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Film Review: The Rise of Skywalker was great, actually

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

As the internet battles over whether The Last Jedi was the best way for the series to go (nearly 2 years later), The Rise of Skywalker has finally hit theaters and ended the 9 movie Star Wars series. There were ups and there were downs, but the battle between Jedi and Sith has come to a close.

J.J. Abrams brought a thoughtful conclusion to the series that wrapped up most loose-ends and provided closure on a number of pressing questions, while still leaving some storylines wide-open for any future adaptations or side stories. The ride to the end was an emotional one that Rey (Daisy Ridley) played well. I felt the emotions take over me numerous times as she struggled with her final mission.

The original Star Wars trilogy was a story of family and friendship. The bond between Luke, Leia, and Han Solo is found in the new cast and despite being sent on different paths in The Last Jedi, its comforting to see the gang join back up for the last battle against the dark side.

The Last Jedi actually did a good job of helping Finn and Rey grow into their new personas and J.J. Abrams did a great job of working in what happened in TLJ into The Rise of Skywalker instead of completely undoing what happened in the last installment, like Rian Johnson did to The Force Awakens. The continuity issues created in the last movie create a time crunch that does make the movie a non-stop action and emotion journey, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Critics pan this as a move to undo what Johnson did in the prior installment, which they found to be a breath of fresh air from light saber battles and space battles, but that’s what Star Wars is. People complaining about Jedis and light sabers should probably find another movie to watch in their free time like Knives Out.

Star Wars has a loyal fan base that Lucasfilm massively upset in the prior installment that set Jedi trees on fire and brought Yoda in to tell fans to shut up and let their childhoods go. Disney decided to reverse course after Solo bombed at the box office and go back to the fans and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Star Wars is a Skywalker family story. From Anakin Skywalker to Ben Solo, they are the fabric and lore that make Star Wars core. The Rise of Skywalker rightfully celebrates that with an all-star ensemble from the past and further pushes the new cast into their future.

There are parallels to the past, but also notable changes that show growth and change in the force. I was most impressed again with Kylo Ren or Ben Solo. He went from a spoiled brat in the first movie to someone I could finally empathize with. His tragic circumstances and lonely life are far from the direct family he comes from, but well-connected to his grandfather Anakin Skywalker who shamefully destroyed all the love and family he had in his life trying to save his love. Ben makes a different choice and the galaxy is better for it.

Throughout all of The Rise of Skywalker, life and death are constantly in the balance. The Star Destroyer kill machines destroy entire planets, while the cast all fight for their own survival in one way or another. Not everyone is victorious, but despite all the challenges, what the audience gets is a true story that has a beginning, middle, and end. That was no easy task for someone handed a story where everything means nothing and all the meaning from the first part of the trilogy was erased, but J.J. Abrams successfully delivered that.

In a way the movie does feel like all the fan predictions come to life in one way or another (minus the Jar Jar Binks is Snoke theory), but all the processes that lead there make sense from a story telling point of view and are explained in ways that are both reasonable and rational.

In contrast, the prior installment was often irrational and threw complete chaos into the trilogy. Some people may view that as art, but it is actually just bad storytelling. The blame for this mostly rests on Lucasfilm who did not creatively control the projects and allowed them to spin out of control. That’s the only local explanation for having Snoke introduced a villain and somehow ending with Palpatine as the big bad guy (non-fans probably don’t even know who he is).

The explanation of Palpatine as the bad force that existed all along makes sense to anyone who has ever finished a long series in an anime, where the big bad is actually just reincarnations of prior villains – the dark energy is just moving between bodies and constantly coming to kill off the heroes until it is finally vanquished. Palpatine is both creepy and convincing as an all powerful bad guy. When he first appeared I was shook.

It would have been easy to just turn Kylo Ren into a loyal and submissive Vader clone, but his constant resistance against any form of control is refreshing. Kylo Ren is complex, but Ben Solo’s love for his mother is something that anyone can relate it. One of the moments in the Last Jedi that most struck me was the hesitation Kylo showed before his mother’s ship was destroyed. It was very human, no matter how strained we always feel a bond to the woman who gave birth to us. Kylo always felt beyond redemption or saving, but it was his mothers love that eventually led him to the light within in the Rise of Skywalker. Its in the nature of mothers to love their sons no matter what, and Leia spent her whole life believing in her son. That was very real.

