Monday, 13 January 2020

Review: Star Wars - The Rise Of Skywalker (seventh-pass)

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker
(seventh-pass / SPOILERS)
Cert: 12A / 142 mins / Dir. J.J. Abrams / Trailer

Previous reviews: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

So here we are in somewhat familiar territory. Okay, here "I" am. The initial buzz of a new Star Wars movie has subsided, although the joy of being able to go and watch it at pretty much any time in the cinema ten minutes walk away from my house will never diminish. I'm currently at the stage where The Rise Of Skywalker has firmly 'bedded in' but I'm taking full advantage of the latter.

And despite the mixed critical reception the film has received, I find myself enjoying each and every visit. As previously noted, this movie feels very much like A Sequel Trilogy Film™ rather than a culmination of The Skywalker Saga™, but that's what I love about it since (like many fans) I know that various facets of Star Wars can feel wildly different while still being undeniably Star Wars. For obvious reasons I don't need to point out the tonal divergence between the Original and Prequel trilogies, but The Clone Wars feels different again, as does Rebels, as does Resistance, and even The Mandalorian only plays on one aspect of the OT's hallowed ground. Each fulfils a specific role while being an inexorable part of a larger entity. Star Wars is a broad church*1.

There is, however, one edge that keeps nicking me each time I go past. I know it's there and is part of the final design, yet it catches me all the same. It's a thing I've brought up already, and this post is further to my earlier murmurings. Anyway, here are three quotes which have been playing on my mind since late December 2019...


"Don't tell anyone, but when Star Wars first came out, I didn't know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you've planned the whole thing out in advance."

George Lucas, in a letter to Lost writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, 2010.


"What really matters is that in the Star Wars series, as in many works of literature, 'I am your father' moments and their accompanying shivers are defining. [...] With the best such moments people could not in advance easily imagine the moment - and cannot in its aftermath imagine that things could possibly have turned out otherwise."

Cass R. Sunstein, The World According To Star Wars, 2016.


"This just seemed a really lame attempt to top the Vader-thing..."

Mark Hamill (albeit playfully) on Return Of The Jedi's reveal that Luke and Leia are siblings.


So. You know what this is about, yeah? Structural plausibility. Despite this and other posts on the subject*2, I'm fine with the in-universe explanation that "somehow Palpatine returned". That gap will be filled in sooner rather than later through comics and novels, by creators who will squeeze and retcon and sand down the corners, and I look forward to devouring those in due course. But even when the eventual backstory arrives, it won't make up for the feeling that there is no structural justification for the return of Frank Palpatine*3 in this movie.

There is no through-line with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi which makes the return of Palpatine seem inevitable. Hell, there's not even a suggestion that he's off in the Unknown Regions, biding his time until he can pop out and surprise General Organa. Something big is coming, that much is clear from Snoke's demise halfway through the second chapter rather than at the end of the third, but Rian Johnson had pointed away from JJ Abrams' wholesale recycling of the Original Trilogy.


This Sequel Trilogy has been about characters living in the shadow of Darth Vader, not Sidious. Vader is, after all, the defining image of Episodes IV-VI and the point at which Episodes I-III climaxed (as also evidenced by the marketing material for Revenge Of The Sith). The films are about the rise-and-fall-and-rise of Anakin Skywalker and his offspring, hence the numbered series being referred to (in the marketing push for Episode IX) as The Skywalker Saga™.

And although The Chosen One himself has been notably absent from the Sequel Trilogy, his presence continues to be felt. While Anakin was redeemed at the end of Return Of The Jedi*4, the legacy of his actions while aligned with the Sith has continued to plague his children. Luke's own bumpy ascent to Jedi Knighthood carried on into his failure and self-imposed exile following the rise of Kylo Ren, with him eager not to fall into the same depths of failure as his father by striving for perfection long past the point of it being attainable. Leia, meanwhile, was effectively hounded out of the New Republic once her lineage became public, the perceived scandal too potent even for a leader of her demonstrable skill.

And let's not forget Ben Solo of course, the last of the Skywalker bloodline and heir to that troubled crown. Still clinging to the malformed relic of his grandfather's armour, Solo has been manipulated as Kylo Ren in grasping for the unreachable. Because as we now know, even if Anakin has been floating around the aether since the Battle Of Endor, he hasn't been checking his voicemail. Messages Kylo has heard through the melted helmet of his idol have come from Palpatine; Anakin Skywalker is out of office. So while there have indeed been "some Skywalkers" in this section of The Skywalker Saga™, the story has been (loosely, admittedly) around them dealing with the fallout of being related to one of the Galaxy's most notorious war criminals.

