As SB4MC readers may already know, I only love to review movies while drunk on an airplane! Luckily for you, I am A) currently in that precise condition, and B) still pretty fresh from my screening of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker.
I was four years old forty-two years ago. Everyone was the target audience for Star Wars, but I was that film’s one true target: a small child primed to imprint heavily and permanently on this tale of light and dark and young chivalry and fast spaceships and wizards and robots and tall fur buddies and pew pew pew. I convinced the grown-ups to take me to see it eleven times before Empire came out. And then? It got even better. Playing in the snow! Chaste, banter-driven love triangle! Little rude swamp Muppet (who is also a wizard)! Betrayal in floaty cloud town! The most vivid cliffhanger ever! Holy shit! By the time Jedi came out in 1983 I was far beyond rescue. These characters and their rides and their battlefields were every toy I owned and every toy I coveted. Their idea of The Force effectively served whatever role religious faith served in the lives of others. I dreamed about them. Part of me lived in their world. There was no chance that I would muster the critical perspective necessary to notice that Jedi had given up and recycled the first movie, lights up on Tatooine, lights down on the Death Star ‘sploding apart.
Certainly the grown-ups were more observant. By the third round, maybe they were saying isn’t this a bit tired yet or hm, just a tad shoddy. They were definitely saying don’t call it shoddy around that third-grader, he’ll have a tantrum. And, don’t call them dolls, to him they’re action figures. Also, yes, we have to take him to see it again.
I was well aware, by 1983, that there were meant to eventually be nine Star Warses. I mean, everyone was aware. The numbers IV, V, and VI showed atop the scrolls. Mr. Lucas publicly described his grand vision (in vague terms). Someday there would be more.
And thanks to The Corporation, as we’ve discussed, from now on there will always be more. But this weekend we are afforded the last of those canonical nine that George promised. I sat down for it with a particular anticipation.
I sat down also with little in the way of hope. Solo (enjoyable! But pointless!) and Last Jedi (uneven! But better than Force Awakens!) had convinced me that these stories are now cynically designed to trigger our childhood imprint patterns much more than to challenge our adult engagement with narratives or ideas. Were the originals exactly that as well? Forty-two years later and I am still too deeply entrenched to form a mature evaluation of the first three. But I am well positioned to have opinions like: J.J. Abrams is kind of a hack! Or: giving Chewie a medal without a ceremony totally breaks the fourth wall! Reader, I hold these opinions. I realize they are not unique or clever.
Nothing in Rise Of Skywalker is unique or clever. I suppose we don’t need it to be. Its ruling ethos is “same, but way more,” an embarrassment of riches, somehow overwhelming our embarrassment at loving it. Ever cuter and tinier Muppets and Droids. Force-choking your ass so hard that you’re flat against the ceiling. Force lightning so wild that shit blows up. Pursuing the Falcon through half a dozen rocky, worm-infested obstacle courses in a single chase. Star Destroyers layered thick enough to blot out the whole sky, with a Death Star’s planet obliterator equipped on every single one. A climactic light saber duel every twenty minutes. Not just some of your friends popping out of hyperspace to help save the day, but all of everybody’s friends, every friend in the whole galaxy. Each scene is composed with stakes-raising as its primary goal. Each swell of the orchestra is louder than the last.
A friend pointed out that Abrams isn’t a storyteller, he’s more of a Movie Moments guy. It’s fine. We know the story, and need this film to merely reference it: the dark side wants each hero’s power, so seeks it through a combination of temptation, extortion, and trickery, but will not own you in the end if you refuse to give in to your anger. And some of these Movie Moments are supremely satisfying: the saber duels are lovingly choreographed, beautifully paced, startlingly well acted. The dramatic reckonings between Light and Dark feel weighty enough to settle the issue for good.
Which brings us to the one thing that has really worked over these “final” three episodes. It is the relationship between Rey (a nobody learning her important secret origins, like Luke) and Ren (an evil bigwig, like Vader, whose inner conflict may eventually find him redeemed). With their journeys wound together so explicitly and explored in tandem, their foregone conclusions take shape in much more compelling terms.
Sure, plenty doesn’t work. Hacking a whole Carrie Fisher performance out of three cutting-room shots was probably not a good idea – it serves only to remind us why she wasn’t available and plays kind of like someone crank-calling an auto dealership with a celebrity soundboard. (Even so, it’s nice to see her, and then to see everyone mourn her onscreen.) Outside of the duels and the Rey/Ren plot points, most of the pacing is chaotic and most of the action is incoherent. The starcraft dogfights make very little sense spatially; something’s suddenly coming at us from somewhere and then it blows up, again and again. A sequence with a ragtag squad storming the wing of a Star Destroyer on foot is particularly shoddy. Don’t call it shoddy around the boy, he’ll hear.
But maybe these things were always a bit – shhhhh – shoddy. And only ever in a way that doesn’t matter to four-year-olds. I understand that part of my heart is stranded there forever in a dark theater in 1977. The part of me that got old is thrilled that they finally finished Star Wars, that I’m still allowed to hush my anger, deny the temptations of the dark side, and soak it all up.