Star Wars reviews: The Rise of Skywalker

The reviews and reactions to the new Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker have been extremely mixed.  In a way, that is to be expected, because this movie is intended to be the conclusion of the decades-long saga that has unfolded through the eight previous “episode” installments of the franchise.  Episode IX had an extremely formidable task to fulfill and, let’s face it, there was almost no way writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio could possibly fulfill everyone’s expectations.

Here are some of my thoughts about The Rise of Skywalker.  Call it a review, an analysis, or just the ramblings of a 43 year old fan, and (as always) feel free to disagree.

SW TROS

1) Star Wars is for kids

I have been a Star Wars fan ever since my father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater in 1980 when I was four years old.  In the early 1980s I was absolutely mad about Star Wars.  I had a whole bunch of the action figures, and I would make up my own adventures.  The three years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi felt like an eternity to my young self.  Finally it arrived in the theaters.  My father took me to see it, and I absolutely loved it.

Star Wars creator George Lucas has long argued that the series is really intended for kids.  I believe there is some truth to this.  Yes, there are quite a few elements to the movies that older viewers can appreciate & enjoy.  But at its heart Star Wars is basically a space opera, the big budget descendant of the old movie serials featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, high tech fairy tales set in outer space.

As an adult, watching first the prequels from Lucas and now the sequels from Disney, I have always endeavored to try to remember that I was a kid when I saw the original three movies, and to mentally bring myself back to that place.

Seven year old me would have absolutely loved The Rise of Skywalker.  It was a really fun, exciting movie.  There were a lot of parts that I genuinely loved, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that left me gasping in awe.

Having said that, I am an adult, and there were several aspects of The Rise of Skywalker that my older sensibilities found to be flawed or problematic…

SW TROS Finn Rey Poe

2) Rey of sunshine

Two of the best parts of the sequel trilogy have been the characters Rey and Finn, played by Daisey Ridley and John Boyega.  Both are great additions to the mythos.

In the previous installment, The Last Jedi, it was revealed that Rey’s parents were basically nobodies, and she was not the heir to any kind of family legacy.  This was a crucial aspect of the movie’s main theme, that the Force was not just for the Jedi, that anybody had the potential to access it, no matter who they were or where they came from.

I liked this development.  Unfortunately others did not.  Following Rey’s introduction in The Force Awakens there had been a ridiculous amount of speculation on social media about who she really was.  There were some really insane theories put out there tying her to established characters.  So when Rian Johnson revealed that Rey was no one in particular, these people lost their collective minds, seeing this as a huge disappointment.

Unfortunately Abrams either disagreed with Johnson’s approach, or was pressured by Disney to reverse this because of the supposed fan backlash.  So in TROS we find out Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.  Watching the scene where this is revealed, in my head I could almost envision Disney shouting to the audience “Okay, okay, stop yelling at us! Fine, Rey isn’t a nobody! She’s actually Papatine’s granddaughter! Are you happy now?!?

This felt like an attempt to placate angry fans, with the story falling back into the well-trod, traditional structure of myths & fairy tales.  I don’t think it was necessary.

Having said all that, Ridley does her best with the material. She really shows just how shocked & horrified Rey is at discovering she’s kin to the most evil being in the galaxy.  Ridley definitely sells the character’s inner turmoil, as well as her struggle to leave her heritage behind and become her own person.  Obviously the theme of “transcending your family’s dark legacy” was already done with Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, but Ridley nevertheless does a good job showing Rey’s journey through this difficult process.

I’ve also enjoyed the character arc of Finn through these three movies.  He really grows during the course of the storyline.

When you think about it, Finn is a brave, extraordinary individual.  When he was only a child he was kidnapped by the First Order and conscripted into their Stormtrooper army.  Despite years of indoctrination by his fascist masters, Finn was able to retain a conscience, to recognize what the First Order was doing was wrong.  More important, he found the strength to actually do something about it, first by deserting their ranks, and then by standing up to his former masters, actively fighting against their tyrannical cause.

TROS continues Finn’s development.  He is a much more confident figure than he was in the previous two movies.  Additionally, the idea that potentially anyone, no matter what their background, can use the Force is basically transferred from Rey’s character to his, and it is revealed that Finn is Force-sensitive.

Another important development for Finn occurs when he meets other ex-Stormtroopers who have also fled the First Order.  Boyega’s really does a good job of showing just how much it means to Finn to find others like him who have broken free from the First Order’s brainwashing and are now fighting against it.

SW TROS Kylo Ren vs Rey

3) Ren faire

One of my favorite online bloggers / reviewers is Darren Mooney.  He is an intelligent, insightful writer.  Even when I disagree with him, I find his arguments & reasoning to be well-constructed and thought-provoking.

Two months ago Mooney wrote a piece entitled “The Rise of Skywalker Can Correct Return of the Jedi’s Failings.”  One of Mooney’s criticisms of ROTJ is as follows:

“Return of the Jedi isn’t interested in whether Vader is redeemed. It only matters that Luke’s idea of Vader is redeemed. Vader never faces any justice for the crimes that he has committed. But Luke is able to convince himself of his father’s decency rather than confront the reality of what he’s done. The Star Wars franchise has always been about generational strife, with children inheriting a world scarred by their parents’ mistakes. Return of the Jedi retreats from that concept and betrays the franchise.”

