Saturday, December 21, 2019

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker – making a last stand to save a dying franchise and answer the question ‘Who is Rey?’

I’m not a Star Wars hater, though I did smirk when I read Barra Best’s Facebook post about the correct order to view the films. Top trolling! The middle films to be produced (and tacked on the front of the classic trilogy) were weak. But some of the more recent additions to Star Wars canon showed signs of improvement.

Episode VII: The Force Awakens was sufficiently retro and full of cliché that happy nostalgia flowed through my veins. I really enjoyed Rogue One. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi lacked hope, lacked Rey (Daisy Ridley), and required a man to turn up and conclude every perilous situation. And let’s not talk about Solo: A Star Wars Story which lacked charm and could have been be subtitled ‘The Great Train Robbery meets Hustle meets Robot Wars in space’.

I sat down in my cinema seat as the familiar yellow text crawled up the screen and hoped that Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker would provide a decent conclusion. It’s definitely not a movie that works as a standalone piece of content. And I struggle to believe that a high enough proportion of cinemagoers are so invested in the series that they can correctly place all the characters and loose threads that are being tied up in neat bows to give it a graceful ending.

There’s a real problem with scale. Spaceships seem to travel vast distances across galaxies at the same speed, no matter their size or condition (and many are literally rust buckets). Key characters can turn up in the same spot defying the rules of probability and the firepower of the Empire’s new fleet.

There are a lot of goodbyes, yet the franchise is extremely reluctant to kill off any of the main characters. Even in this last episode of the story.

There’s a problem with Rey’s parentage – an oft-referred to aspect to Episode IX’s narrative arc – that is really not adequately addressed by the final scene which can surely only be taken as some kind of existential overlay rather than an actual answer.

The opening scenes are wordless and yet introduce the concept of “a New Empire” (very New Labour) with none of the banal dialogue that JJ Abrams allows to pepper the remaining hours of the film. An arch-nemesis who has been pulling the strings continues to stay one step ahead of the Jedi until quite near the end. General Leia has become oddly crucial to the franchise, and while Carrie Fisher is held fondly in fans’ hearts, to me her on-screen presence seems to distract and be more about memorialising the actress than properly developing the twin sister of Luke Skywalker.

A central concern – every film resonates with Brexit in some form or other – is the worry that ordinary people have given up hope and become apathetic in their fight against the Empire. Yet there are deserters who do the right thing and a Dunkirk-like rescue to restore any wavering faith in the Force. “Good people will fight if we lead them.”

Without introducing too many spoilers, watch out for a hot-wired ship that looks like a pair of flying binoculars. The cast visit a Burning Man festival in a desert. A bearded Jedi Father Christmas delivers a very useful present. There are horses in space, and flying Stormtroopers … though the technology seems a little bleeding edge. And Rey comes face to face with demons from her past and some old friends.

Fans may be satisfied, but this cinemagoer’s happiness could have been sated if the story had been curtailed after the first three films (Episodes IV–VI). As much as I love BB-8 and D-0 droids, and enjoy Rey’s attempt to carve out a solo role that isn’t propped up by men (dead and alive), I was disappointed with the 141-minute long conclusion of the franchise 42 years after it began. If anything, the whole of the series is now less than the sum of its parts.

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