Let's Talk About... Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

by Allen Stroud, Ben Potts and Jane Clewett (2,750 words)

Let’s Talk About… Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
April 7, 2020 Allen Stroud, Ben Potts and Jane Clewett

It was the final big ‘cinema event’ of 2019 and has divided critics and audiences. Was it a suitable, faithful send-off or an incoherent mess? Our team discuss the ‘final’ film in the Star Wars mythos. Best read once you’ve seen the film, as we discuss all the plot twists!

 

Allen: The text crawl irritated me. The text introduction is a Star Wars staple, but the content really did feel like a massive shift of plot premise from the end of the last film, and full caps on the first line always irritates me. 

From there, things moved fast, and you could see the way Abrams was trying to cover a lot of ground. We got a whole ton of space opera straight off the bat, giving us the contexts for all of the main cast and setting up the next stage of the plot.

 

Ben: I agree about the crawl. It startled me, frankly; somehow I had gotten so wrapped up in the cultural critique of J.J. Abrams and nostalgic filmmaking in general that I had forgotten all about the fact that this was still Star Wars, still that franchise from the 80s with sprawling starscapes and scrolling blue lettering and strange grammatical construction.

I feel like the opening sequence of the film was a pretty good indication of how the entire rest of the film was going to flow: in tightly-shot, rapid-fire scenes that were like little stories in themselves. Kylo Ren goes on his little quest, breezing by dead soldiers and celestial labyrinths and ancient monoliths to uncover the film’s principal plot hook that will drive the rest of the story.

 

Jane: The film sets out its stall very firmly in the first few minutes — this is the new bad guy, this is the new plot engine, now hold on tight while we jump through space a lot. Like it or not, it’s at least very clear up-front about what it’s going to do.

 

Allen: Star Wars is a franchise that requires you to be ten years old. As an adult, if you can’t transport yourself back to being a ten year-old for a couple of hours, you’ll find yourself picking holes and quibbling over physics, plot points, etc.  If you compare the films with Harry Potter, where the themes grow with you as Harry and his friends grow up, you can see the different take. If you go into a Star Wars film looking for that kind of gradual shift towards the adult audience, you’re not going to get it.

 

Jane: I disagree! I think the themes in Star Wars are necessarily broad and mythic, but they don’t have to be juvenile. Rogue One, The Last Jedi (controversial as it proved) and recently The Mandalorian have all mixed the series’ classic sci-fi action and cod mysticism with interesting questions about, for example, the nature of heroism or self-sacrifice. I don’t think I was bothered by the plot holes in The Rise of Skywalker because I failed to sufficiently embrace my inner child, I think I was bothered by them because the film didn’t provide a coherent emotional throughline to sweep me along with it.

Ben: Western culture, especially American culture, is engulfed in an internal war trying to figure out just what everything means. When it turns out a celebrity abused children, does that invalidate his life’s work? When a politician made a racist remark, does that taint all his accomplishments? Answering these questions are beyond the scope of this article — or this film — but even Star Wars can’t escape the culture war. For all that the franchise claims to take place “a long time ago,” films are always reflections of the times in which they’re made.

Broadly speaking, I see the divisiveness between the Abrams films and the Johnson film is a result of each film taking a specific side in that culture war. Abrams falls on the side of traditional values, nostalgia, and heritage. It was implicit in The Force Awakens, and became much more explicit in The Rise of Skywalker (probably due to a lot of prodding from the portion of the fan base upset by Johnson’s take on the franchise). As Allen points out, Abrams leans into the ‘ten years old again’ vibe, where the world is nice and uncomplicated.

 

Allen: I liked pretty much all of it. There’s a tendency for critics to take pot shots at things, labeling them as fan service and the like; but if you know what you’re going in for and what works, why not acknowledge the positives of that? As a canon writer for a variety of franchises and a supporter of consistent world building, little touches that hark back to the previous films are caviar to me. 

Billy Dee Williams was great to see. The work to include the late Carrie Fisher was clearly a gymnastic stretch, but there was just about enough. I was in tears at some of the call backs and cameos, but then I cry easily when I watch my darlings and Star Wars is one of those darlings.   