A bit harsh, perhaps, but possibly accurate.  Now, none of what Mooney argues ever occurred to me when I was seven years old watching ROTJ.  Indeed, in 1983, having only seen Vader’s very limited actions in the original trilogy, killing the Emperor to save his son did appear to be a genuine act of redemption.

However, in the decades since, having witnessed Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side depicted in detail in the prequels, actually seeing the atrocities he committed in Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One, the Rebels animated series, and the comic book stories set during these periods, you might very well find yourself asking if turning against the Emperor in ROTJ to save Luke really does balance the scales, if it is truly enough for him to earn redemption.

So I had what Mooney wrote in mind while watching Kylo Ren’s arc unfold during TROS.

Leia uses the Force to connect with Kylo Ren, dying in the process.  A distracted Ren is mortally wounded by Rey, but she immediately uses her own Force energy to heal him.  After his mother’s sacrifice and Rey’s act of mercy, it’s clear that Ren no longer wants to continue down the terrible path he is on.  At the same time, he is fully aware of all the horrible crimes he has committed, including the murder of his father, and he is afraid that, with all the blood on his hands, he does not have the strength to change.

Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo really is haunted, especially when he reaches this turning point.  The conversation between him and his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is both well-written and subtly performed.  I appreciated that it was left ambiguous if Ben is truly communicating with his father’s ghost, or is actually struggling with his conscience within his own head.

Looking at it from an adult perspective, Ben’s ultimate act of redemption does feel more genuine than Vader / Anakin’s did.  Yes, Ben turns against the First Order and stands side by side with Rey in opposing the Emperor.  However, he truly redeems himself after the battle is over, Palpatine has been destroyed, and victory has been achieved.  Rey has been killed, but Ben uses his own life energy to revive her, sacrificing his own life.  His final act is not killing an enemy, but selflessly saving the life of a friend.

SW TROS Leia

4) Farewell to a Princess

One of the obvious obstacles that faced Abrams & Terrio in making TROS was Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death in December 2016.  Early plans for the movie would have had General Leia Organa as one of the main characters; obviously all of those plans had to be scrapped.  Abrams & Terrio were left with about eight minutes of unused footage from TLJ featuring Leia, which meant that they had to write the story around that.

To their credit, Abrams & Terrio do a good job of smoothly incorporating the footage of Fisher into the movie.  None of it feels forced.  If you were watching the movies and had no idea how real life events had dictated the production you might be left wondering why the character of Leia had so little screen time, but there wasn’t anything there that leaps out to indicate that Daisey Ridley was acting opposite footage of Fisher that was shot two years earlier.

5) Cavalcade of cameos

It was good to have Lando Calrission return to the series. I had a huge smile when he first appeared on screen.  It certainly seemed like Billy Dee Williams was having a blast playing the character again.  I think Lando’s character was pretty well served by the screenplay, so his presence wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia to please older fans.

We also see a glimpse of Wedge Antilles during the final battle, although in that case it was unfortunately just a cameo.  It would have been nice if Denis Lawson’s character had gotten a bit more screen time.  I realize Wedge was a minor character in the original trilogy, but he became a major figure in the X-Wing comic books & novels from the old Expanded Universe.

The most surprising appearances by older characters were during Rey’s confrontation with Palpatine.  Rey taps into the Force to give her strength, and she hears the voices of a number of Jedi Knights, both from the previous movies, as well as from the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels, certainly a cool nod to those characters.

SW TROS Lando

6) United we stand

The Rise of Skywalker is much less overtly political than The Last Jedi.  Nevertheless, there is a message to the movie.

We meet Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) a smuggler Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) knew from his pre-Resistance days operating on the fringes of the law.  Speaking of the threat posed by the First Order, Zorii tells him:

“They win by making you think you’re alone… There’s more of us.”

This is later demonstrated when Lando organizes a fleet made up of ships from numerous planets to stand against the Emperor’s armada on Exegol.  On their own, none of the ships from these disparate civilizations would be able to stand up to the First Order, but united together they are a match for Palpatine’s forces.

Without getting into too many specifics, the point here is that the far left, liberals, moderates and centrists need to set aside their differences and work together to fight against fascism.  Once that is accomplished then we can sit down and hash out compromises for our various positions, but until then we must present a united front.

Also, the whole subplot with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) turning out to be the spy in the First Order giving information to the Resistance feels timely.  Considering what a smug, sadistic creep he it, at first Hux would appear to be the last person you would expect to help the Resistance, at least until he explains to Fin and Poe: “I don’t care if you win. I need Kylo Ren to lose.” Yes, that is perfectly in keeping with Hux’s petty, selfish nature.  I was instantly reminded of the numerous anonymous leaks out of the Trump Administration, as well as the backstabbing and scheming that has taken place over the past three years as the grifters and opportunists have jockeyed to grab power.

