This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Mathew Kumar’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
"Rey's story is inspiring, familiar, and timeless. Just because you come from nothing doesn't mean you're not part of the story. You're not no one, because anyone can save the galaxy. Anybody." --Women of the Galaxy, an official Disney Star Wars sourcebook in 2018.
I haven't been able to stop thinking about Rise of Skywalker (not particularly in the good way) since I've seen it, so, hell, time to exorcise these force ghosts.
I've been thinking a lot about "canon." I think it was recently when I sat down to play Spider-Man on PS4 and immediately found it a little bit weird to look at a different Peter Parker with a different(-ish) history. But then I realized I've done that twice in the cinema (I haven't viewed a frame of the Andrew Garfield ones, if you're wondering why I said twice) and frankly countless times in comics. It took me a little while to get used to Peter's new face, but it also took me a little while to get used to an Aunt May in the MCU that makes my bow-tie spin around while steam pours out of my ears and a cartoon siren goes off.
What I realized, ultimately, is that it's the characters that you love. Stories are not mechanical lists of things that happened; they're a continual exercise of our empathy. That we should get drawn into characters so much that we're scared along with them, cry with them, experience their joy as ours, and be richer for it in our own lives of fear, sadness and joy. (It sounds so stupidly obvious, I guess, but It doesn't seem that way when I watch the umpteenth horror film which somehow expects me to care about the peril of characters that have been set-up to only be hated.)
But love... love can be possessive. And love can be blind. It's possible to get lost in who we think a character is in our memory; or simply to demand stasis; to refuse to accept change or any revelation of depth.
And yet, if you're dealing with love, you do have to be thoughtful. There may be no one truth, but if you're going to tell a story about beloved characters, you're going to want to be true to them as they are: at their core. Spider-Man is gonna know that great power comes with great responsibility. He can not live up to that! He can even turn his back on it. But he's still going to know that and have to deal with it. Maybe the audience won't like it, but hell, maybe he--and then the audience--will grow, right?
What you don't want to do is like, declare a bunch of stuff about his parentage, add in a bunch of clones, and just kind of lose sight of the character completely because you care about the story you want to tell more, or being x-treme because it's the 90s or whatever, right? God you could do that and despite the fact I love Spider-Man I wouldn't have read a Spider-Man comic since I was about 13.
Lost my train of thought there... Ah, yeah. "Canon." So maybe they get it wrong, right? But I never stopped loving Spider-Man. I just picked, and I chose, the bits that I like, and I don't think about the rest. I didn't have the internet and I'm not sure I would have spent time time writing death threats over it (but thank fuck I'm not a teenager now.) Anyway, pretty rapidly after that the Star Wars prequels came out and I tried desperately to think they weren't totally shit for one of them, accepted they were for the next and for the third I just went "well, I really don't need to ever think about these ever again."
And I don't! I'm fairly relaxed about it. Solo came along and it got chucked right into the same bin. It turns out that we're all in control of our own canon, our own destiny.
This month I watched the original trilogy and I cried like 40 times about how much I loved them. I rewatched Rogue One and I became a bit more comfortable with its somewhat botched beginning and it all settled into canon.
Then I watched Force Awakens and sighed and muttered about what a shit, truly desperate and unimaginative retread Starkiller base is. I don't spend much time thinking about it.
Instead I think about those characters. Rey! Finn! Kylo Ren! So beautifully drawn up and with so much potential! I'd follow them anywhere. Turns out I'd have to.
Listen. I love the Last Jedi. You can hate it. It's fine. You can quibble it! But I'll hold that Rian Johnston was true to those characters. And that's all of them. That he truly cared about them.
I mean, I literally just watched The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is impatient; immature, and he fails completely. I don't even know what you're remembering. Him being (somewhat) badass at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, I guess???
After Rise of Skywalker... I have no idea what JJ Abrams cares about. Now we're actually in the review portion of this meandering, I can tell you that this film is fast, genuinely fun at its breakneck pace and often hilarious. While I didn't get totally Richard E. Grant twitter video about it, I did laugh, clap, even cheer!
I also sighed. I groaned. And I grimaced.
The space elephant in the room is Rose Tico. Let me heartily say a loud fuck, fuck you to everyone involved in the sidelining of this character. I truly mean it. Because there's a further wrinkle to stories, isn't there, when they're this big? They're not just stories. They're cultural moments, reflections, and lessons. We can try and explain this away as sheer pettiness--JJ Abrams didn't create her, he didn't plan for her, she doesn't get to be part of his story--but it reads as a betrayal; a disgusting capitulation to the internet of racists.