 

Jane: I enjoyed seeing Poe, Finn, and Rey together at last. Although I had problems with the plotting, the general idea was sound — sending the united trio off to chase a Macguffin around the galaxy created an active pace, some varied setpieces, and room for the characters to bounce off each other.

I thought the performances were universally pretty great. Harrison Ford’s cameo brought some genuine pathos at a moment where it was badly needed, and Adam Driver’s switch between the menace but fundamental insecurity of Kylo Ren and Ben Solo, who has lost all his weapons but regained his self confidence, really worked for me. And the climax had some great moments; despite being sure they were coming I was ready to cheer when Lando turned up with his civilian recruits, and I loved Finn being Force-sensitive and Rey finally making contact with the Jedi before her. For me, in the last twenty minutes or so the ‘feelgood’ moments really did make me feel good; before that point they mostly didn’t.

 

Ben: Abrams has a number of filmmaking gifts. He can cast like no one else; Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac continue to dazzle us with their on-point acting. Adam Driver is more of a mixed bag, but I think he did a fantastic job of selling ‘Kylo Ben’ this time around.

Abrams also has a great eye for atmosphere and flavour. Fans of his Star Wars films rightly point out that they just feel like Star Wars, from the droid beep-boops to the swarm of Star Destroyers blotting out the sky. He excels at breathtaking cinematic moments. In short, he does a great job of, as he puts it, “making each moment feel delightful.” 

To that end, Abrams checks all the boxes when it comes to revisiting the old hits. Luke, Han, and Leia? Check, check, and check. Billy Dee Williams? Check (finally). Force lightning and droid noises and a final confrontation that in-universe refers back to the showdown at the end of Return of the Jedi? Check. All the imagery, all the theming, it’s all there. Unfortunately, that leads into my critique of the film as well.

Image credit: Disney

Allen: The competing visions of what this Star Wars trilogy was supposed to be about were pretty evident in this film. J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson were not communicating as well as they should have been and The Rise of Skywalker suffers for the lack of story content in The Last Jedi that moves us from The Force Awakens to the final film. Johnson’s take on Luke Skywalker is dismissed by Abrams with the line: “I was wrong”. It might as well have been “Rian was wrong”. Comparatively, The Last Jedi is left looking pretty forgettable by The Rise of Skywalker.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked the second film — but the trilogy would have been so much better if it had had one director.

 

Jane: Sadly, I spent most of the film in a state of miserable frustration. Of course it looks beautiful and the action scenes are breathtaking — I think it’s reasonable to expect that from this franchise. But why was it necessary to undo every single thing that happened in the previous film? Kelly Marie Tran’s measly 76 seconds of screen time felt particularly inexcusable to me.

Why does nobody have a character arc? Kylo Ren comes the closest, but even his redemption felt largely arbitrary (although I’m inclined to overlook that and any other problems that seem to have been caused by the tragic loss of Carrie Fisher). Rey spent The Last Jedi searching for a hero, and finally came to the realisation that the hero was her; but instead of embracing this role in the final film, she spends the whole of The Rise of Skywalker grappling with the ridiculous ‘Rey Palpatine’ backstory she’s suddenly been saddled with. Poe is back to being a maverick, all the lessons he learned about leadership apparently forgotten. And imagine how brilliant it would have been if, while Lando rallied the common people, Finn set out to convert his fellow Stormtroopers (who the film confirms are often child slaves) to the cause. Instead he gets to shoot them and shout “Whoo!”

The film constantly undermines its own emotional stakes by refusing to commit to anything. Major deaths are undone so often it begins to feel like a running gag. Rey can’t kill Palpatine, because if she does she’ll become a Sith! But five minutes later she kills him in a slightly different way and it’s absolutely fine. If I’d been engaged by the story and the characters, I wouldn’t have cared in the least that The Rise of Skywalker has plot holes big enough to drive a Star Destroyer through, but for me the film actively and repeatedly discouraged that kind of engagement.

 

Ben: After discussing, at length, my issues with this movie with the people in my life, it all boils down to one thing. I look at this film and think: “what does it mean?” Others watch the movie and ask: “how does it make me feel?”

