“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker”: The Third Series Finale

Episode 9 wreckage!

Our cast ponders life after Episode VIII’s messy deconstruction.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: 91 previous entries on this site bear a “Star Wars” tag, signifying that George Lucas’ beloved universe has been a major part of our entire lives, from the films to the books to the music to the fanfic to the conventions, including our all-time greatest celebrity encounter, which in turn led to that time Star Wars got me interviewed on local TV. Star Wars has been kind of a big deal in our household.

But we’re not unwavering, unconditional fans nowadays. Star Wars products have been a mixed bag over the past several years. Some fandom sects presume the far-faraway galaxy jumped the shark when Lucas sold the deed to Disney and Kathleen Kennedy took over as Lucasfilm president and Chief Scapegoated Officer. I have to wonder if said shortsighted fans have totally forgotten the prequels, The Lando Calrissian Adventures, or that time The Clone Wars ruined Quinlan Vos. Anne and I have been recently mulling over whether or not to continue keeping up with Marvel’s tie-in comics, and her attention to the New Canon novels has been intermittent, but we’ll still brake for their major theatrical events, for better or worse.

Hence my lack of enthusiasm. The last such experience was the unnecessary Solo, among my least favorite films of 2018. As for the Sequel Trilogy itself, The Last Jedi set off more blood feuds between cliques than whatever upset the Hatfields and McCoys back in medieval Europe. Though I griped about it at the time, I later elaborated on my stance:

I suspect someday in the future I’ll come to appreciate Rian Johnson’s aggravatingly subversive counterapproach to the Joseph Campbell formula and George Lucas’ beloved tropes, once enough time has passed. The online discussions that ensued after opening weekend — some of them levelheaded — have had me reconsidering that TLJ makes more sense if viewed as Act Two of a three-act saga, where according to storytelling tradition everything’s supposed to go wrong for Our Heroes, who will in turn find their way back to competence and be totally triumphant at all the things in Act Three/Episode 9, which I have no doubt will be mollycoddling comfort food in the hands of JJ Abrams in comparison…

…which brings us at long last to Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker: the grand finale, the end of an era, the fulfillment and denial of many a fan-theory prophecy. Viewing the worldwide debut of the first trailer alongside a crowd of thousands of fellow SW fans remains one of our greatest personal moments of 2019, carrying with it contagious sensations of cinematic exhilaration, communal unity, and happy found-family vibes. We nonetheless worried about the film itself, and mentally paced back and forth for the next eight months until its release. My jaded indifference had gotten to the point that I stopped caring about spoilers.

At long last we have closure. Now I can breathe a little more easily that only four aspects of varying importance were spoiled for me. I’m not naming them here. Maybe some other time. For now, on with the requisite MCC recount.

Short version for the unfamiliar: The film very nearly lost me in its very first minute at the traditional opening crawl, which assumes the audience has seen the final trailer and already knows the first big surprise: Emperor Palpatine lives! Ian McDiarmid is back and ready to bury the stilted dialogue and malformed makeup of Revenge of the Sith once and for all. Palpatine is resurrected not with foreshadowing from the shadows, nor with his maniacal laugh preceding his WWE-style grand entrance, nor with thirty to sixty minutes of cause-and-effect storytelling like your average films. The crawl informs the audience of this shocking development as if it’s recapping some Star Wars Expanded Universe product that they either failed to buy or should be lining up to buy once it’s released or else they won’t know The Full Story and they’ll die of FOMO cancer if they don’t. Perhaps the crawl should’ve begun “Previously on the Star Wars trailers…”

Anyway. while Palpatine reveals his master plan unto his heir apparent Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), things still look bleak for the Resistance after The Last Jedi, but they’re piecing together what they can. Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training under the last old-school Jedi standing, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, R.I.P.), whose own schooling in the Force may be a surprise to viewers who never touched an Expanded Universe book. (Even there, her studies never went as far as Luke’s did.) All the other non-superpowered war heroes are still around, eager for something to do besides wait for the final showdown. Once they learn from crucial intel how Palpatine will make everything worse (hint: think Super-Duper Star Destroyers), they also discover there may be a path to victory that of course involves a convoluted search across light-years for a handheld MacGuffin. Fans who remember Jedi holocrons may feel mixed emotions about their revival under an insultingly reductive pseudonym.

