Sunday, December 22, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the best Star Wars

WARNING: Some spoilers for previous Star Wars films, but none for The Rise of Skywalker.

It's been so long since I've written anything here that my browser didn't even autocomplete the link for me. But I've got some strong feelings about this, and a need to counter, in whatever small way I can, the narrative I see developing in the media around Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker since its release. Because this is a great Star Wars movie, and I can't be friends with you if you think otherwise.

I've seen every "numbered" Star Wars movie in theaters at its initial release. Saw the original in 1977 when I was 5, before it even had "Episode IV" attached to the crawl. Played with all the toys that are now worth thousands of dollars (I don't own any of the valuable ones anymore). Saw the special editions in theaters too, then the prequels at midnight showings on the day of their respective releases. Preordered tickets to The Force Awakens when it came out and then wrote about it here afterwards. Did the same for The Last Jedi and talked about it on my YouTube channel.

What I'm saying is that I am a lifelong Star Wars fan, and I've been in "the moment" for every Star Wars release. This isn't something I came to late, and out of context. Not that I think that's some sort of litmus test for fandom, but there is a kind of flow and societal and political connection to Star Wars that I think is unfortunately missing for those who didn't live through each release at the time. Again, that's fine! It's nobody's fault if they happened to be born after 1977, or just didn't feel like watching until later, and many of those people still become huge fans of the series. But I do get the sense in some of the negative reviews I've seen for this particular release (as well as The Last Jedi before it) that most of that context is missing for those particular critics. It's almost as if every one of these films exists in a vacuum for them, and they see neither the purpose of these films nor the connection they share with the audience, whatever's going on in the world at the time, and each other.

If you haven't gathered from the subtext above, or you're just living under some kind of rock, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn't getting great reviews, despite being a great fucking movie. And I'm pretty annoyed about that. Now, Star Wars has always had critical problems, and they've always been annoying. But never has the disconnect been so great as it is now, with almost certainly the best of all the Star Wars movies getting some of its worst reviews. Star Wars movies have become polarizing, with people (including critics) liking or disliking them for reasons that have nothing to do with the story - and that wasn't really the case before The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi broke Star Wars - not for the idiotic reasons some people say, but because it turned what's supposed to be and always was a simple, fun morality tale into something complicated that people get emotional and angry about. (I guess that includes me.)

So let me spell out what Star Wars is, and is not - at least at its best, but also generally.

First, Star Wars is NOT:
  • High art
  • Satire
  • Subversive
  • Challenging
  • Particularly innovative (you could argue that the original was, although not very convincingly since it borrowed heavily - in some cases almost shot for shot - from many other films.)
It is:
  • Traditional feel-good, fun, moralistic escapism in a sci-fi, fantasy fairy tale setting.
You can argue that it should be all the things it's not - and many have! George Lucas may have even eventually wanted it to be those things (though he certainly did not in the beginning).

But it isn't. It never has been. So why expect it to be now?

You can also argue that it's not always the one thing that it actually is. And that's true! But the Star Wars movies that haven't been as fun, or as feel-good, or as escapist, are generally considered the worst of the Star Wars films (I'm looking at you, prequels). Not every Star Wars film is good, but the ones that are generally share that same trait.

The exceptions - at least by reputation - are The Empire Strikes Back and, to go outside the episodic films, Rogue One. But the former isn't really as bleak as people once thought it was (it's practically a Pixar film in tone compared to any of the prequels, or Rogue One) and the latter... well, go watch it again. Is it really as good as you first thought it was? I don't mind it overall, but it's got a lot of problems. One of them is that it doesn't particularly feel like a Star Wars movie, but more like an obvious ripoff of one. And one of the reasons for that is that (spoiler!) everybody dies.

Some said the same about The Force Awakens, but I loved it. I loved the new characters (especially Rey) and that it "got" Star Wars, which no movie since Return of the Jedi really had, including the Lucas-directed prequels! I felt the same watching it as I remember feeling as a kid watching the original film.

I was conflicted about The Last Jedi. My main problem with it was that half the movie just went nowhere. Rian Johnson seemed to want to show that failure was indeed possible for the "good guys" in this universe (his only justification for it since the film's release is that he wanted to "defy expectations"), but this doesn't really work in a series like this where one film leads into another, nor is it even very easy to do in any kind of satisfying way in a standalone film either. The audience doesn't want to invest itself in a plot only to see it unravel and fizzle out 50 minutes later. I went to film school - this is literally day one stuff. You just don't waste the audience's time - that will annoy them!

I also didn't like that (spoiler!) Luke died, and thought the way of his passing was just idiotic, not to mention lacking in... something. Pomp and circumstance? I dunno; this was literally the most important character in the entire series, and he just... disappears? Alone? Nah. Rewrite! I don't understand how this even got past the approval process. I do think Luke's character should have been given more respect, and really shouldn't have died at all - even at the time, it clearly was going to mess up the narrative for the following film (which it did, according to Maryann Brandon, Rise of Skywalker's editor).