That’s the long and short of the Abrams Dilemma. Abrams is fantastic at capturing a feeling, a vibe, a snapshot of “yes, this is right, this is what I’m here for,” and he does it over and over and over again. Every moment needs to be an emotional high, a climax, a “delight.” It makes for a great experience in the moment, but it doesn’t last. You cheer as the rebels mow down stormtrooper after stormtrooper, but lying in bed that night, you remember: “wasn’t it established minutes earlier that stormtroopers are all traumatised child soldiers?” You gasp as Kylo Ren’s final redemption calls back to the story of the serpent in the cave, but walking out of the theatre, you think: “Is that really how redemption works?” You cry as Rey renounces her identity as a Palpatine and claims the Skywalker dynasty as her found family, but then later think, “What does being a Skywalker even mean to her?” I have so much I want to say about the yellow lightsaber that I’m practically exploding. In the end, the story lacks the resonance of previous films in the series.

For some, none of that matters. What matters is we saw the old faces and the lightsabers and the X-Wings, all of which looked fantastic. But good storytelling needs more than highlights if it’s going to stick. Good stories make sense. Good stories have an internal (not necessarily external) logic. Good stories have subtle meanings as well as blatant ones. That takes hard work. That takes suffering through moments that aren’t “delightful.” That takes slowing down and maybe not cramming reference after reference after reference into a film that ends up feeling less like a story than an exhibition. That’s what this movie ends up being: a museum of everything that made Star Wars great and fun, at least at a surface level. That may satisfy moviegoers now, but I suspect that for almost everyone, this movie will gather dust at the back of their Disney+ catalog, because it has no real lasting value or meaning.

Jane: I want to stick up for J. J. Abrams, because I don’t think the blame for the shape The Rise of Skywalker or the sequel trilogy as a whole took actually lies with him. Disney executives are the ones who made the decision to have each film made individually without a clear plotline being laid out in advance, which seems to have been the cause of most of our problems with the film. They’re also responsible for its shortened production schedule. Abrams’ editor, Maryann Brandon, has stated that the film had three months less production time than The Force Awakens and she began editing it while shooting was still ongoing. And of course it’s impossible to tell which events in the film were devised by its screenwriters and which were mandated by its producers, but it certainly had a feeling of being built by committee.

Fundamentally, the problem is less Abrams’ specific approach to filmmaking than the blockbuster genre as a whole. Movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and advertise are naturally incentivised away from being interesting or challenging and towards being crowd-pleasing, even at the expense of coherency. The problem’s writ large in The Rise of Skywalker but it’s in no way unique to it. As comedian Andrew O’Neill once observed, millionaires seldom make good artistic decisions.

 

Ben: I mentioned the culture war earlier, and how Abrams comes down on the opposite side from Johnson. In the end, I don’t think that’s a problem. As Allen said, it makes the trilogy as a whole a little inconsistent, but that happens with big franchises like this with a lot of fingers in the pie. Abrams and his fans are right in that there’s real value and joy to be found in the themes of family, loyalty, and sacrifice.

In the end, though, my biggest issue with the film is not that Abrams is a culture warrior, it’s that he’s a bad one. I don’t have any idea what the film is trying to say except: “evil bad, Skywalker good.” It’s fun, it’s thrilling, it’s nostalgic, but it can’t last because there’s no underlying meaning to any of it.

Someone whose thinking I greatly respect pointed out that Abrams’ approach allows viewers to make their own meaning in the film. For people who have been fans of the franchise since the 70s, this is a chance for them to have some closure, to say goodbye to characters and plot threads that they’ve adored for 40 years. I guess that could be true. I think it could have been a great deal more, though.

 

Allen: Looking for a sense of meaning beyond the surface of Star Wars’ traditional battle of good versus evil, Jedi versus Sith, is a lost cause. There are films that cater for that kind of analysis. Star Wars is not amongst them and never has been. If you go in looking for an emotive and fun ride that calls back to all those nostalgic icons of the franchise then you won’t be disappointed. I went into The Rise of Skywalker understanding what I was going to get and I loved the experience. 

 

Jane: Allen, genuinely, I’m really glad it made you happy! I wish I’d felt that way too. But while Star Wars may be the wrong place to look for deeper meaning, I don’t think basic character arcs and a plot that more or less makes sense are too much to ask for, and I didn’t get them. For me, the film must remain a shiny, shiny disappointment.