Spoilers: the story decisions in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker lead to a trilogy that struggles to hang together.
I have been asked a lot over the past few days whether Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is ‘good’. My response has been fairly uniform: ‘yes, but it’s a lot of other things as well’. Sadly, one of the other descriptors I’d put on the movie, is ‘mean-spirited’ in the way it follows up on The Last Jedi – this is a real shame, for a film that shows so much heart in many other ways.
There are certain points of The Rise of Skywalker where things stop so a point can be made about the direction the story was taken by Episode VIII. Here I’m going to look at a few of them. I’m doing this not as a chance to rubbish the new movie – like Ryan Lambie, I came out of it having enjoyed it – but to make a point about what the to-and-fro between directors, and the apparent lack of an overall direction, and the damage I think that has done to it as a trilogy.
Many people will have ventured out last Wednesday evening and seen three Star Wars films back-to-back. Many cinemas put on such a seven hour marathon, with The Rise of Skywalker premiering at midnight. If, like me, you’ve now had chance to sit through the final triad of the saga in this way, maybe you were a little dismayed by the way Episodes VIII and IX don’t play well with each other too.
I immediately left the press screening of The Rise of Skywalker on Tuesday night with the feeling that I had been more than a little forgiving of JJ Abrams et al in my assessment of whether The Last Jedi was being thrown under the bus by Disney. My subsequent marathon viewing has simply cemented that. This isn’t just a movie, it’s a rebuttal… and a fervent one, at that.
“Rose? Last chance!”
In terms of characterisation, the major new Resistance player of The Last Jedi, Rose Tico, is given scant input in the new movie after she declines the chance to join the main crew on their mission to track down the Wayfinder. She gets a few lines and nods here and there, but no deepening of the suggested relationship between herself and Finn.
Instead, we’re treated to more confusing banter and baiting among the main trio. The most cynical of this involves Finn and Poe, where something of the much-touted potential relationship is implied but nothing is revealed in a way that satisfactorily replaces the groundwork down in other directions during The Last Jedi.
Do or do not, there is no try. Does Finn have unrequited feelings for Rey? Does Poe have unrequited feelings for Finn? Both? Neither? Nothing is satisfactorily resolved or revealed on either front, we are simply, repeatedly teased…
It’s also not very long before a marked point is made about Rey being needed as part of the fight, rather than off somewhere training. Having spent much of The Last Jedi apart, there are several scripted references about the need for the main trio to reunite, and Chewie even apparently comments that it’s good to see Rey back on the Falcon.
Let’s talk about Rey’s costume a little too, shall we? Gone are the grey robes of The Last Jedi in favour of a much more binary white and black relationship between the two main players. If you put cachet in the importance of the grey robes worn by the conflicted would be Jedi in Episode VIII, it’s clear to see that this has been studiously walked back here, to create a much simpler dynamic and less philosophical discussion.
The most troubling Force-related aspect of the film, however is perhaps when we hear Anakin entreat Rey to “Bring balance to The Force, as I did…” something that Palpatine’s reappearance and 30 years of plotting in the Uncharted Territories calls into question.
Indeed, while ending The Jedi and presenting a non-binary ‘Grey’ future for Force-sensitive people in the Star Wars Universe ultimately would have made good on the idea of a balanced Force – ultimately The Chosen One’s destiny – the fact that the Emperor was never really gone calls into question the Prophecy so beloved on Qui-Gonn et al at a fundamental level.
“A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect…”
While the admission that Luke was wrong to exile himself and refuse to re-join the fight was implicit in the ending of The Last Jedi. The Rise of Skywalker simply can’t resist making it explicit by having his Jedi ghost sit down with Rey and say those very words. That is immediately after he has caught the lightsaber she is discarding and asked “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect… What are you doing?”
Not exactly subtle. Especially as Luke then goes on to give a speech warning that if Rey doesn’t face her fears it will be the end of the Jedi.
“I never lied to you…”
Of course, the biggest do-over of all is the issue of Rey’s parentage. It’s here, I’d argue, that the filmmakers have caused themselves the biggest problems in their wish to undo The Last Jedi. We’ll brush over the timeline a little, because… ew.
Suffice to say that The Rise of Skywalker, set roughly 35 years after the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV would put the birth of Rey’s father, Palpatine’s son, sometime after the events of Revenge of The Sith (set 19 years before A New Hope). Don’t think about it too much.
Maybe this would’ve been the right time to reintroduce Midichlorians and the idea of being born of The Force?
Actually, maybe not…
While Simon Pegg, obviously a confidante of JJ Abrams and a person close to the production of The Force Awakens, has gone on record as saying Episode VIII went contrary to original plans for Rey’s place in the Skywalker saga, it is – as yet – unclear whether The Rise of Skywalker resets that trajectory or represents an alternative route. Whichever, it is clearly contrary to the intentions of Rian Johnson to strip away the need for Rey to be connected to the wider story in order to be special.
Thus, Abrams’ decision to make Rey a Palpatine by birth and a Skywalker sits uneasily alongside the unequivocal statements on the matter in Rian Johnson’s script. The Last Jedi sees Kylo tell Rey that her parents were “filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money,” and even more awkwardly that she has “no place in this story, you come from nothing… You’re nothing.”
By the time the two shared emotional encounters via their force bond and face-to-face in the new film, it’s hard to see Kylo’s assertion that “I never lied to you… Your parents were no one, they chose to be. To keep you safe” as anything more than gaslighting. It certainly sits uneasily alongside the romantic angle between the two that comes to fruition in the film’s final act.
“The power of two…”
This initial gap in knowledge would be easy to pass off as further manipulation of Ben Solo by Palpatine, were it not for Kylo’s assertion to Rey that he knows more about the link between the two than Palpatine himself realises. Added to this is the inference that the Emperor is surprised by the power created by the pair’s dyad bond in the film’s finale. Palpatanic manipulation may well be how it is explained away under scrutiny, but I’d assert that it’s awkwardly expressed on film and when the two are seen back-to-back is especially jarring.
And here’s a thing. Let’s look at Palpatine’s dialogue at this point, shall we?
“A dyad in The Force, a power like life itself, unseen for generations. And now, the power of two restores the one…”
Now, I’m not going to go out on a limb and say this is a direct reference to repairing the Trilogy. What I will say, is that JJ Abrams and the film’s writers also made the decision to make the very first words spoken in The Force Awakens “this will begin to make things right”, a line widely interpreted as a side-eye at the prequels. You could say he has meta-joke form.
“Who are you?”
The sad truth of The Rise of Skywalker is that, in its efforts to create a pleasing, rousing, good vs. evil finale to the saga, it has allowed itself to somewhat trash the effect of the three films as a trilogy. Its decisions, and its demeanour in seeking to course correct from The Last Jedi causes irreparable damage to the trilogy as a whole. That’s sad.
Having said all this, my sympathy for how Episode VIII has been treated is limited – because The Rise of Skywalker is only exhibiting the inverse of its energy, which set out to upset the apple cart and largely succeeded. However, this does not bring balance.
It’s funny that 2019 has thrown up two films that have sought to perform a similar task, and I will say that The Rise of Skywalker has succeeded in its task in a way that Terminator: Dark Fate simply could not, at least as a standalone film.
However, what they have both also succeeded in doing is creating homogenised additions to their respective franchises that add little, as opposed to offering interesting new vistas for the future. While the pendulum may have swung too far in one direction under the control of Rian Johnson, the swing back to Abrams may have done just as much – albeit subtler – damage in its wish to revisit nostalgic touchpoints and familiar, more solid ground .
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