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

The Little Stranger (2018)

My general preference for finding cheap, immediate thrills in all of life’s pleasures can often make me feel like a cultural simpleton. Like when struggling to describe an exquisite meal or a fine wine with anything more than “It tastes good,” I’m often frustrated with films that are overly restrained, valuing subtlety & measured storytelling over “delivering the goods.” The Little Stranger has put me in my place as a cultural simpleton like no other work since the frustratingly delayed costume drama payoffs of last year’s Lady Macbeth. The Little Stranger is a ghostly work of Gothic literature atmosphere with an incredibly well-weaved story of class resentment, familial grief, and male entitlement. It’s also stubbornly withholding, deliberately avoiding depiction of the action, sex, and violence that typically entertains at the movies. Intellectually, I know that this restrained, subtle approach to storytelling is supposed to “elevate” the deeper pleasures of the Gothic horror genre above the cheap-thrill payoffs of lesser works like Winchester & The Nun. The thing is, though, that I’ve seen recent films in its genre that have managed to do both – be intellectually nourishing & deliver the Gothic horror goods (namely Beast & Marrowbone) – so that The Little Stranger’s eagerness to withhold can only leave me frustrated. Whether or not something’s nourishing, I still want it to taste good.

Because its genre thrills are muted & deliberately obscured, The Little Stranger’s strengths are nested in its two central performances. Ruth Wilson stars as the once-wealthy heiress of an early 20th Century estate in shambles, living out a Little Edie-style tragic decline in a British precursor to Grey Gardens. Domhnall Gleeson plays a local doctor who grew up far less privileged in the community surrounding the estate, possessed by the opulence it once promised before a family tragedy thrust it into decline. At first, the pair are perfectly matched in their own “misery loves company” way, finding less than little joy in the decaying home that haunts them. It’s the divide in the ways the home haunts them that causes a deadly rift, however. She desperately wants to escape a toxic home life of a once-wealthy family brought to ruins by decades of grief resulted from a past, hushed tragedy. The doctor wants to establish himself as a belonging member of that family. He’s possessed by the memory of the estate’s former greatness, unable to recognize the poisonous rubble it is in the present. The stagnation & resentment resulting from this tension manifests in ghostly, violent phenomena in the haunted home that binds them together. However, that violence is mostly obscured from the audience, who instead are left to stew in the quiet, relentless bitterness Wilson & Gleeson trade in slow-moving blows.

There is an early, shocking act of violence in The Little Stranger that bathes the screen in a child’s blood, setting an expectation for a much more explicit, rattling film than what’s to come. Instead of matching the visual intensity of that violence throughout, director Lenny Abrahamson traffics in the same slow-simmering resentment & grief he explored in Room & Frank. The ghostly violence of a typical Gothic horror is maintained mostly as a background atmosphere that flavors the much subtler social violence of class & gender. The Gothic horror genre is used to explore the lingering grief of past trauma here, although that trauma is varied depending on the characters’ relationship to the haunted estate. What’s withheld is the physical manifestation of that haunting, even when the paranormal violence’s mysterious source is revealed. The Little Stranger’s central narrative is well-considered in its themes and exquisitely performed in its resentment-barbed exchanges between Wilson & Gleeson. I just find it frustrating that Abrahamson couldn’t find room for both the subtle nuance of that character tension & the immediate thrills of physical violence as promised in the first-act shock. It’s that tendency to withhold as if restraint were more respectable than indulgence that keeps The Little Stranger at good-not-great for me, the same way that the year’s cheap-thrills Gothic horrors with shallow, pointless stories to tell are hindered by their inverse imbalance.

For those following along at home:

-Brandon Ledet

mother! (2017)

In the words of the Grand Galactic Inquisitor: “That was a weird one!”