Rey on the other hand is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker and is quite naive, but her friends and experiences help to strengthen her and make her a much more cunning person. She is the ultimate hero, willing to sacrifice anything to save her friends, but also wanting love, a family, and home.

Luke and Leia both take Rey under their wing throughout this trilogy and the ending of this movie so perfectly shows that family is the people that love you, not necessarily your blood. Rey’s loneliness in The Force Awakens and her timeless friendships and love at the end of The Rise of Skywalker show strong character development, growth, and a story well told. She has changed completely by the end and anyone who watched all three will feel that journey.

The Rise of Skywalker is also filled with plenty of laughs thanks to C-3PO, Poe Dameron, R2-D2, Chewbacca, and others in the cast. Although the storyline is very serious, it never becomes too serious to handle and the constant action helps to keep the movie from becoming too dramatic as well.

Although the movie is 142 minutes, they mostly breeze by and that is hard to say about many movies nowadays that waste time with pointless scenes and backstories that nobody wants to watch. The Rise of Skywalker is well-edited and seamlessly moves from one scene to the next. The Last Jedi noticeably wasted time with a ridiculous and laughably bad no fuel space chase as well as missions gone wrong with Poe, Rose, and Finn.

I personally would have loved some more scenes between Rey and Finn, its understandable that their paths are fundamentally different though. The Rise of Skywalker never fails to remind us that Rey is very important to Finn though and so is the force and resistance. This movie is about a war that has wrecked the lives of many including the main cast and the battle comes first.

Personally, I’ll go back to watch The Rise of Skywalker again and again. It’s a fitting ending for the series. Fans and critics can battle online, but there’s no denying that the laughably badly acted prequels have nothing on this trilogy that found its footing in the end.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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Film Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was one of my most anticipated films of 2017. There were numerous unexpected great films this year though and in the end Star Wars: The Last Jedi was good, but not great.

During my first viewing of the film, I was overwhelmed with all the things happening. The Last Jedi had multiple intertwining plots that ironically ended up taking us nowhere by the end. A second-viewing providing more clarity and focus to me.

Let’s start off with the good: Kylo Ren. When I saw The Force Awakens in 2015, I was unimpressed with Kylo Ren. He was that typical Disney Channel star. Completely whiny. Annoying. Lacks depth. We knew he was “conflicted”, but without clarifications from Abrams – it wasn’t clear why this kid was throwing tantrums every 5 minutes and why any of it should matter to the audience. The Darth Vader wannabe. The Last Jedi developed Kylo Ren better.

This film humanizes Kylo Ren. When he hesitates to kill his mother. When you realize he is really lonely and feels abandoned by his family. When he suggests that he wants to run away from who he is to be someone else. Those are things people can relate to much more than just crying all the time about your daddy issues that nobody wants to hear. He is still terrible, but at least now you can understand why.

Rey wants to believe in Kylo Ren switching sides and by the time you get to their epic fight scene with Snoke and his bodyguards, some part of you wants to believe Kylo Ren too. It takes acting skill to be able to mislead an audience in that kind of way. I wanted to believe.

Then he throws away all your hope puts it in a trash can. That’s actually a good metaphor for The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi takes all your expectations for a Star Wars sequel and throws them all away. The entire legacy and history literally goes up in flames. Rian Johnson brought back Yoda in a play to get fans to let the past go and move on from the Star Wars they once knew.

Star Wars without Jedi isn’t Star Wars though. People go to the movies to watch lightsaber battles. They love the Skywalker family. They have poured billions of dollars of support into it. Would you really pay to go see a movie without them? Disney is testing the field for this in The Last Jedi and it was divisive as evidenced by the abysmal Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score that is miraculously now worse than the prequels.

There is nothing worse than having a creator disrespect something you love and if watching Han Solo die in The Force Awakens was difficult, The Last Jedi turns the dial to 100.

Luke Skywalker further exemplifies this wish to exit the history and legacy of Star Wars. Luke like his father Anakin were the basis for all things Star Wars. We have known Luke as a force for good, who never stops believing in the power of good. The dude didn’t even get a girlfriend because he was too busy saving the universe.

