Film Review: Star Wars Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (Spoilers!)

"No one is ever really gone" - Luke

"Great idea!" - J.J. 

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (TROS) – the final film of the Skywalker Saga begun by George Lucas 42 years ago – is also the worst reviewed since  Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The tepid response makes sense: the movie is, at first look, a misshapen hot mess that seems to awkwardly retcon some of the inspired narrative risks taken by Rian Johnson’s superior Episode XIII, while also failing to follow through on some of the inklings of inspiration of its own.  It fails to bring out the most interesting possibilities of many of its characters or the saga's mythopoetic potential, contains moments of infantilizing fan service, and seems more confusingly edited than necessary, even with the constraints of a deceased lead it pays tribute to. And yet, despite eye-rolling with some key creative decisions, it is never boring, and there are some magnificent moments that hint at the artistry of Lucas's best efforts, even if it quickly retreats to mere bombastic entertainment. At the same time, there is just enough of an attempt at thoughtful philosophical follow-through on Lucas's often misunderstood and deeply layered original six-film vision to be worthy of repeat viewings.  There’s just so much in TROS, which means there’s just so much to talk about.

The great creative challenge of this installment, far more than the exaggerated narrative dilemmas posed by Rian Johnson’s surprises in The Last Jedi, was the tragic death of Carrie Fisher before the film was written.  As is well known, this final story was supposed to be Leia’s movie in the same way The Force Awakens was Han’s and The Last Jedi was Luke’s, and according to Todd Fisher there were fabulous ideas for how Leia Organa would come into her own as a lightsaber-wielding Jedi and help drive the plot over her son’s potential turn back to the light. Carrie Fisher endured a hero's journey of her own, as she battled the deep dark of mental illness while also serving as an example to millions of how to emerge from Hell and again sparkle among the stars. With the hard-won boons she bestowed upon us all, she was beloved in a way few ever achieve, and her struggle resonated particularly with fellow creatives, particularly women and especially me, who became Star Wars fans primarily because of her.  To all fans, but particularly those fans, handling the death of Carrie Fisher and finishing the arc of Leia Organa was a priority of this film. And, I'm pleased to say, it was a task that returning director J.J. Abrams took seriously, and J.J. even tells a mystical-force like story of synchronistic after-death “messages” from Carrie as he discovered the unused Force Awakens footage and built the first half of the film around it. This, somehow, in Star Wars tradition against the longest of odds, is still Leia's movie.  That means something.

Leia's arc is far from perfect, but if you agree to meet the film halfway, it works as well as could be hoped. It begins with Leia continuing the training of Rey as a mother figure/Jedi master, and then sacrificing herself by using the last of her energy to send her mother's love and Han's healing memory to Kylo-Ren/Ben, triggering his long agonized-over turn back to the light. The resistance characters, in turn, all fight for Leia's memory, and when Chewbacca learns of her death his wail of pain is a rare emotional gut-punch in a film that too often fails to emotionally land.

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Additionally, in the George Lucas
"ring cycle" tradition (in which his original 6 films reference and echo each other in poetic ways), this final episode does make an attempt to form a circle with a first. In Leia's case, this is most prominent with Rey's tearful goodbye to her mother-figure/"Master" echoing Anakin's traumatic parting from his enslaved mother, Shmi Skywalker, in Episode 1 (a trauma that helps trigger his turn to the dark side). That ring is closed at the end of the film, when Leia uses the force to send a loving-connection to her son, setting him on the path back to the light - the mythological structure is still honored. And given everything, and despite a resulting eerieness and spark-lacking passivity in the digitally altered performance on-screen (Carrie Fisher might have jokingly called herself a Disney Zombie), the film mostly does right by Leia, and while flawed in many other ways that core achievement not only adds a touch of interesting strangeness (the Leia scenes, while welcome, *are* weird) but also helps the film earn my benefit of the doubt in other matters. And it needs it.
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From I's "Don't look back" to IX's "The Dead Speak!"

The first lines of Episode IX's opening crawl are now infamous: "The Dead Speak!" The text then reveals the return from the dead of Ian McDiarmid's grandly manipulative Emperor Palpatine, as he tells Adam Driver's Kylo-Ren "I have been every voice you have ever heard inside your head." (This, in effect, is another ring-like link back to Palpatine's more sly manipulation of events in his introduction in The Phantom Menace.)

