Time to Spoil the Rebellion
Spoiler Discussion for Star Wars, Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker
Yesterday we discussed the new Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same., Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, but in that review I purposefully tried to avoid too many spoilers (that weren't revealed in the trailer or the first fifteen minutes of the film) because I know with a movie this big, and this contentious, most people want to see it on their own free of spoiled content. But now, in this spoiler space, we can discuss it to our heart's content without people grousing. If you're in here you've either seen the film or want to be spoiled so your fate is in your own hands.
So let's discuss the big moments of the film and if they work or not, and we're going to start with Leia because a lot of the issues I had with the movie revolved around her. Carrie Fisher died during post-production of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and that left a big hole in this ninth mainline film. As per the creative team, the first movie of the new trilogy, Episode VII: The Force Awakens was Han's movie while Episode VIII was Luke's. Number 9 was supposed to focus on Leia and give her a big arc, something that's hard to do when the iconic actress has died. What was J.J. Abrams to do?
Well, from the outset he said he wasn't going to recast the role or use CGI to remake Carrie Fisher (which is 95% true, which we'll get to in a moment). Instead the plan was to use footage she shot for Episode VII and stitch her in for the new movie. It's a plan I could respect if there had been a ton of leftover footage of Fisher, scenes that had been lost and could be reused in such a way to give her a full arc. What's actually in the movie, though, is hardly anything. Fisher's character mostly stands around, glances at people when addressed, and maybe says eight words total. That's less a performance then odds and ends snippets from the cutting room floor. If they wanted Fisher in the movie there had to be better ways to do it than this, like, you know, using CGI to remake her and having her daughter voice the role. Or, if her daughter wasn't willing to do that, just recast the role or have someone else step in to do the Leia part. Treat her better than this.
When footage of Leia wasn't available to stitch in it's pretty clear they used other actors to fill in the gaps. Leia uses the Force to contact her son, Kylo, to try one more time to get through to him. If you recall, when Luke sent his consciousness this far across the galaxy it killed him and the same thing happens to Leia, too. However, instead of Leia showing up before Kylo to talk some sense into him it's his father, Han, that appears. I appreciate Harrison Ford coming back and this was a respectful way to keep the intent of the scene without trying to force old footage of Leia into it.
Then there's Luke, who (as many of us expected) came back as a Force ghost in this film. He shows up to give Rey some needed advice when she's feeling down on being a Jedi, that she should follow his path and seclude himself for all eternity. It's a good moment, but during the scene the emotional resonance is missing. Rey, by this point, already had a master training her properly -- Leia -- and while it's great to have Luke back this scene would have felt deeper, more emotional if Leia had been there instead. I don't know if the intent was always to have Ghost Luke show up here but certainly it was required with Carrie Fisher out of the picture.
You might wonder why Leia was Rey's Jedi Master. That's because, as this film reveals, Leia actually went through Jedi training and even had her own lightsaber. It's a moment a lot of fans wanted to see (once again, J.J. really tried to stitch in all the moments for the fanboys whether they really worked or not) but because Carrie Fisher was gone and couldn't do the scene herself, we get a young, CGI version of her, and even then only for a few brief seconds. I get what Abrams was going for here, but because Fisher was gone we only get to see this sequence as a short flashback and then it's Luke who passes on Leia's saber to Rey when Fisher's character really should have done it herself.
Even the Lando cameo feels forced in because of Leia's absence. Near the end of the movie Lando has to fly around the galaxy, warning every planet of the Imperial threat so he can pull together a giant navy to battle the Final Order. This moment really doesn't work the second you think about how big the galaxy is, how many planets there are, and how long it would take for Lando to fly everywhere and gather all these people, only for them to all fly as a group to the Sith planet. This is a journey that should have taken weeks (I mean, it took a day or so to fly just from Tatooine to Aalderan, right?) and Lando somehow does it in scant hours. But, if we substitute in Leia's Force Ghost going to all the planets simultaneously, this suddenly works better. It still smacks of J.J. not quite understanding how big space is, how long it would take for all these ships to gather and fly into the Sith solar system, but at least it's more realistic than Lando's "one if by sea" moment.
