ownership over it or the Original Trilogy, I have other things to get worked up over (I’m coming for you, Star Trek: Discovery). I’m more disappointed in the fact that I wasn’t able to conclude my original analogy. Who is the little kid that falls in dog poop? Is it the audience? Is it the entire Intellectual Property that is the Star Wars franchise? Oh, I know. It’s JJ Abrams. Definitely.