But "the dead speak" turns out to have many meanings - not just literally in the form of a voice broadcast (echoing his "phantom menace" hologram broadcasts) from the deceased Emperor, but in the form of Carrie Fisher's uncanny performance, the return of several Force Ghosts (like Luke) and speaking dead "memories" (Han Solo), the voices of long-dead Jedi who encourage Rey at her lowest moment, and even characters in the film (like Rey & Chewbacca) who die (or appear to) and then return to life to speak again. As a result, the film is less a memorial or tribute as much as it is an overcrowded seance. The dead are everywhere and time becomes circular as the string of 9 films form a ring and all their stories converge in the final faceoff, observed by the spectral audience of the slain.

In the concluding showdown between Rey, Ben, and Palpatine on Exegol, as Palpatine attempts to manipulate Rey with politics as he once did a naive and idealistic Queen Amidala, Palpatine claims to be "all the Sith" (who chant ominously in dark robes) as Rey channels "all the Jedi" (as their voice cameos support her from the stars). They are individuals speaking and standing for a great many dead and a great many sagas, from the dark and the light, vehicles of the cosmic force of fate that Lucas himself differentiated from the
"living force" as pertaining to the mysterious power of destiny.  
The climax might seem complicated between The Emperor, Rey, and Ben, but it fairly successfully distills Lucas's original spiritual vision of the meaning of Star Wars, and The Force. As Lucas told Bill Moyers in 1999:
Those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion—of not thinking of yourself all the time. These are the two sides—the good force and the bad force. They’re the simplest parts of a complex cosmic construction. 
So when Rey and Ben Solo's sacrificial compassion triumphs over Palpatine's greed, and then Rey buries Luke and Leia's lightsabers on Tatooine, adopts the name "Rey Skywalker" and sees her Force Ghost Skywalker "parents" look on lovingly, it does feel intended as a final, final reckoning, like this trilogy of trilogies has brought the prophesized balance to the force at last. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis - Revenge, Return, and Rise. The back and forth is over, transcended. A Skywalker.

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Or maybe not. 

Many complained about death being made "meaningless" in this film and thus lowering the stakes, and while the Emperor's return is awkward in terms of how it changes Anakin's redemption story in retrospect, it is also true that death is not the worst possible outcome in Star Wars (or in life). To me, the return of the dead clarified the stakes here are not about survival; they are about the state of one's soul and with one's choice to align, or not, with the cosmic force of destiny. The threat of death still makes courage possible, and the return from death comes only at great sacrifice or spiritual growth - or in Palpatine's more twisted case, at great spiritual cost. And the rules are still harsh: it is only the rare Jedi who knows how to preserve one's individualized consciousness after death. Han Solo is, apparently, truly diffused into the force given his return here was only as a memory possibly projected by Leia's force powers, with Ford's father-figure playing the role Leia would have played had Carrie Fisher lived (indeed one last irony - only the living can capture an ensouled performance for a dead character).  And to think too rationally about all this is to miss the point - this is not a universe of logic, but an empire of dreams.

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There are problems and weird choices throughout. Finn seems to spend the film screaming "Rey!" Rose Tico - a major part of Episode VIII and its themes - is almost completely written out, a seeming capitulation to toxic fandom's reaction to the character. There is a moment when Rey thinks she killed Chewbacca in frustration (another missed opportunity to have her character more deeply wrestle with the dark side), only for the audience to awkwardly learn it was a fake-out.  Rey, who was shockingly revealed as a "nobody" with no Star Warsy bloodline in The Last Jedi (a brilliant way to recapture the surprise of Episode V as well as an excellent contrast to the legacy-burdened brat Kylo-Ren/Ben Solo), turns out to be Palpatine's granddaughter -- operatic & mythopoetic, but a film-marring Reddit-soured disappointment nonetheless, given how it awkwardly retcons the preceding film.
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C3PO, the mechanical descendant of Anakin Skywalker (remember
Episode 1), truly gets his close-up and is perhaps at his most hilarious and moving in this film (Anthony Daniels deserved it), but his brave choice to sacrifice his memory for the quest of his friends is cheapened when R2 later restores him to status quo. The erotically charged but deeper-than-romantic relationship between Rey and Kylo/Ben is cheapened by an awkward fan service pre-death kiss (although, there is a more forgiving way to read this, as Ben succeeding in saving his doomed beloved by choosing the light path of sacrifice where his grandfather failed to do the same in choosing the dark one), and the erotic connection (played purposefully by the actors) between Poe and Finn is purposefully destroyed by the inclusion of Kerri Russell as a heterosexual "no-homo" love interest for Poe, with the film not even allowing a sexy, inviting smirk from Oscar Isaac in any male direction.