For years, I woke up every morning (and the occasional afternoon), rolled over, and put my feet firmly on the floor in front of a poster for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The Fountain was not a movie that I liked when I first saw it, nor was Black Swan. Over time, however, I came to love The Fountain in spite (or perhaps because) of its bizarre but ultimately human melding of pretentious universalism and cloying sentimentality. Even in my first viewing in the theater, I still loved the visuals of the film, especially the depictions of space as a vast sea of colors and reactions, which were actually taken from microphotography. And I guess I’ve come around some on Black Swan as well, although I doubt I’ll ever come to love it. All of this is to say that opinions can and do change. Sometimes I look back and can’t believe I gave Tenebrae anything less than a perfect 5 Stars. And 4 Stars for last year’s Ghostbusters? What was I smoking? In order to be fair, despite the fact that I walked out of the theater after seeing mother! and immediately wanted to pen my review, I decided to ruminate on it for a few days to see if my feelings about the movie changed at all.

And, hey, they did! The more time that passes, the less I like it. I better get this down on paper while I still have some positivity. And maybe while I still have some negativity as well. Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come, and I get the feeling it’s going to go up and down.

On my Fountain poster, there was a pull-quote from film critic Glenn Kenny: “As deeply felt as it is imagined.” This is essentially true of all of Aronofsky’s films that I’ve seen (of his recent work, I’ve only missed Noah and The Wrestler): they are all films with a great depth of imagination and arresting visuals, paired with emotional gravitas that varies wildly but usually works because of strong performances by powerhouses like Barbara Hershey, Ellen Burstyn, and, for all that people love to mock her, Natalie Portman. It doesn’t really apply in the case of mother!, however. This is a cast full of powerful performers, from Javier Bardem to Jennifer Lawrence to Ed Harris and (my ride or die) Michelle Pfeiffer, but even their presence makes for a film that lacks the emotional resonance that it’s shooting for; it aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars, it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.

Although I went into this film as blind as I possibly could, avoiding all pre-release interviews and clickbait, I don’t foresee being able to fully discuss this film without going into the major plot elements and my interpretation of the events of the narrative. This is going to be a spoiler-heavy review, so abandon ship now all ye who wish to view the film with fresh eyes and clear hearts. This plot summary may not vary far from others you may have already seen, but I intend to only note things I plan to discuss. Ok? Let’s go.

The film opens on Javier Bardem’s character “Him” placing a crystal with a fiery center in a podium, which causes a burned home to regenerate, including the appearance of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, “mother.” She is working on restoring a glorious octagonal Victorian house to its former glory after a fire: plastering walls, repainting, and generally doing all of the heavy lifting while Bardem’s writer character, whom we later learn is a poet, sits in his study (which contains the crystal from the opening scene) and struggles with his writer’s block. One day “the man” (Harris) appears, supposedly after having been told that their home was a bed and breakfast. The poet welcomes him into the house over Lawrence’s character’s protests, and the two men spend the night drinking and carousing. The next morning, mother awakens to find herself alone before stumbling upon her husband helping the man, now with a wound where his back ribs are, to vomit in a commode. This prompts the appearance of “the woman” (Pfeiffer), the man’s wife, who slinks about making innuendo and asking invasive questions about how often the (ostensibly) younger couple have sex, do they love each other, and, of course, when is Lawrence’s character just going to have a baby already?

They reveal that they are actually fans of the poet’s work, and Pfeffer’s character finally manages to find her way into his inner sanctum, accidentally breaking the crystal and driving the poet into a rage; he boards up his study. As the homeowners prepare to kick the interlopers out of their house, the latter’s two sons (Domnhall Gleeson as the elder and Brian Gleeson as the younger) arrive and bicker about their inheritance, leading to a physical altercation that results in the younger son’s death. This leads into an influx of a seemingly endless multitude of mourners into the house, who invade and act out, from childishly mocking Lawrence’s character for trying to preserve the sanctity of her bedroom to aggressively trying to sleep with her and using misogynistic slurs to ultimately breaking a sink and flooding the room. This finally prompts her to drive all of the uninvited guests out. Afterwards, she and the poet make love. She awakes the next morning and declares that she is pregnant. This delights her husband and breaks through the wall of his creative block, and he writes something new, something truly beautiful and transcendent (not that the audience gets to read it; we only see how people react). That’s when shit truly hits the fan.

