Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – Enjoyable but Weakest of the New Trilogy

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      ‘The Rise of Skywalker” is a mess with a ton of flaws and is easily the weakest out of all the new Trilogy. I felt that the things that were strong helped elevate the mess enough to the point that it still managed to be an enjoyable film, even though I hate how derivative it is of “Return of the Jedi.” A lot of my fears about Abrams return were certainly validated in this film but due to actor performances and character relationships that really made it work for me, as extremely flawed as it is.

The film was directed by J.J. Abrams who co-wrote the film along with Chris Terrio.

The story picks up a few years later with Leia training Rey as a Jedi as Kylo Ren finds Emperor Palpatine alive with his hidden fleet. From here it is a race against time as our heroes must stop Palpatine and Kylo Ren before they conquer the galaxy.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – John Williams is once again showing why he heads this series. He is once against the master of his craft here. I will definitely be listening to this soundtrack again and all his work with the prior films.

The Action – The action is good but nothing stands out like the fights in the prior film. There is emotional resonance to some of the action, specifically anytime Rey and Kylo fight one another. This film is primarily action though so it had to be at least serviceable. In that I’d say it succeeds but it isn’t as good as the action in “The Force Awakens” or “The Last Jedi.”

The Core Characters – The core characters are what makes this film work, even though I disagreed with some of the character choices done with them. For the characters I feel like were the strongest I’ll be going into more depth below as it was really these characters that made the film work enough for me in the end.

Poe – Poe takes up the leadership role that was left in the last film as we see him leading the Resistance after Leia’s death. He is made more like Han Solo in this film (which annoyed me) but I liked us seeing him clash with Rey. Both are headstrong so it’d make sense they’d clash. It also got away from shipping them, which I appreciated. Oscar Issac’s is of course wonderful as always.

Finn – John Boyega is one of the strongest of all the new actors and that is once again demonstrated here. Here we get hints that Finn might have the force (he senses things, especially when Rey is in trouble). I wish this could have been explored further, but I did enjoy him playing such a key role in the final battle and fully embracing his role as a member of the rebellion. He even meets a former stormtrooper in this who he forms a friendship with. He is my favorite of the new characters besides Kylo Ren / Ben Solo and I would like to see what is done with him in the future.

Leia Organa – Leia finishes Rey’s training from the unused footage from prior films. It worked for me and I like that her last act was reaching out to Ben Solo so he could return to the light. It was strong and you see that Rey’s healing in the force probably came from Leia’s training. R.I.P. Carrie Fisher. I’m glad we got to know her more in this. One of the strongest scenes is when Luke tells Rey that when Leia finishes her training from Luke she realizes what becoming a Jedi will do to her son. The consequence of having the power is recognized and I like how that shaped her and made her choose to stay the politician and general instead.

Kylo Ren / Ben Solo – Ben Solo’s arc is the biggest re-tread of prior films but it is also one of the things that works most about the film. In this it is in the act of Rey healing him and his mom reaching out to him with the last of her life force that change him to the light. After this he speaks to Han in his memory before casting away his red lightsaber. Adam Driver is acting the hell out of this film and he is a huge reason the film works. His redemption story is predictable but the way Kylo versus Ben carry themselves is noticeable and the steps to the transformation are rushed but worked. It was that heart of the film that I really felt anything and I appreciate that Ben dies to save Rey. It brings the story full circle and makes him the most developed character in the entire series.

The Cons:

Knights of Ren – The Knights of Ren show up and have no payoff. They don’t feel like a threat. Phasma did more and I felt like she wasn’t fully utilized or explored. We don’t learn anything about them and they have no interaction with Kylo beyond being enforcers and fighting him at the end. They are missed potential in a big way and could have been worthy foes.

Palpatine and his Plan – We never lean how Palpatine survived “Return of the Jedi” except that the Dark Side cult is probably tied to the reasons and maybe he did have a contingency like his hidden fleet with Death Star weapons. Ian McDiarmid is of course amazing in the role, but his existence is just a re-treated of “Return of the Jedi” as we never get what his plan was for the First Order, since he created Snoke.

