Pandemic commissions: The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve had multiple requests for reviews of The Last Jedi, though my mate Bojan (an absurdly gifted Baroque violinist, lecturer at the RCM, and husband to Esther) got in there first. Seeing as the sequel trilogy is its own entity, I’ve decided to review them all together.

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I’d already seen The Force Awakens (or, as my housemate Joe and I kept cacklingly calling it, The Force Wakes Up) and already thought it makes a great, great start to the sequel trilogy. A rewatch didn’t change my mind on that. What’s always interested me about the Star Wars universe is the fact that, although so many spinoffs in so many different formats exist—comic books, novelizations, fanfic, extra TV shows like Clone Wars and The Mandalorian—the original movies don’t strike me as being particularly interested in that kind of elaboration. Maybe that’s exactly why it happened, because they provided a universe with a million different environments and possibilities, then demonstrated interest in virtually none of them: the original trilogy’s vaunted failure to  provide any world-building detail about economies, religions, day-to-day lives, left a vacuum that fandom (and the franchise itself, in many cases) has rushed to fill.

All of which is to say that maybe that’s why The Force Awakens has such charm. It feels like the official big proper Star War films are actually now being made by someone who’s really interested and invested in the questions that the original films raised. What’s it like being a stormtrooper? What if you don’t fancy it anymore? Does PTSD exist in this universe? What has it been like living in the literal ruins of the Empire? Who got—figuratively and literally—left behind? The film at least acknowledges those questions.

Daisey Ridley as Rey is a major asset to this film, as are all of the major players. Disney’s primary takeaway from the prequel trilogy, luckily, appears to have been “Cast people who can act”, which is a nice change from the Portman/Christensen dynamic. Ridley projects exactly the kind of wounded strength that a person develops when they’ve had to fend for themselves for a very long time, but there’s no cynicism at all in her; she believes in the Resistance, and in the efficacy of hope. This makes her an extremely effective foil to Kylo Ren, who is a child of privilege and has never been raised to doubt the love of his family and the security of his place in the world, yet whose seduction by the Dark Side is presented, quite disingenuously, as some kind of inevitable, heritable trait. The choice of Adam Driver for this role grew on me, a lot; he’s got that slightly unhealthy look and flat affect that seems to characterize incels, active shooters, white supremacists and so on, all of whom—@ me if you please—are real-life models of Kylo’s whiny/murderous behavioural complex. More pleasingly, John Boyega as deserting stormtrooper Finn and Oscar Isaac as sexy flyboy Poe are both wonderful (Boyega makes me laugh out loud and want to hug him in every single scene he’s in), and they have such great chemistry with each other that I spent most of their escape scene wishing they would kiss. It’s a shame the film doesn’t spend more time on Finn, to be honest; his premise is so good, but is never explored on the emotional level it has the potential for. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher both deliver magnificently, feeding nostalgia without pandering to it.

The film falls down most heavily when it comes to villainy. Supreme Leader Snoke? The “First Order”? Bitch, please. None of it makes sense, not philosophically, not narratively, not geopolitically. The fact that at some point in a planning meeting, someone clearly asked “What’s scarier than the Death Star?”, someone else answered “A bigger Death Star!”, and everyone around that table nodded their heads, is also unfortunate. It is, however, also not surprising, because the Star Wars franchise has never been able to create a coherent moral framework, or even conceive of one. It is not interested in the nature of good and evil. The bad people are bad because they are bad. The good people are good because they are just naturally better at being good. It’s completely circular, it makes no sense and never has, and it’s the sequel trilogy’s greatest obstacle. Having defeated mega-evil in the original trilogy, having failed to nurture an audience’s sense of how evil develops, and faced with the prospect of needing a new form of evil for the sequels, the filmmakers are forced to rehash old ground. It’s a shame in a movie that’s otherwise so exciting, fresh, funny, and above all, not self-serious.

