Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a Star War! And it was fine. Not great, but pretty good.

I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint! Then along came The Last Jedi, which was … fine. The discourse surrounding TLJ in the past two years has been exhausting, with a lot of hatred leveled at director Rian Johnson, containing a level of vitriol that should rightfully be reserved for—and aimed at—some of the real monsters currently haunting the venerated halls of our government. For me, I usually tend to forget about the elements of a work that I find boring and instead focus on the things that entertain me, but with TLJ, I don’t remember much about what I liked. In my mind, the whole pointless, infuriating side story about Finn and Rose going to the stupid casino planet seems to take up the entirety of the film’s run time in my recollection. I got into my general issues with the way slavery in the Star Wars universe is presented and my hatred of the stupid chihuahua horse escape sequence from TLJ in my Solo review, so I won’t beg your patience by revisiting it here, but suffice it to say that I’m not terribly invested in the fate of a bunch of CGI creatures when the end of the film shows that there are still enslaved children cleaning those stables. I hate that the body politic of the internet bullied Kelly Marie Tran until she basically quit social media because that’s idiotic on the part of her bullies (not to mention cruel); you have to be a child or an idiot to blame an actor for the poor choices that their character makes, but holy shit, Rose (as written) really was a horrible addition to this franchise. She didn’t have to be, but Christ almighty did that entire subplot drag the movie down.

But this isn’t a review of The Last Jedi; it’s a review of The Rise of Skywalker. When we last left our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were dead, and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were alive. Leia was alive, but Carrie Fisher has, sadly, passed. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Jon Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) were reunited with Chewie, R2-D2, and C3PO aboard the Millennium Falcon and lived to fight another day. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was throwing a tantrum about not being able to kill his uncle Luke and live up to the legacy of grandfather Darth Vader, and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) was pretty tired of his shit. Caught up? Well, unlike TLJ, this movie doesn’t pick up right where the last installment left off; instead, we’ve catapulted some period of time into the future. Finn and Poe are off on one of those generic “gathering intelligence” missions, Rey is getting some Jedi training finally (from Leia), and Kylo Ren is micromanaging the shit out of the First Order, flying all over the place and singlehandedly attempting to wipe out any and all threats to his new position as Supreme Leader. And that’s all from the opening crawl!

Do you remember whenever Batman, as played by Adam West, would feed a bunch of information into his Batcomputer and then come to an utterly incoherent conclusion that was inexplicably correct, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been? Half of the plot points in this film feel that way. You’ll spend the first half of this movie wanting to talk back to the screen, asking characters how they “know” that they have to go to this planet or that moon. One plot coupon leads to the next at a breakneck speed, and there’s no time for any revelations or new pieces of information to breathe before we’re off to get the next one. Some of this works, and there’s some real Indiana Jones stuff that happens with a dagger that turns out to be a compass, but even getting to the place where the dagger is found (almost by accident) takes up an inordinate amount of screen time. Information and vistas come at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your bearings before jumping to hyperspace.

Even at that pace, there’s still far too much that happens offscreen, or relies on the audience to grant meaning to information that hasn’t been pre-established. The best comparison I can make is to the later Harry Potter sequels. As someone who was just a tad bit too old for the books when they came out, I’m really only familiar with the first two of those novels from reading them as part of a college course for people who might one day teach young adult literature. The movies were fun, though, and I enjoyed them, up until around The Half-Blood Prince, where they started too become incomprehensible if you didn’t have knowledge that came from the book series alone; from what I understand from conversations with friends who read J.K. Rowling’s books and Dominic Noble’s “Lost in Adaptation” YouTube series, later films adapted plot points from the novels on which they were based, but which followed up on plot elements which had been dropped from the previous film adaptations of the source material. A notable example is that, when I finally saw The Deathly Hallows in grad school, there’s a moment where Ron has some kind of accident while apparating, and Hermione screams that he’s “splinched.” As someone who had only seen the films, I had no reference point for what that could possibly mean. There’s a lot that happens here in Rise of Skywalker that feels much the same, except that there’s not even a source material from which this is taken that might give more insight, and the film wallpapers over these narrative leaps by moving so fast that (hopefully) you won’t notice it.