Speaking of the Sith planet, this gets to the next big issue with The Rise of Skywalker: the science of it is terrible, start to finish. We begin with the Sith planet the setup of which, frankly, makes no sense. Reviewers have picked on the movie because it requires the heroes to go on a long fetch quest for a map transponder, only two of which exist in the galaxy, one of which is owned now by Kylo Ren. The heroes need the other one so they can travel hither and yon to get the transponder. This is similar to the quest from the first movie where the heroes needed a map of Luke's journey so they could track him down and bring him back to the Republic, which means that Episode XI isn't just borrowing from the original trilogy anymore but also Episode VII now, too. Ugh.
The reason they need this transponder is that the Sith planet (who's name I forget and don't care about) exists in a kind of brier patch nebula, one that only has one way in and out. Those of us that know anything about space know that this isn't how space works. Space is really big, which distances measures in miles (or kilometers), light years, and parsecs, not in feet. Even if a brier patch nebula could exist (which, as big clouds of gas floating across light years, they can't) the fact is that a nebula of this type would exist around a planet. It might exist around an entire solar system, but even than the star and planet around it would clear out the space so that a giant void would exist in the nebula. Plus, the planet is going to move meaning that the "one way in, one way out" mechanic makes no sense. The planet wouldn't be in that key location for millennia, as it's stated to exist here. It just can't happen.
Of course, one bad nebula isn't the only issue, nor is the fact that Lando can magically travel the whole of the Galaxy Far, Far away in hours. Even ships that have no right to travel those kinds of distances can do it in this movie. At one point Rey steals Kylo's Tie Fighter and takes it from a moon around Endor to Luke's Jedi Hermit planet in a different solar system. Bear in mind that Tie ships (all varieties) are close-range interceptors that like hyperdrives so they should be able to go across interstellar space, not without centuries of travel time. Now, I hear you saying, "maybe Kylo's ship is special," and sure, I'll buy that. But then Kylo, at the ruins of the Death Star from Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, takes an old Tie Fighter he finds there and flies it to the Sith planet (from memory). So even if Kylo's ship is special, the old ones from the original trilogy aren't and suddenly nothing about distances in space make sense.
And, for those that want to nitpick, yes, the planet-killing Star Destroyers here shouldn't exist. They're a cool idea, much like the Dreadnought class warship from Star Trek Into Darkness, but the amount of power it would take for each of these ships to be, essentially, Death Stars, also makes these Star Destroyers impossible. Remember, the original Death Star used a huge reservoir of Kyber Crystals to make its planet-killing laser and the death station from Episode VII was built into a planet that was naturally chock full of Kybers. You simply can't pack that many of them onto a ship the size of a Star Destroyer. Within Star Wars's own canon these ships can't exist. Of course, they do look cool, so I guess that's all we need?
Those are the major things I (and other geeks Online) had issues with. Not everything about the movie bothered me -- those are just the glaring issues I couldn't stop myself from thinking about as I watched the film. There were parts of it I liked; I really enjoyed the buddy-comedy dynamic of Finn and Poe. These two have bonded over the course of the movies and in this one (despite the seeming policy of "no homo" for the main characters in this movie, one background kiss between two unnamed characters notwithstanding) there's a great dynamic between the two. Honestly if Lucasfilm wanted to do a Disney+ series of these two having comedic misadventures across the galaxy, I'd tune in for that every week. They brought some much needed levity to the movie, some happy, bright spots in what could have been a pretty dour film.
Of course, the big storyline is shared by Rey and Kylo Ren, and this brings us to our next big spoiler: Rey isn't just the daughter of nobodies but also the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. Kylo hand-waves this all away saying, "but I didn't lie," which just smacks of the Robot Chicken sketch "From a Certain Point of View". Sure, he didn't lie as, somehow, Rey's parents didn't have Force powers (even though one of them was the child of Palpatine and should really have been overflowing with midi-chlorians), but that doesn't mean they really were "nobodies". It's just J.J. retconning details he didn't care about from Episode VIII. "Rey needs to be someone special and what's more special than being from one of the great lineages in the Saga?" To that I'd argue the most special thing is to be as powerful as Rey and yet come from nothing, to have all this on your own that you earned yourself, but that's not the direction the movie went.