Star battles and space wars ensue. Worlds will live. Worlds will die. And the Star Wars universe will never be the same. Pew pew pew!

Episode 9 duo!

Rey and Kylo, together with an unlucky pedestal! Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The gang’s all here from Episodes VII and VIII — Ridley, Fisher, Driver, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, Joonas Suotamo as the worthy successor Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico (mostly cheering from the sidelines), and Domhnall Gleeson as everyone’s favorite weasel, General Hux. No reasonable Star Wars fan should be shocked that Mark Hamill, the late Luke Skywalker who died from interstellar astral projection, makes an entrance.

Returning second-tier characters include Greg Grunberg (Heroes) as ace fighter pilot Snap Wexley; Black Panther‘s Lupita Nyong’o as the wizened Maz Kanata for at least two moments; and Amanda Lawrence (Suffragette) and Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd as the Resistance home office. Reaching farther back into the Star Wars saga, our man Billy Dee Williams returns to active duty as Lando Calrissian himself, previously retired but ready to heed the call to action and style, not necessarily in that order.

Newcomers to the universe include frequent movie villain Richard E. Grant (Logan, Hudson Hawk) as General Pryde, a First Order officer whose retconned career dates back to Return of the Jedi; Keri Russell (The Americans, Mission: Impossible III) as a helmeted old associate with a ten-minute, 180-degree character arc; and Dominic Monaghan (Lost, Lord of the Rings) as a new recruit in the Resistance home office. Abrams rewards himself with a small voice-acting part as a lamp-shaped droid named D-O, who’s ready to usurp BB-8’s title as America’s favorite undertall Star Wars character. (Alas, he’s no match for today’s reigning champion — Baby Yoda, a.k.a. Sir Not Appearing in This Film.)

Naturally, the cameos and Easter eggs are everywhere from all walks of the Star Wars universe, from the Original Trilogy to the animated series. Yes, they include Force-ghosts. No, the film does not end with a Force-ghost dance party starring every dead Jedi ever. If only. One cameo was ruined if you paid too much attention to which actors attended the film’s world premiere. Another cameo was possibly my wife’s favorite movie moment of 2019. A hundred clickbait-listicle sites are standing by as we speak, ready to spoil them all for you.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • In some ways family can be a choice; in some ways it isn’t. Whether or not family is the most important thing above all else will vary according to individual beliefs, experiences, and alignments. But just because you’re related to Pure Evil doesn’t mean you too have to be evil.
  • Dictatorships: still bad.
  • Redemption for stone cold murderers is not 100% impossible (albeit a contentious concept when we’re talking, say, death row conversions in real life), but that doesn’t mean all such sinners deserve a happy ending in this life. (Glaring with impatience in your direction, Runaways season 3.)
  • Restoring a key memory at just the right time can make all the difference and maybe — just maybe — even change a person for the better. It would have to be a pretty awesome memory, though.
  • Homespun space homilies are still cool.
  • We sure hope quoting other movies is still cool.

Otherwise…dude, it’s Star Wars. They were mastering the art of EXPLOSIONS before EXPLOSIONS were cool.

Nitpicking? As predicted above, Episode IX isn’t just a “popcorn film”, because popcorn is too healthy a metaphor. It’s an entire package of Oreos dumped in a mixing bowl full of pudding (any flavor, you pick), topped with three scoops of triple chocolate ice cream and heavy-handed dollops of Hershey’s syrup. Abrams knows from crowd-pleasing, whether it’s his natural inclination as a Hollywood storyteller or Disney execs delivering firm edicts on systematic crowd arousal. That doesn’t always have to be a bad thing (we’ll come back to that, in fact), but here it largely requires a methodical reversal of all the riskiest pivots in The Last Jedi. Not that I was enamored of all his choices, but Rian Johnson’s laudable attempt to engage the audience by not giving them exactly what they want reminds me of some of the best comics ever written. I appreciate that instinct, which served him well in his own works such as Brick, Looper, and Knives Out.