Likewise, it is not surprising that General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) takes the first opportunity available to shoot down Hux in cold blood.  Later, after Kylo Ren abandons the First Order, Pryde quickly & eagerly switches his allegiance to the Emperor. There is no loyalty or honor in the First Order, only a craving for power at any cost.

7) Bursting at the seams

There was enough material in TROS to fill at least two movies.  That resulted in some rushed scenes, and certain characters getting short shrift.

The most notable instance was Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran.  Rose was a central figure in TLJ, but she spends most of TROS sidelined.  Maybe it was that there were too many characters.  Maybe it was because Rose was created by Johnson, and Abrams didn’t have much interest in her.  Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate, because following the release of TLJ both the character and the actress were subjected some truly vile racist and sexist attacks on social media.  Even if it’s inadvertent, Rose’s diminished screen time here feels like Disney kowtowing to toxic fandom.

Another area where there wasn’t anywhere enough development was with the mysterious Knights of Ren, who were first briefly glimpsed in TFA.  They finally show up in TROS, but they’re just a bunch of faceless, nameless mooks who silently follow Kylo Ren around for most of the movie and then, after he turns away from the dark side, unsuccessfully try to kill him.  And that’s it.

8) Let’s get Sidious for a moment

The return of Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, was certainly one of the most noteworthy aspects of TROS.  Even though he was spectacularly killed off at the end of ROTJ, it does feel appropriate to bring him back.  While Darth Vader is, thanks to Ralph McQuarrie’s design and James Earl Jones’ vocal performance, the most iconic villain of the whole SW saga, it is the Emperor who is the true Big Bad of the first six movies.  So if TROS was to be the conclusion of the Skywalker family story then it makes sense for the ultimate evil of the saga, Darth Sidious, to play a key role.

The Emperor’s return doesn’t make much sense in-story (more on that below) and the actual mechanics of his resurrection are left extremely vague.  When Kylo Ren threatens to kill him, Palpatine merely responds by saying “I have died before” and then repeating his famous declaration from Revenge of the Sith: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.”

Later on a member of the Resistance suggests a few possible explanations, one of which is cloning.  Perhaps this was a nod to the now out-of-continuity comic book miniseries Star Wars: Dark Empire by Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy, published by Dark Horse in 1991, which saw the Palpatine return in a cloned body.  (Likewise, the ancient Sith planet Exegol might be inspired by Korriban, which appeared in several of the Dark Horse SW series.)  Whatever the process the Emperor returned to life, it was apparently not perfect, as he spends the entire movie looking even more ancient & wizened than before, hooked up to an elaborate framework of life support machinery.

The Emperor’s plans are also left vague, other than a general “conquer the galaxy again” type of thing.  He seems to alternate between wanting Kylo Ren to kill Rey so that she can’t oppose him, and getting Rey herself to kill him so that his spirit can transfer into her younger body.  Towards the end of the movie Palpatine seems ready to abandon both those plans when he suddenly discovers he can drain energy directly from Rey and Ben to restore his own body.

However dodgy the plotting is, it was good to have McDiarmid back as the Emperor.  He’s played the role on & off for over three and a half decades now, and he effortlessly slips back into the Emperor’s foul persona, turning in an evil, twisted performance, once again making Palpatine the man we all love to hate.

The resolution of the battle between Rey and the Emperor was also well done.  Rey is faced with a seemingly-impossible conundrum.  If she kills the Emperor his spirit & powers will inhabit her body.  If she doesn’t kill him than he still has more than enough life in him to live long enough to destroy the Resistance.

In the end Rey wins by turning the Emperor’s own power against him.  She uses her lightsabers and the Force to deflect the Emperor’s lightning bolts back at him, in effect causing him to kill himself. As Yoda advised in TESB, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

SW Dark Empire 2 pg 18

9) Making shit up as we go along

It’s pretty obvious that bringing back the Emperor in TROS, revealing that he created Snoke and was controlling the First Order from behind the scenes all along, was something that Abrams & Terrio came up with pretty late in the day.  There’s absolutely no indication of any of this going on in either TFA or TLJ.  A revived Palpatine hiding away on Exegol and preparing a massive fleet of Dark Side Star Destroyers capable of obliterating entire planets, and using the First Order to keep everyone occupied in the meanwhile, doesn’t make much sense, because the previous two movies already showed the First Order wiping out the New Republic and making good progress in seizing control of the entire galaxy all on its own.

Over the past few years several people have suggested that it was a mistake to have the First Order simply be the Galactic Empire with a new coat of paint.  It would have made more sense to have the First Order be some sort of insurgent group organized by Imperial war criminals who had escaped justice, a subversive entity undermining the New Republic via terrorist attacks.  That sounded like it would have been good idea even before TROS came out.  It would have made even more sense now that it’s actually been established that the First Order was always intended by Palpatine to be a diversion while he rebuilt his forces in secret.

