Thursday, December 26, 2019

Wars is hell


And The Rise of Skywalker proves that we have grown too fond of it.

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams

Spoiler alert: severe

To be scrupulously fair, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst movie ever made; nor is it the worst Star Wars film.  It's possible that it might not even be the worst of its trilogy, for while it is inevitably bad in similar ways, depending on my mood I could easily prefer the way that Skywalker panders to Star Wars fans—with thrashing, pathetic desperation—to the way that, at the inception of our current "Star Wars is a thing again" cycle, The Force Awakens pandered to Star Wars fans with calm, cool detachment.  Skywalker, anyway, is at least capable of generating more genuine emotional engagement with its material, even if this is often in the negative sense.  On the other hand, The Force Awakens now must operate under a significant handicap: it's the first act of a story that concludes with The Rise of Skywalker.  So you can see what I mean when I say that The Force Awakens has been retroactively rendered more-or-less a waste of time.

By no means is this effect confined solely to J.J. Abrams' own first go-'round with the toys Disney bought at the estate sale for George Lucas' career; I mean, Skywalker might not be the worst of them in and of itself, but it nonetheless has the odd distinction amongst Star Wars movies of making every other Star Wars movie worse, something even the prequels didn't quite achieve.  In a sense, however, this really only means that Skywalker was just too successful, since what it set out to do was to degrade and destroy just one Star Wars movie in particular.  Indeed, in this one respect, it is abominably successful, for while Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, the hyperdivisive middle chapter of this "trilogy," stands tall as tall gets in the muck of modern Disney-Lucasfilm as the most honorable chapter of their core "saga,"* Skywalker spends approximately four hours of its two and a half hour running time ensuring that The Last Jedi winds up pointless.

One day we'll hear about all the juicy details, but, in the broadest strokes, the reasons this state of affairs came to be are well-known—it's not just that Earth Nazis crashed everyone's favorite franchise about fighting Space Nazis, though this is obviously one big part of it—and it's been absolutely astonishing to watch a process this clumsy play out in real time.  Like, let's really grok this shit: this is a franchise beloved by hundreds of millions of people, worth tens of billions of dollars, owned by the most successful and perhaps the most pragmatic media company in the world, and it's been overseen by a woman, Kathleen Kennedy, whose background strongly demonstrates at least a basic competence in running billion-dollar businesses; and yet it is also a franchise that, thanks to the culture wars amplifying the shrillest voices of the tiniest possible filmgoing demographic, was allowed to become a battlefield for two filmmakers, neither one of whom are necessarily all that gifted in the first place, and neither one of whom appear to have a single instinct in common as a storyteller.  And these two journeyman filmmakers were permitted to go rock-paper-scissors with the GDP of a small country hanging in the balance over which one's fan fiction least clearly revealed the limits of the Star Wars Universe as something capable of continuing forward after the end credits of Return of the Jedi.   Both rejected the possibilities established by the novels and comics that did continue the universe, and, in the end, I guess Johnson won.  Great.

Anyway: in terms of Return of the Jedi, the experience of going into Rise of Skywalker is roughly akin to reading that Leia freed Han and strangled Jabba in the text crawl, except that this perhaps overestimates how much of a connection Skywalker has to The Last Jedi: Skywalker feels like a sequel to a movie that does not even exist, like the man who made it was actually the Abrams of an alternate timeline where he stayed on to do his own follow-up to The Force Awakens.  This still may be giving it too much credit.  It may feel even more like an ill-advised direct sequel to Return of the Jedi—ironically, the movie in this series it fails to understand more than any other—that reluctantly and very contemptuously has to contend with the existence of one or two plot beats from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, such as the existence of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her friends Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), and the fact that the father of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been superseded by Luke's nephew Ben "Kylo Ren" Solo (Adam Driver) as the chief pawn of the erstwhile emperor, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).  "You mean the guy that Darth Vader killed at the culmination of the most meaningful twenty minutes of Star Wars there ever were or ever could be?  That guy?"  Oh yes, for as the opening crawl informs us, "the dead [fucking] speak."  Palpatine has come back from the dead in an ancient and forgotten corner of the universe, and broadcast his return to the whole galaxy.  Maybe this made any kind of sense in J.J. Abrams' The Last Jedi, but I'll remind you that that film is wholly hypothetical.

Abrams (alongside co-screenwriter Chris Terrio) have been cut a little bit of slack, mostly by people that are too nice for their own good, due to the general apprehension that concluding this Star Wars trilogy—or even this trilogy of trilogies, not that anyone really asked for that—was "hard," in part because of where Johnson left things in The Last Jedi.  I don't see it.  But for the sake of argument, let's accept that endings are, all things being equal, not easy.  If it was hard, though, one would expect to see an effort.  The Rise of Skywalker is a lot of things, I suppose—frenetic, flailing, really fucking dumb—but not really effortful, not really something that bears any evidence of having any thought put into it whatsoever.