Even if it wasn't, Rose is important. She shows up in Last Jedi with a back story, drive, and receives a full arc. She influences and interacts in meaningful ways with our established characters. She matters.
In Rise of Skywalker, Rose gets less lines than a hobbit, and instead we're introduced to Zori Bliss who... has a mask? And a Casablanca macguffin? At best her influence serves as rapid conversion therapy for Poe because people are not allowed to have fun with slash fiction. Gay characters are supposed to be extremely marginal but still press-release worthy, ok???
And Finn's hetrosexualising agent Jannah... much as representing a gay character with a one second "LOOK SEE?" kiss at the end (rather than, like, a scene where they worry about their pilot partner leaving, or anything humanising) here we get the worst kind of "here, have a black lady." She immediately represents a new love interest because Disney double checked reddit and they said you are only allowed to fancy people of the same race. And much like Zori, even beyond that her character only exists to bolster Finn's story. Her being a stormtrooper isn't about her, it's about him. Her entire thing boils down to "has a horse."
Could you cut these characters and do something with Rose instead? Of course you could. Is Jannah helping Finn almost commit suicide a direct fuck you to his shared arc with Rose? Probably not, I actually think they're just that fucking stupid.
The big fuck you, of course, is the revelation of Rey's parentage, which is unbelievably tortured especially if you've just watched The Last Jedi and felt how definitively they say it (Rey says it, not Ren, is just one aspect of it.)
It is truly pathetic. But outside of my anger over Rose, it's a good example of where feeling pretty comfortable with a headcanon has worked in my favour. I mean it's all a bit Starkiller base, isn't it? In that it's fucking stupid, and it's honestly quite sad that JJ Abrams is so insecure that he had to do it, but it changes so little about the movie that you can honestly just not really think about it. Rey's just real good at the force; Palpatine (don't get me started) just wanted to use her whoever she is. JJ Abrams believes the force is stored in the balls. It's fine.
What makes Rise of Skywalker work anyway, of course, is the characters and particularly the dedication of the actors in their performances. I don't want to single anyone out but I can't help but note that Adam Driver is a fucking beast. He's having to fucking twist his character almost completely out of shape to suit the whims of Disney, doesn't actually say a word for the last half hour and while I admit this film on first watch didn't move me to any particular emotional heights in my memory his shrug, his smile... they kind of kill me.
Kylo Ren is one of the greatest characters in Star Wars ever.
Even with pathos smashed beyond recognition and reconstructed like the mask... which he doesn't wear for very long in the film making it doubly pathetic that they had to make such a point of using it.
Maybe the oddest thing about the film though is... C-3P0? Suddenly he's a main character and he's completely fucking hilarious? Each time I get too deep into thinking some nerd shit ("so Palpatine was just hanging around for 30 odd years? Who was the audience? She doesn't kill him but she like... pushes the sabers towards him angrily, that doesn't count? Sure I don't count the prequels as canon but wouldn't Palpatine have learned that his lightning reflects off lightsabers because he's already done it once???") I just think about C-3P0 saying something like "he's my oldest friend!" about Babu Frik and smile.
Or Chewie getting his medal. It was cheap as fuck but the only thing that felt like the kind of "we get it" reference that you'd see in The Last Jedi or The Mandalorian.
I really can't bring myself to say anything about Leia because it bums me out too much, but introducing her lightsaber and having it mean and do absolutely nothing (other than allowing you to feature a pointless de-aging scene because every single blockbuster must feature that now) made Rise of Skywalker feel at least slightly like a film that had to be rushed out before a writer's strike or something. Plus never actually resolving Finn's force sensitivity. We all agree it'd be cool if he had force powers! And used them to give force kisses to Poe's neck when they're off on separate adventures and missing each other!!!
Look I've written hundreds of words here about a movie that I still enjoyed and I'm looking forward to watching again (while imagining Rose having an adventure during the crap bits.) But here's the last word. At the end of the movie, when Rey is asked her name? All she needed to say was "Rey. It's just Rey." Because she's comfortable with who she is. It's her we've come to love: whether a nobody or a Palpatine.
Plus Leia never called herself Skywalker???
What I'm saying is this was a fun episode of "Star Wars: What If?" but I'm good with a 5-film long Skywalker Saga + Rogue One right now.
Jeanette Ng, who is far less willing to give any quarter (I agree completely)
The ever reliable Vern who is a bit more good natured about what a complete fucking mess this is (I agree completely)