That said, I didn't hate this twist when it came up in the movie mostly because I saw some version of it coming months ago when the first teaser trailer (replete with Palpatine's laugh) debuted. Sure, there could have been more interesting ways to handle it than saying, "oops, guess it skipped a generation," but I also was prepared for Rey having a connection to Palpatine so I didn't scream out in anger in the theater. It is what it is.
Similarly, I expected that Kylo/Ben would reform and come back to the side of light. With the Emperor back from the dead (more or less, at least as some kind of reanimated Force zombie) Kylo didn't have to serve as the villain. Instead of Rey pulling him from the brink so he could destroy the First Order from within they both get to have an external threat to fight. It's fine but I do feel like it lessens his storyline, forces him to copy the redemption path of Darth Vader (right down to him sacrificing his life to save Rey). It's too much to ask for this film to do something different, but I would have liked it better if it had.
That said, the two actors, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, act the shit out their storyline. They have palpable chemistry this time which helps to sell the dynamic between the two. You understand why Ben converts back to the side of the light because Rey is there, pulling at him, giving him a reason to change as she acts as his beacon. Driver really grew into his part over the course of the three movies while Ridley found depth for her character. The movie feints at having Rey go down the dark path, maybe having her become a Sith, and Ridley plays into those emotions, giving us a strong performance. The acting in this movie is so much better than in any of the prequels, and it's powered by these two great actors.
The connection the characters have, the ability to talk with each other via the Force, is broadened even further in this movie. Now they not only can talk but physically interact as well. This bothered by wife admittedly, because, as she put it, "it's weird for them to be able to physically interact via their minds." I don't look at it that way, though, as this is the Force and not just a psychic connection. It was started in Episode VIII so it didn't come out of nowhere, and it leads to some great moments in this film. The lightsaber battle across the connection is a great sequence, cutting between the two locations and they fight and damage everything around each other. And then, near the end of the movie, I loved the moment when Rey passes her saber off to Ben via the connection. That sequence thrilled me.
But yeah, I really do think this movie would have been so much more successful if it could have pared out a lot of the fluff and focused better on certain moments. If they film could have been just Rey and Kylo, chasing each other across the galaxy, with Finn and Poe acting as Greek chorus for Rey's side of the adventure, the movie would have been so much better. Ditch Leia (much as the fans wanted her), ditch Lando, ditch the Emperor and the Final Order and their death ships. Keep the focus where it needed to be: on Kylo and Rey.
So the question then becomes where the series should go from here. Obviously, with productions like The Mandalorian and the upcoming Obi Wan, the series will continue to have life at least on Disney+ if nowhere else. But the big, broad plans for trilogies out to wazoo with one-off movies every other years was already scrapped, and now Disney is saying trilogies might be a thing of the past as well. Clearly the company is in a state of flux, not understanding what made the original trilogy great nor why it needed to be a one-off and that anything to follow had to be different. The prequels failed because, well, they were awful, the dedicated vision of a single creator. That's kind of how this sequel trilogy feels, too; J.J. Abrams is the key driving force behind this trilogy, the creator of the first and third films and a producer of the second. This sequel trilogy has been driven but J.J. Abrams desire to, essentially, remake the original trilogy all over again and, clearly, it didn't work.
What should Disney do, then? Well, for starters the company needs to take chances. Having played it safe with the Galaxy Far, Far Away, the lesson should be that playing things safe and don't what's expected won't bring all the fanboys to the yard. We need to get away from the eras we've already seen in the movies and shows before. While it's fine to have the occasional flit back into the period around these movies, I think it's time for the series to move on, maybe by exploring an era much later, like a couple of centuries after these movies with a threat that's distinctly not Imperial, or maybe something much earlier in the time line more connected to The Old Republic. Whatever the series does, we need new characters, new adventures, and a new era that doesn't have Palpatine's taint all over it.
Star Wars still has life in it. What Disney and Lucasfilm need to do is find something new to do with the franchise. They could take a page from Star Trek, explore new worlds, new places and times with new shows and movies. It's time for a change in this realm of space wizards and laser swords because now, with forty years across nine movies and a bunch of shows, we've seen everything we need to see from this time period and these characters.