Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Force Illusion

It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it all over again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. Star Wars may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring.

-Pauline Kael, 1977

This review contains SPOILERS.

In the mind of its audience, Star Wars is more than a series of nine films plus spinoffs. What were once nostalgic cultural designs based on movie serials and magazine covers are now based on toys that the people who grew up with Star Wars itself are nostalgic for. At this point, it's part of a cultural upbringing. Darth Vader boards Leia’s space skiff and instantly becomes a total package of towering, serious play-pretend: a figure of power, and of pain. Luke stands beneath two sunsets and wonders where to go from here; a movie later, a master of the force will tell him that it’s the act of wondering that he has to grow out of to achieve true enlightenment. He endangers his friends precisely because he believes he can save them. Not his great power, but his faith in his father, ends up saving the universe.

These are the stories that the audience carries with them to Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, stories that are understood so instinctually that Pauline Kael called even their surprises reassuring the first time you see them. What would Master Yoda tell them now? He told Luke to stop craving “adventure and excitement,” and yet the people who are his biggest fans want nothing more substantial from their beloved series than that, nothing more engaging than a car crash. The Rise of Skywalker uses Star Wars to drive its blasts of energy, but it doesn’t understand it any more than an explosion understands its fumes. This movie fails, more than any Star Wars film has ever failed, to go beyond its moving parts and become that dense, towering collection of tiny stories and larger-than-life personality that’s as much fun to take too seriously as it is to laugh at – the Star Wars cultural experience. The audience itself now seems like the subject of a three-film con after the rise of the Disney rebranding.

The Rise of Skywalker is a baby mobile, a spinning blur of toys and color that doesn’t explain itself more than a child that wet the bed and protests, “I couldn’t help it.” The creatives behind this movie were given the task of finishing a story no one planned or took responsibility for after producers severed them from using the established extended universe. Now many of them are trying to blame someone else’s influence on the result, or using branded comics to punch up the gaps. Even with ten films as the wind in its sails, this final episode’s plot is based almost entirely on information that is new to the audience. Anything in Star Wars that it connects to, it also has to retcon to make it fit. The presence of old friends and familiar tropes doesn’t save the experience; they only distract from its inadequacies by further burdening it with the fans' instinct to like it on sight alone. They cannot save it, this time.

This is never clearer than in the much-publicized presence of Emperor Palpatine, played as always with the savory-delightful overacting of Ian McDiarmid. His inclusion feels like J.J. Abrams heckling Ryan Johnson at the audience's expense after The Last Jedi attempted to rid Star Wars of its major villain early. Abrams' response was to scramble to put one back in, unable to imagine what Star Wars could be without one. We may never know if Johnson could have done better since he had the comparatively luxurious position of making those changes without being responsible for them. Regardless, removing the villain early was a test of the audience's trust. Putting one back in is only a test of their patience.

Fans of The Last Jedi may be unsurprised to discover that Abrams ditches every setup from that film, not only the villain's removal. He does so with all the ceremony of plopping a loogie in Johnson's latte, perhaps not fully comprehending that the fans are the ones who have to drink it. The retcons are so relentless that they give The Rise of Skywalker even more work to do since ignoring The Last Jedi means that it must function as both Abrams' second and third film. The script still takes time out of its busy day to glove-slap Johnson's ideas, such as a disillusioning scene where Finn (John Boyega) firmly friend-zones Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) after the previous film showed them together, only to spend time establishing a new romantic interest for him later. In another instance, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) simply stops existing as the character that had been established for the sake of a plot twist, which makes it necessary for the film to establish a new evil general, General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), who must be the most swiftly forgotten villain in all of Star Wars history.

And of course, Rey finds the important parents that Johnson denied her, essentially turning any thematic point in The Last Jedi into a bait and switch, which it was already since Johnson did it to Abrams first. The two switches cancel each other out – the audience is left with just the bait. Not only is the proposed lineage questionable, but this change also shifts the emotional momentum of the entire trilogy, turning its themes full-circle in the same sense that a snake eating its tail completes the arc.

