Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Review - Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

January 1, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

The dead speak! These are the words that greet audiences in the opening moments of the ninth and supposedly final chapter of the Skywalker saga, a tale that began all the way back in 1977 and – if we’re honest with ourselves – felt complete in 1983. “The dead” referred to in the introductory scroll is Emperor Palpatine, the same one who was assumed to have met his demise at the hands of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. And just where has the Emperor been all this time? Has he been lying low in some technologically advanced castle plotting and coordinating the movement of the First Order?  You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But no. Instead, he appears to have whiled away the years in a dusty, dark cave without not only technology but also dentists and tailors. I’d almost swear he’s worn the same clothes for the last 35 years.

Palpatine’s presence must have seemed genius when the creative forces behind the film met. After all, almost no Star Wars fan would have expected it, and there’s a reason for this: His death made sense. Sadly, his reemergence never does – no matter how much director J.J. Abrams tries to explain it. To make matters worse, the character continues to rattle off ridiculous statements about having planned and coordinated everything, that everything is going according to plan, and that no one is coming to the aid of depleted Rebels making one final stand against him and his battalion of apparently rustproof Star Destroyers. It’s as if he’s completely forgotten about his fortunes the last time he made such proclamations.

His presence adds another complication to the plot. It further confuses the portrait of Luke Skywalker presented in Episodes 7 and 8. We’re now asked to believe that Luke knew of Palpatine’s survival and, despite knowing the threat he posed, still chose to exile himself on an island whose whereabouts were unknown but which he left a map to as a means of…oh, never mind. The point is that the Luke Skywalker Star Wars fans grew up with would not have run from the battle any more that Han Solo would. Check that. Abrams also made that happen.

The Rise of Skywalker finds Ray, Finn, and Poe continuing the struggle against the First Order. This time there’s a mole inside the enemy camp supplying the Rebels with confirmation of the Emperor’s survival and giving them clues as to how to find him. This involves finding a cube-like structure called – I kid you not – a Way Finder which when plugged into a space craft takes our heroes on a search for the Sith world that would have made Dante proud. All of this leads to one of those climactic battles that anyone who has watched recent action movies will be all too familiar with. There’s even one of those predictable moments when all hope seems lost just before the cavalry arrives to even the odds.

On the plus side, the film corrects one of the biggest mistakes of The Last Jedi, separating Ray and Finn. These are the two characters that the new trilogy is really about, and dividing them stunted their growth and removed some of the emotional draw of Episode 7. Here, their connection is much stronger, and we get a sense that their friendship has realistically expanded over the years. I bought their closeness, and it was refreshing to see. Also close are Poe and Finn, and this is to be expected given their history and the amount of time they appear to have worked together in the interim. Less time is given to other characters, some who had big roles in earlier films, such as Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, yet this is explained by giving them positions that mostly keep them away from the battle. It’s realistic, even as it is also a bit disappointing.

Previously, I criticized Episodes 7 and 8 for containing too many similarities to earlier films, and while there are scenes that will make you recall events from the other trilogies, copying is the least of my complaints about Episode 9, the biggest of which involves the expanding abilities of those who use the force. The expansion began in Episode 8 with Jedi ghosts being able to create infernos from beyond the grave and it continues here with the force enabling Jedi to heal people. Even more egregious is this: The force enables Kylo Ren to communicate telepathically with Ray and then to “grab” an item that she is holding in her hands, despite their being miles away from each other. It’s as if the force makes his hands a teleportation device. I guess the force can be anything now. I can’t wait for the film in which a Jedi turns sand into water to save a friend dying of thirst.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is at its best when it focuses on the new characters and just lets them talk to each other. This happens less often than it should, but when the film does slow down, we get some great emotional moments between Ray and Finn that demonstrate how much they are there for each another, humorous dialogue between Ray and Finn, and, finally, some actual emotional reactions to the death of a key legacy character. It was also a treat to see the return for Lando Calrissian, again played by Billy Dee Williams. The film is at its weakest when it resembles a video game, pushing its characters from one battle to the next without giving them or us much opportunity to breathe or digest what we have just seen and heard.

And maybe this is intentional because given time to reflect, it is likely we would be highly critical of what had transpired. Thoughts would begin to swirl around in our heads, ponderances that resembled the following incredulities: The Emperor’s back? Luke did what? Why, exactly, does the Emperor want Ray dead in the beginning but not the end, and why does the film reverse itself so many times? What can’t it just commit to its most dramatic moments? And why does nothing the Emperor says or does in the film’s climax make any sense? Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at such thoughts, though. While many people cheered Abrams’s return to the series, I had my doubts. After all, he was the one who helmed the Episode 4 clone that is The Force Awakens. This is his sequel, and it’s actually a step down. Personally, I blame the Dark Side. (in theaters)

2 stars

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