Episodes I-VIII have indeed been The Skywalker Saga. But with Palpatine's return? You could say that since The Phantom Menace opens with a ruthlessly ambitious senator, Return Of The Jedi closes with a deposed dictator and The Rise Of Skywalker shows that an emperor isn't just for Christmas, the nine films have arguably have been The Palpatine Saga™.


The whole sudden inclusion of Grandad Palps to create a sense of circularity feels like - with the very best will in the world - fan fiction. Abrams gets away with it because of how fantastic Ridley, Driver and McDiarmid handle the material, but other than two very brief exchanges in the Rebel base and a line from Luke on Ahch-To, it's not even mentioned elsewhere in the film. Exegol is fixated on at great length, as is the Sith sat-nav which was left in the Death Star's stationery cupboard, but the Emperor himself really feels like a last-minute addition.

Wanting to immerse myself fully in the world of the new film while it's still on at the cinema, I have of course bought the Visual Dictionary. It's a hive of context and background information, from the unspoken names of droids to geological features of the new planets. The planet Exegol gets a two-page spread in the 200-page book including pictures, as well as numerous references throughout. The Emperor does not. By which I mean that Emperor Palpatine, a pivotal figure in Star Wars Episode IX, does not have a separate entry and does not have any pictures in a large-size, 200-page reference book covering the film. Exegol is referred to as "a Sith planet", and notes in the text of the book make mention of the mysterious leader consolidating his power-base there, but named pointers to Palpatine are scarce and only occur within the text - ie a feature which could be added relatively late in the design-cycle. It's almost as if Palpatine himself was an aspect added later in the production of the film, so author Pablo Hidalgo and DK Publishing made his presence as vague as possible.


The Star Wars podcast Rebel Force Radio recently mentioned a rumour that the only cast members on-set who knew of Palpatine's return (for the majority of filming) were Ridley, Driver and McDiarmid. Could all this have been in a bid to avoid the leaking of spoilers? Or because it just hadn't been finalised? The Emperor's laugh was in April's teaser trailer and his face was on the main poster from August, but those are both relatively late-in-the-day when it comes to making a movie of this scale for a December release. Was the actual, physical, in-the-flesh Emperor decided upon this late?

And while that sounds unfeasible, keep in mind that the addition of Maul into the Solo film was made well after principal photography had finished. Actress Emilia Clarke didn't know which character was going to be on the other end of that call, having only delivered her half of the dialogue on-set. Obviously Palpatine's role in The Rise Of Skywalker is far greater, but it's certainly not much more interactive with the majority of the cast.

When you watch the movie next, take note of Driver's reaction-heavy lines on Exegol near the beginning. He could be delivering those to any hidden Sith Lord. Even some of the later ones from Rey feel vague taken out of context. This film makes a point of showing how one half of a conversation can be reverse-engineered, in the way it includes Carrie Fisher's Force Awakens scenes. It would have been equally possible to have had the Final Order's mastermind revealed in the form of Exar Kun, Darth Bane, The Son from Force-planet Mortis, or even a twisted reanimation of Darth Vader, brought back to life through Ben Solo's continued meddling in the Force*5. Hell, this is meant to be The Skywalker Saga™ after all.

But they went for Palpatine.
And that's cool.

I'm just not buying that it was the game-plan all along.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
The Star Wars.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
That one's up for debate, but probably not.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
We will 'discuss at length', largely because I won't let you talk about anything else (other than a brief sojourn into Watchmen, probably).

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I can tell.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: It is Star Wars.

...but if you wanted to go around the houses with it, The Rise Of Skywalker stars Mark Hamill, who lent his voice to the 2019 animation Go Fish along with Ron Perlman, whose tones also cropped up in The Book Of Life with those of Diego Luna, the actor who provided voice-work for the 'Poltergasm' episode of American Dad as did Bradley Baker, a regular on Phineas And Ferb alongside Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who was in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials with Alan Tudyk, who gave a vocal performance in the 2016 game Master Of Orion: Conquer The Stars, as did... Mark Hamill.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Although it's not Broadchurch. Even if Huyang and L3-37 are in that. [ BACK ]

*2 Oh, do not believe I'm done with this, just because I'm writing about it here for pretty much the third time in a month. Today's sermon is going to be the gift which keeps on giving, I assure you. [ BACK ]

*3 When someone tells you who they are, - listen -. [ BACK ]

*4 And if the Emperor wasn't properly killed then, that whole redemption is called into some question, surely? [ BACK ]

*5 Or if that's too dark, how about the appearance of Anakin's Force-spirit to Ben on Kef-Bir, instead of the Han Solo sequence? Han is a nice touch, but is a little out of kilter with the previous eight films. How much more powerful would it be for the true Anakin to finally make contact, reassuring his grandson that the light is the path he's supposed to be on (albeit better late than never)? [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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