The Delicate but Potent Nostalgia of Rise of Skywalker

I hated The Rise of Skywalker.

I think I’ve been trying to convince myself otherwise by contorting my opinion with the idea that there were parts of the movie I enjoyed. Adam Driver probably gives his strongest performance as Kylo Ren. Anthony Daniels gets some genuinely emotional moments in what will likely be his final turn as C-3PO. And Chewie FINALLY got his medal.* Otherwise, there came a point when I knew this film was not enjoyable, and I just wanted to get it over with. I rolled my eyes at certain revelations. I gasped at the absurdity of a teased death. I laughed at how hilariously absurd Palpatine being revealed as the man behind the curtain truly was. I got angry at Kelly Marie-Tran get relegated to desk duty in a capitulation to the worst elements of the Star Wars  fandom.

*Full Disclosure: This is one moment of the movie where I actually got emotional because I’m not a monster despite his getting the medal having no sense of context.

I save Kelly Marie-Tran for last because her character says something really important in Last Jedi. “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” Maybe this quote is cheesy, but I do not think I could have hated Episode IX without actually loving Star Wars. For that, we have to go back in time.

I cannot remember my actual first time watching the holy grail of trilogies. I do know it was on some crappy VHS copies on a television that would not pass muster in 2019. I know I enjoyed the movies, but they didn’t stick with me until I saw them in theaters. It is easy to make fun of those 1997 special editions. Greedo shooting first is silly. Jabba’s deleted scene should have stayed deleted. That awful song in Return of the Jedi sucks, but 11-year-old me loved watching every moment in theaters. Return of the Jedi was my favorite because…look I was 11. I liked seeing the franchise finish. I liked the happy ending. You can tell the beginning side quest has no purpose, and I will tell you it was fun seeing a heist onscreen. You can tell me the Ewoks are annoying teddy bears, and I will respond that it was nice to see non-main characters make a difference and help out the good guys.* The softening of Han Solo and the Emperor’s surely have not aged so well, but I was all-in on this franchise. Then an announcement came that shook my world.

*I think the biggest sin of the Marvel movies and so many modern blockbusters is we do not get enough perspective from the plebeians and normies. I think saving the Ewoks actually raises the stakes in a really natural way.

More Star Wars. Coming in 1999. Are you kidding me? I was a week away from graduating 8th grade, but I wanted to see The Phantom Menace asap. This was a big deal because my late father took me to our local theater right after school. Almost any movie I’d ever seen was over a weekend or on summer vacation. This was a big deal. I remember watching this movie and pretending it was good. I did the same thing for each of the subsequent prequels. I eventually acknowledged these movies are excruciating viewing experiences because George Lucas is incapable of writing dialogue that sounds like it could be said by real humans. But hey, they were still special events and there was the pod race, Duel of the Fates, the final battle of Attack of the Clones, and some individual scenes in episode three which I think are good.

By the time 2012 rolled around, I thought Star Wars was in the past. George Lucas continued to tinker with his films, and it was annoying. I reached a point where I didn’t care anymore. Then Disney bought it, immediately announced a new trilogy, and I was back in because that’s what fans do. No matter that half the movies weren’t good and Lucas was messing up the three good ones, there would three new episodes featuring Leia, Han, and Luke. Oh, and JJ Abrams would be in the director’s chair.

JJ Abrams made a Star Trek movie that was basically  A New Hope. It’s clear where his passion was. He knew how to direct action and could seemingly guide this franchise through tough waters. Although The Force Awakens  was also a remake of A New Hope, it felt like Star Wars again. The dialogue was less clunky. Everything didn’t feel like a bunch of CGI. The new cast was great. You couldn’t ask for much better than Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. We even got a twist with a female Jedi as the marketing made us believe John Boyega would be the main character, but there was now a female protagonist. Of course, the Mary Sue allegations came out, and this is where the problems started, partially thanks to noted douchebag and serial harasser Max Landis. Anyone who thinks Ray is a Mary Sue needs to rewatch A New Hope again and see how quickly Luke picks things up.