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The acting continues to be top-notch in The Last Jedi, with the notable exception of Mark Hamill, who at this point is more famous for being a not-very-good actor than anything else, so at least that feels pretty consistent with the original trilogy. The training sequences on Ahch-To between Luke and Rey are both fun callbacks to Luke’s training montage, and a genuinely exciting expansion of the way the films have historically talked about the Force—which is to say, very little. When Luke explains to Rey what the Force isn’t (a magic power) and what it is (energy that binds all objects in the universe, living and inert, and that can be manipulated), it feels like the most serious attention any of these movies so far has paid to the conceit that holds them all together. The sets for Ahch-To, which was filmed on the remote Irish island of Skellig Michael, are seriously stunning, and it also provides two of my favourite comic relief creatures: the porgs (DADDY, I WANT AN OOMPA-LOOMPA), and the weird mute fish nuns who seem to spend all their time doing Luke’s laundry. Both are excellent additions. Also, the introduction of Kelly Marie Tran as awkward mechanic Rose is a delight, one of the few moments that properly surprised and intrigued me, that felt really original.

The big thing about The Last Jedi, though, is the way it reveals (or supposedly reveals) Rey to be a nobody; her parentage has been in question for the better part of two films, because of her unusually strong Force abilities, but Kylo Ren tells her, in a moment of pique, that her parents were no one and she comes from nowhere special. Even in the moment, I assumed this would be walked back in The Rise of Skywalker—if they can do wrong by Rose, we’re now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where every supposedly irreversible plot twist is just another stick with which to emotionally abuse the audience when it turns out to be, in fact, highly reversible—but if it had been respected, I would have had a lot of good things to say about this choice. It would have suggested that the franchise that has been obsessed with heredity and close-knit elite family connections since day one is opening up, but of course this is not to be. The closest it gets to emotional complexity, as before, is by making Rey deeply invested in Kylo’s salvation, an investment mainly demonstrated to the audience by their scenes of mutual extended telepathy, or, as my boyfriend called it, “Force FaceTime phone sex”. Since Kylo in this film is not just bad, but actively makes choices to abuse the increased power he gains, and since Rey’s virtue as a character is based on her choice not to use her power for genocidal, murderous purposes, it is at best frustrating, at worst deeply disingenuous, to establish Rey’s good opinion as being key to Kylo’s redemption. She, after all, was abandoned as a child and grew up frightened and alone, and yet she does not need anyone to hold her hand in order to make choices with basic decency—as, indeed, most of us do not. If it is necessary to trick someone into goodness by bombarding them with assertions of their potential for it, despite evidence to the contrary, their problem is not that they are simply misunderstood.

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I must confess that The Rise of Skywalker lost me. I mean, I watched the whole thing, and paid attention, mostly, but it’s much longer and, unfortunately, much less self-aware than the first two installments. Therefore, the most I can really do is comment on the bits I remember, and most of those, I regret to say, aren’t very good.

Rey’s increasing attraction to the Dark Side manifests in her increasing willingness to use the Force to get results when she’s impatient. The revelation of Rey’s ancestry is both unsurprising and infuriating. There are heavy hints that the “nothingness” of her parentage previously established is, in fact, not the whole story. Given what we know about the films’ obsession with heredity, it’s clear she must be related to someone we’ve already met; Leia is out (we’d absolutely know if she and Han had had another child, plus that would mean Rey’s interest in Kylo was actually incestuous, and I think we can all agree that even the hint of incest is something we’re happy to leave in the ’70s). Luke is out (he never had a viable love interest and has clearly remained celibate since the fall of the Empire), and Lando only shows up in this movie, so the only possible option is Palpatine—which is also stupid, because Palpatine as a character is neither sexual nor romantic and there’s never been the slightest indication that he’s had a spouse or partner, not even in order to promulgate his own dynasty; in fact, Palpatine is characteristically disinterested in having a dynasty, because he never had any intention of dying. (His return from the dead is one of the stupider parts of an already quite stupid movie, on a par with “bigger Death Star!” from The Force Awakens.)

