Restores balance to the Force. Well… kind of.
Spoilers ahead for all movies in the Star Wars saga.
JJ Abrams has been equivocal, but as soon as the opening crawl appears in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, you hear the deafening click of a reset button.
Whatever your feelings about The Last Jedi, it was clearly a departure from The Force Awakens. Both films were criticised for diametrically opposed reasons. The Force Awakens (TFA) was virtually a scene by scene remake of A New Hope (or, the original Star Wars for the uninitiated). That annoyed some fans, but it did make the film more accessible – and successful. Then, The Last Jedi (TLJ) managed to drive at least half of the fanbase into a frothing rage by going out of its way to be different. We had Luke Skywalker tossing a lightsaber like a spent spliff, milking a giant alien, attempting to murder his nephew and generally being extremely grumpy. We had radical new Force abilities, including Leia’s invisible space suit. And shock horror, we had an Asian-American lady who drove little boys into apoplexy for some reason. I’m not sure whether it was by not being skeletally thin or by not being white. Whichever, Kellie Marie Tran’s Rose Tico has arguably been treated rather like Jar-Jar in this new film, with her screen time radically cut from the previous movie. While I don’t recall her character adding a great deal to the story last time, there is an unfortunate whiff of moral cowardice in this decision.
Anyway, in the new film, most of TLJ is dumped over a cliff, just like that lightsaber. This is mostly an enjoyable film, entertaining, thrilling in parts, beautiful to look at, well-acted. But it’s set itself an impossible task by being positioned as the final film in the Skywalker saga. Could any film ever satisfy that weight of expectation? It’s been (as acknowledged with an in-joke in the movie) forty-two years since Star Wars changed cinema. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s not hyperbole. As a piece of filmic imagination, it has dominated pop culture for each of those forty-two years. “I am your father”, the Force, lightsabers, heavy mechanical breathing… these things are cultural touchstones. You would have to travel very far to find someone who didn’t understand a reference to at least one of these things, not to mention the obvious impact on Hollywood itself, blockbusters, merchandising and so on.
The closing films of the previous two trilogies had mixed fortunes. Return of the Jedi (RotJ) had the misfortune of following The Empire Strikes Back, still generally regarded as the best film in the saga. I’ll always be fond of RotJ – it was the first one I saw at the cinema. Anyway, what’s not to like? I know some people objected to the cannibal teddies, but they were often amusing little sods and great dancers, too. Plus, the conclusion to the story of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and the Emperor felt truly epic, the reflection of Sith lightning in Vader’s blank face mask revealing the bonds of fatherhood could overcome the grip of the Dark Side. Luke is an orphan who finds out his dad was a hero, then discovers he’s become the evilest man in the galaxy, then, when all seems lost, his dad saves him. For any kid, particularly one who lost a parent young, that story was always going to resonate.
Revenge of the Sith (RotS) had it easy. I know the prequel trilogy has its ardent defenders and I respect that. But let’s be honest, following The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was always going to be a damn sight easier than following The Empire Strikes Back. As such, it’s probably higher regarded than RotJ in some quarters. Anyway, six films, following the rise, fall and rise again of one Anakin Skywalker, semi narrated by Alan Carr dressed as a gold droid and his three-legged dog-substitute buddy. While RotS could have ended with the EastEnders dum dums, RotJ feels like a conclusive ending.
Of course, Disney was going to build up The Rise of Skywalker as being the closure of the Skywalker saga… who could blame them? The fact is this film is great fun. It feels pitch dark in places as well, the revelation of the Emperor and his dark fleet, the amount of Force power on display on both sides, the cheat-death of Chewbacca. It’s emotionally satisfying, there are several tear-inducing scenes and some lovely cameos and call backs. There are plenty of worse ways to spend a couple of hours. If you’re looking for a fun time at the cinema, you won’t be disappointed. But as the conclusion to this saga? As the final film of the final trilogy of the most dominant film series in the lifetime of Generation X? Sorry, no.
I think it comes down to that reset button. The Emperors laugh at the end of the trailer was exciting enough to induce spontaneous incontinence. And sure, the filmmakers can certainly argue that there was a signpost to his return in TLJ. But when the crawl starts it all just seems a bit sudden. Hey guys, the Emperor’s back! He’s spent the last twenty-odd years in a kind of combined hospice/nursery for the terminally cackling. Still sounds like he smokes (despite locking Anakin into a giant vape suit all those years previously), and after careful reflection, he still considers planetary genocide the best form of diplomacy. Anakin died for nothing, his son pretty-much screwed everything up afterwards, then went into a monumental strop. CLICK!
There are things I really love about this film, I think. I will certainly be watching it again. Rey kicking all kinds of arse is great fun to watch, and the moment when you see the true scale of her power had me swearing out loudly in the cinema. The notion of choosing your own identity should be celebrated, I think. That struck almost as much of a chord with me as the daddy issues of 1983. But… with the clicking of that button, you are unfortunately reminded that the true Force behind this franchise is the great American Dollar, nothing more. Six films about the Skywalkers, then three tacked on which don’t – can’t – fully satisfy anyone apart from Disney’s CFO.
There are some odd things in this movie, too. Look, I loved Harrison Ford’s cameo. The sound of his voice off-screen had everyone gasping and having him say ‘I know’ was wonderful. But, Jesus, you think he could have shaved… The poor bastard looks like he’s been forcibly dragged on set from the golf bunker where he’d collapsed after a three-day drinking binge. The makeup team jammed an ill-fitting wig on him before he’s shoved, blinking, confused and maybe a bit scared in front of the camera. Adam Driver looks like he’s psychically communing with an angry dead tramp. And talking of Driver, the weight of the religious symbolism on his shoulders weighs more than two Death Stars. His dad is a spirit now, for a start, but that’s nothing. He dies by being pierced in the side. Not by a lance, but by a glowing sword in the shape of a cross. Then he’s brought back from the dead (arguably twice, and the second time he crawls out of a cave. Just saying). Once he’s back, he sacrifices himself to save everyone and brings someone back from the dead himself. Look, at least it’s not quite as on-the-nose as that guff in The Phantom Menace about a virgin birth, but still. Short of having him grow his hair out, grow a beard and maybe swap his funky black mask for a white hat it couldn’t really be any clearer – he’s a goodie now, guys!
That last point didn’t sit well. During The Force Awakens, the blatant remaking of A New Hope had me thinking, ‘Okay, we’re just getting a re-tread of the original trilogy.’ It seemed clear that Adam Driver would follow the path of Darth Vader, ultimately becoming a hero. But then he murdered his own father and arguably the most loved character of the franchise (trust me, kids in the 80s didn’t want to be Luke Skywalker – it was Han all the way). Surely there was no coming back from that. TLJ did some interesting things with Rey and Kylo and the ‘balance of the force’ felt like it was going somewhere interesting. It has, a little, but ultimately, we did just get the same story again, except while Obi Wan chose to sacrifice himself for a higher purpose, Han was brutally murdered. Ultimately, I suppose the message of this film remains the same as Return of the Jedi. Everyone can be redeemed and your parents love you, no matter what. That message had far more impact the first time, for a lot of reasons.
Kevin Feige taking over as the movie equivalent of a TV showrunner for future Star Wars films seems like a good move because it feels like this new trilogy lacked a clear direction. Personally, I wish they’d just leave them be, but hey, the dollars are strong with this franchise. Let’s just hope they don’t decide to make three more ‘Skywalker saga’ movies.
So, as a Star Wars fanboy, and therefore one of the most opinionated mofo’s in the galaxy, my recommendation for a truly enjoyable time with the saga following these new movies is this: There are now four essential films in the franchise to watch in order:
Star Wars (A New Hope)
The Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi.
The other films are fine. I don’t feel that any of them add anything essential. Some people love them and I’m happy for them, but those people who seem to hate the new films really need to chill and remember, the original trilogy will be with you, always.