But the audience complained, and because Disney regards paying customers as their favorite focus group, in comes Abrams to save the day, pat everyone on the head, put away the scary bedtime stories and read them their favorite book they’ve already heard 100 times already. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its response to Episode VIII’s jaw-dropping declaration to Rey that “Your parents were nobodies.” Prior to that scene, Star Wars was all about long lineages, blood ties, and inheritances. With Rey released of all that, she became a new sort of icon in the series: evidence that anyone could be a Jedi, not just those with midichlorian-enriched royal-family blood. Not so fast, says Episode IX, which completes her origin story and of course explains why her nobody parents didn’t matter and yet totally did matter. Maybe other folks love dodgy prophecy loopholes (cf. Macduff in Macbeth and Eowyn’s big moment in The Lord of the Rings), but as a 400-year-old trope, to me they can be much of a groaner as Laugh-In puns.

Episode 9 friends!

In reviewing the trailers, this moment sticks out as the biggest one I don’t recall appearing anywhere in the finished film. Corrections welcome.

Curiously for a Star Wars film, not many visuals stuck with me as lingering One Perfect Shot moments after we left the theater. Most of it we’ve seen before, especially the cluttered, weightless CG ship skirmishes, which are getting increasingly unremarkable on principle (as I covered in the Midway entry, predicting it would come up here). The lightsaber battles focus more on making the backgrounds look cool and far less on authentic melee choreography, with one particular battle near the climax overly edited into incomprehensibility — i.e., today’s popular generic-blockbuster style that hides the participants’ lack of acrobatic prowess. (The Last Jedi‘s showdown with the Praetorian Guard looks all the more amazing in hindsight.) All things considered, I wish they’d kept Rey’s awesome power-jump scene out of the trailers just so I’d have a mental snapshot newly memorable to savor later.

Not everyone makes it out alive, but the final casualty rate for named, speaking characters is…well, as low as you’d expect for an all-ages family series that wants to upset as few factions as possible. A few characters who seem to suffer life-altering consequences are fixed within minutes. One is set up in advance and easy to anticipate (like many story beats in general); another is arguably a really annoying cheat.

And then there’s that opening crawl, not the first time the Sequel Trilogy has yadda-yadda’d its own plot points. I’m not a big fan of movies with story gaps intentionally left for ancillary entertainment products to fill in, which is not how such things used to work. Time was, Lucas (or creators of any other genre movie, for that matter) would tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, and then writers at all skill levels would probe the surfaces for divots and cracks to fill in using their imaginations and no editorial transmedia marketing strategies. That’s literally why fan fiction was invented. Now Hollywood is stealing fans’ shtick so it can take more of their money instead of encouraging them to use their own imaginations. “Don’t bother adding your own backstory. We promise to overexplain everything later…for a price!”

The actors by and large excel at what they do, but after seeing Marriage Story and the expansive gamut of emotions that Adam Driver runs through (a few of which shot me squarely through the heart — remind me to write about that sometime), it was disappointing to see Kylo Ren drastically dialed down in comparison. His Dark Side this time is muted, overtaken by a hushed serenity as if he’s trying that much harder to coax Rey to his cause by appealing to her sensitive side and by downplaying the part where he murdered his own dad and countless billions on a planet or two. I expected Kylo Ren’s last hurrah to be all about the heavy scenery-chewing in the ’40s action-serial vein; instead he settles for some light prop-chewing salad. It’s what the story seems to call for, so I don’t necessarily blame him for those choices.

