Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker Review

What a Glorious Mess.

There will be spoilers from this point on, of course. Don’t read any further if you don’t want spoilers. I mean it.
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If you are reading this sentence I am assuming you know that Leia is dead, Rey is a Skywalker, the Emperor is dead again, Rey is the Emperor’s granddaughter, Kylo Ren is redeemed, Lando is back, Wedge is back, Porkins Jr dies like his father, the Sith are destroyed, Chewie dies but didn’t, 3PO dies but didn’t, the First/Final Order is destroyed, and Porg sales, if there ever were any, have been replaced by kids demanding Styrofoam cups on oversized Lego wheels.

First, let’s address the Bantha in the room: The Rise of Skywalker needed to be two movies. The first one to unscrew everything The Last Jedi messed up and the next one to end the series. As The Rise of Skywalker stands right now, both of those movies are jammed into 141 minutes of classic Star Warsy goodness. But it’s a mess, a hot delicious gooey mess like eating half-baked but piping hot chocolate chip cookies that you can’t handle nor keep in your mouth lest you burn yourself.

My biggest complaint is that the movie is rushed. It had to be. There’s was too much space to cover, and it’s tough to process the moments. Moreover, there’s gotta be six inches deep of film lying on the cutting room floor. This movie needed to be, and probably was at one point over three hours. The Rise of Skywalker probably needs over four hours to tie up all the threads properly and to fully enjoy what Abrams was trying to say. Hopefully we’ll get that with an extended edition like we did with the Lord of the Rings’ movies or Kingdom of Heaven, none of which I’ll watch the standard edition again.

That’s my big complaint about this movie – There’s so much going on, not concurrently, but subsequently. The film hits you with important plot points, emotional moments, or Johnson fixes so fast, you don’t have time to process them before the next. A small example is Lando’s trade mark swashbuckling “Haha!” In the original trilogy, that moment was set up, then when you heard Lando there was a cut to someone agreeing, Nien Nub in the Falcon’s cockpit most famously, and then a quick shot of the reason for the “Haha!”, such as the Falcon diving for the Death Star. These quick cuts, no more than four or five seconds total, gave the audience time to process and revel in the badassery of the galaxy’s most famous buckler of swashes. Abrams however went for efficiency, and cut out the last two parts, immediately jumping into the next small set piece. We still got the “Haha!” but we had no time to appreciate it, as the scene was already moving on. It’s the same but on a larger scale with the deaths of Chewie and the memory wipe of C3PO. Their return happened so fast after their “deaths” that there has to be more to it on the editing room floor. The plot went from MacGuffin to MacGuffin, or main character to main character, especially at the end so fast it was tough to keep up.

As sad as this makes me, I have to admit the frantic pace of the story was most obvious during final space battle, or the lack there of. The Rise of Skywalker had the potential to have the most epic space battle in the franchise, but the focus on the final battle between Rey and Ren and the Emperor took precedence, so we only got snippets. We saw most of the space battle in the trailers.

There are three kinds of Star Wars fans: Light Saber fans, Blaster fans, and Turbo Laser fans. I am a turbo laser guy. I love Star Wars’ space battles. Star Wars Armada is by far my favorite franchise game. The supercut of the Return of the Jedi featuring only the space battle is my favorite part of the trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker’s final space battle was overshadowed by the lightsaber battle and given much less onscreen time. Even worse, there was no tension because we knew the reinforcements were going to arrive: their arrival with Lando in the van was the coolest part of the trailer. As desperate as Poe’s situation was, you knew it couldn’t last because the trailer said so. The lack of a coherent and tense space battle between the organized militaries of the good guys and bad, a staple of the Star Wars movies up to this point, was heartbreaking.

I want to hear crosstalk. I want to hear final radio checks. I loved it as a kid, and even more so as an adult. As a veteran that’s the stuff that speaks to me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the final radio checks before crossing the line of departure were always my favorite moments in the 24 years I was in the Army. There’s nothing more beautiful than a Stand To, except maybe the final radio check prior to crossing the LD. It’s the perfect moment: The unit is about to move out. The training is done. The painful planning and preparation is over. And you can’t change anything, nor should you try because you’ll just second and third guess yourself. You and the boys and girls will never be more ready than you are in that very moment. It’s the time when you actually get to know people, how they react under pressure. The endless waiting is over and you’re actually doing something. It’s invigorating. I always loved the start of an approach march or the move from SP to LD. My favorite part of the army. Everything before it sucks, and everything after it sucks, but right then: golden.