I’m going to get into minor spoilers here, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s not your bag. I’m not really a fan of the term “retcon” when talking about media franchises because of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that surround that term, both within the fandom and from the outside looking in. Retcons aren’t always bad; my personal favorite comic book character, Jessica Jones, only exists because Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t allowed to use Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) in his proposed noir private eye comic and had to invent a new character out of whole cloth, then retroactively slotted her into previously established Marvel Comics continuity. Even questionable retcons, like Star Trek: Discovery‘s insertion of a human foster sister into Spock’s backstory, have their fans (I don’t hate it). But there are things that happen in Rise of Skywalker that push the limits of what a narrative can expect its audience to go along with. The fact that Palpatine is still alive (or perhaps undead), despite the previous two films in this new trilogy even hinting that this might be the case, is a big one. That’s barely a spoiler, considering that this is literally the first thing that the audience learns in the opening crawl: “THE DEAD SPEAK!” is the text that immediately following the film’s title. The fact that Rey is, in fact, related to a previously established character despite Ren’s assertions to the contrary in the last film isn’t really a big deal in comparison to this horseshit. The fact that a major character that last appeared onscreen over a decade ago is actually not (quite) dead isn’t something that you establish offscreen. That’s just bad storytelling.

But even that doesn’t bother me as much as the moment where Rey is presented with a special gift: Leia’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that’s treated with such reverence that, as a viewer, you understand that you’re supposed to be awed by it, and by gum, I really wanted to be. I wanted to feel thrilled again; I wanted to feel the rush of childlike delight, but instead I felt the all-too-familiar sting of adulthood, the realization that you can’t go home again, a hollow dissatisfaction with the artifice that was constructed to play upon your nostalgia. It was like the first time that you realized that chocolate Easter bunnies are empty inside, and that now a little part of you will be, too, forever. There’s nothing magical about learning that Leia had a lightsaber, or even that she trained as a Jedi with Luke (who really wasn’t super qualified for that, all things considered, which would have been a much more interesting arc for him in these films). It’s just more bad retconning that, if you read the expanded universe novels and comics, may mean something to you, but which is lost on the rest of us.

Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys. On the one hand, I wish the whole thing had ended with TFA so that we could just imagine our own endings, but on the other hand, no one’s stopping you from doing that anyway.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Instinct Vs. Ability in Rey’s Use of the Force in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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When I first reviewed Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it had just opened for wide release. This was a magical time, just less than a month ago, when I couldn’t imagine what anyone could possibly have to complain about in J.J. Abrams’ fan-pleasing entry to one of pop culture’s most beloved franchises. After viewing the film three times in the theater (possibly the first time I’ve done that for a movie since 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), my enthusiasm hasn’t wavered a bit. I’m proud that it ended up ranking on our Top Films of 2015 list & personally would place it behind only Empire Strikes Back as one of the best in the franchise. Boy, was I wrong about the complaints, though. From what I can tell, the world (or at least the world online) has forgotten how to have fun at the movies & has devolved mostly into whiny nitpicking & self-assigned superiority. Despite the critical response to The Force Awakens remaining largely positive, the volume & variety of complaints surrounding the film have become absolutely overwhelming. There are many common quibbles I disagree with (it too closely resembles A New Hope, its central villain is too “emo” to be threatening, etc.), but for the sake of brevity I’d like to address just one complaint against the film that I find dubious: the idea that its protagonist, Rey, gets “too good, too fast” in her use of the Force.