We do, of course, get a brief but highly touted celebratory lesbian kiss, which at the very least involves Commander D'Arcy, played by the recent "Angel" from "Angels in America" revival on Broadway, Amanda Lawrence, where she had another famous lesbian kiss. I will find my gay easter eggs where I can, even if they weren't intended.

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 And one cannot help but feel that all these fan-service missteps and failures of nerve had much to do with either Abrams or the gloved, iron hand of the Mouse overreacting to Rian Johnson's "risky" fanboy-alienating choices, prompting them to control, corporatize, and fan-service-blandify the end of a saga which began as the ultimate individual vision, and achieved masterpiece status only by first being a deeply risky mess. 

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"Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder."

Indeed the fan service is over the top to the point of nausea, as it dawns on us that the Disney-Machine (which has been regurgitating the animated masterpieces of our childhood into nostalgia-porn CGI monstrosities) was always going to chew up Star Wars and puke out the resulting mush on screen, knowing we'd pay handsomely just for the memory of how it once tasted.  And the worst thing - the most damning thing about TROS - is that fan service is the opposite of what Star Wars is supposed to be about. Star Wars, as George Lucas has said, cannot be made for the fans for it to work. It was birthed in a weird and uncompromising artistic vision, one that fans might reject at first but then come back around to, as is happening with a minor reappraisal of the prequels. That's what artists are supposed to do - at worst take risks and fail and at best help us change and grow into the audience that they need us to be, not pander to our weak cravings for nostalgia.
The Prequels are full of detailed parallels, echoes, references, and intuitive connections

      The prequel films are still full of unevenly acted allegorical 2-D characters and awkward plotting and often terrible romantic dialogue, but they are also deeply detailed poetic works of art and visual splendor. Unlike mere entertainment, they ask something of the audience. They are Lucas attempting a "period film" costume drama tragedy in the context of the Star Wars universe. It is clear that every moment was precisely crafted to be part of a greater 6-film metrical whole, resplendent with repetitions, resonances, rhymes, and returns. There is an as-mentioned ring structure, with the films corresponding to each other in various ways. Watch, for example, the beginning of
The Phantom Menace and The Return of the Jedi, and see the similarities and echoes in just the first few moments. The prequels are not nearly as entertaining, on the surface, as the sequels, and they often make one cringe. But they are also extraordinary cinematic poems, and they are exactly what the artist envisioned them to be. They are works of art first that happened to push record numbers of products. TROS is a Disney product first, and the art has to be snuck in, or as the rare creative gem Babu Frik might have sung, "art is in Rise of Skywalker in me."

And speaking of song, there is one creative force that unites all nine episodes of George Lucas's space opera, and that is John William's magnificent score - arguably the greatest film saga score ever composed and certainly one of the greatest musical achievements of American culture.  Fittingly, Williams receives a cameo in TROS, as a bartender, and like alcohol, his music helps us enjoy and emotionally connect to a flawed film that probably couldn't elicit such feelings without it. In the end, Star Wars is a space opera, and TROS at least recognizes that intention in its melodramatic, maximalist, operatic ending. Lucas wasn't able to conclude his mythopoetic masterpiece the way he wanted, but Williams was able to finish his masterwork and partially redeem this film in the process.

This is a man who understood Lucas's poetry, achieving such subtleties as turning the Emperor's theme into a foreboding celebratory march for the end of Episode I, and composing "Rey's Theme" for Force Awakens with elements hinting at many potential answers to the mystery of her parentage. And it is John Williams, more so than J.J. Abrams, who succeeds in making this last Episode work just well enough to finish the job.  As the other saga-unifying element, C3PO, says to R2 in the Hamlet-like first line in the first-made film (as well as his last line in this one), "Did you hear that?" Surely, he was referring to the score.  And it is that timeless score to the fall of a Republic and rise and fall of an Empire that very well may be America's true national anthem, for better or - it increasingly seems - for worse.

2.5 Stars out of Five - TROS

4.5 Stars out of Five - The Skywalker Saga

"You have paid the price for your lack of vision." - Palpatine



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