I remember liking the legasequel but feeling a bit empty. Here we were in a world of Marvel and Game of Thrones with interlocking storylines and character depth. Could Star Wars live up to this and tell new stories?

Rogue One wouldn’t answer this question. It’s the best prequel and sneakily has the best third act of any Star Wars movie. I will debate anyone on this point. What makes this so memorable is that this will always be the one Star Wars movie I saw outside of the United States in the Philippines on Christmas Eve. The issue with this movie is you had a different brunette female in the lead. I’m smart enough to know the difference, but many weren’t. Disney exposed itself by announcing a new movie every year in perpetuity with a rotation of franchise movies and side movies. Unlike Marvel, there might not be a connection from film to film. Rogue One also exposed another problem as original director Gareth Edwards did not get to finish his own film as Tony Gilroy took over and clearly made the movie a bit safer.

Problems arose with Solo and Episode IX as well. Both those movies lost their original filmmakers. Lord and Miller are known for taking bad ideas and making them work. A really bad idea is making a Han Solo film without Harrison Ford, and it would turn out to be the least exciting Star Wars movie. A gentlemen’s six out of ten that also ruined the mystique and specialness of this franchise. Colin Trevarrow made Jurassic World, a financial juggernaut but not exactly a well-received entry into that franchise. His story idea was so bad he got fired even before filming started. I was really trepadatious about Episode VIII based on all of this news and my meh feelings on Episode VII.

I am a fan of Rian Johnson. Brick and Looper are both very good genre exercises with some unique storytelling elements and really good dense of visuals. The endings had a bit to be desired, but Johnson also had the credibility of being a television director for a couple of critical darlings in Terriers  and Breaking Bad. I was excited but had no idea what to expect.

My immediate thoughts on The Last Jedi were it was an audacious piece of filmmaking. It took more viewings to realize how special it was. Luke Skywalker called out the Jedi for being awful, something that both previous trilogies showed but didn’t tell, and tossed away this lightsaber because it no longer meant anything to him. Kylo Ren pointed how dumb the good versus evil dichotomy was. Yoda literally burned down Jedi temples while cackling. Action figure fans got to actually find out what happened when ships crashed into each other. The Holdo maneuver was desperate because this movie and the Resistance were desperate. Star Wars freshened things up. Johnson went very unsafe. Making Luke’s Vader’s son was dangerous and fresh. Making Ray someone’s son or daughter was predictable. Ray’s parents? Drunks. This was proof that anyone could be a Jedi and you didn’t have to have a famous father or mother to succeed. Your midochlorian count didn’t matter. The last show of the film even took us away from the main characters and to a force sensitive child who held a broom and looked on with hope. It was an emotional moment coming moments after Luke Skywalker offered the last hope by sacrificing himself and atoning for the numerous sins of the Jedi.

People will refer to this movie as divisive, and if you go on YouTube or social media, many people will happily tell you Rian Johnson pissed on the legacy of this franchise. Poor Kelly Marie-Tran, who played Rose, felt bullied enough to leave social media because of bullying and death threats. Let’s be 100% clear though. This movie was number one at the box office in 2017 with over 1.3 billion dollars. Its domestic box office intake nearly doubled all three Marvel movies and a DC movie that is considered to the best of that franchise in Wonder Woman. The Rotten Tomatoes score (which I fully admit is not the ultimate indicator of whether a film is Actually Good) is over 90%. You can point out the IMDB and RT audience scores and I will point to the box office and critical response. A hell of a lot of people like this movie and what it represents.

Disney appeared set to go all-in with Rian Johnson as a brand new trilogy was announced. Storm clouds formed as JJ Abrams was brought back to save Episode IX. He assured everyone he would not repudiate the events of Episode VIII, but Abrams has a reputation for bad endings (Go read about Felicity’s ending on Wikipedia when you get a chance) and not so great sequels (Hello Star Trek Into Darkness).