The last thing the world needs right now is another lengthy think piece about The Force Awakens so I’ll try to keep it brief here. It’d be possible to address the complaints against Rey’s Force abilities from the POV that a slowburner about a young space wizard spending hours of screen time learning to play laser swords might not be the most exciting plot for an action-packed space opera. It’s also possible that there’s a hint of sexism afoot in these complaints about Rey, since no one seemed super-miffed about how quickly Luke could block laser blasts blindfolded in A New Hope. I’d like to offer a much simpler explanation for Rey’s sudden talent with the ancient art of the Force besides streamlining the plot, however: her talent was a lot more gradual than most people realize. The scene most people seem to gripe with concerning Rey’s abilities is an interrogation room battle with Kylo Ren when she seemingly discovers her Force abilities, then immediately dominates her professionally-trained opponent in a mental tug of war. It’s my contention that Rey had already been “using the Force” long before she entered that interrogation room; she just didn’t have a name for something she had been doing by instinct.

For concrete evidence for Rey using the Force before the interrogation scene, just look to all of her instances of “luck” & “coincidence”. Rey is introduced as having a unique talent for scavenging for minuscule parts in gigantic ships, but is it a purely human talent that drives these needle-in-the-haystack searches? Perhaps not. Even more convincing is the scene where Rey first flies the Millennium Falcon. She is familiar with the individual parts of ships from her daily scavenging & can talk shop with the best of  them (most notably Han Solo), but knowing & doing are two separate endeavors. When Rey takes the controls of the Millennium Falcon (a ship she derides as some nameless junker) she flies it recklessly in a panic, repeating “I can do this, I can do this” to herself & barely getting by on rudimentary skills & “luck”. When she devises a plan on how to utilize Finn’s gun (which is locked in a downward position) by executing a flawless maneuver that positions the ship upside down, a switch seemingly flips in her head. She looks confident, determined, and the wild nature of piloting smooths out. Finn asks her, “How did you do that?” and she responds, “I don’t know. I’ve flown before, but . . .” in an exasperated tone. This is a line of questioning is repeated later in the film when she escapes Kylo Ren’s interrogation by using the Force (supposedly for the first time) and when asked to explain how, she responds, “I can’t explain it & you wouldn’t believe me.”

I believe there is a pattern there. Rey is instinctually using the Force in the Millennium Falcon scene without knowing what she’s doing exactly. It’s a pattern repeated when she first uses a laser blaster. She misses her first shot, looking frazzled, then throws on her determined Force Face (a great body language detail from actor Daisy Ridley) & never misses again, offing a storm trooper every time she pulls the trigger. It’s also echoed in the scene where she accidentally releases the alien beasts Han Solo is smuggling. She mistakenly opens the wrong blast doors on her first try, but when she has to save Finn from the wicked things’ tentacles she calmly executes the correct blast door at the exact correct time, joking “That was lucky.” I disagree with Rey (even though she was speaking in jest). It wasn’t lucky; it was the Force. I could kind of pinpoint a few more of Rey’s instant “talents” & lucky “coincidences” that could possibly be attributed to the Force (happening to run into Finn in the first place, innate understanding of obscure languages, the ability to fight off multiple men at once, moving a gigantic metal grate with her bare hands, etc.), but you’d have to squint at those examples the right way to make them work. I’m at the very least confident that the Falcon flight, the laser blaster, and the blast doors are concrete examples of Rey using the Force by instinct.

I don’t think that Rey’s Force abilities being introduced gradually instead of suddenly makes or breaks The Force Awakens as a good or a bad movie. There’s so much going on in the film that makes it a worthwhile slice of sci-fi fantasy entertainment otherwise. If nothing else, watching animatronic cutie patootie BB-8 roll & bleep its way through danger is alone worth the price of admission. I do, however, firmly believe that Rey’s gradual use of the Force through instinct was an intentional choice made by director J.J. Abrams & screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Long before Rey Jedi mind tricks her way out of the interrogation room & even before she receives visions by touching the Skywalker family lightsaber, her unknowing use of the Force is referenced by none other than Supreme Leader Snoke himself. Snoke asks Kylo Ren, “There has been an Awakening. Can you feel it?” (For the record, Ren can.) If a fictional, spooky projection of an evil wizard can sense that Rey is using the Force sight unseen, why can’t the film’s detractors, who have the benefit of watching her every step? Sometimes it’s fun to complain, I guess, whether or not the film or the character deserves the scrutiny.

-Brandon Ledet