“Red Leader: All wings report in.
Red Ten standing by.
Red Seven standing by.
Red Three standing by.
Red Six standing by.
Red Nine standing by.
Red Two standing by.
Red Eleven standing by.
Red Five standing by.
Red Leader: Lock S-foils in attack position.”

You know the exact moment associated with these quotes. These are the people fighting the empire and you know more about them now with those four words, their bodily reactions, and the tones and inflections of their voices than you could with any amount of exposition. On the set of the original trilogy and the prequels there were World War II and Vietnam veterans who knew what this stuff sounded like, and it gave the script an authenticity that fantastical space battles by star fighters and space wizards shouldn’t have, and don’t anymore. George Lucas and his era of directors, such as Steven Spielberg, grew up with actual film footage from bombers and fighters. That sort of authenticity isn’t in today’s films, Star Wars in particular. They had it in Rogue One, but only because they used recycled 35 year old footage from A New Hope. It might seem like wasted dialogue but it perfectly presages the imminent ramping up of action. That calm final radio check is like priming the adrenalin pump. In the immortal words of Martin, “Shit’s about to get real”. I guess there were no GWOT veterans on set, or even in Hollywood anymore, to say, “Hey, Poe and all the fighters aren’t doing anything together. There’s no coordination. There’s no crosstalk. Do they even know each other? Why are they acting so stupidly?” When I see stuff like this, I sometimes wonder if the civil-military divide in America is even larger than it appears.

Contrary to what Ken Burns, Oliver Stone, and certain political figures will tell you, the military requires a bit more brain power than the average bear. There’s a reason the three classic professions are lawyer, doctor, and soldier. They directly affect peoples’ lives and screwing up can quickly end a career, or even worse fail the mission, or get people killed. So when I see our heroes land on a star destroyer, shoot their way on and then are left to their own devices to explore said star destroyer, it kind of irks me. What was it, Epstein’s Hanger? Star destroyers have no space control tower? How do they not ram into each other? Why did no one hit the alarm klaxon? Whaa Whaa Whaa! Intruder alert Intruder alert! Why didn’t the whole ship’s company descend upon that landing bay weapons drawn? I get it that they’re the Empire, First Order whatever, but they’re not stupid. That we assume they’re stupid takes away from the heroes’ accomplishment. Yes, Luke and Han did it on the Death Star in the Star Wars, but they snuck on, with a plan specifically designed not to cause alarm. Honestly, the two stromtroopers not giving a shit gave that scene a believability that we simply can’t replicate anymore. Universal truth: Joe gonna be Joe, even in the Empire. There was none of that in The Rise of Skywalker even with the prevalence of military scenes. Merry in this movie took the role that John Ratzenburger (Cliff from Cheers) had in Empire Strikes Back, that of the competent lower to mid-level staff officer making observations and making things happen that were below the notice of the Heroes. Merry just didn’t pull it off like Cliff did, even with three times the dialogue. He was Ok, but he acted more like a drone in a cubicle than a battle captain in an operation center. I guess Dale Dye (the captain in Platoon who was Hollywood’s military technical advisor for damn near every movie from 1986-2010 that had military organization in it) had a monopoly of military film advising and no one stepped in the void once he retired. George Lucas spent more time on ground guides moving snow speeders and X-wings out of the hanger than JJ Abrams spent on major emotional moments. Which one will stand the test of time? For military organizations that have been fighting a war for years, the Rebelistance and the Empire/First Order sure don’t act like it. They both act more like gangs instead. Is that what Hollywood thinks of the military? I don’t think so, at least in the Rise of Skywalker. I think it has more to do with the movie’s time constraints due to having to fit two movies in one theatrical release.

This quest for extreme time efficiency affected several story arcs. In order to introduce new characters so they could sell more toys, several older characters had very little to do in the movie. Rose, one of my favorite characters from The Last Jedi even though she was wasted in an entire act of virtue signaling, did almost nothing in the Rise of Skywalker. She was an extra. Bencio Del Toro’s DJ didn’t even return, further evidence that The Last Jedi poisoned the Star Wars well. BB-8, the hero of The Last Jedi, did nothing this movie, nor did R2-D2. They were replaced with Dio \m/ 😛, a Styrofoam cup on a wheel. Meh.

Speaking of droids, Leia threw out a line “Always trust a droid.” I don’t know what kind of Skynet shit that is, but they must have reached the limit of Carrie Fisher’s prerecorded dialogue. There’s a reason they didn’t use it before, because it sucks and Carrie Fisher passing away doesn’t make it any better. Deep fake it if you have to. Hire a professional voice mimicker. Several pieces of dialogue were a bit cringe worthy because they were obviously writing around what Carrie Fisher recorded before she died. The conversation with Porkins Jr stands out, even though it did get some laughs in the theater.