Despite passionately unwriting the previous film, Abrams' and Chris Terrio's script makes no attempt to make its new ideas better by comparison. They don't even attempt to explain the Emperor's return, or even pass it off as a subject in need of an explanation. One throwaway line says something to the effect that it must be either Sith magic or cloning. This is the kind of writing that those who dislike Star Wars have been accusing it of having for decades, a point that fans have made it their life's work to disprove. Never has the brand turned against them so strongly, to actually include the devices that it has been accused of having by those who hate it most. With The Rise of Skywalker, Disney reduced the entire plot of the new trilogy to a baity marketing campaign to see characters return, offering naysayers their ultimate proof. When the plot finagles a twist return for the series' most dangerous villain, the audience is not surprised but reassured (even without seeing the trailer).

The film is burdened not only with its previous installments, which were written and executed in the comparative safety of passing the buck to the next entry, but also with Abrams' passive-aggressive branding, which always places the burden of accepting his plot on the audience's capacity to tolerate inconsistencies. The tone does not blip like a heart monitor as it did in The Last Jedi, but at no point does The Rise of Skywalker establish a way for the energy of Star Wars to be an advantage. It constantly feels like a burden.

The technical artists alone hold The Rise of Skywalker up – the writers' delinquency wrongs them more than anyone. Dan Mindel shoots the film with crispy, focused attention, with the lightsaber battles particularly being honest, satisfying entertainment. The actors are buried under the material but their effort is noticeable, even if Ridley, Isaac, and Boyega are no longer even pretending to be the chemical trio full of sparkle and pepper that we thought we were getting in 2015. John Williams' work is always a joy, though for the first time in the series, his score has been hacked up, extracting riffs that represent each character and wearing them out. For example, whenever Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) appears on screen, the film plays his four-note entrance theme, no matter how inappropriately squeezed into the ambiance of the scene. It’s straight out of parody – it turns a beautiful piece of music into the “Frau Blücher” bit from Young Frankenstein. Despite this, Driver must still be considered the film's most unironic force for good. Without him, the trilogy would have half the acolytes.

Concerning Carrie Fisher's existing footage being used to stitch her part in the film together, the editors Brandon and Grube did a tactful job. It doesn't have the sense of desperation it could have. Yet in a movie this messy, her presence begs the question of how much had to be clumsily moved around to achieve an emotional effect that could not be edited or removed under the circumstances. That at least is one of the few dead-ends they did not create themselves.

That compressed assessment of the film's technicalities, where actors are doing their near-best and spaceships look good and lightsabers glow with primal power against a well-rendered sea, is where The Rise of Skywalker is most fine. But this is a status achievable by almost any possible production, given a $275 million budget and an army of enormously talented technicians. Abrams and Terrio do everything within the realm of possibility to use a sheer deficiency of storytelling logic to make these instinctually enjoyable aspects as intellectually unappealing as possible.

Every square inch of this movie and every particle of space is filled with exposition. Exposition covers the seats and falls from the trees; it’s waiting in rooms when people enter and shouting rebuttals as they leave. It’s in cars shooting at the viewer as the camera drives by and winking as it swims around in their soup. It’s crawling out of people’s mouths and dripping from their hair and shot directly into our eyes with a needle two hours and twenty-two minutes long. When people kiss, they talk from the sides of their mouth to continue delivering plot exposition. The film contains almost no reflection in comparison. It is written and delivered constantly with the hurried gracelessness of someone trying to beat their record for saying the most words without taking a breath. Perhaps the only exception in the entire film is Ford's reluctant appearance. For all his scruffy negligence to the fans that love his role more than he ever could, he manages to create the sole moment of effective emotion in The Rise of Skywalker. It is not despite but because he does not burst with joy to be in Star Wars that he is able to make it seem genuine, something that franchise films made by mega-fans are always too late to discover.

Any sequence could demonstrate the film's hurried restlessness to fit in all its plot ideas. In the village of a snowy mountain town that looks like a place the Nazis would be looking for runaways, the main characters meet new characters, some of whom they have a past with. These relationships are set up and resolved in their entirety in one scene, two at most; as the heroes arrive, they are already leaving. On the windy shores of another planet made completely of grasslands and overcast skies that Dreyer or Bergman would have been thrilled to have at their disposal, the heroes look out at the wreckage of the old Death Star. They use a mystic object to show the location of another mystic object that they need to find the location of the film’s finale. How does this item with carven ancient runes relate to a wreckage no more than forty years old? How does Rey know where to stand to see the exact thing she needs to see, or where it is exactly in wreckage that stretches miles long and which apparently does not move or erode? Whether a throwaway line explains this or not, these scenes are paced like a con. They use sleight of hand in the form of a silly aside or a cool visual to distract from an indefensible lack of logic.

There are many examples of "drive-by" exposition in The Rise of Skywalker, which make the writers' thought process feel less like an expression of passion than a cover-up. Someone asks why the “Holdo maneuver” that solved the previous film won’t work in this one. The answer is a matter of fact: “That move’s one in a million.” Moving on. The best instance of this writing is how the characters realize that Emperor Palpatine has returned. “Somehow, Palpatine has returned,” someone says with tired awe. Moving on. Other times, this kind of writing is used just as distractingly to linger on something nostalgic, such as when Chewie gets the medal that fans have wanted him to get since 1977. Though this has never been of interest to Chewbacca, his most rabid fans must have wept to see him finally get his prize, alone in a room, after Disney killed the last of his friends. Moving on.

They’re on a windy shore; the sea is angry and the sky is grey. They need the object in the wreckage (most of the plot unfolds like a side quest in a video game, complete with NPCs and quest markers and objects used to get other objects to get to the next objective). It’s too stormy to get to it; a new character named Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a former stormtrooper, suggests they wait till morning. Another movie would send them back to town to see the state of the former troopers, to build on that thread of the First Order’s indoctrination program and the possibility of escaping it, amplifying Finn’s (Boyega) journey, ingratiating the audience to a new face, and building a relationship with lore, with time, and with the universe set up by the sequels. The Knights of Ren could have shown up. There are tons of possibilities.

In my mind, as a Star Wars fan, I can imagine wind coming through wooden doors, a stone fireplace, huddled former stormtroopers taking stock of a harsh existence, joined by a worried band of adventurers impatient to complete their quest but forced to face the choices they’ve made in their own pasts. Rey stands outside in the wind, alone, questioning the consequences of having so much power, unable to accept her place among friends because of her abilities. Finn fails to consul her with a story of his stormtrooper days, though they realize how close they've become, by sharing a similar pattern of guilt, one which they hope distantly they can overcome together. At one point, 5 years ago, these characters felt like they were leading towards something.

Of course, this is not what happens in The Rise of Skywalker. It never, at any point, waits around without any action or exposition for that long. Rey is down on the sea before it’s even been fully explained that they should wait till morning; she paddles to the wreck, slips eagerly into a swordfight, and boards a ship without her friends; she's off the planet before the scene ends. Imagine the globe-trotting tropes in Raiders of the Lost Ark handled so nonchalantly. Imagine Indy meeting Sallah outside his shop, asking for money, and driving off. Imagine if Indy met Marion, took the medallion, and turned around and left and we didn’t see her again until the battle at the end. This planet, which is arrived at, exploited for its plot devices, and blown up within several scenes, could have housed the whole film.

Jannah comes with them when they go after Rey, and her worried face can be seen on the field of battle in the finale, bantering with Finn. Her final moment with Lando (Billy Dee Williams) seems to imply a future as one of the protagonists, as either his daughter or his lover, a distracting revelation at that point in the film. Reduced to a tagalong, her only impactful scene is an ironic plea, seemingly directed at the film, to slow down. She’s one of those characters that Star Wars fanatics will forever refer to by name (“Jannah”), to which everyone else will say, “Who?” The Star Wars fan will then answer them with a file designation that includes the name of the film and a physical description of the person ("you know, the black girl in The Rise of Skywalker. The wind planet? Space horses? You know ... this girl," as they pull up Wookiepedia on their phone).

Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), Poe’s old flame on Kijimi (the Nazi village planet introduced and blown up in twelve minutes) provides an even more revealing example of the film's writing style, which paces information like everything is in a time lapse. They meet and exchange the usual unpleasant pleasantries ("It's been a long time," "I see you haven't changed," etc.). The film reveals that Bliss stole a First Order medallion to escape through the blockade. In the next scene, she gives them this medallion so they can escape, as though the film needed to invent a device for them to escape the planet whose sole purpose for existing was to create the device in the first place. The film isn't padded – it's nothing but padding. They use it and move on.

The whole situation is emotional anasthesia. The normal progression of events would be for Poe to steal the medallion, proving to Bliss that he hasn't changed, especially since the film introduced Poe's shady past in an earlier line. However, at the end of the film when Zorii and Poe lock eyes/visors, she dismisses him as though he did do this, as though he'll "never change," even though she already helped him. She gives him the medallion, as though she initiates her own redemption by doing so while also blaming him for a redemption arc she believes he did not have but which he also doesn't need. This emotional arc is so condensed and trope-dependent that it flops between different static images of emotions from other movies without ever committing to one. In mere minutes of film, this concept of the former lover and shady past is introduced and resolved, a plot device changes hands, and everything moves on completely unchanged in one single oversized gulp of plot tropes. It's like Casablanca-flavored Go-Gurt.

People in The Rise of Skywalker receive plot devices they need to complete the next scene before they even get there; they risk their lives to retrieve them before they know that they need them. The audience is introduced to them after they have been used. They’re at the end of a character arc as we’re learning that such an arc exists in the first place. I used Zorii’s scene as the example but nearly any would work to describe how mind-melting the pacing is, not only to get through all its unedited devices but also to distract the audience from examining them.

A character dies in order to show another character that their great power might cost them something. This is a situation that might have worked if it lingered meaningfully, but the audience learns that this character is not dead in minutes, just before the heroes do too. “They must have been on another transport!” is a line that comes up to explain the inconsistency between the “twist” and what the character who says it thought they saw and must have seen, if you think about it. This line exists not to explain the plot but to put on a show, to pantomime a film that explains itself. This character is shown in the film's finale in the trailer – that's how uninvested they were in this feint.

The pacing makes it difficult to pick out the core story from the subplots, but Rey and Kylo Ren seem to be the focus. Even in the film's most earnest attempt to develop their dramatic interaction, these characters pass through phases of understanding in a flash, like every other device in the film. They develop in seconds, like the film is a clone of another film altered to age more quickly. Dialogue pushes so hard to complete the tasks set for it by the story that it defeats itself, such as when Kylo pretends that retconning twists from the previous film is a matter of fact (he describes Rey's true heritage to her in a way that is almost as literal as coming out and saying, "You didn't really believe that other guy's movie, did you?"). Kylo is the trilogy's best creation, but this is ultimately just another way of saying he has the most wasted potential. His ending here could have been written by taking the results of a Reddit poll. There are scenes in the finale of this film that are positively fan-fictional.

Consider how the characters treat plot information in their fight on the wreck of the Death Star, which is visually the best scene in the film. Kylo wants Rey to join him on the Sith planet to kill Palpatine, but he destroys the map she just went to six other planets to find so that she has to take him there with her, instead of just waiting for her on the Sith planet in the first place. But then, even knowing that he’s the only way to get there, she stabs and kills him; now, because of information that he gives her, she doesn’t want to go there anymore anyway. She flies away, only to find Luke (Mark Hamill), who gives her information that makes her want to go there again. But this is only after she destroys her spaceship and loses the map that would allow her to do so. He tells her that she has “Everything she needs” to continue her journey. Normally, this advice would imply that the hero should look within themselves to find answers to a complex problem, but what it actually means in The Rise of Skywalker is that there’s another spaceship right over there, just out of frame, and another of those maps that she spent the whole movie looking for in the glove compartment. This is all in the span of minutes.

Luke's wise demeanor feints the viewer into believing that the previous conga line of convenienecs and devices was all necessary for Rey's arc. Abrams and Terrio have recruited him to be a Zoltar machine whose tickets they’ve already read. Even at the film's ultimate climax, where Rey confronts Palpatine to kill him, he tells Rey that if she does so, he will enter her body and she will become the vessel for a thousand generations of Sith lords. He tells her over and over to kill him so that this will happen. This makes her realize that she probably shouldn't, something she hadn't considered before he made it repeatedly clear to her. Why is it written this way? Because after all those devices and plots, the film still wouldn't have turned out right without forcing a character to unrealistically divulge even more exposition. By possessing every hero in the Star Wars saga and using their tacit blessing to resolve this film's plot, Rey becomes the most perfect symbol imaginable of Abrams' effect on this series. The negative impact of this moment extends beyond the film and its trilogy to the already completed films, whose prophecy story now seems to be a broken promise.

At times, even a throwaway line is too much to ask for. Rey somehow has the destroyed blue lightsaber again at the beginning of this film, just to retcon something else from The Last Jedi. The unspoken explanation is that she must have repaired it at some point, which is a significant statement. “She must have” implies that the viewer has no power to observe or critique the film’s events in a logical order. Only after something has happened can the viewer conclude that it must, therefore, have some explanation in retrospect. It goes back to Palpatine returning, somehow. It even goes all the way back to The Force Awakens, when Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), deflects the explanation for how she came to possess Luke’s lost blue lightsaber by saying, “A good question. For another time.” This becomes the mantra of the entire trilogy.

Disney never focused on where they were with this series, or what they were doing. They were single-mindedly obsessed with the bottom line on the horizon and every scene has been a course correction for the previous scene since the first film’s debut. This final movie is not a movie but a conglomerate of carefully controlled, polled responses, Reddit threads, Twitter rants, directorial spatting, company initiatives, and "passive progressive" politics designed to bait news articles into sucking the air out of the room by discussing the film's intentions rather than its qualities (Red Letter Media coined that term recently and it deserves to become worn).

Will any of what I have written here matter, weighed against the reception of a movie that fans will bolster with every possible rationalization? When I posed the question on Twitter of how Rey still has the destroyed blue lightsaber, someone sent me a picture they took on their phone of something called “The Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary,” detailing a diagram of Rey’s lightsaber with an arrow pointing to the middle of it under the words, “Weld marks.” That is the level of justification that the fanbase is willing to use to deflect the possibility of criticism. It's the reason why Abrams, Terrio, and in a broader sense the Disney corporation think they can get away with a script that includes the line, "Somehow, Palpatine returned," essentially telling the audience that their curiosity is a burden to them, to be dismissed rather than justified.

In Star Wars extended canon, a force illusion is a mind trick that high-level Jedi can use to make people see what they wish them to see. Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker was made not to conclude its series logically but to create an illusion of effort in the mind of its fans using as many recognizable symbols as possible. Despite its long-incubated premise, it is paced with a tone of hurried carelessness and this completely robs the screen of any emotional impact that is not based on the ruthless manipulation of the nostalgia of desperate fans. I’ve been a fan of this saga for decades, but Disney didn’t prove me right to love it so much. They didn’t prove Lucas right for his attempt to make a series of connecting trilogies, which now do not connect, or to start this dream by bringing it out of the old serials and into the movies in the first place. The only one they proved right, at the end of all these screenings and model-buildings and debates and devotionals and costumes and brand deals and visual dictionaries, is Pauline Kael.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, January 14, 2020

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Walt Disney Studios/Lucasfilm Ltd.

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1 thought on “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Force Illusion”

  1. Great article!

    I like your idea of what might have happened in a scene where the characters slow down long enough to actually observe the state of the world around them, a type of scene which is regretfully absent from the whole trilogy. Observable character development is something I think franchise films especially need these days. This entire film was answering the question “what happens next?” and not “what SHOULD happen next.”

    I also agree with your assessment of The Rise of Skywalker’s blatant disregard for the themes, characters, writers, fans, and directors of any Star Wars film ever made, including the people who made this one. Very disappointing film.

    Reply

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