It is, nevertheless, maybe not the end of Skywalker as an effective Star Wars film, but even on its chosen level of "play the old stuff" it doesn't do it with any sign of intelligence: it is a film that banks everything it's got (because beneath the flash and thunder, it's all it ultimately has) on the extremely-strange, previously-interesting relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, and virtually every genuine emotion it hopes to impart depends on us believing in and caring deeply about them individually and together, particularly in terms of Kylo's potential for redemption.  It even gives them the exact same ultimate goal—destroy the revived Emperor—and then it contrives to keep them apart the entire film, the latter "seducing" the former toward his preferred Dark Side of the Force alignment basically by yelling and yammering at her telepathically, while the former is flogged through a plot comprised of dungeon crawls that would barely service a D&D night let alone a $300 million motion picture, driven by a quest to find a map that leads to another map that leads to the place her natural ally already knows the way to.  No, that's actually the story.  Worse, streamlining it necessarily sugarcoats it: it's somehow even more dysfunctional in its terrible details, like how one part of the quest leads them to Desert Planet #3 and they meet Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, looking old and unsure of what's happening), who's evidently been there for thirty years waiting for somebody to click on him to generate the text boxes that appear above his head.

The other leg of Rey Not From Nowhere's story is a reveal that is, technically, a spoiler, although it's one that barely anybody's taken pains to keep secret: it's a little funny, I think, to read reviews that assume a knowledge of the basic scenario of the film (Palpatine's return) which then loudly announce that Skywalker reverses The Last Jedi's contention that Rey's parents were nobody, but then play "coy" by not naming whom her parents were.  They have taken no pains to conceal this, though, because this reveal is pretty much crap, a "twist" that does nothing and means less—its hollowness is something the film itself implicitly admits, considering that when it shocks us to our cores with the fact that Rey is Sheev Palpatine's granddaughter, it evidently never occurred to either of its two writers that if they wanted to pretend to care they should perhaps have clarified whether her father or her mother was Palpatine's child, since it would, you know, probably be the kind of detail a human being, even if she were abandoned on Jakku, would care about.  (And this brings us to the sourest Goddamn thing about Skywalker: it cannot go more than about ten minutes without reminding us that The Last Jedi does exist, and it hates it, and it is rife with the pettiest little "fixes" as demanded by a phalanx of YouTubers that are somehow very popular, despite featuring "film criticism" that ranges from "SJWs ruined Star Wars" to "I hope someone murders Kelly Marie Tran."  The most dementedly on-the-nose of these "fixes" involves Luke's ghost's volte-face regarding lightsabers.  But it's a constant background noise.)

Even so, yes: from other quarters, The Last Jedi got vastly more credit than it deserves for "revolutionizing" Star Wars.  But I will offer Johnson praise for doing something a little surprising, by pointedly leaving Rey in the same position that Luke was in Star Wars '77, the hero that emerged from obscurity, and refusing to burden her with legacy, as Luke was burdened in The Empire Strikes Back.  This was only "surprising" in a Star Wars context, I suppose.  But it was interesting because Rey herself found it scary and confusing and isolating, which in turn made her attraction to a genocide-abetting psychopath cosplayer, who offered her a destiny beyond legacies, an understandable one.  In other words, Johnson treated Rey as a character; Abrams doesn't, and never did, and it is down to Ridley alone that "Rey Palpatine" still manages to somewhat anchor a story this lazy and this dumb to something real and humane, despite her most effective moments being the biggest, brashest, and legacy-crushed of this entire franchise.  In any event, there's certainly no anchor to be found in Driver, who manages an admirable scene-to-scene intensity as Kylo Ren, but cannot redeem the Kylo that's on the page—even if "Ben Solo" ultimately does obtain his lazy and dumb redemption, in a scene that is so badly-sketched it turns out I actually don't know what happened in it except that Carrie Fisher died a couple of years ago.  It is at this point Driver becomes an entirely different and almost nauseatingly generic action entity, unmoored to the slightest sense of guilt, regret, or humanity.