At 142 minutes, TRoS is big and busy and frenetic and still can’t find enough time for everyone. Old favorites Rose Tico and General Hux suffer the most, and each have about as much screen time as special guest Dominic Monaghan does. Space is also so tightly compacted that, as we watch Abrams and the other three credited writers (including Justice League‘s Chris Terrio) connect the dots between the characters of Finn, Lando, and newcomer Naomi Ackie as a mysterious clan leader named Jannah, the bizarre implication arises that all the black people in the Star Wars universe are either secretly related or should get related. I’m sure veering into love-triangle territory wasn’t done to appease those few backwoods areas of our country that would whoop and holler at the erasure of any and all previous hints of a Rey/Finn coupling (including at least two scenes in this very film), but…I just don’t think that part came out right.

I’m also still trying to figure out a key development that would’ve required someone to insist on herding space horses onto their spaceship. How and why this occurred is glossed over because ACTION TIME. It’s cool that the space horses came in really handy later for one of the film’s most whacked-out sequences, but space horses were specifically not a Plan A, and seem like they would’ve been a serious liability to bring along on any lengthy voyage that wouldn’t involve planetary wildlife recovery after a 40-day flood. Did they also pack the ship with plenty of space hay? And space-horse cleanup tools?

Episode 9 Rey!

Rey, a drop of golden sun.

So what’s to like? Okay, fine, I concede cookies dunked in pudding can serve a purpose. Not everything has to be high-minded Art. And Abrams usually is the crowd-pleasingest crowd-pleaser what ever did crowd-please. That infuriating opening crawl (seriously, though) left me distracted for a good forty minutes or more before I finally relaxed and enjoyed an old-fashioned Star War.

Real talk: it would take a monster more hateful than Scrooge and the Grinch combined to deny the warm, fuzzy, tear-jerking feelings of watching Carrie Fisher’s final film role. Some of it was salvaged or reused from previous recordings, and I’m pretty sure not all her scenes were entirely her own, but Princess Leia’s swan song is the fond farewell that Star Wars fans needed to share together. One of Episode IX’s quieter, more welcome surprises is how Leia seems to have more screen minutes than usual. Real or CG homage, I’ll allow for it this time. It’s fitting that her presence ultimately triggers a seismic shift which asks the audience for its biggest leap of faith. Those who reach the other side of that chasm will do so fully knowing that one should never underestimate Leia.

Skimpy explanations notwithstanding, longtime fans should also be blown away by the return of Ian McDiarmid, who handily buries everything inflicted upon him in past films and enjoys Palpatine’s greatest showcase ever, embracing True Evil with gusto while enshrouded in terrifying visuals of titanic proportions. The eyes, the Force lightning, the vastly improved horror makeup — raw Sith power radiates from every darkened corner of his appearance and performance.

And in this corner, Daisy Ridley’s Rey is an enigma no more. She’s confident in her training and her trainer, she’s on the path to determine who she truly is, she’s mastering the action-hero art and making the occasional hard choice in her pursuit of knowledge and peace, and she’s given the freedom to discover heretofore unseen uses for the Force. Fans might debate those new powers, but the kids in the back of the classroom still chanting “Mary Sue! Mary Sue!” should be ashamed of how they’re trying to put the Force in a tiny box with unimaginative limits. The culmination of Rey’s journey is a delight to watch, up to and including the cute, predictable, inevitable coda.

Despite the flaws in the individual components, the entirety assembles into a mostly well-oiled, eminently entertaining contraption that hums along smoothly in the theater and ties up a surprising number of loose threads from all three trilogies, one of which is long-standing and brazenly hilarious in its resolution. Thus does cinema’s biggest space opera reach its Happily Ever After. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do. If nothing else, I love the big smile this film put on my wife’s face.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Rise of Skywalker end credits, but as with Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, sitting all the way through the end credits is the best, most honorable way to listen to the final John Williams fanfare of a Star Wars trilogy.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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