The fallen Death Star, by the way, is also one of the stupider parts. The thing explodes in A New Hope; it does not fall from the sky. It fucking supernovas. How, therefore, is it possible for a huge and recognizable chunk of it to be protruding from a tempestuous ocean? The answer, of course, is that it needs to be there in order to Look Awesome and for Rey and Kylo to have a semi-climactic showdown in its ruins, for reasons of Heavy-Handed Symbolism. It’s a good fight, to be fair. Rey’s fatal wounding of Kylo is the proof of what we’ve always known—that she’s a much better fighter than he is—and her choice to bring him back to life, proof that she’s a much better person than he is. She can’t bring herself to be a murderer, not even of someone who would seem to richly deserve it; she can’t stoop to Kylo’s level.

A more concretely terrible development is the diminution of Rose’s role. I had been vaguely aware that racist bullying after The Last Jedi had pushed Kelly Marie Tran off of social media, and had had some effect on The Rise of Skywalker but I’d assumed it was very much of the “asshats gonna asshat” variety. Obviously, all bullying is, but it’s equally obvious that the filmmakers took one look at the roiling shitstorm online and decided they’d have easier lives if they virtually cut Rose out altogether. Presumably, Tran had signed a contract for two movies and they couldn’t just delete her, but the early potential of Rose’s relationship with Finn and her charming, clumsy courage has been shoved so far into the background, she’s really not in this. She gets a line, maybe two, that could have been spoken by any random background character, and our main trio never talk to or about her again. Given how hard the earlier film was pushing Rose and Finn’s storyline, the backpedaling here is glaring, and shameful.

The rest of it—all the Resistance stuff—is quite frankly filler, and there’s too much of it. The showdown on the Sith planet (Exegol, which sounds like one of those minor northern countries from Lord of the Rings) makes a good stab at creepiness, with all those hooded Sith minions chanting in darkness and the terrifying glow of Palpatine’s yellow eyes under his cowl, but really it’s all a bit much. And Rey killing Palpatine is okay when she does it with the help of the whole history of the Jedi behind her, but it would have made her evil to do it when he invited her to? I’m sure it makes some sort of sense if you squint. Meanwhile, it turns out Finn is Force-sensitive but absolutely nothing is made of it, Poe does a sexy nod at his bounty hunter girlfriend but they don’t actually get together, and somewhere in the background, Rose gets a hug from a Wookiee, while Lando and the only other black character in the film trade warm quips. I mean, it’s all right, I suppose. Better than the prequels. But the whole sequel trilogy is a downward slide, really.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here. Or, if there’s another film you want to commission, message me directly (or drop a line in the comments) and we can discuss it.

9 thoughts on “Pandemic commissions: The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker

  1. This was really fun to read! The amount of backpedaling in The Rise of Skywalker is so frustrating, especially since The Last Jedi felt like the first Star Wars film to genuinely challenge conventions and preconceived ideas about the series to push for something fresh.

  2. I felt exactly the same way about Finn. He’s one of those characters that’s just so lovely I wanted to ship him with everyone (couldn’t decide whether I wanted Finn/Po or Finn/Rey more).

    I’m so sorry to hear about Rose – that’s awful. I loved her character. This sounds a bit morbid, but I also really appreciated that her sister got to die in a way that is usually reserved for a Heroic White Man.

    • There was a moment where I thought Finn/Rey, but he’s too squishy for her, I think. He and Poe would do just fine together.

      The Rose thing is appalling. Her sister’s death is brilliant, though: really courageous without being superhuman—she’s clearly terrified, but she does The Right Thing without hesitation.

      • I think the two characters develop on different trajectories – I really thought they were going for Finn/Rey in the first film but then they grow away from each other. It’s a shame, I liked ForceAwakens!Rey more. But Finn/Poe would also be excellent.

  3. Having seen the original trilogy when it first came out, plus the one with Jar Jar Binks – can’t remember its number, I have no inclination to see anything else in the Star Wars universe ever, even after your great write-ups. I remain at heart a Star Trek fan! 😀

    • Star Trek is a very different beast, and I think a more thoughtful, interesting and intellectual one! It’s just hard to get hold of it all on the Internet, and I can’t keep track of the different series; otherwise I think I’d make a concerted effort to watch it! I used to catch reruns on the Syfy channel at uni and always really liked it.

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