Near the end of her pregnancy, the new work is published, to Lawrence’s character’s surprise, and their home is immediately descended upon by fans, who begin to besiege the house in the form of a mob. In a matter of minutes, they make their way into the house and begin to destroy it, repeating the poet’s declaration that all that lies within is to be shared. Violence erupts, as well as various rituals and rites that smack of religiosity and sectarianism, until their home becomes a war zone, complete with women being imprisoned, the poet’s publisher (Kristen Wiig) performing violent executions, refugees hiding in barracks, and explosions in every direction. The mother and her husband make their way to his boarded-up study, where she gives birth but refuses to let the poet take the baby out into the rest of the house; when she finally falls asleep, she awakes in a panic and rushes from the room to find that Bardem’s character is presenting their child to the assembled throng of his fans, who steal the baby.

Then they kill it. Then they eat it. (Then hundreds of people in dozens of cinemas in America stood up and left the theater. To address the elephant in the room, it was pretty gruesomely laid open, and I’m not shocked that middle America revolted at this… revolting display. I’m sure that they would say that I am too desensitized to this kind of thing based on my previous viewing habits–including La terza madre, which features a similar scene of infant cannibalism–but really it’s that I’m an adult who knows when a prop is just a prop. The disturbing shit is happening out there in the streets in the real world right now, and if you happen to be one of those people who found this beyond reprehensible but don’t have a thing to say in defense of the victim when children like Trayvon Martin are getting murdered in the real world, then you’re the one whose brain is fucked up. Get your priorities and your house in order. But I digress.)

This (baby eating) drives Lawrence’s character around the bend. She attacks some followers and is badly beaten by them in retaliation. She ultimately makes her way to the basement, where she succeeds in setting the house ablaze and killing everyone inside, save for the poet. He finds her burned body and asks her to make one last sacrifice on his behalf: she allows him to remove her heart, which he cracks like a nut or an egg to reveal another crystal identical to the one at the start of the film. He again places the crystal in its place, and the house begins to rejuvenate once more….

I’m embarrassed to say that the primary and most obvious metaphor of the film did not reveal itself to me during my first watch. As someone well versed with the Western Canon, the reinterpretation and revisitation of Biblical sources is as familiar to me as the smell of my childhood home or the shape of the tree outside my bedroom window. I was careful (and lucky) to avoid promotional materials, which meant that Aronofsky’s public declarations about the films allegorical intent were unknown to me until after the fact. Still, in retrospect it should have been obvious to me that the poet was meant to be God, that Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters were Adam and Eve, that their sons were Cain and Abel, that the broken sink was the great deluge, that Lawrence’s character’s child was Jesus, especially as the mass of fanatics ate of his flesh and experienced a kind of religious ecstasy. Aronofsky has also stated that the considered the title character to be representative of the earth, which is taken for granted by mankind, a group which in turn tears the world apart in the name of warring faiths and factionalism, until the earth turns on its guests and burns everything down. Also, I’m pretty sure Wiig is supposed to be the Catholic Church in this paradigm. But Roland Barthes and I are over here in the corner and we want you to know: the Author is dead, baby, dead, and you’re not beholden to what he has to say.

I read the film not as a mostly one-to-one allegorical fable about the rise and fall of mankind, but as being instead about the God Complex of the author, the artist who is so self-absorbed with their personal vision that they allow themselves to reach the point of total narcissism and personal deification, an apotheosis of the self. To me, this read true in the scenes in which we see Bardem’s character repeatedly surrender his privacy, the sanctity of his personal relationships, and even his own child to appease the reader and the audience. It made me think of the way that so many writers, myself included, stripmine their lives for story material, consciously and unconsciously. I wasn’t expecting Adam and Eve so I didn’t notice them when they arrived, and was more fascinated with wondering whether or not Aronofsky knew how unbearable the author (and thus he himself) seemed to be, based on the lens of my reading.

