Friday, January 10, 2020

Green Phoenix - Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker Review

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker poster.jpgTHIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN MANY SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!

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In 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company, following his announcement of retirement and the largely lukewarm or cold reception to Lucas' most recent films. Following this purchase, Disney began a complete overhaul of the Star Wars extended universe, eliminating the last 30 years of extra content (save for the movies and CGI TV shows) and beginning an all new sequel trilogy, furthering the story of Star Wars into the years after the Battle of Endor.

With that goal in mind, The Force Awakens was released in 2015 to...a lukewarm response. People seemed to enjoy it well enough, but felt that it was just too similar to Episode IV: A New Hope (To be fair to them, they're not wrong). Not exactly the strongest start to a new trilogy, but maybe Episode VIII would fix everything?

2017's Episode VIII: The Last Jedi did NOT fix everything. In fact, when coupled with the release of Solo 2018, it was considered by many to be lowest point in Star Wars history. The franchise was in dire straits and, somehow, Episode IX was going to have to fix the mistakes of The Last Jedi, conclude the story introduced in The Force Awakens, and be worthy of book-ending the last 42 years worth of films and resolving the entire "Skywalker Saga" in a form that audiences (many of whom were already turned against the film because of Episode VIII) could appreciate and enjoy.

So...did Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker meet those expectations? Well...if any of you saw my initial Twitter thread following the release of the film, you might get some sense of my opinion. But let's go into more detail.

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  • Directed by J.J. Abrams
  • Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, and Michelle Rejwan
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 142 Minutes

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SUMMARY

Following The Last Jedi, the First Order is spreading their reign of terror throughout the galaxy. Hope is fleeting and the Resistance is struggling to overcome the overwhelming power of this would-be Empire. But when a message is recieved from the Unknown Regions from someone claiming to be the long-lost Emperor Palpatine, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren goes on a journey to find him, all the while Rey searches out a way to stop the Sith and restore the Jedi Order once and for all.

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REVIEW

When I gave my initial thoughts on this film on Twitter, I had considered the possibly that my opinion might have changed with time or having listened to the perspectives of other viewers. With this review releasing three weeks after I saw The Rise of Skywalker, the question must be asked; has my opinion of the movie improved?

My opinion on the Sequel Trilogy as a whole, tbh.
No.

Has it worsened?

Not really.

I think that this film, much like the rest of the sequel trilogy, suffers from a lack of vision, focus, and passion that, unfortunately, has followed the Star Wars franchise since the Disney buyout. While there are elements that I do enjoy from all three sequel films, and I will absolutely do a Building Better Backstories editorial on how I would fix the trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker is, in my mind, a middle of the road film with good ideas, that was unfortunately cursed with being the last film in a middle-to-low quality trilogy.

The bulk of this film's execution was ultimately muddled by course-corrections from the previous entries, last minute alterations and fan-service, and an extremely rushed production schedule that leaves this film hollow when compared to even the prequel trilogy. I just found myself not really caring all that much by the time the movie was over.

VISUALS - 7/10

If any of you have read my other Star Wars articles, you will know that, even at its worst, the franchise has always maintained a high quality in terms of visual identity and special effects. In this regard, The Rise of Skywalker is no different.
Image result for episode 9 final battle"
The Sith fleet looks incredible on the big screen.

On a technical level, Episode IX is a spectacular looking film. The effects, both digital and practical, are nearly unparalleled. But with the sheer amount of money and attention placed upon this series, it would be more surprising if this film didn't at least look good.

With that in mind, I don't have too much to say, and I really don't want to rate this too high because it might give a disingenuous impression of the film being greater than it is.


The film looks good, but that is the least important part of a Star Wars film. This film is so reliant on spectacle in place of story and, in that regard, it achieves its goal. It's just a shame that that goal is so out-of-touch with many of the elements that draw audiences to the Star Wars franchise. But for that, we must go to the other categories.

SOUNDTRACK - 5/10

Like the rest of the Star Wars franchise, the soundtrack and score was headed by the legendary John Williams. So you would think that this score would be significantly higher than just a basic and average score, right?

Well...the issue is that this film's score seems to lack much of an identity of its own. This film is heavily dependent upon the nostalgic feels of the original and prequel series in nearly every facet of its existence, including it's soundtrack. While the soundtrack sounds like every other Star Wars film, this fact is just as much a flaw as it is a virtue.

The film is technically strong, with great classics of the franchise sprinkled throughout. But at the same time, it lacks any identity of its own, coming off more like a greatest hits collection. Every film in the franchise, even the bad ones, tended to have a least one song or motif that really helped to make that film standout or feel audibly unique.

The Rise of Skywalker just feels like it really wanted to remind everyone of how great the soundtrack in the rest of the series was without adding to that legacy. A sentiment which unfortunately spreads into the real weak point of this film: the characters and the story.

CHARACTERS - 4/10

When we were introduced to the characters of the Sequel Trilogy back in The Force Awakens, I was quite excited by what was shown to us. A young woman alone on a desert planet with a mysterious past that promised to be at the heart of the entire new trilogy, a Resistance pilot with a devil may care attitude, and a Stormtrooper that goes rogue and joins the good guys.
Image result for finn episode 9"
Man...look at all that "chemistry" between these characters that have shared maybe a half-hour of screen-time together across three films.
Now that the series is over, we have come to the culminations of these characters arcs, and...most of them had absolutely no point and accomplish almost nothing. Finn and Poe are almost complete non-entities in this film. Apart from the occasional bouts of witty banter (which were enjoyable), they just had so very little to do. A reformed Stormtrooper should be a fascinating exploration of the ideology of the First Order and the mindset of a former soldier and, for a moment, you think they will explore it.

But nope! Finn has served essentially no purpose in this entire franchise other than being a cheering section for Rey. In that regard, Poe is not much better. Throughout the franchise, we had hoped that Poe would play the role of Han Solo, the clever and smarmy rogue of the group that grows more compassionate and understanding.

In a sense, Poe does have a bit more of an arc then Finn. He grows into more of a leader as the franchise moves on, eventually taking over leadership after the passing of General Leia (Carrie Fisher was treated very respectfully in this film and is the one aspect of the film for which I shall never have a complaint). But Poe's story is still fairly lifeless, with the only elements that I actually enjoyed being his interactions with his "romantic interest" (I can't remember her name, which I will go into in a bit).

Then there is Rey and Kylo Ren. I have to talk about these two together because so much of the problems with their characters and conflict are tied to each other, which is kind of the point I suppose. The two actors are giving it their all, they really are. But the two of them just aren't as interesting as the filmmakers wanted them to be and the "romance" between the two feels so much like bad fanfiction that I actually laughed and did a double take in the theater. Granted, I feel like both characters were much more realized in this film than in preceding films, but much of that may be because of their ties to Emperor Palpatine.

Image result for rey and kylo ren kiss"
So these two are supposed to have a romantic relationship apparently.
Speaking of...Ian McDiarmid returns as the Emperor, somehow. Apparently falling down a bottomless pit and...exploding...just kind of fucks up your hands and makes your eyes all milky. They don't explain how he survived and while he showed up in the film extremely early on, he doesn't actually do all that much until the last third. It almost seems like the reveal of the Emperor's survival should've been something that was revealed in Episode VII or halfway through Episode VIII. But that is a story for an upcoming Building Better Backstories. Ian McDiarmid does rather well for the role he does have, I just wished was bigger and had a larger role on the overall trilogy. It feels mostly tacked on because the franchise didn't have anyone to play the role of irredeemable villain.

And everyone else? An almost uniform and absolute non-entity. Rose from the second film is almost thrown out of the film with only a single line justifying her essentially cameo. The rest of the Resistance and First Order are almost all nameless goons who you never learn or connect to, beyond recognizing a famous actor or two. Leia, Luke, and Han are done well and even Lando shows up (to do absolutely nothing).

It just feels so empty. The strongest aspect of the original trilogy was the chemistry and interplay between all the cast members. You believed that these weren't actors but genuine friends and enemies. It grounded the world and made you care. But in this film? Now that we know where everyone's arcs were headed?

I just didn't care. Most of the cast had all the chemistry of Neon gas and caused about as much of a reaction out of me. They could've been so good, but it just feels like all of their personality was smothered in the cradle and never allowed to fully mature.

And if the characters are mostly lackluster, just wait for the story.

STORY - 4/10

I really really want to do a Building Better Backstories on the entire Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Now with the full trilogy out and the "complete" narrative arc and intentions out in the open, I have to say...that The Rise of Skywalker had an almost impossible task and it made its own job even harder.

Now, I did not hate The Last Jedi. I recognized that it had many, many flaws. But I could appreciate the risks and gambles it tried to make, even if not all of them paid off or worked quite as the creators had intended. I appreciated the dark tone and political subtext (which has been quite present throughout this trilogy) that undercut most of the film, and the continuous shocks to the formula kept me on my toes and somewhat entertained, even if they made me feel like I could figure out no way for them to progress the story after that point and the overall plot was essentially a three hour long car chase in space.

But The Rise of Skywalker seemed to almost go out of its to abandon the entire eighth film almost from the word go. Snoke is dead? He was unimportant anyway and here is the Emperor. Don't ask how he survived, he just did and he's got a giant fuck you navy (all of which have planet destorying weapons because why not?).

Some fans didn't like Rose? She's almost a footnote in the film.

Hux is apparently willing to sabotage his own organization to flip off his boss (a change which does nothing to the overall plot of course, since the spy could've been anyone).

The film just has this strange and mean-spirited approach to everything regarding The Last Jedi, trying desperately to cover up and work around a audience panned film instead of accepting the narrative possibilities presented and working with them.

Honestly though, the film spends so much of the beginning of this film trying to backpedal and remove all the narrative significance of The Last Jedi that this film has an almost breakneck pace throughout the entire first half. I made the comment on Twitter that the first half of this film, if slowed down and allowed to have emotional character moments, could've served as the basis for an entire movie in its own right.

The first half of The Rise of Skywalker could've honestly stood alone and could've built up the Emperor as a genuine threat and power, then the latter half could be slower and build on the conflict and narrative prose that undercuts the relationship between the Emperor, Kylo Ren, and Rey. I think it is this fact that frustrates me the most about The Rise of Skywalker's story. I can see what was needed to be done that could've made this film an incredible piece of cinema.
Image result for rose episode 9"
Hey guys! Sorry but we don't have time for you guys in this movie.


I do genuinely enjoy the narrative decisions and potentials at play in this film. But because this was the last film and 80% of the narrative elements presented should've been introduced in Episode VII and VIII. I wasn't given any time to enjoy or connect to any of it. I spent most of the movie building a better movie in my head and you shouldn't be doing that while you are sitting in the theater.

Ultimately, I think the greatest issue of The Rise of Skywalker is that it was the final film in a trilogy that either didn't have a plan because the studio behind it just wanted more Star Wars movies, or the plans were so flexible and malleable that no one had any idea how to cohesively accomplish the Sequel Trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker had to fill the roll of two films because the creators either couldn't or didn't want to use what was given to them before and managed to make a single mediocre movie that ends this average trilogy off with what I can only compare to a rather loud and powerful fart.

You feel satisfied that the fart happened, scared of the potential of shit, pray that the smell doesn't linger any longer, and absolutely thrilled that the pressure and overall presence will disappear and life can go on.

With the exception of The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian, I am pretty well done on the Star Wars franchise where films are concerned. I'm tired of Skywalker's and Jedi Knights. I would love to see Disney be as exploratory and risky with their films as they are with their TV shows.

I know that more movies will come in the future. I just pray that they either abandon multi-film narratives in favor of self-contained explorations of the universe (perhaps with Marvel-style interconnected moments) or come into those multi-film projects with a clear vision and objective that stays consistent regardless of changing directors and writers.

I love Star Wars, but it just seems like so many of the creators are as tired of this franchise as I am. And that is not very good for its future.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I wanted to like The Rise of Skywalker. I've never truly hated the prequels or recent Star Wars properties (though I will admit that they don't excite me like other franchises might). This film had so many great ideas and, had they introduced these ideas from Episode VII initially and stuck to a single unified vision and goal, I think that the Sequel Trilogy could have been something quite interesting.

But instead, we got a film that was hindered by the weight and issues of its predecessors and compromised its own integrity in order to lift the weight of the rest of the franchise. The top-notch visuals just can't make up for a soundtrack built on nostalgia alone, chracters that lack character and narrative goals and ties, and a story that moves at a mile a minute in the first half, desperately trying to build a new plot (that should've been introduced in Episode VII or VIII) then slows to a strange and lifeless crawl in the last third.

I wanted to like The Rise of Skywalker, and while I can't say I hated it. Throughout the film, I felt like it was trying to manipulate me into feeling certain ways, but I just couldn't be bothered. I didn't care. Did I have fun? Sure, from time to time. But most of the time, I spent my time in the theater considering what changes the creators could have made that would've made a more effective product. The Rise of Skywalker should have been a triumphant sendoff of the franchise. But in the end, it's just an average film with good visuals and interesting ideas that fails, both on its own merits and by the weight of its preceeding films, to expand on any of those ideas.

And from The Rise of Skywalker, we will move next week to another holiday film that released only a few weeks prior. Like Episode IX, this film was a sequel in a highly successful franchise that had an enormous weight and expectation placed upon it. But was Frozen 2 a better sequel movie?

Tune in next week to find out.

VISUALS
  • 7/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 5/10
CHARACTERS
  • 4/10
STORY
  • 4/10

 FINAL SCORE - 5/10

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