All of this speaks to Disney’s failure to plan this trilogy out ahead of time.  It was a mistake to have the writers / directors working in isolation, with no general overarching plan.  Abrams did TFA, then passed the ball to Johnson to do TLJ, and who in turn was supposed to hand it off to Colin Trevorrow to do TROS before that fell through due to “creative differences,” with Abrams getting brought back late in the day to wrap things up.

Honestly, this has been a problem with Star Wars throughout much of the series’ existence: it was made up on the fly.  Despite what Lucas later claimed, it seems pretty obvious that the original was intended to be a stand-alone movie.  Otherwise Lucas would not have asked Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind’s Eye as a story that could be filmed quickly & cheaply, using as many existing costumes & props, just in case Star Wars happened to do well enough for a second movie to get the green light.

It was only when Star Wars unexpectedly became a gigantic runaway success that Lucas really committed to the whole nine episode storyline, and even there he continued to make it up as he went along, working with several other writers.  For example, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were still separate characters in the early drafts of TESBThe early plans for ROTJ were for only Darth Vader to die, and for the Emperor to escape at the end.  That was supposed to set up the next trilogy, which would see the Empire rebuilding, and Luke searching for his twin sister, who was hidden away at the opposite end of the galaxy. Unfortunately while Lucas was starting work on ROTJ his marriage fell apart, and he was in such a bad place emotionally he decided to just bring everything to a close with that movie.  So suddenly both Vader and the Emperor died, the Empire was defeated, and Leia was implausibly revealed to be Luke’s sister.

This meant that three decades later, when Disney decided to finally make that third trilogy, they found themselves having to undo the final, decisive defeat of the Empire in ROTJ.  So all of a sudden the First Order appears out of nowhere, and the New Republic is quickly wiped out, in a really blatant resetting of the status quo.

Looking at all of the movies, it’s clear that the ones that are most internally consistent are the prequel trilogy, all of which were written & directed by Lucas.  Say what you will about the scripting or the acting or whatever, the fact is that Lucas appears to have plotted the whole thing out ahead of time, and stuck to that plan throughout the making of all three movies, resulting in a trilogy that actually does feel like a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end.

Disney really should have looked at the missteps that Lucas made with the original trilogy, and the successes that he did actually achieve with the prequels, and planned the entire storyline for their trilogy out right from the start.  Instead they just rushed into it without any concrete idea of where they were going, and it shows.

SW TROS Emperor

10) To make a long story short… Oops, too late!

I’ve already written over 3,500 words about The Rise of Skywalker, so let’s cut to the chase.  I enjoyed it.  It had some really great action sequences, as well as some genuinely good, moving character arcs & developments, and felt like a pretty good emotional conclusion to the overall saga.  Nevertheless, it also had a lot of flaws.  It was good, but it could have been better.

I really think Disney should step back for a bit, learn some lessons from the missteps of this new trilogy, and take the time to decide exactly what they want to do next with Star Wars.  The franchise still has a ton of potential to tell all sorts of stories, but it’s the kind of property that cannot be approached half-assed, that needs a certain amount of thought & planning.  I wish them luck, because I would love to one day see Star Wars return better than ever.

Star Wars reviews: The Last Jedi

I finally saw The Last Jedi so I’m now ready to get into pointless arguments about it with other Star Wars fans!

Seriously, from the reactions I’ve seen online, this has been an especially divisive entry in the Star Wars series among fans. Some people absolutely loved it, and others totally hated it.  As for myself, well, I guess I liked it.  Yeah, yeah, it figures I would have an opinion that’s in-between those two extremes.

Here is my semi-coherent review & analysis of the movie. As always, feel free to disagree.

The Last Jedi poster

1) Déjà Vu All Over Again

Whereas The Force Awakens was quite similar to the very first Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi is equal parts The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance, having successfully destroyed Starkiller Base, fleeing from their headquarters, with the vengeful forces of the First Order in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, on the remote planet Ahch-To, home of the very first Jedi Temple, neophyte Rey (Daisy Ridley) is attempting to convince the brooding, aged Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the use of the Force.

As the movie advances, Rey comes to believe that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the former student of Luke who has turned to the dark side of the Force, is still struggling with his conscience, and that it is possible to bring him back to the light. Rey turns herself over to the First Order, hoping to convince Kylo to switch sides, but he instead hands her over to the ancient, evil Supreme Leader Snoke, who is arrogantly confident that he will be able to break Rey.

As well-executed a movie as The Last Jedi is, I periodically found myself rolling my eyes at just how brazen and shameless some of its sequences were in rehashing major elements from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Look, I’m definitely environmentally conscious, but this is not the sort of recycling that I’m into!

2) This Is How Democracy Dies, Redux

The Force Awakens was vague about whether Starkiller Base had destroyed the entire New Republic, or merely its capital. The Last Jedi, on the other hand, strongly implies that the New Republic has been totally obliterated, announcing the First Order is mere weeks away from gaining control of the entire galaxy.

So only three decades after defeating Emperor Palpatine and restoring the Republic in Return of the Jedi, we are now right back where we started. A tyrannical dictatorship that is all-but-identical to the Empire has totally destroyed democracy, and nothing but a ragtag, outgunned group of freedom fighters stands between them and their final victory.