Rey’s Origin – I wish Rey’s parents had been nobody. Her being a Palpatine makes this universe so small, with everyone being related to everyone. Plus it is hard to imagine someone who wants to live forever (Palpatine) ever having a kid. In the prequels and original Trilogy he shows no interest in romance or sex at all. So her origin story becomes nonsensical and meaningless. She’d have fought Palpatine anyway regardless of her bloodline so it changes nothing.

Force Bloodlines and Return of the Prequel Problems – Rey being a Palpatine and Ben being a Skywalker bring back the prequel problem of the force and bloodlines, when it looked like the “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” were trying to get away from that. Leaning all in just elevated the problem of the origin story in the first place and takes away the mystique of the force. I hated in the prequels and I hate it once again here.

This film is a mess and I do wish they’d been more original than re-treading “Return of the Jedi.” If you are a Star Wars fan chances are you will find something to like, though the things I hated might be a bigger deal for you as well. The Skywalker story is the strongest part of the film (Ben, Luke and Leia) and really what makes the film good. The characters are who carry this frenetic mess and elevate it to an enjoyable experience. If you liked the prior 2 films, you will probably enjoy this one. The flaws are huge and I wish Disney had been more original, but for a Trilogy that only really took risks with “The Last Jedi,” this worked but could have been so much more.

8.6 / 10

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) – An Amazing Subversion of Expectations

   “The Last Jedi” is my second favorite Star Wars film. This is a series that is second only to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and in many ways has greater depth even though the structure of this film is a bit of a mess. What this film does though is upset the status quo, delve into the reasons the First Order and Resistance have for even existing in the first place and also a much deeper analysis of “The Force” that we haven’t really gotten since the Original Trilogy. Before I get into spoilers, this is a film with the best characters and themes thus far, amazing character development and emotional payoff, amazing action and it is easily the most beautiful of all the Star Wars films. Seriously, check it out.

The film was directed and written by Rian Johnson while being produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman.

The story involves the Resistance attempting to escape from the First Order who are attacking them after the destruction of Starkiller Base, while Rey is seeking Luke’s help in their fight. Things soon get more complicated when the First Order executes a trap that forces members the Resistance to seek outside help  to escape the First Order trap, and a clash within the Resistance itself between Poe and Vice-Admiral Holdo after General Leia is incapacitated.

SPOILERS

The Pros: The Cinematography – This is visually the best looking of any film in the Star Wars franchise. Whether it is the filming of fight sequences in space or within a ship…the camera executes the action beautifully and each planet was somewhere I wanted to return back to after it was done.

The Universe – This Star Wars has quite a few different environments and animals. From the adorable porgs, to crystal foxes, to the salt world of Crait, Luke’s Island and Snoke’s Flagship and a Casino World. I was never bored because there was always more to see as each environment was so rich.

The Reason for Resistance – One of the major themes of the film is the reasons to resist. We see this as a class struggle in regards to oppression through the eyes of kids and Rose, a character we are introduced in this film…and also that personal identity is a huge role too and that finding the balance between them is important. Poe is driven by ego and glory for much of what he does but comes to see that it is bigger than each fight, the war is larger than any one person as the individuals and groups define what it means to resist, just as much as if not more than the personal reasons to fight.

The Cost of War – So many people die in this film. There are lots of heroic sacrifices, but also the people who are being oppressed by those profiting from the war, the deaths of so many soldiers on both sides who die. You feel that in this and it does a good job humanizing both the Resistance and the First Order. War is hell and sometimes no one wins, this film captures that theme beautifully.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. This film is all about relationships between characters, be it Leia and Poe, Rose and Finn, Kylo and Rey or Luke and Rey. Each relationship gets developed over the course of the film and reveals layers to the characters that didn’t exist in “The Force Awakens.”

Vice Admiral Holdo – Holdo is a character who has got a lot of crap from the fanbase, but she was one of my favorite characters in the film. She was respected for winning in the past but Poe doesn’t get that. She is presented as an antagonist through a good portion of the film, and the payoff of who she actually is and what she is doing is great.

Rose and Finn – It is through these characters that we get to see another face of the Resistance and why they fight. Finn is originally a part because of his friends and is even willing to leave in order to protect Rey but Rose reminds him of the bigger picture and that at the core they exist to fight oppression. It is handled on the casino world and seeing their friendship bloom was one of the more memorable parts of this film.

Master Luke Skywalker – Luke is done with everything. Like before in the Original Trilogy guilt defines him and it is mistake that helped lead to Kylo Ren’s creation and that guilt is something he carries with him and resists until the end. He is wanting to destroy the Jedi order and die as the last Jedi until Rey helps him realize there is so much more that he’s forgotten and that he can still make a difference and change things. Mark Hamill is fantastic.

General Leia Organa – I miss Carrie Fisher. It was great seeing her in this, her whole drive is survival and protecting the Resistance from the First Order. She is the mentor who is there to remind the young folks there is a time and place for glory but you have to work to keep everyone alive, or there won’t be anyone else left to fight. This was my favorite presentation of her besides “Empire Strikes Back” and I’ll miss her in these films, now that she’s gone.

Rey and Kylo Ren – One of the core relationships is that between Kylo and Rey both of who are alone and seeking more beyond the old order as so much of who they were was tied to the legends of the past. They are connected but still adversaries and it is great relationship to see explored as Ren becomes more confident and much more of a bully and Rey finds an identity outside of her parents and her expectations of Luke and the Jedi.

Subverting Expectations – If you go in expecting “The Empire Strikes Back” or another version of “Return of the Jedi” or “A New Hope” prepare to be surprised. This is a film where most things don’t work out for any characters. Things change, both in the First Order and the Resistance in regards to their identities…but it doesn’t repeat the cycle. We get away from The Ring Cycle a bit here and from that “Star Wars” seems to finally be developing it’s own identity outside of the past. We also see The Force not being tied to bloodlines and the fantasy feel of the past films and midichlorians are implied to no longer be a factor (Rey’s background and the last scene of the film). I loved that, this is no longer the Skywalker show, Star Wars has to be bigger than one family drama and I can’t wait to see where the series goes.

Everybody Loses – Poe finds out he was wrong, Rose and Finn get betrayed, Rey isn’t able to turn Kylo Ren and even the Resistance only barely survives. The First Order isn’t in great shape either after the events that take place and it is going to be transforming further or it will collapse. That is powerful and with it we see the most potential for change both within the Resistance and the First Order. They’ve lost too much to remain static.

Okay: Welcome to the Casino / Side Quest – This first point is related to the second point, there is a side plot on a casino world in order for Rose and Finn to get a code breaker in order to break onto Snokes’s ship so that they shutdown the Empire’s ability to track the Resistance’s fleet. It explores the meaning of the Resistance so I’m not putting it as a total negative but it could have been shorter and achieved the same purpose in the plot, and I would have traded a few Finn and Rose scenes for more scenes with the codebreaker played by Del Toro named DJ. He is fun.

Structure and Clutter – The greatest issue with this film for me was the structure and how cluttered some of the different plots are. It wasn’t bad, I saw this film twice but it does feel long during some of the side tangents. The overall story and themes greatly overwhelm this in quality though and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film.

This is probably going to be in my Top 5 films at the end of the year. This is a film I’ve watched twice and is easily the most fun I’ve had at a film this year since “Baby Driver.” I can’t wait to see where things go after this film as it upsets so much of the status quo. I am a guy who loves the original Extended Universe and I always will, but I’m glad they didn’t repeat it (and I still enjoy it as another timeline of Star Wars). By the time of “The Force Awakens” I was done with the Skywalker drama, predictability will kill this franchise as so many of the problems that plagued the Prequels was the lazy recycling of the Original Trilogy. This film is strange, different, takes chances and changes things and honestly, it is the only way Star Wars can grow beyond the corner it was written in to. Here is to Disney embracing that change and giving us more great stories like this film.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. Second best Star Wars film thus far.

 

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) – A Return to “Star Wars” Strengthened By New Characters

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens

      First, I’m going to give a warning up front. This review will contain spoilers, once I get to the summary and after the jump, so I’ll post my non-spoiler thoughts here to kick off the review. The film is great, not as great as “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back” since it derives a lot from them, but it is the things that set it apart that really make it an amazing film and easily in the Top 3 films in the Series thus far. Finn and Rey are two of my favorite heroes and Kylo Ren is a great villain (though wasn’t impressed by Snoke or General Hux). The action is fast and our characters are given arcs and there are some really good payoffs, some of which aren’t derivative of the “Original Trilogy.” I’ll get into more detail below, but for these reasons it is really worth seeing.

