Thursday, 19 December 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker doesn't pay shallow homage to the Buster Crabbe serials that wowed a young George Lucas. The film takes on both the structural and aesthetic peculiarities of those drip-fed cliffhangers; mixing the breathless, full-speed-ahead pacing with a mise en scene that is deliberately recycled from earlier, related sources. Writer-director JJ Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio seem to have arrived at this wavelength in their efforts to design their sequel as not just the ultimate summation of Star Wars as an organic story, but also as a piece that talks about, and comments on, the systems and mechanisms that have always underwritten the series.

Rise of Skywalker then is a strange film that attempts to account for both its place within this saga, and its various, dangling plots, as well as its status as a cultural touchpoint that is now stuck combining nostalgia cues with mythic storytelling to wring the maximum amount of spend from its audience. As a sequel to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker is obtuse and contradictory, junking much of that film's playfulness and rolling sense of mystery to arrive at hard, extremely specific solutions. Rey has an identity forced on her that, at first contact, feels not just illogical but pandering. The answer that Rian Johnson's film so adequately provided is voided to place this young woman at the centre of another dynastic struggle.

George Lucas' monotone rhythms may be back but the knowledge they provide does, at least, build on ideas and inference scattered throughout the wider legend. In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Ian McDiarmid's Emperor Palpatine took a moment to explain to his pupil, Anakin Skywalker, the ways in which the dark side of The Force could be used to manipulate our concepts of life and death. All Skywalker hears is a route to keeping his beloved wife alive, but the audience discovers something different. This tragic recounting of Darth Plaugueis' fate basically states that wrinkly old Sheev is a key figure in Skywalker's immaculate conception. Star Wars: The Force Awakens seemed to be contextualising Rey in similar terms - another rootless vessel of overwhelming power called into being to answer a specific, metaphysical need.

As it turns out, Rey's origins are rather blunter than that but the data (and it is data, rather than something a little more organic) Rise of Skywalker provides still ends up positioning the character in the same monstrous, emotionally tempestuous terms as her prequel ancestor. Just as Adam Driver's Kylo Ren has allowed the sequel filmmakers to salve and redesign Anakin's explosive, teenage tantrums, Daisy Ridley's Rey provides the opportunity to explore the path Anakin Skywalker chose not to take. Instead of siding with bottomless, ancient evil, Rey can call on the positive teachings and affirmations she has experienced to help guide her decision. Unlike Anakin (and, really, even Luke), Rey has matured in the company of masters who genuinely care for her. This very real, parental, affection allows her to vanquish not only a deeper, hereditary temptation, but the sickness it has transmitted out into the galaxy.

The Rise of Skywalker demands to be considered in these familial terms. Not only are we explicitly dealing with the children of the characters and movements that drove Lucas' original trilogy, the film is also built on top of the intriguing-but-discarded ideas detailed in JW Rinzler's wonderful The Making of... books. The half-formed, usually supernatural, notions that Lawrence Kasdan or Lucas only briefly considered are brushed up here and reevaluated. This necromancy doesn't always work, indeed a number of the more in-your-face, character specific callbacks flounder so badly because they ask the audience to engage, emotionally, with a film that has built itself, almost completely, out of rolling action and hyperbolic imagery. Terrio and Abrams don't accomplish the impossible then but they do deliver a conclusion that feels indebted to a series of films that has run the gamut from genre-defining classic to infuriating waste of time.

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