ekm’s 31 DAYS OF THE FOURTH: EPISODE 32 – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)
STOP! This is the latest in 32-part series published earlier this May. If you haven’t read ekm’s thoughts on the roller coaster aspects of THE FORCE AWAKENS, the family dynamics of the Solo clan, the squandered potential of THE LAST JEDI, his preliminary predictions for RISE OF SKYWALKER, or his impressions of the Disney output in general, click the links in this paragraph. Even if you have, give them another look, because this article will draw heavily from the ideas presented therein.
Also, beware of MAJOR SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.
If you already hate THE LAST JEDI, then THE RISE OF SKYWALKER will make you hate it even more. If you don’t hate THE LAST JEDI, then THE RISE OF SKYWALKER will help you join the rest of us in the same bubble of warm, comfortable anger we’ve all happily marinated in since 1997. Not to put too fine a point on it, but THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is here to have the final say on whether STAR WARS is a series with several weak (or outright bad) installments, or a lazy juggernaut with two (possibly three) highlights.
As a wise old liar once told us, you’ll find that many of the truths we cling to depend upon our own point of view, but I don’t think any of us will disagree that THE RISE OF SKYWALKER feels like a movie no one wanted to make, if for no other reason than because it was a doomed effort from the start. The Sequel Trilogy plays like a very emotionally and fiscally-expensive game of creative Round Robin rather than a single, unified narrative. Instead of the first creator setting up the characters, the world, and the themes to be built upon, and the next in line running with those ideas and taking them into new and unexpected directions, Rian Johnson looked at what J.J. Abrams handed him, and gleefully shut down nearly every concept that was begging for development. PRO TIP: This isn’t how Round Robin is played. Because this is STAR WARS, and every subsection of the so-called “Skywalker Saga” is beholden to a trilogy structure, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER was left with nowhere to go and only one movie left to simultaneously start over, and then end. The problem is, you can’t shove ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag, but that’s what THE LAST JEDI forces Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio to do. As such, it’s neither a satisfying conclusion to its own three-act story, or the series in general.
Make no mistake: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is a sequel to THE FORCE AWAKENS, and THE FORCE AWAKENS only. The events of THE LAST JEDI are either glossed over, or retconned outright. Consequently, the resulting film is so overstuffed that nearly every character besides Rey or Kylo Ren is given the short shrift, because what we are watching is essentially Episodes 8 and 9 slammed together with a very clear sense of midpoint transition, all of which renders THE LAST JEDI as much a tangential standalone as ROGUE ONE or SOLO.
The obligatory machinations of manufacturing an arc at the very end of the Sequel Trilogy is not the only cross that THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is forced to bear; it’s also a series of farewells, and a travelogue through the iconic history of the Original Trilogy. The fist point is self-evident; the second a string of time-wasting adventures in which our heroes embark on a series of fetch quests leading them to – in this written order – a desert planet meant to evoke Tatooine; a snow planet (Hoth); and a forest moon, at which point the film says Fuck it, because it’s not even an Endor stand-in – it’s just Endor, because of course it is. We explore the crashed Death Star II, take another trip to Ach-To, and even revisit that Star Destroyer rotting in the sands of Jakku. The only thing missing is a Nightly News bumper promising a hard-hitting expose on Fighting the Frizzies.
It’s tempting to draw the intended parallels between the Sequel Trilogy and its iconic forebears. Sure, THE FORCE AWAKENS is STAR WARS dressed up in a more expensive suit; THE LAST JEDI draws heavily from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is here to close up shop in much the same way as RETURN OF THE JEDI. However superficially comparable these comparisons may be, the inescapable truth is that the Sequels more accurately reflect that other trilogy some of us still stubbornly refuse to allow entry into our personal canon. It breaks down as follows:
- THE FORCE AWAKENS / THE PHANTOM MENACE. Both draw heavily from STAR WARS by way of characters, themes, locations, and general plot and resolution. Regardless of whether these are the “best” of their respective trilogies, they are, in fact, the films that feel the most like “classic” STAR WARS.
- THE LAST JEDI / ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Superficially darker, albeit with barely any story to support the excessive run time of either. Both contain a creepy love story of sorts, and neither ends in a way that feels as though either trilogy is building toward a specific, organic conclusion.
- THE RISE OF SKYWALKER / REVENGE OF THE SITH. That moment where the creators suddenly realize that, oh shit, there was supposed to be an overarching story, and desperately try to create a beginning, middle and end right at the point where things were meant to be wrapping up. Completely unsatisfying.
And it’s not simply unsatisfying; it’s infuriating. I’ve written at length about the setups introduced in THE FORCE AWAKENS, which was a film given the near-impossible task of making general audiences forget the Prequels and remember what they love about STAR WARS. It had to introduce familiar characters and scenarios, albeit with a twist sufficient enough to allow for inversion or subversion of traditional STAR WARS tropes. Rian Johnson may have claimed he was doing just that, but his choices were baffling in that he slammed every narrative door closed on whoever had to pick up where he left off. Not only were said characters and scenarios largely unexplored outside of the predictable paradigm he established (all while telling us how bold and unexpected his choices were), but this actually forced Abrams to double down on the predictable tropes just to wrap things up. Essentially, the promise of THE FORCE AWAKENS is squandered, leaving us with one of the greatest missed opportunities in Pop Culture history. It’s the reunion moment we all wanted, except, like most things we wait all our lives to see happen, it’s a let-down.