All that being said, The Rise of Skywalker was still a great movie. Screw what all the correct thinking reviewers said and the zealous fan boys who want to bring down the franchise because “Disney is evil”.

Now for the good.

I’m pretty sure I liked this movie as much as I did because I watched the Last Jedi just before I went to the theater. Rise of Skywalker can’t be understood outside of the context of The Last Jedi. JJ Abrams ditched Rian Johnson’s virtue signaling and brought plot and character back while simultaneously making Johnson’s changes (semi-)coherent within the Star Wars’ cinematic universe. Abrams’ fixes, and subtle jabs, might not play well in the ivory towers of Manhattan and San Francisco, but they’ll work for us Neanderthals who grew up playing Star Wars in our back yards and want to see the franchises’ universal themes of friendship, standing up against tyranny, rising to the occasion, and consequential individual choices, passed on to a new generation. The problem is that The Last Jedi painted JJ Abrams into a corner regarding plot and character, and Rian Johnson’s decisions drive much of Rise of Skywalker’s screenplay. That JJ Abrams did so without violating the rules of fiction writing, i.e. Fiction Writing 101: Consistency within your universe’s self-imposed rules is key, is reason enough to appreciate JJ Abram’s accomplishment.

One can only wistfully sigh at the thought of what this trilogy could have been had JJ Abrams been able to do all three films. Oh well, spilt blue milk and all that.

But you know what he did do? With The Rise of Skywalker, he made The Last Jedi a better movie.

It’s clear now, if it wasn’t already, that there wasn’t an overarching trilogy outline written prior to The Force Awakens to guide script writers and present a coherent story over three movies. That might’ve worked when George Lucas helmed the franchise, he was the continuity, but it can’t be when you have radically differing visions of the Star Wars universe between Kathleen Kennedy and Rian Johnson, and JJ Abrams and the Star Wars fans. JJ Abrams learned his lesson when he nearly destroyed the Star Trek franchise with “Into Darkness”: you can’t f**k with the rules of the universe and get away with it.

JJ Abrams didn’t fix Admiral Toxic McYumminess’ universe breaking light speed kamikaze, but nothing can, so he just ignored it. Which is what I’m doing with the whole light speed skip chase, because it breaks the universe too. I guess the Force just changed the universe’s light speed rules and we are just going to have to accept it for the sake of the franchise. I guess that’s Abrams way of limiting the damage Johnson did to the franchise’s universal logic, like isolating a cancer so it doesn’t spread. I originally thought that JJ Abrams was setting up The Rise of Skywalker to completely retcon the Last Jedi so that you could watch The Force Awakens and skip directly to The Rise of Skywalker, but that is not the case. Unlike what Rian Johnson did to the Force Awakens, JJ Abrams built on the best parts of his predecessor’s script. He didn’t burn it all down in a petulant and condescending attempt to jab the eye of Star War’s fans like Johnson did with the revelations about Snoke and Rey’s parents. Abrams’ obviously more of an adult than Johnson, and built upon his predecessor’s successes, as feeble a foundation as that was. Did it deny us the ending and trilogy we’ve been hoping for since 1983? Yes. But did it give a satisfying and relatively coherent ending that won’t end the franchise in ignoble shame? Also yes.

(Franchises die after two consecutive stinkers no matter how much money they make, see Terminator, Ghostbusters, the Force Awakens, Die Hard, Transformers, Alien etc. The studio will always play it safe after a failed franchise movie. Disagree? Then please explain why haven’t we seen a new Star Trek movie despite the best cast since TNG?)

Anyway, Abrams fixed The Last Jedi. Like I said before, he couldn’t fix everything, but he made it so Johnson’s issues could be ignored enough to deliver a satisfying ending to the Skywalker Saga. He walked back Luke’s completely out of character behavior in The Last Jedi, which it turned out was a prerequisite by Mark Hamill to even appear in The Rise of Skywalker. One of my big issues with the Last Jedi was the new found Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Logistics, and Force (“C4I2RLF” you heard it here first) architecture that made Jedi omnipotent and able to pass information and objects to each other through the Force. It’s a deus ex machina that Johnson relied on because he couldn’t figure out how to connect his characters in a logical way. Abrams limited Johnson’s world breaking laziness to a bond between Ren and Mary Sue, and turned that hitherto cringe-worthy farce into the driver of the whole third act of the Rise of Skywalker. Rey, for two movies the quintessential example of a Mary Sue trope, finally got some training from Leia and it was retconned into the lore, so her powers made sense in The Last Jedi. She also got a change of clothes, though not a change of style. I guess her Jaku outfit was Force Bleached. Let’s add another force power, what does it matter at this point.

