December 27, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

In which there be medium-level spoilers.

When Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams) triumphantly appears piloting the Millenium Falcon, during a deus ex machina moment in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, you can almost feel J.J. Abrams, who directed this ninth installment in the series, saying with tears in his eyes, “Look what else I’ve got for you!” Abrams assumes the role of a desperate father trying to captivate an impish, bored child. Rise of Skywalker is a weird mixture, in fact, of placation and reverence, in which sacred relics from the Star Wars universe are unsubtly trotted out to gin up the adulation of the fans, or to appease them. (They got so mad at Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, after all.) You can feel the lazy cultishness of the movie: Here’s the original X-wing jet that Luke flew in The Empire Strikes Back, here are some Ewoks, gazing wondrously toward the sky contemplating the end of the Dark Side, here’s Darth Vador’s mask, melted and crumpled like a rotted, fruit fly-infested jack-o-lantern a week after Halloween. 

I could get behind the Star Wars mania if its creators truly began treating it like a religion. (And yes, there apparently are practicing Jedis, but let’s ignore them for now.) Talk about a bold new direction for the Star Wars franchise! 

If only the Pope had allowed LucasFilm to premiere The Rise of Skywalker at the Vatican. And then, LucasFilm could buy up churches and convert them into Jedi sanctuaries, where every day is Star Wars. Come one, come all, and genuflect to the stations of the Star Wars cross. “May the Force be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them up to the Force.” After you’ve demonstrated your zeal, you can purchase bits of Princess Leia’s chainmail bikini from Return of the Jedi at the gift shop, or debate the canonicity of The Mandalorian in the Skywalker Reading Room. No cash for the offering plates? You’re in luck! There are ATMS in all corners of the lobby.  

But sadly, this “final” entry in the franchise is far too careful for its own good. It yearns for approval. Stripped of its embarrassing need to please, The Rise of Skywalker might have had a chance. But there are still moments that work: Daisy Ridley, as the series’ rising Jedi apprentice, exudes a commanding presence, and when she delivers the line, “I have all the Jedi with me!”, there’s enough conviction to save it from being laughable. There’s a little bit of Rian Johnson’s visual poetry, such as the scene of Leia’s hand dropping as she breathes her last; moments later, as she is covered with a white sheet, the scene assumes a kind of Lazarus-in-the-tomb gothicness. 

Many of the sets possess an entrancing grandeur: the sleek blackness of the newest Death Star (a tired old trope nonetheless), the earth-toned grunginess of Kijimi, Poe’s old stomping grounds, the tempestuous ocean sequences where Finn (John Boyega) meets Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a warrior on horseback, at the edge of a cliff. But it’s Ridley who holds this film together, even as much of it falls apart around her from sheer sloppiness. (The return of the Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, feels desperately tired.) 
Few of its dramatic moments (and there are many of them, too many it seems) land with any real weight. Adam Driver, returning as Kylo Ren, somehow seems muted, although he also displays a tenderness in this film that deepens his character, as well as the tension between he and Rey. Even the death of Leia feels somehow undernourished, perhaps because we had already experienced the death of Carrie Fisher in real life, before The Last Jedi

Sometimes, a Star Wars movie remembers that a character is better off, during an emotionally charged moment, saying nothing. But just as often a Star Wars movie forgets this, and we get such risible moments of overacting as Luke’s “That’s impossible!” (after D.V.’s big reveal in Empire) or even his “But I was going to go to the Toschi station to pick up some power converters!” in A New Hope. Rise of Skywalker hits about 50% of its marks in this category. Much of the worst dialogue feels insidiously didactic: Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) seems to tell every other character in the Rebellion how much he needs their help, as if the movie is trying to teach us how to behave. Be nice, be inclusive, don’t be arrogant. But, to channel Yoda, good life lessons do not good entertainment make. It’s cheap moralizing to match the film’s cheap sentiment, as the resistance fighters seem always poised to embrace in friendship. Cheap sentiment is grating and wasteful because it sabotages any possibility of an earned moment of feeling. 

One wonders how the death of Carrie Fisher impacted this film. I was curious to see firsthand how the filmmakers repurposed her scenes from The Force Awakens. The Fisher archive footage works surprisingly well considering the sad reality, but the scene in which the Rebellion reacts to news of Princess Leia’s passing, feels hastily executed and falls flat. “She’s gone,” a resistance fighter informs Poe and Finn and Rey when they return to home base. Somehow, the vagueness of the word “gone” doesn’t feel right. I kept wanting one of them to mutter  aloud, “Where did Leia go?” Is saying, “Leia has died” too dark for the viewers of Star Wars?

There are worse Star Wars movies than The Rise of Skywalker and there are better ones. Maybe the pressure alone–to produce a showstopper–dooms this movie from the get-go. But, all things considered, this movie is fine. It works about half the time. Even though much of it runs on autopilot, the film’s lazy pandering is maybe a relief: Would it kill me if The Rise of Skywalker were a masterpiece? No. But, is some part of me a little bit happy that the movie is only mediocre? Probably.

How will the world think about the three newest Star Wars films in ten years? In fifty years? They are not terrible films by any means. And they are lucky in at least one respect, because they followed the prequels, which seem to be universally reviled except by people who saw them as children, before the mythology of the original films could permeate them. The mass audience yearns for the past even as newer, less publicized movies continue to surprise us with their relevance for the present. In this era of nostalgia saturation, at what point will we feel the itch has been scratched, if ever? I wonder.