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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

In a galaxy far, far away, the plucky Rebel Alliance continues to thwart the efforts of the despotic First Order, but a mysterious transmission from deep space serves to disrupt their dispute as an old enemy announces their return…

So, hands-up, I am an 80s child. A millennial, if you must. This means that the original Star Wars trilogy had been and gone before I was able to tie my shoelaces.

I remember watching those films on VHS video, seeing the brilliant The Empire Strikes Back first, then the not-quite-so-good Return of the Jedi sometime later, only catching up with the original film as a pre-teen.

Gotta say, I didn’t really like A New Hope very much – and still think it’s the weakest of the first three.

Later in my teenage years, those original movies were of course re-released with horrible new CGI additions made to them – additions which made the films less good – and then came the prequel trilogy, which was – to me – a bit disappointing.

This left Star Wars occupying a strange place in my mind. The films were not terrible, and each had moments that were great fun, but they all also had sections that were laughably earnest, scenes or whole sections that did not work for me, and the silliness and wide-eyed optimism of it all felt a little cloying.

I have never really understood why people take the series so seriously, precisely because the films seem designed not to be serious. They are light entertainment – daft, melodramatic escapism. Saturday morning cartoons with big budgets and undeniably amazing sound design.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that I have never felt a burning love for Star Wars, and have never really hated it either. I am ambivalent, and feel about the Star Wars franchise as I do about the Kingdom of Belgium; I recognise that it exists, consider it not the worst or the best, and although I’ve been, and might return again, it did and continues to do me little harm or good.

Swap waffles for laser swords, and chocolate for space magic, and, frankly, you’re there.

As such, when this new trilogy of films started, like many others I was curious and went to the cinema to see The Force Awakens (much as I went to Belgium – with friends, for fun). I thought that it was a pretty middling film that was true to the Star Wars template, and the dinner I had afterwards with those same friends was more enjoyable than the movie, and likely better value.

After that one though, I did not feel the need to see The Last Jedi on the big screen, likewise Solo: A Star Wars Story, and I was glad to have waited to see them on home video. Both felt awkwardly contrived and frustrating to me – movies with a few solid moments in otherwise goofy, extraordinarily glossy bombardments of existential puff.

This said, I did go and see Rogue One, and I did enjoy it – especially its sense of danger. But the bit I liked most about it was the small section when Darth Vader appeared and went a bit bananas. Then, afterwards, I came to a key realisation: the only thing I ever really liked about Star Wars was Darth Vader.

The penny dropped.

He is, after all, the iconic character of the franchise – the one you turn up to see. Everything else in the Star Wars Universe is the stuff you have to get through before Darth Vader rocks up, or is interesting because of its association with Darth Vader, his costume, voice and darkness.

Sadly, and you might consider this a spoiler but it ought not be one, Darth Vader does not rock up in The Rise of Skywalker. I hoped he might, but he doesn’t. You get to see his burned mask again, and Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver (Marriage Story, Paterson) continues to be a sort of emo Darth Vader-adjacent stand-in, but there’s the rub – The Rise of Skywalker is, likewise, good-adjacent.

Alas, it struggled, in my view, to live up to its forebears.

And as you might expect, the counterpoint to Kylo Ren’s story in this film continues to be Rey, played by Daisy Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express, Peter Rabbit). For everything cool and seriously uncool about Kylo, there are uncool and seriously cool things about Rey – although I have to say, casting someone who looks so like Keira Knightley in the part always struck me as a bit on the nose; to make the franchise about a posh English girl, albeit one who is so boyish and denuded of femininity, is a bit bizarre.

Moreover, calling the Light-side representative in these movies Rey continues to make me wince.

And what of the other women in these films? All pushed into the background, robbed of agency and female-ness.

Indeed, this film continues the trilogy’s habit of criminally over-stuffing itself with new characters, including two new female supporting characters in this one, both with little to do, as well as planets, plot threads and action sequences. That the Emporer seems to reside on Planet Traxam/Voltarol/Ibuleve is particularly odd.

In fact, so many new things are introduced in this one that it becomes a little difficult to keep track – yet The Rise of Skywalker generally gets away with it by moving so quickly.

If you take a moment to reflect, it is hard to ignore that the movie's plotting is as rough as guts, and to have so little connective narrative tissue carried over from the previous films, and so little in those films having foreshadowed developments in this one, seems especially shoddy. But whatever – nobody had a plan or vision when they went in this time around, and it shows. The Knights of Ren? Yeah, don't ask questions. Maz Kanata? Meh - never really meant anything. And on and on...

In particular, Rey’s 'best friends', Finn, played by John Boyega (Attack The Block, Pacific Rim: Uprising) and Poe, played by Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, X-Men: Apocalypse) get yet more moderately perilous things to do, and each sort of gets an end to their respective narrative, but neither have been well-served by the Star Wars writers across these three films. Their inclusion continues to be pretty tokenistic, as does almost everything else.