     “The Force Awakens” was directed by J.J. Abrams who also one of the writers and producers. The other writers where Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Ardnt while the other producers were Bryan Burk and Kathleen Kennedy.

SPOILERS ahead

      The story takes place 30 years after a “Return of the Jedi” and the First Order has arisen out of the ashes of the Empire. Our new heroes Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) must stand together with heroes of old in the Resistance to defeat Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order.

The Pros: The World – The World is really awesome. We have The New Republic that represents the free world, the Resistance which came about because the First Order came into being and we have Luke having gone into hiding and get to see how the First Order creates Stormtroopers and how their leadership works. It’s really cool and it feels like Star Wars. Jakku is also a really cool world.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is amazing! The use CGI and models are blended together seamlessly and the fear or wonder in our characters’ eyes is highlighted beautifully. Dan Mindel really did a great job.

The Soundtrack – John Williams is at it again and I really liked his theme for Kylo Ren and his allusions to classic themes with old characters like General Leia or Han Solo. Our new characters have their own themes too and it compliments them on the their journeys.

The Characters – The characters, like “The Original Trilogy” are the strongest part of this film, especially when it comes to our new heroes who each are distinct and have their own arcs that I wanted to see and want to see now that the beginning of their arc is done.

New Heroes – The new heroes are the strongest part of this film, I enjoyed them much more than the appearance by Luke, Leia, Chewie, Han and R2 and C-3PO. They were fresh and weren’t dependable on referencing past actions as they were making history rather than being a part of living history.

BB-8 – BB-8 is adorable and super expressive in how it speaks. I didn’t put R2 or 3PO on this list because they were just small cameos. BB-8 made choices and decisions and grew attached to our new Heroes as well as being Poe’s Droid. They had a really fun relationship.

Maz Kanata – Maz is the Yoda analogue of this story as she is 1000 years old, has Luke’s old lightsaber and puts Rey on the path to become a Jedi. She’s really cool and Nupita Nyong’o gives this character so much depth. She has seen so much and her Katina has both First Order agents and Resistance members visiting. I can’t wait to see her character again as she is not a Jedi but she knows the force and it is her training that helps Rey in her fight.

Poe Dameron – Oscar Isaac is amazing! His character is smart and mocks Kylo Ren on occasion and shows how he is a good guy when he gives Finn his name and works with Finn to escape. He’s the best pilot in the Resistance and I wish we’d gotten more time with him. He deserves more exploration and was underutilized, though he does get the killing blow on the Starkiller Base.

Rey – Rey is the Luke analogue as she is the orphan on the desert planet who will become a Jedi. She like Finn though is always running. She doesn’t begin exploring her force abilities until she has to escape Kylo Ren who is holding her hostage. For this reason her arc is fantastic, she has been alone for so long waiting for her parents it is all she knows and she doesn’t want to leave that comfort. Eventually she does when Ren almost kills Finn and she realizes that it is the only way to defeat the First Order and avenge her mentor who died. She’s a great engineer too and helps the Millennium Falcon work better.

Finn – Finn is a former stormtrooper who changes sides after he is part of the assault on Jakku taht kills a Resistance sympathetic vision. It traumatizes him and he commits to helping Poe escape. Sadly he believes Poe to be dead so searches for Poe’s droid BB-8 to get him to the Resistance, which is when he meets Rey who treats him like a human being. They clash but become friends and we see that Finn is still running from his trauma. It isn’t until Kylo Ren captures Rey that chooses to stay with the Resistance and fight to rescue his friend, which leads to him nearly losing his life to Kylo Ren. John Boyega is fantastic.

Old Heroes – Our hold heroes make an appearance too! Luke appears at the very end so I’m not mentioning him and 3PO and R2 are glorified cameos and I want to explore the characters who get explored.

General Leia – Leia’s story is tragic as we see after her son falls to Dark side her marriage to Han falls apart and she starts up the Resistance again in reaction to the First Order’s rise. She still loves Han and her son Ben and her tragedy continues as Ben seems to be fully given over to the Dark side after he kills his father. What hope Leia has is that Rey will be trained by Luke and maybe through that her son can find the light again.