In case you were curious, that loud sound of screeching tires that you just heard was the storyline doing a 180 and peeling off back in the opposite direction.

3) This Is Not Going To Go The Way You Think

In spite of Disney furiously stabbing at the reset button, The Last Jedi eventually did manage to surprise me. That was especially the case with Snoke.

About two thirds of the way through The Last Jedi, Kylo brings Rey before Snoke. This very much felt like a remake of the throne room scene from Return of the Jedi, with the smug Snoke reeling off some reheated eeeeevil Emperor Palpatine dialogue, prodding Kylo to complete his journey to the dark side by murdering Rey.  But then the entire sequence suddenly gets upended. Kylo uses the Force to activate Rey’s lightsaber from a distance, slicing Snoke in half, killing him instantly.  Yeah, I definitely did not see that coming, since it felt like Snoke was being set up as the Big Bad of the entire trilogy.

Kylo and Rey then fight side-by-side in a furious battle against Snoke’s elite guard, making a very effective team. It’s one of the best action sequences in the entire movie, even if Snoke’s guards do look like they’ve wandered in from a hockey rink.

For a brief instant it really seems that Rey has succeeded, that she has managed to convince Kylo to turn his back on the First Order. But once again expectations are brutally subverted.  Kylo is unable to let go of his anger and resentment.  He has no interest in redemption, and intends to become the new Supreme Leader.

The Last Jedi Rey

4) Female Power

The Last Jedi does offer a new perspective to Star Wars that is both refreshing and very timely… Men are hotheaded, macho idiots, and women are sensible, level-headed leaders who are much more capable of seeing the bigger picture. The movie is very much concerned with deconstructing the idea of the heroic male fantasy figure.  One of the ways it does so is through its treatment of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

During the opening scene, as the Resistance fleet attempts to flee their base, the hotshot Poe disobeys General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to lead a counter-attack against the First Order’s massive Dreadnaught. Poe’s plan is successful, and the Dreadnaught is destroyed, but it is a pyrrhic victory, with much of the Resistance fleet also being wiped out.  Poe, instead of being congratulated by Leia for what he sees as bold heroism, is demoted for his rash actions.  Worse, the First Order then manages to track their quarry through hyperspace, and the now-diminished Resistance fleet, severely weakened after their assault on the Dreadnaught, is almost destroyed.  Nearly all the Resistance’s leaders are killed and Leia is left in critical condition.

Having not learned his lesson from this catastrophe, Poe immediately begins clashing with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Poe is convinced that Admiral Holdo is incompetent.  Still believing bold, immediate action is necessary, Poe authorizes Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) to embark on their risky plan to sabotage the First Order’s tracking device.  Later, going so far as to accuse Holdo of treason, Poe leading a mutiny against her, only to finally discover that she had a plan after all, one that she understandably declined to share with the hotheaded pilot.

In the end Holdo sacrifices herself to save the remaining members of the Resistance. As Leia explains, “She was more interested in protecting the light than being a hero.”

Rey, Leia, Holdo, and Rose, the women of The Last Jedi, are the ones who refuse to give up hope, who keep fighting, who are flexible and adaptive, who think outside the box in order to attempt to find constructive solutions. Poe, Finn, Luke and Kylo, the men, are the ones who are impulsive and emotional, who are fixated on their hurt feelings, who find it difficult or impossible to break out of their rigid thinking and behaviors.

5) Who’s Your Daddy?

In the two years since The Force Awakens came out there have been a lot of theories tossed around concerning Rey’s parents, and Finn’s parents, and the identity of Snoke. Some of these have been especially outlandish or bizarre.

The Last Jedi once again subverts expectations by revealing that Rey’s parents are, in fact, no one in particular, and Snoke is just some guy. The movie doesn’t even bother to mention Finn’s parents, since in the end they are probably also no one we’ve ever heard of before.

Considering how ridiculously interconnected certain Star Wars characters have been in the past, it’s actually refreshing to have some major characters who do not have a hidden parentage or an mystery alter ego.

When he is reluctantly training Rey on Ahch-To, Luke tells her “The Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity.” And he is correct.  Just as the Jedi do not have provenance over the Force, neither does one family such as the Skywalkers.  Rey, we are told, is a nobody, coming from nothing and nowhere, but all that signifies is she achieves greatness not due to her parentage but solely by her own actions and beliefs.

The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker

6) Grumpy Old Man

Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens is a bitter, burned-out, mournful figure. He is weighed down by the consequences of his mistakes and hubris, and by the immense looses he has witnessed.  He is a far cry from the enthusiastic, idealistic young man we once knew.

However, in his own way, without quite realizing it, Luke is correct. The galaxy has moved on.  Luke has failed to found a new Jedi Order because he was fixated on their ancient dogma, on recreating them as they had existed in the past.  Luke’s opposite number, Snoke, is similarly afflicted with a blind desire to recapture the past.  Snoke, in his attempt to position himself as the successor to Emperor Palpatine, with the First Order as his new Galactic Empire and Kylo Ren as his own Darth Vader, meets with failure and death, a victim of overconfidence and short-sightedness.

The spirit of Yoda (Frank Oz) manifests itself to Luke on Ahch-To in order to tell him “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Luke, as well as the rest of the galaxy, must attempt to learn from their past mistakes in order to chart a new course forward.

In any case, Mark Hamill does great work with the material he has been given, turning in a very strong performance.

7) Father Figure

I found the scene between Luke and Yoda to be the most touching of the entire movie. It occurred to me that Yoda was, in his own odd way, the closest thing that Luke had to a father.  Yes, Anakin / Vader was Luke’s biological father, but he was definitely not much of a parent, to say the least.  Yoda was the one who, in the end, was there for Luke when it was most important, who decades later transcends mortality to return and teach his old student a message of hope when it was most needed.

The Last Jedi Kylo Ren

8) Evil Is Lame

I was not impressed by Kylo Ren when he was introduced in The Force Awakens. I found him to be a whiny loser who desperately wanted to follow in Darth Vader’s footsteps.

Well, he is still very much the same in The Last Jedi… but I’ve come to realize that this actually makes him a more plausible, believable villain. This is also true of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a strutting, self-important figure whose smug arrogance masks his incompetence.

In real life, dictators and criminals are not suave, coolly sinister, grandiose figures of menace. In fact, more often than not they are petty, insecure, paranoid and jealous.  They are driven by fear and inferiority, by a need to compensate for their own weaknesses.  Their grotesque ambitions are often overcompensation for their inner failings, a futile attempt to fill the empty void within themselves that they are desperate to deny exists.

Kylo Ren and General Hux are both small men. They lash out at anyone and anything they perceive as a threat to their well-being and self-image.  They are concerned with themselves and no one else.  Kylo and Hux demonstrate that evil is not awesome or badass, but sad and lonely.

9) I’m With Her

My girlfriend Michele offered an interesting political reading of The Last Jedi. The First Order, supported by greedy, immoral corporate entities, has set out to crush freedom & liberty in the galaxy.  The Resistance is dedicated to stopping them, but it is nearly crippled by internal conflict.  Kylo Ren is a selfish, oversensitive, short-tempered, petty man-child who lashes out at the world.  Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo is an experienced, intelligent leader who unfortunately has a difficult time being warm or relatable to the people under her command.  Poe Dameron is an impulsive hothead who wants immediate results, who doesn’t have the patience to consider the long-term picture and who is condescending towards the established command structure, undermining the decisions of his superiors.

In other words, the First Order is the Republicans, the Resistance is the Democrats, Kylo Ren is Donald Trump, Amilyn Holdo is Hillary Clinton, and Poe Dameron is Bernie Sanders?  That is certainly one way to interpret the movie.

The Last Jedi Amilyn Holdo

10) Watch the Birdie

One of the few sources of comedy in the otherwise-grim The Last Jedi are the Porgs, the adorable, wide-eyed birds who inhabit Ahch-To, and who stow away on the Millennium Falcon, much to Chewbacca’s consternation.

The Porgs work really well because they are basically just set dressing. The cute critters are not used to drive the plot, or to resolve any crises.  There just there to occasionally lighten the mood in a very dark story.  If you don’t like them then you can basically just ignore them, and if you do like them then they serve to provide a little bit of comedy that offsets the intense drama.

The Vulptex, aka crystal foxes, on Crait are also interesting, with a distinctive visual. Again, they really aren’t there to advance the story, except in cluing in the Resistance on how to escape from their cave headquarters after the First Order show up, and they also add some local color to the final act.

11) Where Do We Go From Here?

The Last Jedi ends with the Resistance down to a handful of survivors fleeing in the Millennium Falcon, with the First Order now in the incompetent yet very dangerous hands of Kylo Ren. The implicit message of the movie’s last scene is that the Resistance will find new strength in the young children of the galaxy who have suffered under the injustices perpetrated by both the First Order and the war profiteers of the galaxy’s military-industrial complex.  Nevertheless, it seems like there’s a lot that needs to be addressed in the next installment.

That task is made all the more difficult by Carrie Fisher’s untimely death. As I understand it, Leia was being set up to be a central figure in the conclusion of this trilogy, and I don’t envy the makers of Episode IX having to write around her enormous absence.

The Last Jedi Chewbacca and Porg

12) See You Around, Kid

On the whole Rian Johnson did a pretty good job writing & directing The Last Jedi. It was an entertaining movie with exciting action sequences.  It also presented some interesting and thought-provoking ideas, although it really didn’t spend enough time examining most of them, instead rapidly moving on to the next action piece.  The movie also did a fair job at developing some of the characters, particularly Rey, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren, and in introducing the tough & likable Rose Tico.  I just wish that all of this could have been achieved within a story that was not such a retread of previous installments, and that relied so heavily on the formula established in the original trilogy.

The Last Jedi is definitely an improvement over The Force Awakens, but it still falls short of Rogue One, which was successful at both presenting a fresh perspective on a familiar universe and at telling a very different sort of story.

Star Wars reviews: The Force Awakens

Michele and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Thursday evening. We both wanted to go ASAP in order to avoid the inevitable spoilers that would soon be proliferating the Internet.

What did I think of it? Short answer: I liked it.  Long answer: read the rest of this review.

Be advised: there are MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you have not seen the movie yet and do not want it ruined for you then do not proceed any further.

SW The Force Awakens poster

1) First things first

In many ways the set-up of The Force Awakens is similar to the original trilogy. Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the remnants of the Empire have reorganized as the fascist First Order.  Opposing them is the Resistance, a movement made up of both veteran members of the Rebel Alliance including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and a younger generation of freedom fighters.  The Republic has begun to reform and is providing backing to the Resistance.  Both the Resistance and the First Order are attempting to locate Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who vanished years before.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have gone back to smuggling. Due to personal tragedy, Han is once again a man who wants no part of any noble cause.  He’s looking to stay as far away from the war between the Resistance and the First Order as possible.  However, once again, despite his wishes, Han and his Wookie best friend are reluctantly drawn into the conflict.

2) New faces

Writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt introduce several new characters in The Force Awakens.

The main protagonist is Rey (Daisy Ridley) a teenager eking out an existence on the desert world of Jakku. She comes across the droid BB-8, whose owner is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot captured by the First Order.  (For those who didn’t catch it, Poe is the son of Shara Bey and Kes Dameron from the Marvel Comics miniseries Star Wars: Shattered Empire.)

BB-8 contains part of a map Poe located, a guide to Luke Skywalker’s location. Rey and BB-8 soon encounter Finn (John Boyega), a young Stormtrooper who defected from the First Order and helped Poe escape.  Crash-landing on Jakku, Finn is separated from Poe.  Looking for a way off the barren planet and away from the First Order, Finn joins Rey in attempting to return BB-8 to the Resistance.

On the opposite side of the fence, the First Order’s efforts to locate BB-8 are spearheaded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force. Accompanying him are the ruthless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and armored officer Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).  Ren and Hux report directly to the Supreme Leader of the First Order, the mysterious Snoke (Andy Serkis), who only appears as a hologram.

SW The Force Awakens Rey and Finn

3) The Good, the Bad, and the Whiny

Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt do a good job introducing the new heroes in The Force Awakens, making them compelling characters. I definitely became very interested in Rey, Finn and Poe as the movie progressed.  The fact that Ridley, Boyega and Isaac all turned in solid performances certainly helped to sell this next generation to me.

I did think Finn had a few too many humorous “Aww yeah” lines of dialogue. You would think someone raised by a militaristic dictatorship might be a bit more socially awkward and have some trouble coming up with snarky remarks.

There’s also the breakout “star” of the movie, namely the droid BB-8, who looks across between R2-D2 and a soccer ball. The SFX and sound people gave him a fun, mischievous personality.

Wisely, much of the movie was devoted to introducing these new heroes. Other than Han and Chewbacca, all of the original trilogy characters have small roles.  That was a good way to establish ties to the previous movies without overshadowing the new characters.  Ford and Ridley definitely work well together, as we see the world-weary, mournful Han begin to once again lower his guard and become something of a reluctant father figure to Rey.

On the other hand, the villains Hux and Phasma are both very one-dimensional and don’t have too much screen time. Well, most Star Wars antagonists are unfortunately underdeveloped, so this is not too surprising.

And then there’s Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa.  He reminds me of a brooding Goth teenager who wants everyone to take him seriously.  Ren idolizes Darth Vader and wants to follow in his footsteps.  One gets the impression that the reason why Ren wears a sinister black mask with a voice modulator is because he is so desperately attempting to emulate Vader.  And if you thought Vader had a short fuse, well, Ren is worse.  Something goes wrong, next thing you know he’s furiously hacking up equipment with his lightsaber.  I don’t know how the heck the First Order can afford a weapon like the Starkiller if they have to repair all the property damage caused by Ren!

It appears that Ren’s weakness as villain is actually deliberate. Han Solo suggests that to Ren that Snoke regards him as nothing more than an easily manipulated pawn that can later be discarded.  Certainly Ren would not be the first hotheaded bully attempting to mask an inferiority complex with a façade of strength.

SW The Force Awakens First Order rally

4) Take this job and shove it

In the past I touched upon a question occasionally asked by fans, namely who would actually want to work for the Empire. That query is especially raised in regards to Stormtroopers, who appear to have the most thankless job of all, typically serving as cannon fodder.

The Force Awakens addresses that particular question, and the answer is very unpleasant. Stormtroopers are conscripts who are kidnapped while only infants, who are then indoctrinated with the ideology of the First Order throughout their childhoods, emerging as adults who mindlessly follow the orders of their commanding officers.

Finn was one of these children. In fact, Finn isn’t even his real name.  All he knows is his serial number, FN-2187.  The capture of Poe on Jakku is his first mission in the field, and despite years of brainwashing FN-2187 is shocked at the slaughter of innocents.  Horrified at what the First Order is doing, FN-2187 helps Poe escape from them.  It is the Resistance pilot who gives him the name “Finn” after the letters in his First Order ID.

There are real-world analogies at play here.  Over the decades various totalitarian governments have utilized this technique, such as the various Communist regimes of the mid-20th Century.  More recently various terrorist groups like Boko Harem have kidnapped large numbers of children to mold into future members.

But the most obvious example of this is Nazi Germany, with its Hitler Youth program, which indoctrinated young children into serving the State first and foremost.  Which brings us to that scene…

5) Springtime for Palpatine

At one point in The Force Awakens there is an assembly of First Order military forces that is very reminiscent of the infamous Nuremberg Rallies , with General Hux delivering a chilling Hitler-esque rant against the Republic.

The original trilogy drew a few parallels between the Empire and the Nazis, but this is far and away the most obvious evocation of the Third Reich’s evil in the Star Wars universe.

6) Build a better Death Star

Seeking to outdo the Empire, the First Order has created an even more insanely dangerous superweapon. Instead of a moon-sized battle station, the First Order transformed an actual planet into the Starkiller (no doubt a nod to George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker in the early drafts of Star Wars).  Rather than merely destroying nearby worlds, Starkiller can obliterate multiple targets on the opposite end of the galaxy.

The Starkiller is also a hell of a lot more fortified than the Death Star. Even after Finn provides the Resistance with the location of the Base’s obligatory weak point, destroying it still proves to be an almost-impossible task.

7) Go Snoke yourself

Sorry, but Snoke is just too ridiculous a name for a character who is supposed to a dark, menacing villain. Yes, I know, nearly all Star Wars character names are strange: Obi Wan Kenobi, Boba Fett, Mace Windu, Padme Amidala, etc.  But most of the time George Lucas devised names that were odd but still cool.  Snoke just sounds goofy.  I mean, that’s a character from a mid-1980s Saturday morning cartoon, right?  No, wait, those were Snorks.  Never mind.

Maybe in this particular case Abrams should have asked Lucas for a favor. “Hey, George? Look, I know that you sold Star Wars to Disney, and that we then decided not to use any of your ideas for the new trilogy of movies. But could you help us out on one thing? We’re having a hell of a time coming up with a really cool, evil name for our Big Bad. Got any ideas?”

SW The Force Awakens Chewbacca and Han Solo

8) There’s no service like fan service

Michele expressed the opinion that The Force Awakens was much better than the prequels, stating “They made the movie that the fans wanted.” I responded that the prequels were better than most people give them credit, and that sometimes it is not a good idea to give the fans exactly what they are asking for.

The late Marvel Comics writer & editor Mark Gruenwald once observed “The writer’s job isn’t to give the fans what they want. The writer’s job is to give the fans what they didn’t even know they wanted.” Another comic book writer, the very talented Steven Grant, has expressed similar sentiments, and also offered the view that “The best ideas are usually the ones that are almost obvious, the ones that when you get it you stop and wonder why no one ever came up with it before.”

As much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, as well made and visually impressive a movie as it was, in a certain respect it was by-the-numbers. One can visualize Abrams and his collaborators literally going through a checklist of what to include…

Appearances by a whole bunch of the original trilogy characters? Check!  A ragtag group of freedom fighters struggling against a monolithic adversary of pure evil?  Check!  A massive superweapon that can destroy entire planets?  Check?  A hero who grows up on a desert world and who discovers that it is her destiny to embrace the Force and become a Jedi?  Check!  Another hero who is concerned with self-preservation but who gradually comes to believe in a cause bigger than himself?  Check!

As I’ve observed before, the prequels were flawed, but they were still enjoyable. What Lucas really, REALLY needed to have on those three movies was a strong co-writer on the screenplays, someone like, well, Lawrence Kasdan, who previously worked on The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.  I expect that the reason why the dialogue in The Force Awakens is so well written is due to Kasdan’s involvement.

Because of weak scripts, as well as the fact that Lucas was attempting to tell a story that was somewhat different from the original trilogy, the prequels were not well received by many.

Imagine a scenario where you enjoy a new music group because they do amazing cover versions of old songs that you love. In fact, you like this new group even better than the more recent work of the original artists, whose later albums weren’t as well written, and who no longer can hit the high notes as often, or play the guitar as fast.

That’s sort of how The Force Awakens came across to me, as J.J. Abrams doing a cover album of Star Wars Greatest Hits. But the thing is, no matter how you play around with the material, tweaking it, speeding it up, emphasizing certain things over others, no matter how fantastic it turns out, at its core are still the same notes  & lyrics Lucas wrote over three decades ago.

As I said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun, well-made movie. It is also a movie that plays it very safe.  Obviously Disney was not going to allow anything too experimental or offbeat on their very first Star Wars movie.  I hate to think that they are going to require the entirety of the franchise to remain so formulaic.  Hopefully in the future, in some of the spin-off movies that are in the works, Disney will let the directors & writers strive for a different tone and go in new directions.  We shall have to see.