Yes, Mark Hamill is back as Force Ghost Luke. Lando is there, too (with almost nothing to do). Han Solo shows up, popping out of the afterlife to make peace with his son, and Leia’s unfortunate CGI doppelganger hangs out and pretends it isn’t a distraction every time it’s onscreen. And yes, Palpatine is inexplicably back from the dead, and clearly in better health than Leia. These moments aren’t peppered throughout the film – there’s a ten-minute stretch where literally each of them is brought on stage, back-to-back, like some sort of terrible Star Wars Celebration panel from Hell. Ladies and gentlemen, Harrison Ford! Billy Dee Williams! And a bunch of pixels we’re pretending look like Carrie Fisher! This last point is one more item to add to the LAST JEDI complaint list, as Johnson had the perfect opportunity to swap Leia in for Vice Admiral Evening Gown and send Carrie Fisher out in a sacrificial blaze of glory. But nope, he needed that scene between Luke and Leia at the end, despite it being unintentionally hilarious as we’re all trying to figure out at what point Luke hit up the Caretakers of Ach-To for a cut and color. If you found that scene indispensable in 2017, I dare you to watch THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, and tell me whether it was worth it, either in terms of honoring the legacy of Princess Leia, or Carrie Fisher herself. That walking nightmare of a character is best described as “General in-Organa.”
So many characters with so little to do. The most egregious example is John Boyega’s Finn. Remember all the groundwork laid for a complex character, one dealing with the consequences of fleeing a life of programmed semi-slavery, and finding his own way amidst inner conflict and accusations of treason? THE RISE OF SKYWALKER reinforces THE LAST JEDI’s refusal to explore these story-rich avenues, and continues to include the character because, well, they sort of have to, at this point. All of this renders Finn little more than a smokescreen utilized in THE FORCE AWAKENS and its marketing, designed specifically to trick us into believing that he was this trilogy’s Jedi Apprentice-to-be rather than Rey; poster art, commercials, and the narrative itself went out of its way to show the character using a lightsaber. Look, guys! Isn’t this different? A black guy’s your next Jedi! You might think it’s the pasty white girl with the British accent, but Mystery Box! Once Rey summons that laser sword from the snow, Finn’s story was over, and the character exists now simply to react to the proactivity of his companions, be it the loathsome Rose,* or his new, maybe-kinda-sorta girlfriend, who looks like she just escaped a rave at Zion. Abrams has so little invested in the character that his only story point – an unfinished but clearly important admission to Rey during a near-death experience – is repeatedly brought up, but never resolved. When he’s hugging his friends during the maudlin final minutes (which are clearly designed to echo the not-so-Special Edition of RETURN OF THE JEDI), we’re meant to feel something for him, and the other nothing characters who are all trying very hard to convince us they’ve been through something together. They haven’t.
The effort is made, but only half-heartedly. There’s no passion evident in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, be it behind or in front of the camera. Abrams’ trademark dynamism of cinematography and editing appears only in bits and bursts; the film is by and large an obligation everyone is working to get through. Even John Williams phones it in: the direct lift of the Force Theme from the burning of the Lars homestead was a very conscious decision when repurposed during THE FORCE AWAKENS’ climactic saber duel; in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, there are no less than five similar musical copy/pastes, and no recognizably new themes of note. As someone who saw Williams conduct in 2013 and was struck by the gentlemen’s virility in spite of his advancing years, it’s an exercise in speculation as to whether these recycled tracks were due to a desire to play up nostalgia, a lack of inspiration with the film as presented, or the inescapable fate of an artist approaching the end of his own journey. Maybe it’s a little bit from Columns A, B, and C.
Or maybe it’s just Member Berries, seeing as THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is easily the most fan service-y film in the entire franchise, and all by way of retroactive continuity tweaks. All of the sudden, Palpatine is unveiled as the master schemer behind the events of this current trilogy. Princess Leia is now a Jedi Master. Kylo Ren was lying about Rey’s lineage, as it’s here revealed that she’s the granddaughter of the Emperor himself. Luke finally gets to lift his X-Wing out of a body of water, Chewie gets his medal, and Ben Solo’s mass murdering ways are casually brushed aside as Rey gives him a kiss before his death scene – a moment that not only caused the ladies in the theater to noticeably recoil (or at least those who weren’t laughing), but will likely inspire Incels the world over to just steady on, mate.** There are literally no surprises here except the fact that viewers are actively expecting there to be.***
With THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, the STAR WARS series has officially become POLICE ACADEMY, or ROCKY, or FRIDAY THE 13TH, or any other franchise that literally remakes the same film over and over again. I think we were all a bit taken aback by RETURN OF THE JEDI’s unapologetic reuse of STAR WARS’s story beats; then once we saw Starkiller Base in THE FORCE AWAKENS, there were many who wondered whether this was a franchise with any new stories to tell. By the time RISE OF SKYWALKER ups the ante from Starkiller Base to an entire fleet of Star Destroyers, each capable of blowing entire planets, it all feels redundant to the point of pointlessness.
I find it both adorable and frustrating to see the number of fans mourning what they consider the “end” of the Skywalker Saga. It isn’t. The film itself makes this perfectly clear, what with Rey taking up residence at the Lars homestead on Tatooine, and openly naming herself after a certain Jedi family; but more importantly, because this is now the third time the series has supposedly reached a definitive conclusion. See you in ten, Daisy.
*This thoroughly repellant character – described as such for reasons having nothing to do with gender or body type – is thankfully sidelined, and spends most of her time hanging out with Dominic Monaghan in a role that’s somehow even less substantial.
**If you, like me, were predicting that the latest episode of THE MANDALORIAN was specifically scheduled midweek in order to establish a Force-related retcon factoring into the events of RISE OF SKYWALKER, you were quite correct. It’s a cheat to suddenly introduce the Force as a power that quite literally raises the dead, particularly in that its capabilities are driven by plot contrivance, rather than actual situation-based application.
***Unless you count the sudden introduction of FORCE UNLEASED powers that allow ships to be yoinked from the sky, or Sith Lightning capable of taking out hundreds of ships all at once.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)