Things go so entirely as you expect it's at least mildly satisfying, in a ritualized sort of way, though the climax demonstrates more ably than anything in his whole cargo cult filmography that Abrams can copy but cannot understand: his chiefest influences (besides Tony Scott, and I still aver he's a halfway-decent Tony Scott) are, I suppose, Spielberg and Lucas now, but he doesn't get them at all.  He has a good eye for iconography, but no sense of the mystical, which is why he was always a terrible fit for Star Wars (of course, he has no sense of the intellectual, either, which is why he was a terrible fit for Star Trek).  And so Return of the Jedi is remixed and reimagined with leaden literalism, and this is what I meant by "the limits of Star Wars," because I'll be the first to admit that the Emperor's plan to turn Luke in Return of the Jedi makes no logical sense.  It only makes flawless, soaring emotional sense.  Skywalker strives to make it make logical sense, because it feels it has to (and it probably does), with tossed off explanations that are abandoned within three minutes, and if it finds some power in its images, in its performances, and in its library of John Williams and Ben Burtt sounds, it is all of it secondhand, and deliberately secondhand, at that.  It is also both absurdly stupid yet somehow not stupidly imaginative: Skywalker goes absolutely balls to the walls with the power of the Force, including a reasonably inventive mechanic involving editing-driven teleportation that I am not sure I totally like—it's the one single thing it takes from The Last Jedi and actually runs with, yet I feel as if it somewhat cheapens what it meant there—but in the end it's still down to a bunch of Superweapons with Glaring Weaknesses, ninth verse same as the first, except space combat still sucks inexplicably badly in all of these new Star Wars movies.

If Skywalker has a saving grace, and it kind of does, it's that it is at least "fun," however empty that fun is: I think it actually helped me knowing the key plot beats going in because I could then focus on things other than the negative, which is virtually everything regarding its story, and permit myself to be entertained by a movie that is, to its credit, only occasionally unpleasant to watch in the moment of watching it.  The Rise of Skywalker does indeed spend the vast majority of its 142 minutes tossing turds directly into your face, but the turds are always immaculately polished, and it has the decency to be sprightly about the whole business.  This is true even when it's actively undermining its own stakes (it has no fewer than four deaths that just don't take, including one for Threepio of all the things not to give a shit about, wherein Abrams insists that, no, it's quietly heartbreaking when a metal slave being bullied into dying takes a last moment to look at his "friends," whom as far as we know he's spent five minutes with before today), and even when it's veering off into pointless ephemera (the Knights of Ren, all Lando scenes, "lightspeed skimming," the latter of which feels like another instance of Last Jedi hate, a big "no Rian, this is how hyperdrives work, Rian, you fucking moron," though at least in this case Skywalker is right).

It is, anyway, a breathless experience—the editing is downright savage, and it's not always well-judged, but it often works to the film's benefit—and it never commits the genuine sins that The Last Jedi did (not the sin of "separating the characters," precisely, as opposed to "separating the characters, then having the B-plot involving the B-characters be capital-B Boring As Fuck and wracked with unfunny comedy).  Probably wisely, it also surrenders to the reality that Finn, despite somewhat perversely acknowledging the great promise he had in concept (ex-stormtrooper come to the Resistance) has never evolved beyond being Rey's comic relief sidekick, and that Poe has never evolved beyond being his, and that as the replacement-level Han and Leia of this trilogy they are fit mostly for wondering where Rey is and bickering.  Best of all, however, Skywalker really does have flashes of true inspiration in its production design, choreography, and cinematography: I mean, it's almost impossible not to be entertained by lightsaber duels, even if the prequels did their level best, and I reckon that the Sith villainworld of Exagol, rendered as a kind of plutonian magical landscape defined by lightning and impossible angles, and which makes no sense in a good way for once, is the one location in this trilogy that truly stands out as fascinating in its own right.  I honestly love the wholly-unexplained stadium full of hooded ghosts or clones or whatever who read, in the moment, as ten thousand visions of Palpatine all cackling at Rey's lonely vulnerability.

This is cold comfort, of course.  If I may mix my nerdish devotions, allow me to close by making reference to Star Trek instead.  In Deep Space Nine, there's a bit where Garak and Dr. Bashir are having lunch and Garak holds forth on a work of literature called The Neverending Sacrifice, about generations of functionaries all living and dying in service of the state, which Bashir had read at his insistence and found very tedious.  Garak tells him that's the point: it's from a genre called the "repetitive epic," a form which his species, the Cardassians, have generally agreed is the very highest artistic expression of their empire's whole bureaucratic fascist ideology.

It's not actually supposed to be a good thing.

Score: 5/10

*Which means the only new Star Wars out of the five that remains wholly worthwhile is Rogue One, the fan fiction based on a single line in the opening crawl of the 1977 film. (P.S. remind me to knock Solo down from a 6 sometime; I mean, at least you can physically see this movie.)


  1. What? A LUKEWARM take on Rian Johnson? Truly groundbreaking. I was no fan of The Last Jedi (though I appreciate the committed weirdness of the milk-drinking scene, and that Laura Dern kamikaze scene is breathtaking), so it's nice to see somebody admit that both films are pretty compromised. Although, TROS takes "compromised" to an almost mythic level

    1. Oh, it's way beyond TLJ. Still, Rian Johnson's like... he's fine? His best movie is probably still Brick, and that movie's an avowedly silly joke. Looper is watchable while still mildly sucking; Knives Out's reasonably entertaining but its existence as a bona fide phenomenon is confusing to me.

      I love that green milk scene. That's what Star Wars is about.