Chris Terrio was brought in as another screenwriter. While he did win an Oscar for Argo, I didn’t exactly see that film on a best of the decade list, and we all know how flawed the award system is. Terrio also has two other prominent credits, Batman vs. Superman and Justice League. The former has a rock bottom moment for the DCEU as Batman and Superman stop fighting because their moms have the same name. The latter was a major financial disaster, and the Snyder Cut does not sound like an improvement.

Why I am only now getting to actually discussing Rise of Skywalker? Because I hope these previous paragraphs and my breakdowns of these films have shown my love for this franchise and that the idea I wanted to hate this movie is fucking insane.

“The dead speak!”

I knew the movie was boned in my mind right from the first sentence of the last crawl of the Skywalker saga, maybe the last crawl ever. Over the next 2 hours and 20 minutes, my senses were rocked with editing so cut heavy, I think even Michael Bay was telling Abrams to slow down. You would almost need to find Kelly Marie-Tran with a search party. Disney apparently did not hear the standing ovation she received at the celebration because she was reduced to desk duty and apparently was no longer romantically interested in Finn. Then there were the potshots.

In the build-up ad marketing, cast and crew took subtle shots at the previous film. It’s almost as if they wanted to reassure fans that this would be different. Abrams was so eager to show how much of a better storyteller he was that he created multiple video game quests for everyone to discover. Palpatine lived and showed no signs of being flattened by a really far fucking fall. Oh, and he had a son…somehow. That’s important because Ray is his granddaughter. So the angry boys could take solace in the fact that Ray was so force sensitive for a reason. Her parents were heroic.* Kylo committed a face turn because his mom killed herself to create a memory of Han Solo.** Hey, if you’re going to make fun of Leia pulling a Mary Poppins, I’m going to point out the even more egregious sins of this movie.

*Not sure this means much to anyone, but Jodie Comer from Killing Eve made a 15 second appearance. She’s an Emmy winning actress on a massive television show, and she gets the Winona Ryder treatment. This is almost as egregious as taking Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o.

 **Harrison Ford actually came back, and it is my sincere hope he collected a cool one million dollars or more for this cameo.

 JJ Abrams felt an obligation to not just end this trilogy but the whole saga. He hit a solid checklist of clichés and tropes. He also introduced new characters who got no time to develop. All of the humor of the previous movie was replaced with exposition and the teasing of Chewbacca’s death. Ray and her crew think she may be a murderer but just go on with the mission while the audience finds out Chewie is alive moments later. C-3PO does get one last look at his friends (and some genuinely hilarious moments, the best of this trilogy) but is saved by R2-D2. Lando comes back…and maybe he has a daughter? Then there’s Leia.

Unfortunately, Episode IX was supposed to be Carrie Fischer’s film as Episode VII was Harrison Ford’s and Episode VIII was Mark Hamill’s. There’s nothing you can do about her passing except to awkwardly take outtakes and write generic dialogue around it while killing her halfway through the movie and then take less than five minutes to mourn her passing. There’s also nothing you can do about Palpatine because he has to be involved, right? And Ray has to end up on Tattotine, taking the last name of Skywalker and isolating herself from her friends?

Chris Terrio and JJ Abrams boxed themselves in to these various plot threads. Unlike Marvel, there was no grand plan. Each filmmaker got to do what he wanted instead of figuring out a plan before plans were hatched.

Disney has committed a lot of sins in this process. Announcing a new Star Wars film would come out every year was a huge mistake. Announcing a new trilogy and providing release dates was unnatural. Even Marvel at the beginning did not commit to such a large slate of films. It’s also worth considering Kathleen Kennedy. She is a legendary producer, a Hall of Fame level contributor to blockbuster filmmaking. She has shepherded a million successful projects and deserves a great deal of praise for her work. With her being a woman in Hollywood, I cannot even imagine the bullshit she has had to go through in her career. That being said, the requirements for this franchise do not meet the requirements of this kind of producer. Star Wars  needed less release dates and more planning.