As chaos descends in the final act, I found myself looking for other ways to interpret the material, and thought that we were headed for a kind of H.P. Lovecraft’s Rosemary’s Baby scenario. There’s certainly enough textual evidence for the idea that the house is in reality an eldritch horror show under all the floorboards and the plaster, with the image of a beating, fleshy thing behind the walls and a Cronenbergian bladder/ulcer/boil/appendage (?) sticking out of the plumbing. There’s also a very Lovecraftian element to the way that the interior of the house descends into a Gilliamesque war zone that’s evocative of the indecipherable and incomprehensible chaos of films like Jacob’s Ladder and In the Mouth of Madness. I was rooting for this potential turn right up until the child was born and it was totally normal-looking (other than being ten months old like most movie “newborns”). My hopes that the film was going to transcend into something truly bizarre were dashed.

But if we instead take Aronofsky at his word, then everything is so obviously (and clumsily) literal that we’re left struggling to grasp the meaning of the more obtuse symbols that appear in the film? Take, for instance, the importance of Harris’s character’s lighter. This “Adam” smokes, much to “mother’s” chagrin; if she is Mother Earth, is she upset by the pollution of her perfect home, caused by self-destructiveness, and this is the reason for her ill temperament? If we accept this premise for the sake of argument, what are we to make of the fact that she deliberately loses the lighter–is this the earth hiding man’s self-destruction from him, and is the fact that Harris’s character later lights a cigarette on the stove despite having no lighter a metaphor for how mankind will continues to be self-destructive regardless of nature’s attempts to course correct? If we grant that these precepts are sine qua non of the thesis that man/Adam/mankind abuses the hospitality/household/habitability of mother/earth/Mother-Earth and that this is what ultimately leads to the destruction of the house/planet, we are still left with questions. Why does the lighter have a Nordic rune on it (it’s called a Wendehorn; you can also see it on the woman’s luggage clasps)? When the metaphorical first man arrives bearing fire, are we really supposed to draw no connection to the myth of Prometheus? Given that Promethean fire most often metaphorically stands for technology, is it mankind’s technical aptitude that mother despises, and if so, what does the fact that she uses this fire/technology/self-destruction to burn down the house mean? Is it that polluting the earth causes climate change and thus the ultimate death-by-heat of humanity?

Is it really just that one layer? Is it really so obvious and dumb? Or is it a matryoshka, with multiple obfuscated layers of meaning but also somehow just as dumb?

And what of “Cain” and “Abel”? Primogeniture, inheritance, and birthright are common narrative devices of the Judaic biblical canon, ranging from Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Ishmael to Joseph and his brothers, but those aren’t elements of the story of Adam and Eve’s eldest sons, whose altercation was the result of Cain making the wrong kind of pre-Messianic sacrifice in comparison to Abel’s proper profferation of his prettiest sheep (no, seriously, look it up). Fraternal jealousy is a hallmark of this tradition, but Cain and Abel competed for the affections of their creator, not their father. As such, one would think that there would be some interaction between either of the brothers and the poet before the slaying, but if there was it was too fast or subtle to be perceptible. Again, there’s so much (one could say too much) effort put into creating a one-to-one correlation between events in the film and Judaic myth that when that synchronization falls out of step, it highlights the shoddiness of the overall metaphor.

Which is to say: I think there may be a great movie in mother!, despite its flaws being as deeply felt as they are imagined. It just needed two or three more drafts before it could reach that potential. And if this film has taught us anything, it’s that writers who think they are gods, as well as gods who envision themselves as writers, don’t spend nearly enough time working out the kinks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond