Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

There is a rampant and very contemporary problem with a fear of spoilers which bleeds into how we perceive and relate to films. I do not want to insinuate that knowing or not knowing beforehand does not matter; any potential viewer should be able to take in the story as it was consciously constructed. But this diverts our focus from emotion and aesthetic pleasure towards the gathering of information, and information we can easily gather from leaks and wikipedia summaries. What is just as insidious, though, is that this approach immunizes certain aspects of film agains critique. A story told in any medium should be, if not predictable, so at least consistent; if not by plot, then by philosophical or aesthetic principle. The films of David Lynch are consistent. "The Last Jedi", the much maligned and misunderstood eight installment in the Skywalker Saga, was consistent, in itself as well as with the overarching themes of Star Wars. "The Rise of Skywalker" is not.

This film has one of the by far worst scripts I ever saw unfold on the screen - popular spoiler aversion would prevent me from acknowledging exactly that. It is profoundly unimaginative, knowing nothing better to do with its set of established characters than to make them fight, run, fly and go on endless treasure-hunting missions. It is simultaneously filled with exposition for things that do not need explaining and arcane Force myths that were never explained before and simply complicate the Star Wars magic system to get the characters from one expensive set piece to the other. It makes the characters bicker in all the wrong places and robs them of their voice where words would have mattered. Worst of all, it has no idea how to convey its message, and what it instead ends up conveying turns out to be deeply offensive.

"The Force Awakens", JJ Abrams' first film in the series, was a fast-paced and streamlined adventure romp, but with a gun to my head I could not possibly tell what it was actually *about* on a fundamental, thematic level. "The Last Jedi" was, even to the plot's detriment, heavy on themes and conflicts and deeper meanings. If one could concede one thing to JJ's treatment of Episode IX, then it's that he actually kind-of-sort-of learned from Rian Johnson and tried to make this film be actively *about* something. It is stated in fairly simple terms throughout Rey's dialogue and backstory as well as through the particular nature of the ever-scheming puppet master Palpatine : the main thematic conflict would be one of inevitability and determinism versus choice and freedom to formulate your own identity. Palpatine - and Kylo Ren - try and tempt the heroine with promises not only of power, but of a sense of purpose and personal history in this very inevitability of her lineage and fate. This would have not been that bad a conflict were Rey at any point actually tempted, and not just incorruptibly pure, morally rigid and terrified of possibility. There is no real tension in her - inevitable! - victory because there is no real choice: the Light side, the Jedi, the Resistance, all of her established commitments merely represent another kind of determinist system. While it is the Dark side that has and still tries to manipulate her trajectory, it is especially when she is unburdened by this sense of possibility that Rey appears as though she is moved by outside forces. Almost needless to say, none of the other supposedly major "good" characters have any important moment of choice or anything resembling an arc, but Rey, even in this soulless husk of a movie, still has to have one, and yet any sense of agency and responsibility that she had won by the end of "The Last Jedi" is systematically stripped away from her. In an immensely underwhelming final battle against the main villain it comes down to not more than a literal (reverse) tug of war, won not by wits but by sheer kinetic pressure. It is emblematic of the problem at the film's rotten thematic core: you simply exchange one inevitability and confinement against the other. There is no real choice; the plot is fast to snuff it out.

Where all this turns from merely bad to outright insulting is the treatment of Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo. The film's relation to him is bafflingly split between denying him presence and stopping dead in its tracks whenever he appears. He appears as an active proponent of Dark Side Determinism, and yet is also suffering under its regime; he is also the only character we really see suffer. Kylo/Ben is the only thing resembling a person in this film, he feels conflict, he wants, he chooses where other characters are simply moving. The resolution to this untenable inner divide is the film's and Ben Solo's greatest moment of choice, he is the only one who actually lives the supposed anti-Dark Side maxime of forging your own path, and for a while it seems perfectly possible (it would have been *plausible* since the character was introduced) that he actually frees himself from his shackles and, for the first time in many, many years, gets to be a person again. In a shocking display of cruel irony, the film yanks this sense of possibility away from him, and from us. Ben Solo, the young man who struggled with fate all his life and almost succeeded in defying it, ends his arc in the only way I think JJ thought was possible. The real determinist overlord was the script all along.

One could make a case for all of this being merely a failure, a product of executive meddling or lack of planning or market demands or - the coldest of takes - any sort of "difficult" situation Rian Johnson's movie has set up. The more I think about it, the more I am sure that this particular failure, this particular flavor of bad and boring and empty is there by design. The film moves at a break neck speed while simultaneously very little of substance happens; the orchestral score is nearly always blaring, the editing is fast and choppy and there is little time for the characters to actually process and express an emotion, and for the viewer to take in why a particular revelation actually matters. "The Rise of Skywalker" never properly mourns its losses, either by staging them as fake-outs or by bluntly cutting away from a cerebral scene to a celebratory one. Any moments of stillness and introspection would immediately reveal the victories as hollow and the endings as abjectly tragic. The film does not want us to know that. It wants us to enjoy, but not to care. One can doubt some cases of lacking explanation, but not the plot's oppressive overarching logic. "The Rise of Skywalker" is a "competently" made film in that it is not as apparently embarrassing as the Prequels (note to self: bump up ratings), as there is no kitsch, no melodrama, no weirdness and nothing at all that would demand the viewer's actual engagement. It is a facsimile of hollowed out mythology held together by a transparently meaningless MacGuffin plot and I doubt that a significant portion of the general audience will care. Most of the fans and the journalists do - in order to recognize the egregious level of sheer *wrongness* with this you actually have to poke this house of cards at least slightly. It is exactly the Star Wars film so many wanted after "The Last Jedi", it is not the film anybody at all needs, and it is exactly the Star Wars they (we?) deserve. Thanks for nothing, Lucasfilm.

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