I don’t know the tangible damage of her run of Lucasfilm the last half decade, but look at the filmmakers and writers who have left their various projects. I would imagine they will have a hard time drawing in auteurs and visionary individuals based on what has happened to Edwards, Lord and Miller, and Rian Johnson. Rian Johnson you say?

Cast and crew took their shots in the media before Episode IX came out. Then there was the movie itself which walked back so many of the ballsy choices Episode VIII made. Kylo Ren rebuilds the helmet he destroyed. Ray’s parents are heroes. Luke Skywalker says lightsabers should be treated with respect. The Haldo maneuver is mocked. It’s about good and evil…again. Rose is sidelined. Can you imagine Rian Johnson returning to this universe after episode nine? Johnson is not going to get into a pissing match with Disney because he’s shown far too much class to do so up until now. But after Knives Out, why in the hell would he want to try and please this fandom again?

Episode VIII was a success by every tangible metric you can name. Episode IX surely will be as well, but there is no soul. The first hour is a mess. The final battle is a mess and the transportation in that final battlemakes no sense. Abrams even tries to build to an Avengers: Endgame like moment where every ship from around the galaxy is battling against the Final Order…but there are barely any recognizable characters. Keri Russell’s character apparently doesn’t have a face, and Wedge Antilles was there for a half second. I had goosebumps and heard people crying when Captain America said “Avengers Assemble!” The ships appearing got zero crowd pop.

In the end, I walked away from this movie apathetic. Abrams did not ruin my childhood because there are too many other movies I truly do enjoy and will revisit. In my mind, The Last Jedi takes on even more power because Disney and Lucasfilm saw it as such a danger that they not only repudiated the decisions, but went out of their way to create a film designed to please everyone. However, I truly believe this middle film radicalized some viewers to expect more. And quite frankly, we should expect more. These films cost hundreds of millions to produce and consumers are being asked to pay a lot of money, especially if they are paying for a family of four.

An argument is sometimes made about shutting your brain off for these movies. The dirty little secret is Star Wars has always been political. George Lucas is a rebel who left his union because of his belief in the movies and what he wanted to do. He signed a sweetheart deal to own Star Wars  and keep the merchandise profits. THERE IS A LITERAL MESSAGE OF REBELLION VERSUS FASCISM LACED IN ALL NINE MOVIES! Making an a political Star Wars movie is impossible because even the attempt is political in itself. Having Finn being interested in three different women and Poe teasing a rekindling of a prior romance become political choices because their own chemistry was quite obvious. Having a same sex kiss in the background between characters we don’t really care about is window dressing and pretending to be courageous instead of actually doing something progressive and representational onscreen. And again, this is arguably the second most important film franchise in the world as owned by the biggest entertainment outlet in the world. We deserve more. We deserve better.

I started out this article by saying I hated this movie. Honestly, after 3,000 words…I just can’t agree with that assessment. I feel meh. Rise of Skywalker is a movie I likely won’t revisit for quite some time. It is a movie that I’m honestly forgetting about even just two days later. I know it will still make a billion dollars and be very successful, but I also know that something has been lost. Episode IX is threatening to make less money than the previous two films. It has the lowest RT score and the lowest Cinemascore. JJ Abrams may have fixed Rian Johnson’s “devisive” film, but he may have broken this franchise’s ability to be a monolith in the next decade.

My new hope so to speak is people will be inspired by this ending and create their own world that is well represented. I hope Rian Johnson finds a way to tell stories in space that aren’t hamstrung by Lucasfilm. I hope Lord and Miller continue to show anyone can be a hero in their Spider-Verse movies. Finally, I hope Gareth Edwards gets to make a movie again.

My plan is not to boycott Star Wars. I’m not even going to engage in a lot of the discourse about this movie because an internet argument tends to be circular in nature. I would rather focus on the movies I love and less on this soulless capitulation to a fanbase that does not know what it wants from a Star Wars movie. And in a way, that’s the one thing I have in common with them. In the end, even I don’t know what I want Star Wars to be.

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