Guest contributor Rogelio Rodríguez shares his thoughts on Star Wars and the “conclusion” of the saga, The Rise of Skywalker.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
written by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams
from a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, J.J. Abrams, and Chris Terrio
based on Star Wars characters by George Lucas
directed by J.J. Abrams
Five years ago, as I entered a movie theater to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), I felt a tinge of alarm: The room was filled to the brink with people, most of them kids and teenagers, and a few adults (I myself was with my daughter, then thirteen years old). I’ve never liked crowded shows – even as a young man – so I usually try to avoid them. This time I failed… and was glad I did.
What I experienced must be similar to what the faithful feel when they go to church: Communion and total harmony with your fellow believers. In those well-calculated moments in which the Millenium Falcon, Han Solo, Chewie, R2-D2, C-3PO, Princess Leia, and finally Luke Skywalker made their appearance for the first time in 32 years, it seemed as if everyone was living the same long-awaited reunion with old and dear friends. We all would cheer, lift our arms, and howl like wookies. And sure, almost four decades ago I was a young lad captivated by the first film in the saga, 1977’s Star Wars. But why would my thirteen year old daughter – and everyone else watching, young and old alike – react with the same level of nostalgia?
To try to answer this question, I’ll start with a WhatsApp conversation I had with my good (and old) friend Luis, after we’d gone to the movies with our respective children to watch the latest installment, The Rise of Skywalker.
Luis: “I was talking to my son LG about it. My humble opinion is that the best one of the last couple of years is Rogue One (2016), followed by the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), and in particular Episode V. But truthfully, I find them all these later sequels kind of weak.”
Me: “A lot of critics agree with you. They say Rogue One and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) are the best ones. I’m sure they are the most rounded in general, although I wouldn’t say they’re classics. But years after watching the first (now Episode IV), I’ve learnt to like them for how much fun they are, and I don’t treat them like other movies. I continue watching them as if I was that thirteen-year-old who was marked for life. I can’t be objective. Even then, I hate the prequels (Episodes I, II, and III). They are so bad, not even the boy in me likes them. But I really enjoy all the others. And even though Episode IV has tons of mistakes and is fairly poor filmmaking, I like it more and more with each viewing. It needs to be taken as religion, otherwise you can go crazy with everything that doesn’t make sense.”
Luis: “I understand what you’re saying. After all, I’ve seen them all. But I can’t really forgive [creator] George Lucas for not considering my generation when he decided to make the prequels. He had the resources, talent, and money to continue his mythology and themes with a more maturity. Instead he completely went the other way, making them more childish and screwing up Darth Vader’s backstory. And then we get to this new trilogy and what do they do? Make a new Vader, a new Death Star, and a new Luke. Shit!”
Me: “I’m feeling the same way devout Catholics must feel when they’re confronted with the inquisition, the crusades, and the contradictions between scriptures; I’d better do like them and see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. To be honest, I don’t mind that they recycled characters and situations. Luke sacrifices himself in Episode VIII – same as Obi-Wan Kenobi did in Episode IV – to distract, like you say, another Vader (Kylo Ren). The dramatic moment in Episode VI when Emperor Palpatine tries to kill Luke by making the dark side of the Force flow through him – thus forcing him to fight Vader – is repeated with Snoke, Kylo, and Rey in Episode VIII and again with Palpatine, Kylo, and Rey in Episode IX. Yes, they reused many things, changing them enough so that they would work again. And it works for me. Leave me be, I’m happy with my faith.”
What I was trying to tell Luis, and that my friend Carlos (the editor of this site) helped me see, is that the Star Wars movies are not made for adults. Although in his opinion there are artful and transcendent moments scattered about, particularly in The Empire Strikes Back, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, the series as a whole has never been high-minded about its aspirations. The generation that was marked by the first three films between 1977 and 1983 (now Episodes IV, V, and VI) were treated to a well-structured hero’s journey, a fairy tale transposed to a landscape that, as Lucas himself has said, is like science fiction but without the science. This is fantasy. Imperfect, yet utterly fantastic.
We could talk about all the things that could’ve been better about that first glorious motion picture.
The very first scene, in which a bunch of extras try to fend off Vader’s impressive entrance, feels almost like a joke. The performances are mediocre at best, specially when they pretend to be wounded (t seems as if they’re laughing nervously). Of course, that’s not the fault of the “actors,” just bad directing.
Then we are shown a robot that tortures Leia for information, only to see her later waking up as from a restful nap (I didn’t notice this detail until recently, when I watched the movie again with my daughter). Did Lucas forget what she’d just been through?
And the dialogue… well, the dialogue is terrible. It makes you pity the cast that had to deliver those lines, specially poor Alec Guinness (Obi Wan).