And I just straight up didn't believe Kylo Ren when he told Rey her parents were "nobodies". I have no idea if this was Rian Johnson's intent, but it breaks all the tradition we know of in Star Wars for Rey to be as force-sensitive as she is without any lineage. And again, this is a series that has always relied on tradition. It is one of the central tenets of it. The Last Jedi seemed intent on telling us that everything we know about Star Wars is wrong. The problem is, without that tradition to serve as a foundation for this completely imaginary universe, everything just happens at random, which means nothing matters. This is also filmmaking 101 - standalone films don't need to be "realistic", but they do need an internal logic that holds true, and so do long-running series. Without being able to understand why things happen in a film, the audience ends up not caring about or really believing anything. Because at that point, there are no constraints besides whatever the hell the writer feels like vomiting up in the script - a script the audience can now see through, because their suspension of disbelief is gone.

I will say that I do not at all agree with the tiny but apparently pretty vocal contingent that was against minorities and women in the film. Some (probably) white guys are threatened by this for some reason - those are the kinds of guys I like to call "assholes". What really ticks me off, though, is that it gave critics an excuse to use straw man arguments about racism and misogyny against anyone who criticized The Last Jedi in any way, essentially allowing any and all legitimate criticism against the film to be dismissed as the rantings of extremists. Think the script had some obvious plot problems? Well, you're just a racist! (Or even a Russian troll.)

This had a threefold effect - first, it cemented in the critics' minds that they must be right about The Last Jedi (which they largely liked, specifically because it deconstructed what made Star Wars what it was); it also allowed them to turn it into a liberal vs. conservative political issue (which it most certainly isn't - yes, critics, you did that, not the fans, and I'm telling you this as a liberal Democrat). And it poisoned the well, changing expectations among those same critics and also some of the more casual fans for what the final film in the new trilogy would be. Some of them even seemed to root for the rest of what we know and love about the series to be torn down. I mean, what the actual fuck, guys?

So here we finally are with The Rise of Skywalker, the last film in the "Skywalker Saga" as it's now called, launching into this poisonous environment, where a lot of people are going to hate it no matter what. It's the close of what is for me personally a 40+ year journey through these films. It was going to take a lot to satisfy me, and there's just a lot of emotional weight there - it's (supposedly) really the end of something I've lived with for basically as long as I can remember anything. I've known Star Wars almost as long as I knew my parents.

And man, did this movie deliver! It is everything I wanted as a Star Wars fan. It fixed basically all the problems The Last Jedi introduced - at least to the point it could. It's basically JJ Abrams saying "ignore all that other bullshit; this is Star Wars in its purest form, just as you remember it." I laughed, I cried. (It's true!) At the end I clapped, as the entire audience did.

I'm not going to give away spoilers as I have for the other films, just because this one's new. But I just don't see how you can watch this movie, as a Star Wars fan, and say "meh, I was expecting more." More what?! On the other hand, some critics - and some fans - have criticized the movie for trying too hard to cover all the bases. My question to them is, what's wrong with that?! This is the end of the series - there are no more films to cover any bases that need covering! And this is one of the very few endings to anything that I can remember where - at least from what I can think of - all the answers were provided to everything you ever wanted to know (but, unlike Solo, for example, nothing you didn't). And it did that in a really satisfying, uplifting and fulfilling way.

In other words, the movie is total fanservice. As it should be!

This is not "toxic fandom", this is just fandom. Nobody calls fandom "toxic" when Marvel or DC movies give the fans what they want - why is Star Wars held to a different standard? The fans are the audience for these films - if they're not made for us, who are they made for?

Some people act as as if those of us who've spent 40+ years with this series would want anything but what amounts to a love letter to the fans, or deserve anything less. We are the ones who financed Star Wars! We are responsible for the series reaching a ninth numbered film! Not the naysayers and critics. It is our money that justified every single sequel since the original movie. The Rise of Skywalker is a Star Wars movie through and through, made for the fans, packing in more references, homages, and literally all of the major characters from every episodic Star Wars movie into one mega meta-Star Wars extravaganza. And it's awesome!

My wife told me after the movie ended that she thought those who didn't like it "have crossed to the dark side." She was joking, but I genuinely think she's right. You'd almost have to be a cynical, angry and/or depressed asshole to not like this movie, expecting a continuation of Rian Johnson's "subversion" of audience expectations ("most film plots have a point, so let's make one that doesn't!") that was out of place in the second-to-last film in this series and would be even moreso in the final film of all. All I can do is roll my eyes at those people. You're choosing a film that tears everything down not just about Star Wars but about basic storytelling in general over one that's as well-crafted as any blockbuster I've ever seen and presents an uplifting message that literally made everybody in my row of the theater verklempt. Sorry, but you're on the wrong side. You're the bad guys!

I mean, look - again, I spent four years getting a degree in cinema studies. I am a film critic by training. Which is just to say that by nature, I love challenging films. I love subversive films. And I've certainly seen my share of them, by choice. I believe that cinema is the art of the modern era. But Star Wars is not those things, at least not primarily. (I do think The Rise of Skywalker is more artistic than any other Star Wars film, but "artistic" actually means "like art" - whether it actually is art would be something I'd need to think and write about a lot longer than this.)

And I love it more than almost anything anyway. It is its own thing - almost a genre to itself. Don't expect The Rise of Skywalker to be otherwise, don't see it and end up disappointed that it does exactly what it sets out to do, and don't critique it as something it's not trying to be. That doesn't help anybody. And it doesn't make you sound smart. It just makes you sound like somebody who doesn't like fun, doesn't want to be uplifted, and hates everything that other people like. In other words, it makes you sound like a dope. Stop it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP