Thoughts on Episode 9: Part One

Massive Spoilers Ahead…

                So, it took me more than a week, but I finally went to see Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker a second time. I considered writing a piece on what I thought of the movie right away, but I thought it would be smarter to wait a bit; to let the movie marinate in my mind and then when the juices were ready go see it again. Star Wars movies have a tendency to morph in my brain after the initial viewing. It’s embarrassing how important these films are to me, and I suppose that’s why my impressions change so much. I saw The Force Awakens and came out with a really mediocre feeling. Then when I saw it a second time, I was able to let go and enjoy the ride. If I recall correctly, it was the moment where Rey and Finn get on board the Millennium Falcon where I remembered how much fun the movie was despite its faults.

                Which brings me to this one. Yeah, J.J. Abrams has a lot of weaknesses as a Star Wars and Star Trek writer/director. The main one is a total ability to think through the world-building ramifications of his decisions. He solves minor problems in a plot by creating gigantic ones in the mythos. I mean, did he not think through what would happen to a Federation where characters could beam around the galaxy without a ship. Why have a Starfleet the way we know it? In Episode Seven, when Starkiller base fires at the Republic home world, characters all over the galaxy look up to the sky and watch it happen, some of them in broad daylight. I don’t even know what that is supposed to represent or in what world that makes any sense. It’s completely ridiculous to the point of being distracting. I’m not a stickler for scientific realism; I don’t want a space battle to be silent. But we do need things to be consistent enough to understand, and this gaffe took me out of the story. That’s a no-no.

                Abrams is bad at that sort of thing. But the man knows plot, characterization, and emotion. If we’re being honest that’s what you want out of a Star Wars movie. They aren’t science fiction, they’re space opera. Star Wars is the Iliad or the Mahabharata set in space. Family relationships, courage, and sacrifice are the important themes. On some level you have to let go of the expectation of realism. On that level, I was completely relieved to have Abrams back on board. I was only barely sub vocally thanking him throughout the film as I realized how much more satisfying his version of Star Wars is than Rian Johnson’s.

                There were a few good moments in Last Jedi; ones with emotional resonance. I thoroughly enjoyed the sequence where Rey and Kylo Ren turn on Snoke and fight the praetorian guards. It focused on what I cared about, which is the two main characters. They are the meat of the sequel trilogy story and the rest is frankly just window dressing. I know that Johnson is capable. The guy wrote for Breaking Bad for goodness sake. But I think something else was at play. It seems that he didn’t like Star Wars, which made him a bizarre choice to direct it. Of course, that was an apt criticism of J.J. when he helmed Star Trek. It seemed like he would have rather been directing a Star Wars movie and it showed.

                But Rian Johnson seemed determined to destroy much of what is fun about Star Wars and it was hard to watch. It also seemed that there were directives from his corporate masters to include elements in the story that were hard to justify. I know there is pressure to sell tickets in China, and that Star Wars has been getting hammered there, but the opening melodramatic sequence of Rose’s sister’s death seemed to be pandering to the point where it damaged the film. I was supposed to care about a character who was not only unknown to me, but whose sister was still unknown to me. That’s bad writing anywhere, and it’s inscrutably bad in a sequel that already has a stable of characters to draw on.

                I have to admit, it was a cringe-inducing to see Rose reduced so sharply in Episode Nine, especially in the face of the horrible backlash Kelly Marie Tran received after The Last Jedi. That was abominable and unforgiveable, and my heart really goes out to her. People truly suck sometimes. It was awkward to have her romance with Finn completely nixed in this movie, and the claims Abrams made that the reason to tone her down were the low quality of her scenes with Leia are bogus. The simple fact was that her character had no business in that movie, and it was a relief to see her take a backseat to the four central characters introduced in Episode Seven.

Those are the people I care about, and a writer has plenty to do in dealing with four characters. In the triumphant finale sequence (which owes major credit to Independence Day by the way) Poe, Finn, and Rey embrace. Friendship is one of the enduring themes of Star Wars (though it’s entirely missing in the prequels for some reason) and this is one of the best moments in the saga for that reasons. The characters look genuinely relieved and happy to see that they have all survived. John Boyega grates on me with a lot of high-pitched yelling in these movies, but he kills it in that scene for some reason. I’m not sure the original trilogy contained a single scene with the powerful emotion he shows there. Overall that’s true of the sequel trilogy. God help me for saying this, but the acting is superior. There is no one, other than the veteran British guys in Episode IV, who can hold a candle to Adam Driver in these movies. I love Harrison Ford, but he relies on charisma, not sheer acting chops.

Poe was hugely improved in this movie. Oscar Isaac had Ewan McGregor disease in the first two films; a great, charismatic actor who just isn’t being given the opportunity to shine. For one thing, he was taken out of the script of VII for most of the movie. I almost felt like Abrams didn’t know what to do with him. This time, he fills the Han Solo shoes better throughout the plot, acting as a sort of rogue with a checkered past. It’s an old trope, but it’s a fun one, and it worked here. Which brings me to Zorii Bliss (Felicity) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie). These are new characters, introduced only for this film, and my first thought was that we would be dealing with the same problems as with Admiral Holdo and Rose in VIII. But J.J. Abrams is better at this game. Both new characters have reasons to appear, they fit in seamlessly to the narrative, and they serve the purpose of fleshing out personalities we already care about. And not coincidentally, they are both powerful and female, which is a strength in a movie, not the weakness that Rian Johnson turned it into.

Last warning here, I’m going to talk about what happens in this movie, but then if you care what happens, why haven’t you seen it already? This is not one to catch at home or on a plane. As I said before, the best thing about Rise of Skywalker is the emotional notes. One silly moment, when Chewbacca finally gets a medal for his participation, caught me off guard. My kids didn’t notice, and when I turned to tell them what happened, I caught a major lump in my throat and had to shut up. On a similar note, how great was it when Wedge showed up? I thought Dennis Lawson had said he was bored with Star Wars and would never appear again, but there he was in the big fight against Thanos.

Yeah, I noticed it. That last fight was cribbed almost directly from Endgame. The moment where Poe realizes no one is coming to help him could be tracked right onto Captain America standing to face Thanos, knowing he is going to die. Then his commlink lights up and Lando says, “On your left.” Okay, not quite those words, but come on. Lando announces there are more of them than the empire, and you get a massive battle. There are ships from all over the Star Wars universe, like the Ghost from Rebels, and it’s fairly satisfying. There’s another turn in the battle, and a second comeback after Palpatine becomes flesh when Captain Marvel… I mean Rey, starts kicking Sith butt all over the map. It’s fairly satisfying, but it’s nothing like Endgame. I’m not sure anything is going to impact me ever again like the moment when Cap picks up Thor’s hammer. Or the moment when Black Panther and Spider-Man emerge through the wizard holes. That was Luke getting saved by Han over the first Death Star good.

To be Continued…

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