Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Rise of Skywalker

So some general thoughts on the last entry in the rocky journey of the sequels. One thing I've found with reviews and the like for the movie is that you really have to divide off considerations of integral storytelling from fan-fiction preferences; it is one of the serious failures of our modern storytelling culture that people have difficulty distinguishing the two, with the result that they spin off into the narrative equivalent of sports-teams rather than looking at the movies themselves.

(1) The movie is quite watchable. It is in some ways more cinematic than The Last Jedi, the musical score is truly impressive, and the character interactions are often quite good.

(2) It is not entirely coherent as a story, but much more than one has come to expect from J. J. Abrams.

(3) Let's talk about the big issue in the room, namely, J. J. Abrams's handling of Rian Johnson's completely unprofessional scuttling of every major plot point that Abrams had built up in The Force Awakens. Essentially, Abrams attempts clumsily to revert things, but I think it's fair to say that (for the most part) he is far and away more faithful to The Last Jedi than Johnson was to The Force Awakens. TFA laid out a mystery to be unraveled about Rey's family, and one that is all the more significant given her extraordinary facility with the Force; TLJ said there was no mystery, they were just unknown strangers. TFA built up Snoke as the threat behind the scenes; TLJ killed him with no obvious villain in the wings. TFA made the finding of Luke Skywalker a central point; TLJ fortunately did not make this completely pointless, but it did sideline it, and instead of building smoothly on it, we got Luke curmudgeoning for most of the movie until he sails in as the deus ex machina and dies. (Skywalker men whining about things is, alas, one of the ways TLJ was most faithful to everything that went before; it was one of the great disappointments that TLJ shows Luke not merely having made a grievous mistake but having done so without any of the wisdom and maturity that he had shown he had developed in the original trilogy.) TROS does not do quite so badly with TLJ, although the seams are occasionally more than a bit clumsy. Kylo obiwan-kenobis the claim about Rey's family; this is handled crudely, but was workable in itself because the audience had no particular reason to think that Kylo was being honest to begin with. TROS tries to introduce an appropriate villain while nonetheless explaining Snoke; it's done in an immensely clumsy way, and we don't get much more explanation of Palpatine's return than that he's Palpatine, but it was at least done, and there wasn't much else to work with. Some people have noted that Johnson wrote Abrams into a corner, and this is one of the things they meant: a third movie in a trilogy with a hero-villain structure needs the villain of the third movie to be an impressive villain we have built up to in some way. TLJ left us with apparently no options except Kylo, who narratively is a better choice for a redemption-path than for the big bad to which the story had been building. Abrams also attempts to do something with the deaths of Han and Luke, and ends up not doing too badly, I think; when people say that Johnson wrote Abrams into a corner, this is another of the things they often mean, and it is true that Abrams had few options here -- something has to be made of them, and it becomes all the more serious given that Carrie Fisher's death limited what could be done with Leia.

(4) Unfortunately, the result is that TROS seems a bit rushed and overcrowded in its structure, with the result that neither of two strengths of the prior movies (the Finn-Rey friendship in TFA and the Rey-Kylo relationship in TLJ) gets a fully appropriate consummation; they aren't completely shortchanged, but ideally they would have been developed more. There were other things that were good about TROS itself that weren't fully developed because the movie was overcrammed with things: Rose Tico here was an interesting character that it would have been good to see more of; Poe stepping into responsibility; Finn finding a fellow traveler; Rey's struggle over Palpatine-ness.

(5) Some things that were a bit stupid: physical transference across force visions, parts of the quest to get the Sith dagger translated (but at least this gave C-3PO a significant role to play), an obvious insufficiency of R2-D2 in the context of Abrams's appeal-to-nostalgia homages (R2 is the single most consistent hero in the entire series; sidelining him here didn't make much sense given everything else that was done). And what is it with Palpatine's obsession with planet-killers? But there was nothing in this movie that was narratively stupid on the scale of Rose freeing the animals but leaving the children in slavery, or Holdo refusing to inform her people of a plan that absolutely required swift, effective, and flawless preparation even when it was obvious that they were cracking from confusion about what they were supposed to be doing.

(6) Everybody staring at C-3PO's excited and irrelevant cultural commentary on the festival was the single best C-3PO moment we've had since the original trilogy. I found it the most genuinely comic moment in the movie.

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