Anyway, Rey’s bond with Ren was based on her being Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter and Palpatine training Ren through Snoke who was just a clone used to control Ren by the Emperor. I’m sure the Emperor implied Rey was Sith and that was why she was a Mary Sue. Though convoluted and verging on a fan-fic conspiracy theory, it is probably the best way to explain away all of the plot holes left by The Last Jedi and still make a coherent end to the series. It’s not elegant but it works and sets up some of the best light saber scenes in the movie. Abrams could have just ignored the plot holes and explained them away with one liners. However, like a professional, he ran with what he had in the interest of continuity and consistency and elevated The Last Jedi in the process. The trilogy is better for it. I loved Kylo Ren’s redemption and transformation to Ben Solo/Skywalker.

I was on Team Poe in the “who’s going to end up with Rey” love quadrangle and I never thought Team Ren would win. Though I was on Team Poe, I really hoped Team Finn would win, because I thought it was the only way to redeem his character after the way Johnson treated him, one of the only main characters of color in the franchise, in The Last Jedi. Hate crime investigations have been launched for less. But Finn is back, baby, and force sensitive to boot. I loved the new characters, though I wish the film was longer so their screen time didn’t take away from the main characters. Zorii and Babu Frik stole every scene they were in and I love the seedy side of the Star Wars universe. The shady parts of Star Wars story always screamed, “It’s not who you are or were, but what you do that defines you.” It’s an amazing message that the Star Wars universe reinforces repeatedly. Also, it was nice seeing the band back together, Finn, Poe, Rey, Chewie and 3PO. I think they finally got the banter down, but not to Fast and Furious levels though. I’d love to see Solo/Fast and Furious-like heist movie with Poe, Zorri, Babu Frik, Lando, DJ, and BB-8.

One of the themes that emerged in the franchise, at least to me, was one of family, more specifically that blood doesn’t define family, and when it does, bad things happen. I’m glad the franchise finally got away from the Jedi eugenics epitomized by the “midichlorians” idiocy in the prequels. The Rise of Skywalker was at the end a repudiation of blood determination. One of the best moments of the franchise is at the very end of the Rise of Skywalker when the random old lady asked Rey what her family name was and she replied “Skywalker” and legacy of her friends, instead of the technically correct Palpatine. That Abrams planned it to be one of the best moments of the franchise I have no doubt, because the whole movie set it up. I even mouthed Skywalker just before she said it. I damn near cheered. Some of my fellow theater-goers actually did.

Ok, to wrap this up, I also appreciated a couple of world building moments. At the end when they showed the star destroyers falling out the sky from the various planets, I’m glad they implied the people rising up against the First Order without the help of the Jedi. In the same vein, I’m glad the thousands of Sith loyalists in the chamber went out the way they did. Though centralization has its merits, it also has its vulnerabilities. I’m glad Abrams retconned Hux’s death if only to show that First Order’s factionalism was instrumental in its downfall. I like how they explained the First Order had to capture and brainwash young people from a young age to fill its ranks. And that there’s hope they’ll eventually figure out the tyranny of the system they support, as exemplified by Finn and the new character Janna. I was going to write that I thought it was a bit creepy that Lando picked up Janna at the end of the movie, but I guess she’s supposed to be his daughter. I’m not sure where we find that out in the movie, so I guess it ended up on the cutting room floor.

I can go on, and I’m sure I’ll add to this before I put it on the blog for posterity, but this is obviously long enough. I want to keep this shorter than my history posts.

In the end, I really enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, and I clapped along with everyone in the theater. But I’m really hoping for an extended version to fix the problems I had with it. All of the issues I had with this film involved its rapid pace and the lack of footage that I am positive ended up on the editing room floor. I wanted more – more space battle, more Knights of Ren, more Lando, Luke, Finn, Poe, Merry, BB-8, Zorii, Babu Frik, the A-Wing pilot… more, more, more. It wasn’t as good as it could have been, but there was nothing that broke franchise. After The Last Jedi, that’s what I was hoping for. JJ Abrams did the impossible, he took a turd and polished it. In the process he elevated the trilogy and provided a satisfying ending, if not what we were expecting.

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