Movie review: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

OK so “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”.

There is a movie hovering over the shoulder of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”, helpfully offering advice, like a Force Ghost. It’s the Movie That Could Have Been, the movie that would have been made had Carrie Fisher not died, on a flight to LAX, in the last weeks of 2016. At certain points during your viewing of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”, you’ll wonder what that movie would have been like; at other moments, you’ll be drawn into the riptide of joy that accompanies plucky trio Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as they head to war against the acolytes of Dark Side of the Force, who are now calling themselves the Final Order. (Previous names include The First Order, The Sith, The Empire, and The Dave Clark Five.)

The Final Order take their orders not from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but from a semi-reanimated Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, looking not a day over 6,000 years old). This is where some of the trouble in “The Rise of Skywalker”, and in the entire new trilogy of Star Wars movies, is rooted—with an ever-shifting backdrop of big baddies, the stakes feel frustratingly slippery. There is always a new evil dictator, always a new ultimate weapon, always a new fleet, and always a new generation of shiny Stormtroopers willing to die for a nebulous set of fascist ideals. This makes for accurate commentary on the human condition and the nature of evil, but it’s weak storytelling, made weaker by the rapidly ballooning supernatural power associated with the Force. Used to be that if you needed to lift an X-wing fighter out of a mire, you’d need a 900-year-old Jedi master and a nice quiet swamp so he could concentrate. But now the Force can, depending on the needs of the script, heal injuries ranging from light scrapes to mortal wounds; open a portal for not only communication but also physical transfer of objects across vast distances; yank a fully powered spaceship to the ground; reanimate an army of the dead and refit an entire armada of Star Destroyers. As any moderately competent screenwriter should be able to tell you, making the Force this much stronger actually makes the Force weaker–magic, in narrative, only works insofar as it behaves according to rules which the audience understands. (Superman can stop a train, except in the presence of Kryptonite. Harry Potter can walk through the brick wall at Platform 9 3/4, because he is a wizard; his cousin Dudley cannot, because he is a Muggle.) In the absence of clearly discernable limits or boundaries, magic becomes cheaper, the story equivalent of the Victorian paper foot which sometimes appeared in Monty Python to smash a character and end a rambling sketch. It should have been someone’s job at Disney to keep a tight leash on the Force, just like it should have been someone’s job to ensure that dangling plot threads were caught and either woven back into the story’s tapestry or snipped out completely—Leia’s Jedi training and Finn’s aborted confession both come to mind. Conversations in this movie frequently feel as though they were written on the fly to spackle over the gaps between different versions of the script, and a couple of accounts from the writers have suggested that this state of chaos existed right through actual filming; but it’s unclear whether the script’s flaws are truly the result of Fisher’s death. It seems far more likely that the movie’s disjointedness reflects the chaotic revolving door of directors and screenwriters who entered, exited, disavowed, and reworked the story on its way through production.

With all these problems stacked against “The Rise of Skywalker”, you’d be forgiven for wondering if the movie is worth going to see. It is, and gloriously so. The beauty of the Star Wars franchise has always been its enormous, airy universe, an imaginative cosmos populated with enough intriguing background characters to fuel multiple offshoots. When seen in this light, an unexplained flashback or a dropped storyline in a “Star Wars” script isn’t a flaw—it’s an opportunity, a jumping-off point for years of gleeful speculation at parties, in fanfic, and on every social media platform that enables users to argue (all of them). A good “Star Wars” movie is pulpy fun; a bad “Star Wars” movie is a lot of fun to tear apart; but a mixed-bag “Star Wars” movie is a treat for the gods. No one in the moviegoing world is going to be lacking for first-date conversation for at least three years. Gentlemen, start your comment sections.

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