Is “Star Wars” Bad?

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GRAPHIC BY RIEL WHITTLE / THE FLAT HAT

Yes. Heavy spoilers ahead.

I waited a very long time to write anything about “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Partially because more skillful critics than I had already done it, and partially because I took so many notes during the showings that I knew I’d never be able to keep my usual style even remotely coherent without putting a lot of effort into planning. But I couldn’t stay away from it forever, because there’s just so much to talk about, and I have so many questions that were left unanswered. I mean, how did Kylo Ren live through that seemingly devastating tie fighter crash? Can the stormtroopers’ armor really not even withstand their own blasters? How did Zorii Bliss get off that doomed planet when she had given Poe her only means of escape? Where did the fully staffed crews of all those shiny new Final Order ships emerge from? Why is everyone an asshole to Threepio in this movie?

You know, just unimportant little details like that.

It seems as if this trilogy was chock full of unimportant little details, at least to the directors, who unceremoniously dropped some of the most interesting subplots of the franchise throughout the series, especially in J.J. Abrams’ two-and-a-half hour breakneck race to the finish line. I was particularly disappointed that no one managed to do anything remotely interesting with Finn’s defecting stormtrooper origins, which was in my opinion one of the best things about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” After my first viewing of ‘The Rise of Skywalker,’ my friend proposed an interesting idea: What if Finn had refused to kill stormtroopers? It would make sense, as watching his fellow troopers get murked was his reason for leaving the First Order to begin with. ‘The Rise of Skywalker,’ for some reason, was particularly concerned with showing us the idea that stormtroopers are people too; yet it also seemed to relish killing them off one after another. Even the Knights of Ren, teased since the beginning of the trilogy, made their first appearance only to remain unexplained, unimportant and to be killed off as if they were regular stormtroopers, too.

Poe’s subplot about respecting authority was also summarily dropped, and they made him the leader of the Rebellion without so much as a callback to his reckless behavior in the past, so there’s that. Rose, who was a major player in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” was unceremoniously and blatantly sidelined to undertake the extremely important mission of “studying the spec of old

Destroyers” because the fans didn’t like her. And to give in to the demands of the people who bullied Kelly Marie Tran off of social media is, in my opinion, an incredibly shoddy thing to do.

This also leads into the problem of Finn’s dropped romantic subplot; he ends up with no love interests, when he easily could have had any of three, including two main leads (well, one) and a female version of himself. There are four if you count Poe, which I do, since they clearly had the best chemistry of the bunch. But for a while, in this movie, it appeared that Finn was on the edge of confessing his love for Rey, before his “I have something to tell you” subplot was also dropped, with Abrams writing it off as a confession of Force abilities as a clumsy afterthought. Because when you’re about to drown in a quicksand patch eerily similar to the one from ‘The Force Awakens,’ your dying wish is definitely going to be to tell your Jedi friend about your Force sensitivity… Okay.

Since we’re already talking about characters who love Rey, maybe we should get into Kylo Ren’s highly anticipated character arc, while we’re at it. I think it’s safe to say he was an obvious favorite for many fans of the series, and he was done absolutely dirty in ‘The Rise of Skywalker.’ Because as fun as it was to watch Ben Solo run around in his Jedi pajamas using a blaster instead of a lightsaber, this movie is unbelievably emotionally constipated when it comes to Kylo. The script never seemed content to just let him talk. His dialogue is so minimal, we have such a tiny window into what he’s thinking about, that there’s not even time to get misty-eyed about it as an audience member. He didn’t have enough emotional beats for a convincing redemption, and he certainly didn’t have enough for a romantic subplot. Even in spite of the questionable (and let’s face it, criminal) actions of his past, I don’t think I’d have a huge problem with Rey and Kylo getting together if they’d been given half a second to sort out their feelings for each other. Making them kiss and then killing him off is the least committal way to canonize a ship I’ve ever seen. And on top of that, I was under the impression that Kylo’s whole deal would necessitate that he does not turn out like Vader, his tragic formal idol, and instead work through his issues and truly embrace the Light side. But instead, his redemption arc is textbook Vader. Like Anakin before him, Ben barely gets a chance to do good. We get half a smile from him, and then he’s gone, and it saves the writers the trouble of trying to figure out if he’s going to be executed for war crimes later.