The Last Jedi almost feels like a fan-fiction tale where Luke is now an angry, hermit man. Luke abandoned his family, friends, and the universe. This isn’t the Luke we know. His final battle with Kylo Ren ends up being both epic and then disappointing when he survives all the attacks and we find out he isn’t actually there. The moment of hope we get for him and the film quickly ends when he dies right afterward and just vanishes into the sunset.

For the second time – audiences are forced to watch an icon who survived an epic war in the original trilogy go down without any real struggle. It’s frankly insulting. It probably would have been better to never introduce those characters back if they were going to die in this kind of way. I’m sure the lead characters could have been developed without staining the legacy that brought them here.

This brings us to Luke’s successor: Rey. The Force Awakens set the audience up to believe Rey has an epic life planned ahead. She went from wandering alone on Jakku to befriending Han Solo, Princess Leia, and even training with Luke Skywalker in one movie. Then The Last Jedi throws the entire thing out the window.

Kylo tells Rey that she is a Nobody. Irrelevant. Running against pretty much everything that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi has led us to believe. Is that inspiring? Not really. We’ve been following a nobody with a lightsaber who has no legacy and no real mission. She has received no real training. Her allies are pretty much decimated. Now what? The movie never tells us.

Now to the numerous plot holes in The Last Jedi. There are many.

Finn and Rose go on a pointless mission that leads nowhere and actually ends up making things worse for the Rebels. The relationship between the two feels forced and their journey hardly has anything to do with the rest of the movie.

Poe Dameron only really brings value in the first few minutes of the movie. His intertwining storyline with Finn is uninspiring and his arguments with the Rebels are also boring. This movie may have had the least epic battles in space of any Stars Wars movie and that is disappointing. The final battle Poe was in was shockingly unexciting. If you compare this to Rogue One it is a world of difference.

Luke Skywalker hardly trains Rey. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi both emphasize this island that Luke lives on often and pan across the island regularly, but the events on the island are almost irrelevant. Rey hardly gets 3 lessons from Luke but nearly an hour there. She could have had her telepathic conversations with Kylo while actually doing something interesting somewhere else. At least she takes the Jedi books with her.

The spaceship chase plot is as boring as it is ridiculous. It feels quite like a bad episode of television. The numerous explanations for why the storyline even exists are confusing as heck. The First Order can track ships in lightspeed? The Rebels have no fuel, but just enough to last almost the entire film? Leia has an escape plan – or does she? Poe is taking over the ship, but then isn’t? In the end none of it matters because pretty much the entire Rebel group is eliminated by the time they reach Crait. The entire space chase could have been 20 minutes instead of 2 hours and the scenes of Crait could have instead lead to an epic showdown with Snoke if this movie was edited correctly.

The botched Snoke death is really interesting. Kylo Ren and Rey kill off Snoke and his guards without much adieu. This can work in storylines where the ascending villain is actually a big bad (see The Defenders with Elektra). However, Kylo Ren is still just as weak and bratty as before and we just spent time humanizing him – not making him sinister. It isn’t clear what would make him into a villain you fear. The reason villains normally develop over time is to create sense of urgency for the audience that a big challenge is ahead.

Plot and pacing issues are spread throughout. These are things that you will notice more and more as you dissect this film.

Episode IX could spend time fixing many of the issues that Episode VIII created. That would be less time to enjoy a juicy ending to this trilogy though that might not recover from this filler episode.

Don’t get me wrong – this film is still watchable. The Last Jedi has great acting, cinematography, and a wonderful soundtrack. Unfortunately, this could have all been utilized better if the writing was better.

It doesn’t make it great. I watched the prequels afterwards to see if the fan anger matched up, I still believe the prequels are inferior to The Last Jedi. Mainly because the acting and casting is so hilariously bad in the prequels. The Last Jedi is not cheesy or badly acted, it just suffers from what seems to be a complete shift in the force that wasn’t clearly or correctly presented to the audience.

So – Does The Last Jedi take Star Wars to the next level of cinema? Not quite.

Score: 7 out 10