Chewbacca – Poor Chewie! He’s older in this and gets hurt quite a few times from Stormtroopers. Luckily he gets revenge when he and Han set the charges that help lead to the destruction of the Starkiller Base. He also save Finn’s life and help Rey and Finn escape the planet’s destruction. He stays with Rey later too as they form a bond similar to the one he has with Han.

Han Solo – This episode is the tragedy of Han as we see that he became a smuggler after his son Ben fell to the Dark Side and destroyed the new Jedi Order Luke was forming. He is running away from Leia and the Resistance but is pulled by in by Rey and Finn and helps them defeat the Starkiller Base, though it costs him his life when Kylo Ren, who is his fallen son Ben Solo, kills him, completing his fall to the Dark Side.

Villains – Kylo Ren really. Snoke and Hux felt kind of like jokes.

Kylo Ren – Kylo Ren is tragic and powerful and I really like the character. He aspires to be Darth Vader who he idealizes and we see that like Vader he is hand’s on acting as Snoke’s Dragon. He tortures Poe to find out that BB-8 holds the map to Luke and he defeats Finn when Finn tries to stop him at the end. His only loss happens after Chewie shoots him when he kills Han and after Finn injures him. Rey is the one who scars him physically and we see that they will meet again when the planet’s destruction separates them from one another. This episode is him completing his fall as he confesses to Snoke that he feels the light and his killing of his father Han is his distinguishing of it as Ben is fully killed so Kylo Ren can live. Adam Driver is great in this role and made Kylo Ren feel threatening.

Rey Versus Kylo Ren – This is the final battle and it is a lot of fun and intense. I thought Rey was overpowered for having no training but the fact that Kylo Ren was physically and emotionally injured and drained helps explain why they were equal and why she was eventually beating him. I want Ren to have his Vader moment, which he hasn’t yet. Rey was also a bit overpowered in this so I hope we see her character better balanced in this future.

Han Solo and Kylo Ren – This reveal was powerful, even though I saw it coming the moment Snoke said Han was Ren’s father. So I knew this was coming. Seeing the conflict that Kylo Ren was going through lent power to the character though and made him compelling. Seeing him free in the Dark Side after killing his father was amazing too as it was there that he snapped which contributed to Rey defeating him I think.

Okay: Starkiller Base – It is a bigger and badder Death Star that is a planet that was turned into a weapon. It’s Death Star Mark 3, which is derivative and why I’m putting it as okay. It showed lack of creativity on Hux and Snoke’s part for making it.

Okay/Con: Death of the New Republic – This would have been stronger if we had spent time with the New Republic. We never did and we don’t know their relationship to the Resistance fully so I didn’t feel the loss. The fact that the system was destroyed should have been more powerful than it felt.

The Cons: General Hux – Hux is no Tarkin. Tarkin was effective, respected Darth Vader and his power and when he destroyed Alderaan and had Leia tortured, we felt it. The same can not be said for Hux who got in pissy fits with Kylo Ren and never interacted with our heroes in any meaningful way.

Snoke – Sorry Serkis but your big giant alien is less threatening than Palpatine and he was just an old man in the “Original Trilogy” who didn’t do anything except torture Luke with lightning at the end. This character has a long way to go before I can take it seriously. I really hope Snoke is not the actual character’s name, I’m holding out for the Darth Plagueis Theory.

Derivativeness – Instead of Alderaan the New Republic System is destroyed, instead of the Death Star the Starkiller Base is destroyed (3rd Time’s the charm?), BB-8 holds secret plans versus R2-D2 holding secret plans and parental confession on a dangerous catwalk. Now that all of this is out of the way I hope the future episodes can find their own beats not derived from the Original Trilogy.

   In the end what really keeps this film from being better than “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” is the lack of villain effectiveness. Kylo Ren is the deadliest of them and I could never take General Hux or Snoke seriously. The loss of the New Republic wasn’t felt as we had never been their prior or met the people there, “A New Hope” was stronger since Leia’s diplomatic envoy Darth Vader destroys was an Alderaan ship and crew and we see the loss of life in her eyes and Obi-Wan’s line about hearing the silencing of millions of voices. We don’t feel the loss and that is what sets it below “A New Hope.” The characters make this film worth seeing though, as does the music and special effects. If you like “Star Wars” you should see this. It is a great film and I can’t wait to see how our new heroes’ stories unfold.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10