Here I go, throwing my hat into an already over-crowded ring. I’m also a little late to the party, obviously, but come on, movie tickets cost a fortune these days! But we finally saw The Rise of Skywalker the other night, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
Not necessarily in a good way.
Warning: spoilers ahoy. Also, opinions ahoy! Scores of them. All of them mine. I’m a human in the twenty-first century, so I know how much it can hurt when a piece of media you like gets criticized. For those of you who really liked Rise of Skywalker, I feel your pain. I wanted to like it so, so bad. To be honest, I enjoyed the experience of watching it. It was gripping and there were some things I really liked. But there were too many flaws to ignore, and as a self-proclaimed writer, it behooves me to talk about why I walked away so frustrated.
Disclaimer: It’s gonna sound like I’m pinning this all on J.J. Abrams, but I know there were a lot of other fingers in this pie and that ultimately it was probably the studio and money-related bullshit that really made this movie bad. But you can’t ignore that Abrams has a certain style of directing that works for some movies but not for others. Personally, I like most of his movies. His Star Trek is a personal favorite. But I digress.
“no scenes, just plot”
I’m stealing this point from the YouTube channel Just Write, who did a video criticizing the Rise of Skywalker that I watched after coming home from the theatre, head swimming with concerns. He makes a lot of solid points in that video, but this one really drove it home for me.
Basically, he argued that J.J. Abrams’ style of directing doesn’t leave any room for the story to breathe via scenes between characters. Instead, there’s so much action, so much plot, and so much fear of boring the audience that it actually has the ironic effect of becoming boring. Why? Because there’s very little character development and very little time for characters to react to situations beyond the superficial.
This is pretty consistent throughout the trilogy, actually. Though I couldn’t put a name to it at the time, looking back, it makes sense. I wondered why as much as I wanted to like Rey and to sympathize with her, I felt like she was two-dimensional. It’s because she was. Because she, as well as many of the other characters, have very few chances to interact with one another in ways that aren’t in service of the exposition or some witty repartee. And don’t get me wrong–I love witty repartee between characters and there’s some really fun moments of that in this movie, but you can’t substitute that for actual character development. And you can’t pretend like just because the Marvel movies made the witty banter work (most of the time), that you can replicate it for a franchise that is so tonally different.
This movie suffered from lack of character development mostly because it was so focused on getting the characters from point A to point B, getting those MacGuffins, and getting on to the big, bad final battle. Big, emotional moments like Chewy “dying” didn’t have the impact or causality that they should. Not only should it have impacted the characters more, but Rey’s lightning hands should’ve been a point of conversation at the least. Instead, it’s kind of glossed over because all it’s there to do is to hint at what will inevitably be the worst reveal of the movie: her parentage.
Even Leia’s death felt rushed and unremarkable because it was on to the next thing before anyone could really grieve. Even more disappointing, Leia, the cornerstone of this trilogy and Kylo Ren’s biggest soft spot, doesn’t even get one last, transformative conversation with her troubled son. All she gets to say is “Ben” and then she dies. It feels so cheap and rushed that not only do I feel like Leia got gipped but so did Ben. It makes the rest of his redemption seem tacky in ways that really pissed me off because I wanted a redemption arc so fucking bad. But you know what they say…
be careful what you wish for
Listen, let me just preface by saying that I don’t participate in the Star Wars fandom. I don’t pay attention to the ships, the headcanons, or what have you. But it’s come to my attention that perhaps I wasn’t the only one who a) shipped Kylo Ren and Rey and b) wanted to see Kylo redeemed in the last movie. But from what I watched and read, the main reason any of that actually happened in the movie was fan service. Which makes me totally regret wishing for it.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, but from what I remember, both of them set Kylo Ren up to be an extremely conflicted, tormented, misguided character. However, because of his lineage and his backstory, you could kind of understand why he was the way he was, and the movies seemed to want you to sympathize with him.
Say what you will, but I found him to be the most compelling character in the trilogy because of his intense internal conflict, even though at points (especially in The Last Jedi) it feels like he’s gone full dark side. I actually liked the sort of pouty, emo-teenager vibe that Kylo Ren gave off in the first two movies because it showed that he wasn’t a stable character, that he was “going through some stuff” for lack of a better phrase. It made me think he was capable of change. And at times it was so ridiculous (thinking specifically of his temper tantrum scene from Last Jedi) that you just knew this guy had some development ahead of him, one way or the other.
The connection between him and Rey was compelling, too. I had hoped it would mean something important for Rise of Skywalker. I was cool with romance as long as it made sense, but most of all, I wanted to see them united. Most most of all, I wanted to see them balance out the Force. Instead of one side decimating the other, I wanted to see the two sides meet in the middle.
Kylo and Rey were foils of each other, that much was pretty clear. And when it became clear in the Last Jedi that a) there was a connection between them and b) Luke had given up on the Jedis, I thought, “Luke finally realized the one thing that they hint at throughout the series but never fully address: that even though the Jedi are good, they are extreme good to the point of imbalance.” Hear me out. I haven’t done any research into the deep lore or anything; this is all coming from things I’ve picked up from the movies and through cultural osmosis.
The prequel trilogy really explores the flaws of the Jedi order in ways that I found really interesting–once I realized that they were basically a religion, everything made sense. Sure, their intentions were good, but as we saw with Anakin Skywalker, there was a sense that instead of facing your flaws and your humanity, you just needed to repress it in service of the Jedi code.
It reminded me of how in X-Men (keeping in mind that my only frame of reference is the movies and X-Men: Evolution, so maybe the comics differ), even though Professor X is a good guy, his way of dealing with threats like the Pheonix Force is to suppress them and keep it secret instead of teaching those most affected how to properly deal with it. Morally, it’s a complicated thing, but I think you get the idea: repression of the bad does not get rid of the bad. It really just makes it worse.
What I thought–rather, what I hoped–the new trilogy would do (especially after The Last Jedi) is explore this theme of moral extremism and lead the characters (i.e., Rey and Kylo) to realize that either side is harmful in its extreme form, and that the only way to succeed is to find balance between the dark and light sides of the force. A little yin-yang action, if you will. And I hoped that for the characters, this would mean coming together and drawing upon each other’s strengths while covering for the other’s weaknesses. And if love happens to be a motivating factor, too, then great. It would be cool to see a power couple in the Star Wars universe who both use the Force and whose unity relies a great deal on their ability to balance each other out.
But that’s not really what we get. No, not a wit. What we get is a very rushed redemption arc for Kylo that is prompted (mostly?) by his mother’s death. The scene where he talks to Han Solo’s… ghost?… is touching but also undermined by the fact that Kylo is still the one who killed him. I’m not saying that makes Kylo irredeemable, I’m saying that I think that scene was supposed to feel like closure, but it didn’t really. We’d never seen Kylo haunted by his father’s ghost/memory before, and even though it’s implied that he felt guilty for killing him, his way of dealing with it in Last Jedi is to just sink deeper into the dark side. Correct me if I’m wrong–like I said, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the other two movies.
And then there was the romantic aspect. Ah yes, the kiss. I wanted to like it. The fangirl in me liked it. But the writer in me was like, “Mm, nope, that’s not right.” Mostly because, as better critics than me have pointed out, it felt like fan service. It didn’t feel earned. Kylo’s redemption arc didn’t feel earned. Mostly because it was so rushed and under-developed. It felt like caving in and eating dessert after one day on a diet. Yeah, I got what I wanted, and it felt good, but did I really deserve it? No, because I didn’t put in the effort. Ben and Rey’s kiss was nothing more than a premature dessert.
AND THEN HE DIED.
That bothered me to no end. Why? Because it was a cop-out, that’s why. I guess you could argue that he became one with the Force, he’d found peace, etc., but no. I won’t accept it. We’d just gotten to meet Ben Solo, really, and then he was gone just like that? That’s so freaking lame! All this build-up towards his redemption, and then he just dies. There are situations where that would feel right, but to me, it didn’t this time. It felt like it had to happen because that’s what had happened to Darth Vader. Kylo Ren was basically just another Darth Vader, which leads into another, bigger problem with this movie: it basically follows the same trajectory as Return of the Jedi. But that’s a big ol’ can of worms and I’ve got other fish to fry.
jumping to conclusions
I really need to wrap this up, but now I can see why a lot of the YouTube reviews I’ve seen are like an hour or more long. (Jenny Nicholson’s, in particular, is pretty spot-on but it’s a time commitment.) There’s a lot to criticize, which is sad, because I think even someone like me who’s a softcore Star Wars fan went in really excited and with high hopes for this movie. It’s one thing to go into a movie with a blank slate and it be a bad movie; it’s quite another to have high expectations that then get squashed beneath the big, ugly foot of disappointment.
The last thing I feel the need to rant about is Palpatine. Not only Palpatine being Rey’s grandfather (which was dumb in and of itself for reasons I don’t have the space to get into), but just Palpatine coming back in general. Palpatine, really?! REALLY?! You couldn’t think of anything better??? You couldn’t structure the story around some new villain instead of psyching us out with Snoke (who was so lame, by the way) and then bringing back a villain who’s death meant so much in Return of the Jedi? But that’s just the thing, perhaps the fatal flaw in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: they rely too heavily on the nostalgia of the previous movies.
The reason they brought back Palpatine is not because it made sense, but because it was familiar. And as this Collider article so elegantly states it, the movie expected the audience’s investment in Palpatine to carry over to this movie when, in reality, it cheapened and sullied the character by bringing him back. The audience was done with Palpatine. He had his day. It felt like he’d come out of retirement after everyone already threw him a party and moved on and now they were like, “Oh, you’re back? Okay, I guess.” He also just felt like a shell of his former self, which was lame (though the actor did pretty great. In fact, I’ll give props to most of the acting in this movie: they really poured their hearts into it. It’s a shame the writers didn’t follow suit).
Also, how much more thematic sense would it have made for Ben to kill him instead of Rey killing him with his… own… lightning? Also, (as Jenny Nicholson points out) couldn’t she have killed him out of love for her friends instead of out of hatred and totally defeated him that way (which would’ve also come full-circle thematically)? Also, since when does a relative killing a Sith automatically transfer the Sith power to them, since that never seemed to be the case before? Also, Force healing is a thing? ALSO…
Okay, I could keep going, but I need to stop. But if you have thoughts of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments. If you disagree with me on any of these points, feel free to have a civil debate. Remember that these are all my opinions, but in my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to think badly of this movie. It actually gave me a weird stomachache the next day every time I thought about it. Almost like a feeling of grief? Yikes. That’s pretty bizarre.
Image courtesy of bgr.com, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t belong to either of us