, , , , , , ,

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Director: JJ Abrams

Screenplay:  Chris Terrio, JJ Abrams, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow


Daily Ridley: Rey (You’ll find out her last name)

Adam Driver: Kylo Ren

Oscar Isaac: Poe Dameron

John Boyega: Finn

Mark Hamill: Luke Skywalker

Carrie Fisher: Leia Organa

Joonas  Suotaml: Chewbacca

Kelly Marie Tran: Rose Tico

Billy Dee Williams: Lando Calrissian

I’ve read various reviews of The Rise of Skywalker.  Most complain about a weak plot and confusing dialogue, some are upset that the movie isn’t sufficiently woke.  Of course, for such people, there is no such thing as sufficiently woke; one can’t possibly keep up with the ever-changing demands of wokitude.  What those reviews are missing is the very reason for being of this movie and those that preceded it.  The Star Wars saga, and more specifically the story of the Skywalker family, is our mythos, and like all worthy myths, it relies not on clever plots and dialogue, but on archetypes, themes and values that resound through the ages, because times change, but human beings don’t.

Star Wars–the original–was a stunning success because George Lucas consciously modeled it on The Odyssey.  It contained all of the elements of epic, mythic literature: a brave and pure hero of noble blood, a doer of great and good deeds, vast landscapes–a galaxy–a quest, the eternal struggle between good and evil, single combat, a final, climactic battle, stalwart companions/warriors, lasting friendships, loyalty, and above all else, adventure.  In many respects, the plot of any work of epic literature is a vehicle to further adventure, through which the hero is tested, and through which the highest values of the culture that produced the epic are celebrated and triumphant.

The first trilogy established the Star War saga as our mythos because it remained true to the elements of epic literature as translated into contemporary epic cinema.  In any epic, we care about the characters, we identify with them and feel their emotions, their sorrow and their joy.  A fundamental difference between literary epics and contemporary cinematic epics is a substantial part of the quest is the hero’s search for identity.  To be sure, there is some of this in literary epics, but not to the degree contemporary audiences expect and appreciate, though one can certainly argue overreliance on this element, and a focus on quirky characters is what helped make the second trilogy a pale imitation of the first.  Not only did audiences fail to care about some of the characters, they wanted to see them dead.  Little wonder it took so long to finish the three-trilogy cycle.  A return to the essential elements of true mythology–and several of the mythic characters essential to the mythos–Han Solo, Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, etc.–made the final trilogy viable.

Daisy Ridley’s Rey has become an iconic character.  Will she be the final Jedi?  Will see her in future Star Wars films?  The way is open.  I doubt Disney will abandon her.

The production values are up to the standards established largely by this series of movies.  Sets, costumes, props, make up, lighting, sound, and cinematography are first rate.  The usual oddities of the Star Wars universe, such as no apparent gravitational effects on persons or things, Storm Trooper armor that doesn’t protect them from common weapons, ships banking and turning in space as though there is atmosphere, audible explosions in space, and a variety of other violations of the laws of physics are present, but don’t matter.

As a student of swordsmanship, I’ve generally been amused at the histrionics of the actors with their “light sabers.”  Their actions are so broad and slow, their technique so crude, leaving themselves wide open to attack, it’s laughable to anyone skilled in fencing, but again, it doesn’t matter.  The audience has to be able to follow the action, and facial close ups for the straining combatants tell the story far more than great martial skill.  Most important is the strength of The Force in Rey, Kylo Ren and the other wielders of The Force.  This is why Rey, a slight woman, can best much larger and physically stronger men: The Force is with her in a big way, though there is much less dialogue about The Force in this movie than in perhaps any other.  But what makes Rey a compelling character is the force of her personality.  She’s a survivor, capable of facing and defeating temptation.

The movie finally answers the questions left hanging since the introduction of Rey: who is she?  Who are her parents, and why did they abandon her?  And why is The Force so strong in her?

There is little character development in this movie.  Rey grows and changes only in the service of the discovery of her identity.  She remains strong, caring, decent, and determined throughout.  The rest of the characters are static.  We care about them because they’re likeable people, people we’d like to have for friends, particularly in a fight, people who would drop everything to do the right thing and save the day.  Some of the characters, such as Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico are there because audiences expect them to be there.  Rose appears in a few scenes and has a few lines, but is in no way integral to the plot.

In previous review of the final trilogy–The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017)-I was less than kind about Adam Driver’s portrayal of Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Leia. In my first review I wrote:

Driver appears to be a long-haired, angst-ridden teenager more than the mystical evil enforcer of an evil organization. He doesn’t resemble his parents either.  Not remotely. Oh, he does evil things, to be sure, but I’m not sure of Abram’s choices with this character. I’ll have to wait for the rest of the trilogy to see if his vision is vindicated. There are–possibilities…

In the next:    

He is perhaps a little less the petulant teenaged dullard in this movie, but still can’t seem to muster the inherent evil that is supposed to embody his character. He does get one brief shirtless scene, but female fans will have to report on the appeal of that, or whether it’s evil.

Some will surely argue that’s the point; his evil is evolving, and some day–you just wait and see–he’ll be really evil, a new Vader, as the Supreme Leader taunts Ren. But for now, I find Driver wrong for the part, a casting error.

Let us put aside the fact that Kylo Ren does not, in the slightest, resemble either of his parents.  Perhaps it is familiarity with the role, combined with six years of maturation, that has made Adam Driver much more comfortable in the role.  One must not discount good direction either.  Like Rey, Ren has enormous temptation, and chooses…  Thought I might give that one away, didn’t you.  Sorry.  The run of the movie is still young, so no joy.  While his portrayal isn’t inspired, it’s much less stilted than in the first three movies.

Ultimately, the movie is about the triumph of good over evil, and redemption.  Several characters, finally, die, and that’s a good thing.  Not only do their deaths resolve long-hanging plot threads, their transitions are examples of redemption that vindicate values of self-sacrifice and willingness to put others first.  In what we might reasonably think of as selfish times, this fulfills ancient archetypes, and gives us hope for our time.

The iconic score and opening sequence have worn well indeed, and the volume of the music never overshadows the sparse dialogue.  The familiar musical themes are skillfully woven into the action, leading the viewer to feel precisely as the director intends at the right times.  Dialogue is not the point of this movie or of the saga.  It’s a means to an end, and the end is always action sequences, and they are indeed, to stretch an overused analogy one more time, epic.

Those expecting more of this movie are, again, missing the point.  The virtues of love, kindness, dedication, self-sacrifice, bravery, skill and recognizing and serving causes larger than oneself are the point.  JJ Abrams has returned, in large part, to the original formula, the millennia old formula of all great literary epics.  Evil is very evil and bad indeed, and good is very good indeed, and good wins.  Love wins, and Rey, like Odysseus, returns to where it all began and symbolically hangs up her guns, leaving the way clear for sequels–or not, but her quest for identity is over.  What she does with that knowledge is another question.

Some critics are upset the movie fulfilled the expectations of fans.  It carried on themes they expected from the past.  It was familiar.  This is, to them, somehow a bad thing.  This movie should be different, a stand alone not requiring any familiarity with the previous eight movies.  Critics, if they’re not just harping on screenwriter’s and director’s choices, things they would have done much better given the chance, are sometimes right.  Bad movies are bad movies and good critics can explain why.  This movie, however, defies them, or more accurately, audiences are defying them, and will continue to defy them.  Some critics hate the move.  Much of the audience just doesn’t agree, or care about what they think, and the profit generated is already making that point.

As this is written, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, has already cleared more than half a billion dollars, and will surely make much more.  This should not be surprising.  It is an exciting, entertaining movie, made with all the skill and expertise contemporary audiences have come to expect.  Long at two hours and 35 minutes–common in Star Wars movies–it rarely feels labored, and the constant action sequences move it along easily.  Most importantly, viewers leave the theater smiling.  It is worth seeing in the theater, and surely worth having on DVD.  One of the reasons viewers smile is the anticipation of that DVD.  This is a movie to be seen again and again.