Sunday, 22 December 2019

On 22.12.19 by KieronMoore in ,    3 comments

[This review contains spoilers. If you want a spoiler-free review, there are enough out there.]

In 2015, when the popular opinion of the Star Wars franchise was that the prequels had forgotten the fun, action adventure feel of the original movies, JJ Abrams was the right choice of director to bring it back. The Force Awakens was a whistle-stop tour of what we used to love about Star Wars, and the fact that some plot elements were very much a replica of those from A New Hope was outweighed by the new perspectives added onto this plot by charming new characters, and by the energy which Abrams injected into every scene.

But then The Last Jedi upped the game, keeping the same charm but twisting it into something new. Its writer/director Rian Johnson recognised that, if the sequel trilogy stayed reverent to the originals, like so much of our nostalgia-fuelled pop culture, the trilogy would fall flat, and so made a point of not doing that. He pushed those characters in new directions and gave us us a more thoughtful film, twisting The Force Awakens’ best idea – that Luke Skywalker and the Jedi had become myths in the Star Wars galaxy, reflective of the characters’ beloved status in our culture – with the most daring theme of any Star Wars: nostalgia and myths can be dangerous; question your heroes; "we are what they grow beyond.”

In my opinion, it was the best Star Wars film to date. Some people didn’t agree. Which is fine. Opinions will vary. But some people really didn’t like it, seeing the way it refused to be adoring of every aspect of Star Wars iconography as a betrayal of the franchise. The backlash expanded from fair criticism into bullying. Two of the film’s stars were hounded off social media by the most toxic, outspoken elements of fandom. It became difficult to have a fair discussion around this film without getting bogged down in the pervasive nastiness.

When it came to the final instalment of the sequel trilogy, Disney and JJ Abrams, at the helm once more, had a choice – stick to their guns, or fall back. 

The Rise of Skywalker falls back, and then some. It’s a regressive movie, both in ideas and execution.

Rey’s arc began in The Force Awakens by centring on how her desire to know about her parents dominated her search for personal identity (to the point of holding her back – she initially refused a place on the Millennium Falcon’s crew so she could go back to Jakku and await them). This was playing into one of the more conservative aspects of Star Wars – an equating of parentage with destiny. Luke’s fate being determined by his Skywalker bloodline was such a large part of the original films that the release of the first two sequels was surrounded by endless, dull theories about who Rey’s parents were. Is she a Skywalker, a Solo, a Kenobi, a Palpatine? My thought about all this was – who cares? And that’s why I loved the twist in The Last Jedi. It’s who she is that matters, not who her parents are. Someone playing an important role in the galactic saga because it’s their familial destiny to do so is the equivalent of someone becoming Prime Minister because their parents’ mates in the House of Lords and their teachers at Eton always told them they were going to; I’m much more interested in the story of someone who comes from nothing, makes the choice to join the fight, and creates their own destiny. 

But the theorists weren’t happy about that twist. They weren’t happy about the film daring to go against the unspoken rules of Star Wars and surprise them with a revelation that didn’t fit their carefully plotted theories. And so The Rise of Skywalker gives in, pulling right back. Rey is, via a half-arsed retread of The Empire Strikes Back’s big moment, a Palpatine now.

Maybe not liking the twist is a matter of opinion, though. Maybe for some, particularly those who didn’t like The Last Jedi, Rey (pictured above) being the Emperor’s granddaughter is a neat reveal, bringing the themes of the saga full circle. But even if you do like the idea, I don’t see how anyone can defend the execution – Kylo casually saying “oh yeah, I was lying in the last film.” The backtracking is excruciatingly palpable.

I do think there’s some merit to the idea of Rey flirting with the dark side in this final instalment. Having failed to turn Kylo to the light and with her master Luke dead, Rey doing whatever it takes to win, and being lured via Palpatine’s schemes into making bad decisions, is an interesting way to move her arc forward. But this potential story gets lost among the baggage of her being his granddaughter, which deviates the film away from any possible point about what makes people commit evil. (And again, the whole thing is so clumsily done; a lowlight for me is when she thinks she’s killed Chewbacca, then it turns out she didn’t, and the explanation is “oh, maybe it was a different transport”, despite the fact that there clearly was only one transport.)

Kylo Ren’s arc is just as poorly compromised. In The Force Awakens, he was on his way down to the dark side, but consumed by inner conflict, hesitant when it came to killing his father. In The Last Jedi, Rey became obsessed with whether she could redeem him, as Luke redeemed Vader. This dynamic took up much of that film, with a fascinating back and forth, exploring the potential for his redemption from various angles and even very nearly seeing Rey succeed, before she was given the answer: no. He’s gone too far. The film ended with him undeniably evil.

We have to remember that this character is a fascist, at the same time that, in the real world, the far right is on the rise again in many countries. Yes, I know, I’m making the silly space movie political, but all art reflects the culture that produces it, and this comes at a time when we have to ask ourselves questions about whether we stand up to fascism or placate it and hope it goes away (clue: it doesn’t). Kylo Ren is an alt-right kid. He’s also a school shooter; he massacred his class. He is, as of the end of The Last Jedi, evil.

And the first half of The Rise of Skywalker backs this up. He’s slaughtering his way across the galaxy, determined to collate his power and to wipe out the Resistance heroes who oppose him. He’s evil, evil, evil. Rey seems no longer concerned with redeeming him but with finding a way to stop him. 

And then his mum reaches out to him through the Force, he gets injured, healed, and suddenly he’s good. Wait, what? It’s all so sudden, over and done in a scene. Like with Rey, even if you like the idea of a redemption arc – and I don’t – you can’t deny the clumsy execution.

“This is so stupid,” I thought while watching it, “they might as well go for broke and have Rey and Kylo make out.”

For fuck’s sake.

Speaking of Kylo’s mum, the use of previously shot footage to fit in Leia is awkward, but I can forgive that – the filmmakers making the best of an unfortunate situation. But I can’t forgive the awful death scene, as arbitrary and half-arsed a part of Leia’s arc as it is Kylo’s. I found it hilarious how everyone accepted her death without question. 

The scene goes like this:

Poe: I need to talk to the General.
Conspicuously lesbian rebel: Poe... she’s gone.
Poe: Oh, that’s sad, but OK.

When it should have been:

Poe: I need to talk to the General.
Lesbian: Poe... she’s gone.
Poe: Huh? Where?
Lesbian: No, I mean, she’s dead.
Poe: Dead? How?
Lesbian: I don’t know, I just left her for a minute and then when I came back she was lying there. Must have fallen over or something.
Poe: Fucking hell, do we not have any doctors? How did you idiots let this happen?
Lesbian: I’m sorry, I only left to call my wife and – 
Poe: Your what?
Lesbian: Oops.
Poe: You know you’re not meant to actually mention her. Get back to the background of shot.
JJ Abrams: This film has LGBT representation.

Anyway. At least Rey and Kylo, and to a lesser extent Leia, get to be characters

Poe and Finn had charm and promise in The Force Awakens and grew new layers in The Last Jedi. Here, they’re little more than toy soldiers, bumbling through the plot making ‘witty’ comments, as are the rest of the figures who pop in to do their bit. Lando is here for the sole purpose of Lando being here, in a role in which he doesn’t do anything distinctly Lando-ish and could have been swapped out for any other character. Hux’s change of side is another bonkers consequence of putting superficial tropes over letting characters drive the plot, a far cry from the devout believer in his neo-Imperial cause who we met in The Force Awakens screaming from his Nuremberg-esque platform about the sins of the Republic. Rose Tico is an extra.

These characters are thrown from set piece to set piece as the plot regurgitates the highlights of previous Star Wars films; as Abrams did in The Force Awakens, yes, but this is no longer enough. He even retreads his own effort, with half the film taken up by the search for a MacGuffin that will lead the way to a hidden planet, just like the map to Luke Skywalker. Then we have a loose retread of Return of the Jedi’s climax, with a lot of spaceships thrown in from Abrams’ toy box and the whole galaxy suddenly deciding it would be a good idea to liberate itself (in The Last Jedi, no one answered the call for help; here, Chewie and Lando do a quick whip-round and every planet decides to simultaneously commit all its forces to the Battle of Exegol and rise up against the First Order locally... where to start with that one?).

But it’s the final scene on Tatooine which sums up how nostalgia – and remember how ‘nostalgia can be dangerous’ was the theme of The Last Jedi? – is this film’s downfall. It’s regressive in how it takes us back to a location from the original film to please fans rather than for any obvious story reason, and regressive in how it brings Rey back to where she started, where The Force Awakens told us she needed to get away from – alone on a desert planet – all her character development, finding her place and her friends among the Resistance, for nothing. Rian Johnson knew this franchise needed to move on; JJ Abrams pulls it right back.

There are some small things I liked... Babu Frik is delightful. C-3PO gets a few good bits. The reveal of Snoke’s origin makes narrative sense and is handled efficiently. And the line “It’s not a navy, it’s just... people” is powerful. Though even that hurts because it hints at a potentially much better film, one that not only has some kind of grasp of what’s going on in this galaxy but also properly explores what makes people either give in to or resist oppressors, rather than just faffing around on the surface.

This is a bad movie. It’s a movie in which someone turning down sex with Oscar Isaac doesn’t even make the top ten list of biggest nonsenses. The prequel movies may have been horribly flawed in execution, but at least they had ideas, a story to tell. 

It’s a gut punch. It’s not just a bad film, it’s a disastrous film, a victory of style over substance except without any style. But more than that, it’s a victory of commerce over art, another victory for the bullies in a decade where the bullies keep on winning, a loss for a franchise supposedly centred on hope at a time when we have little.

Still, at least The Mandalorian is good. Ahem... so I hear.