By KYLE KERSEY
“The dead speak!” it says. Translation: “fuck you, audience!”
The best thing I can say about the Star Wars Prequel trilogy is at least George Lucas was trying something different.
Damning with faint praise, yes, but dammit, faint praise is praise nonetheless. It’s important to remember that, at his core, Lucas is an ideas-based filmmaker dedicated to thematic storytelling and technological advancement. You can see it in his first feature film, THX 1138, a dystopian sci-fi film with a relatively simple story but captivating visuals and world building. These are the very foundations that made the original trilogy a success: movies with stunning special effects and a universal but sometimes surprising story.
Where he does not excel, however, is grounded storytelling and writing dialogue. As many have said before me and many will say after, when making the prequels, he needed competent people to rein in his ideas to form a coherent film, rather than a group of yes-men worshiping his presence on set. There’s a reason it was Irvin Kershner and not Lucas who directed the most acclaimed movie of the whole series, The Empire Strikes Back.
By contrast, The Rise of Skywalker tries nothing. What the film gains in speed it lacks in ideas. Even worse, it wastes the potential of a wonderful cast of characters and some of the more interesting ideas set up in The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson’s foray into the series may have been uneven, but it hardly deserved the beating it took from fans. And it certainly didn’t deserve an entire movie erasing everything it set up.
So here’s the plot. Palpatine is back. “How do they bring him back?” you ask. “Is there a cool scene where he rises from the dead? Maybe some callback to that whole ‘The dark side of the force is a pathway to many abilities, some considered to be unnatural’ line Palpatine says in ‘Revenge of the Sith?’”
Nah, they just throw it in the title crawl. “The dead speak!” it says. Translation: “fuck you, audience!”
What proceeds from this point is 15 minutes of set-up that feel like it should have come at the end of the prior film. Kylo Ren flies his ship to Exegol, an uncharted Sith planet where Palpatine has been raising a fleet of Star Destroyers with his force powers (dumb but we don’t have the time to get into it). Kylo is told to kill Rey, who’s busy doing her best “Superman 64” impression, running convoluted obstacle courses for Leia under the guise of “training.” Finn and Poe go on a genuinely fun adventure, but everyone is acting like they hate each other for some reason. None of this is properly set up in the prior film, mind you.
Good news: There’s no spherical super weapon to destroy. Bad news: Rey is now related to someone. Because in a galaxy far far away, everyone is inbred.
I know I sound like I’m letting my biases get the best of me, and that there’s a legion of Star Wars fans ready to tattoo “popcorn movie” on my face (presumptive of you to assume more than three people will read this, Kyle). But I counter said assertions with 1) objectivity is a lie in film criticism and 2) being a “popcorn movie” doesn’t excuse poor character development, an overwritten yet underdeveloped plot, and a lack of cohesion with the rest of the trilogy.
J.J. Abrams is a fast-paced action filmmaker. His pedigree comes from blockbuster filmmaking, so it appears as though he would be a good directorial choice to continue the most popular film franchise on the face of the planet. After all, I liked The Force Awakens. For all its flaws in rehashing the original movies, his mystery box approach to storytelling at least set up a colorful cast of fun protagonists whose adventures are worth shelling out 10 bucks to see at the theaters.
However, his forte is not picking good screenwriters with whom to work. See, for example, the Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman hitjob on the Star Trek franchise (or don’t, for that matter). This is evident in The Rise of Skywalker, where he co-wrote the script with Chris Terrio. Terrio’s writing credits are as follows: Argo (good), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (oh, no) and Justice League (uff-da).
The result of this tag-teamed script is a mess of ideas. Characters aren’t developed as much as they’re made to complete tasks. Abrams has mastered the manipulation of time and space. He makes 10 minutes feel like an hour. “Taking time to explore our characters?” Abrams scoffed. “Pft, we don’t have time for that. Let’s give them an arbitrary time limit to do a bunch of stuff and then pack that into a two-and-a-half-hour movie.” That scene in The Force Awakens where Finn travels through the desert feels like art-house cinema compared to this shit.
The Rise of Skywalker is an assault on your senses meant to beat you into submission. Constant action, constant music; there’s no time to digest what just happened. He’s already moved onto another scene, and then another, and then another. The effect is disorienting. You can’t string your thoughts together. And you might even leave the theater thinking it wasn’t such a bad film. I did. I left thinking, “Well, it was a spectacle, but I guess all these movies are.”
But none of this holds up to any critical thought. I’m not the kind of person to nitpick small plot holes, but ask yourself, why can’t the Star Destroyers just point toward the sky and fly away? Why does Leia dying suddenly turn Kylo good? Why can the Emperor now suck the life force out of people like a wrinkly dracula? What does the force even mean, anymore? Sorry Han, but maybe that is how the force works?
These are all the problems of creating a trilogy without a consistent creative voice, the problems of a franchise that caters to fans as opposed to telling a coherent story. Disney would have been better served taking Lucas’ ideas for a sequel trilogy and tempering them as was done in the original trilogy. Maybe get a better director but have Lucas there as the constant creative voice. Instead they handed his baby over to different filmmakers with different visions and no plan for where the story ends.
At least The Mandalorian was pretty dope.