Aside from the poor critical reception pre-release, I didn’t enter the theater expecting to hate this movie. There was actually a very specific point in the movie where I stopped enjoying it — when Hux revealed himself to be the spy. Was it just me that expected Hux to rise up in Snoke’s absence and become the main villain of the series? I don’t think it was; it seemed pretty clear that his bitter rivalry with Kylo would make him the perfect antagonist once Kylo joined the Light side. But rather than following through with what was perfectly set up in ‘The Force Awakens,’ ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ boiled Hux’s personality down to “I hate Kylo,” used him as a plot device, and then threw him away. I’ve never even particularly taken to this character, but all that

setup was absolutely wasted in favor of digging up Palpatine. After my first watch, the insertion of Admiral Pryde into the places where Hux so clearly belonged was so blatantly awkward that I was certain this new guy was a character from one of the old trilogies that I had totally forgotten about. In my mind, there was simply no other reason why he would have been necessary. But Pryde was created as a red herring, and in doing so was put in the position I always thought it was Hux’s destiny to be. It was confusing, it was disappointing, it was “oh well, at least we got to hear Palpatine say ‘do it’ one last time.”

I think part of the reason this film is so bad is because the plot is so god-damn frantic that it doesn’t leave any room for some peace and quiet. The things I ended up actually liking about the movie were the small, inconsequential character and setting details — D0, Babu Frick, the festival on Pasana. If the plot had the decency to slow down for a moment and enjoy these details, it’d make for a much better movie. This was one of ‘The Force Awakens’s’ strengths, and what leads me to believe that it’s still the best movie of this trilogy. ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ tries to imitate the previous trilogy while somehow simultaneously flat-out forgetting all that is good about “Star Wars.” And that, I believe, is how Rey ended up dumping Luke and Leia’s lightsabers on Tattooine, a planet that Luke felt stifled and imprisoned on and Leia was literally enslaved on, instead of passing the weapons on to new Jedi (as is the actual customary thing to do with lightsabers without owners). We just had to see that double sunset one more god-damn time I guess.

Speaking of Rey doing things for no reason, our hero abandons her friends so many times in this movie to go do reckless Jedi stunts, and it got to the point where I was over it. Rey a la ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ was written to please everyone. She was someone, she was no one, she was a Palpatine, she was a Skywalker. The only semblances of her former personality I caught from this film were her little slide down the sand dune at the end, and the part where she chooses a staff over a saber. I quite liked Rey as a character in the other two movies, but this movie didn’t endear me to her all over again. The most logical place her story could have gone after her discovery that her parents were nothing special in ‘The Last Jedi’ would have been an arc of establishing her worth as a Jedi in her own right, which of course was always very nicely juxtaposed against celebrity baby Kylo Ren’s obvious mommy/daddy issues. But in ‘The Rise of Skywalker,’ it’s pretty apparent from the get-go that her plot is going to read like bad fanfiction. I never thought I’d end up comparing “Star Wars” to the likes of Disney’s “Descendants” trilogy, but they were pretty reminiscent in that major characters are defined solely by their connection to their relatives from older and more recognizable stories. I guess they’re both products from the same House of Mouse, but after ‘The Last Jedi’ very clearly showed us that Jedi can come from any background, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ seems to reinforce the prequellian idea of needing to be special in order to use the Force.

I was happy, before, when it seemed like Rey was going to have to come to grips with the fact that she wasn’t part of some important legacy. But if she was going to have a famous relative, at least it was someone solidly on the Dark side. I thought it was a missed opportunity, not to really explore the potential of evil Rey in this film; it would make her fear of herself a lot more justifiable. Even the benevolent effects of her force healing abilities could have been portrayed as an act of the Sith if the movie hadn’t been afraid to swing a little morally gray — what if the Jedi didn’t approve of messing with the balance between life and death? The consequences of Rey’s actions tended to reverse themselves — Chewie is revealed to be alive, Ben brings her back from the death, etc. What if, instead of “killing” Chewie, the First Order ravages the planet of Pasana during their important holiday, which would actually have lasting consequences? Or if, instead of killing herself in a Harry-Potter-like lightsaber measuring contest, Rey allowed herself to go through with Palpatine’s demands, and instead took him down from the inside, thus proving that she wasn’t afraid of her lineage by using her Jedi strength to exploit a loophole in his plan. Maybe then, Ben could’ve lived.

I think the root of most of the movie’s major issues comes from the change in directors — J.J. Abrams is very clearly trying to retcon all of the things he disliked about Rian Johnson’s ‘The Last Jedi.’ I stand by the fact that Johnson is a competent writer and director, and I thoroughly enjoyed the eighth film both times I saw it. I thought the same of J.J. Abrams, until he refused to take Johnson’s changes in stride and wrote the ninth episode as if the eighth never happened. ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is an attempt to address the controversy of ‘The Last Jedi’ — a movie clearly not built for fanservice — by injecting more fanservice into it. Anything Johnson tried to change that deviated from Abrams’ vision, Abrams addressed and swiftly reversed in ‘The Rise of Skywalker.’ Luke threw his saber away? Well, now he catches it, and tells Rey that she needs to treat the Jedi’s weapon with respect. Kylo destroyed his helmet and symbolically crushed his idol worship of Vader? Well, he welds it back together awkwardly and mimics Vader’s character arc. Nobody came to help the Rebels? Don’t worry, thousands of randoms are coming to help this time because they owe Lando Calrisian favors or something. Oh, Rey’s parents are nobodies? Well actually, they simply chose to be nobodies, because her grandfather is Palpatine, so she’s actually the most important person in the galaxy right now. They killed off Admiral Ackbar? Don’t worry about that either, he’s got a son named Ackbar Junior who looks and sounds exactly like him. It’s excessive to the point of absolute ridiculousness. That new Kylo mask could serve as a representation of the movie as a whole — it’s just clumsily trying to reconstruct the plot threads made impossible by ‘The Last Jedi.’

Side note here: What sucks the most is that, even though it’s obvious that Abrams despised episode eight, some of the best scenes in this movie make use of the concepts introduced in ‘The Last Jedi’ — particularly, any coolness that took place as a result of Rey and Kylo’s Force dyad. The fight scenes where elements of their separate environments shifted between them, the scene where Kylo snatches off Rey’s necklace, Rey’s insane saber handoff to the newly-turned Ben — none of that could have happened without Johnson’s vision, so I’m just going to continue to defend it.

But despite how much I liked ‘The Last Jedi,’ the reason I actually think ‘The Force Awakens’ is the best movie of the series is that it’s the only one that felt like there was a plan, an end goal in mind. It’s clear to me now that, level of competency aside, the writers had no idea where these characters were going to end up at the end of the trilogy, and it’s just a shame, considering the promise of the first movie, of a new adventure to enjoy within a modernized “Star Wars” world that looked more like our own. ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ undertakes the hefty responsibility of tying all of these loose plot threads together at the last minute, and it fails. It makes the biggest reveal in the opening crawl. There isn’t a single effective emotional arc, even for the characters that aren’t unceremoniously relegated to the sidelines. It’s just a big-budget search for space MacGuffins punctuated with upsetting Carrie Fisher B-roll that culminates in the most nonsensical deus ex machina I’ve ever seen. The only thing in this movie that seemed planned and calculated was where to hide the gay couple so that they could easily be removed by censors overseas.

The most surprising part of all of this is that I’m not really angry about any of it (which I guess may be surprising, if you’ve just read my entire rant). It’s just that at this point in my blogging career, I’m not certain I even care if my space escapism is good or bad, as long as I can have a good discussion about it afterwards. ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ has sparked some excellent discussions — and it’s forced me to reckon with two facts: that “Star Wars” isn’t infallible, and that “Star Wars” isn’t mine. They’re not obligated to create the kind of content I want to see. And the content I get is not always going to be good. And… that’s okay.

(I can hear the people who went to see the prequels in theaters laughing at me. I beg of you, previously disappointed generation of “Star Wars” fans, let me finish.)

So at the very least, I thank “The Rise of Skywalker” for giving me a lot of things to talk about. And this definitely won’t be the last time I write about “Star Wars.” Because there will be more movies from Disney in the future, and I think it’s safe to say that they won’t wait 30 years this time.

So, see you then.