Etc., etc., etc.
Some things get better with the next two movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (1983). The dialogue, for instance, is no longer written by Lucas alone (help arrived with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan). But there are still many issues. For example, Luke and Leia kiss in Episode V (she wants to make Han jealous), but in the next chapter, it is revealed that they are brother and sister. Yuck.
Also, it seems like Lucas forgot that his films would eventually be revisited and appreciated as one narrative. Not allowing us to watch Star Wars in its original form, with those special effects that were so impressive in the 1970’s, is a silly and unforgivable whim. Although they may seem dated now, we could still value them for their ingeniousness. But the only versions available have been “improved” with computer effects that ironically feel old as well, with no historical perspective for newer generations. Imagine if someone had done the same to 1932’s King Kong and we were only allowed to watch a version with a gorilla digitally added 20 years ago.
No, high-minded this never was.
Star Wars has an amazing number of attributes that we can definitely celebrate.
Forgetting the prequels, Episodes IV through IX have a great sense of rhythm. They blast full speed ahead, but don’t forget to pause when necessary. They are never boring, and for me at least, the action and special effects never overwhelm the pacing of the story. Every sequence responds to a change in the narrative… and you have a really good time. They’re exciting and funny, with charismatic characters and a perfectly acceptable plot.
In just this last trilogy, the filmmakers played with our nostalgia in brilliant ways. They did a great job with all the references and homages, despite the fact that some members of the audience would recognize some and miss others.
In Episodes VII through IX, the dialogue is more intelligent and sometimes even profound, even if at first glance you don’t notice. For example, pay closer attention to DJ’s (Benicio del Toro) lines in Episode VIII. His brief appearance belies some of the smartest writing in the series.
Even the characters that don’t have intelligible dialogue, such as Chewie, R2-D2, and BB-8, come across as incredibly expressive. Thanks to their “body” language and with help from their human friends, we understand perfectly well what they’re “saying.”
But enough of my overall impression. Carlos told me to concentrate more on The Rise of Skywalker, so let me give it a go.
My take? It’s fun and worth watching.
Is it the “conclusion” that this saga demanded? Probably not. But I also think that was nearly impossible. To answer every question posed by the previous two films would probably result in an overloaded and convoluted movie (and that’s what we got). Yet not doing it would’ve meant no closure. Because of Carrie Fisher’s untimely death, the filmmakers had to decide between leaving Leia (or rather General Organa) out entirely, or incorporate previously unused material from the two prior installments (that’s what they did and I think it mostly worked). And so on. The Rise of Skywalker had several things going against it from the very beginning. It must’ve been tough to figure out the best choices, and accept that some of them would be wrong.
Personally, my daughter and I were disappointed with the reveal of who Rey (Daisy Ridley) really was (Palpatine’s granddaughter). But if she had been the person most people expected (Luke’s daughter), it would’ve been even more predictable. There was no way to satisfy everyone. And the ending they picked (she decides to be a Skywalker) carries the right message, so I consider it a good choice.
The Rise of Skywalker also doesn’t follow through with some of the good ideas established in the last two chapters. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a character that had been built as a despicable Hitler-type ruler, is ridiculously laid to waste. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), who were so interesting before, become a joke. But worst of all, the film takes away some of the value that the series had as a whole. Because now when you sit down to watch the marvelous climax from Chapter VI – in which Vader sacrifices himself and kills Palpatine in order to save Luke (Mark Hamill) – the whole arc loses its significance, since Palpatine didn’t “really” die.
So how do I feel weeks after having seen The Rise of Skywalker? The truth is, the experience is similar to having eaten too much popcorn. Enjoyable, yes, but not fully satisfying. And that sensation grows more with each day.
Just a couple of minutes ago, I asked my daughter what she thought of it now, and she replied that while she’d had a good time, in reality… “WTF!”
But I insist: The Rise of Skywalker is well worth watching. It’s a roller coaster ride with some amazing scenes. I will never forget the moment when Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) loses (spoiler alert?) one of his last great friends. Little by little the much-loved character has become an essential part of the story, and feeling the pain in his cries was really emotional for me.
While The Rise of Skywalker is too exposition-heavy to make a lasting first impression, I am pretty sure that revisiting it in the future will give us a better appreciation for its details, dialogue, and plot; things that are probably more clever and amusing than we gave them credit for in the first go around (and maybe more problems as well).
So going back to my discussion with Luis: In the end analysis, I think the series (and once again forgetting Episodes I to III) achieves what Lucas explained when he quoted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “I have wrought my simple plan / If I give one hour of joy / To the boy who’s half a man / Or the man who’s half a boy.” And it’s just that, if the adults let the kids enjoy what we once did, if we understand that’s what’s happening… our inner child will also have a good ol’ time.