Worst of all is the arc of the tiny droid BB-8, who in this one gets a friend who, in a sense, is the subtext-robot, stating the obvious in a wibbly voice. Not only this: he is he the deus-ex-machina robot, and it is worth considering what he and BB-8 are there for in comparison to the roles played by C-3PO and R2D2 in the first 6 movies.

After all, those original droids were, essentially, the audience. Their character arcs underpinned absolutely everything about those films, and they were the witnesses. But not so here - and no so for BB-8, who never served the same role. He remains little more than a self-aware orange football who gets knocked about and offers the opportunity for knee-level tracking shots. What a shame!

At its core though, and to cut through the noise, the Star Wars franchise has been an experiment in mythic fantasy storytelling, adhering to the kind of internal structural logic that Joseph Campbell wrote about so evocatively in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The original trilogy followed the template religiously, the prequels likewise, yet this final set of three looked set not to, excitingly, if The Last Jedi was anything to go by.

In this movie however, the franchise course-corrects and snaps back, rather hurriedly, to the framework, rushing through the requisite steps in order to tick the boxes, emerging broadly unscathed.

If you are bothered by light spoilers expanding on this idea, skip the next paragraph and then carry on!

What I mean by this really comes down to tropes; Luke Skywalker, or Anakin, or Rey, or Harry Potter, or King Arthur (the list goes on) all have something in their blood that makes them special. They all discover a magical weapon during puberty (paging Dr. Freud...), are taught to wield it by a wise master, are tempted by the other side, all but fall foul of them, then ultimately sacrifice their lives to help the goodies win, being revived, Jesus-like, in the end.

Suffice to say that during the crisis talks after the box office under-performance of The Last Jedi and Solo, when J.J. Abrams was hired to save Star Wars and sent to talk to George Lucas about how to do it, the franchise creator evidently, and presumably politely, explained what made his films successes.

Decisions were made that then forced The Rise of Skywalker back into a form most Star Wars viewers will find recognisable. Some of this is awkward, and it feels a shame that a few of the bolder ideas of The Last Jedi were jettisoned by Disney in this transition, but let us not forget what the House of Mouse is famous for.

In particular, Disney have a cosy, problematic worldview. One where genetics in particular make people special. According to almost all of their films, much like in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, some people are born to be powerful and some are born to rely on them; it’s not fascism from a distance perhaps, but it certainly is up close, and it’s the kind of reasoning that philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche warned against in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

And, you know, that’s fine. People like these ideas. They are familiar notions, and prove comforting to most.

And sure, The Last Jedi tried to get away from it, but it’s back again in this film, and predictably so.

What else could they have done, you might ask? Something truly original? Goodness no – there are billions of dollars at stake!

So, as teased in the trailers and alluded to above, the big hook this time is that big-bad Emperor Palpatine is still alive, again played by Ian MacDiarmid (Sleepy Hollow, Restoration). Quite how he's still breathing, who cares – space magic, etc, etc – but he's back, has brought his voice, his cowl and his lightning fingers, and he’s ready to rumble!

This development in the series speaks to a definite and very conscious sense in The Rise of Skywalker that whether you know all of the lore and backstory or not, the movie is looking to offer a Star Wars greatest hits package and please the crowd. Just about every single actor to have appeared in Star Wars gets a reference, chance to appear or speak, and so do lots of locations. It’s all utterly superfluous to the plot, but as an exercise in nostalgia it's definitive at the very least.

Trouble is, while there are a couple of interesting new moments (lots of touchy healing hands – a bit more Jesus there...) the film really is a rehash of the kinds of things we have all seen before in Star Wars films. And if that sounds fun to you then I would suggest going to watch it, if you have not already. But - a big caveat: if you do not care for what’s come before, do not expect anything different. And if you want something original then, for goodness' sake, steer clear!

Indeed, the best analogy I can think of relates to the Greatest Hits compilation albums by the iconic rock band Queen.

If Greatest Hits I was the original trilogy, and the prequels were Greatest Hits II, then these new movies are Greatest Hits III.

You know, the one where they have other people stand in for Freddie Mercury, and pad the thing out with re-released alternate versions?

Didn’t listen to it? Well, if you do or have done then you’ll know that it adds little to the Queen legacy. If you hate Queen, you're definitely going to hate it. And if you’re a Queen super-fan then you will probably ignore the issues and nod your head a bit to it, even if you have a niggling sense of something missing.

But what about the rest of us? When we listen to Queen we’re not really there to hear Brian May, or John Deacon, or Roger Taylor. We’re there for Freddie Mercury – the Darth Vader of stadium rock.

As such, although the band is still on tour, with Adam Lambert/Driver out in front, no matter how full the rest of the line-up is, or how glitzy the light show, the star is absent.

As a result, what you really notice is not so much what’s there but what’s missing: the thing that made it special in the first place.

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