(Not a) Rise of Skywalker review

sky1.jpgWell, no I haven’t seen it. Probably won’t until the New Year when the fuss has died down, and even then it might not be until March when the disc comes out. I’m a Star Wars fan from 1977 when I read the Marvel comics (we didn’t get the film here in the UK regions until early 1978). I’ve bought the films on every home format going and seen each one at the cinema until Solo. I’ve bought the soundtracks, wear the tee-shirts. If Disney can’t get my big arse on a cinema seat then somethings very, very wrong in a Galaxy far, far away.

The reviews, some positive, some negative, some indifferent, some absolutely apocalyptic, are pretty much everything I expected from the film. I have little tolerance for the methods of JJ Abrams, whose entire career seems to have been an exercise in polishing up and re-selling the creative genius of others, nor Kathleen Kennedy, a ‘safe’ pair of hands at Lucasfilm who mistook bullet-points and agendas for creative narrative.

Richard over at 100 Films in A Year has posted his review and its pretty typical. He raises a very good observation that the film-makers “forcibly insert bits that seem to exist merely to look good in trailers” which is something that Abrams has been guilty of before. The most telling one I recall is the Enterprise rising out of an ocean in Star Trek Into Darkness. It was totally idiotic (the excuse being the Enterprise was hiding from the native civilisation, when it would have been perfectly hidden up in orbit as it has been for several tv series and movies over the decades) and betrays Abram’s cynical method of putting ‘wow’ moments into his films that serve no narrative function or internal logic at all. First time around it distracts through surprise and spectacle but on repeat viewing it just rankles. Its curious that repeat viewings of his movies seldom go well and a lot of his films (the Star Trek reboots and The Force Awakens in particular) are subject to much revisionary criticism years later- they really don’t age well at all

He’s like some kid smashing all his toys up for the hell of it. The guys appropriates the worlds created by others and joyfully breaks them. Like another example in the same film when Khan transports himself across the galaxy from a shuttle down on Earth to someplace on Klingon, instantly, and immediately negating the need for space ships or FTL travel at all. A smarter hand on the script would have simply had him teleport to a ship waiting in orbit that then warps off to Klingon, a move that would have performed the same narrative function but stayed within established mythology and logic. Which is pretty much the same as that jerk Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi when Holdo jumps into Hyperspace through the First Order flagship and destroys the ship and most of the fleet. Its a big ‘wow’ moment, beautifully executed, certainly the one scene that provoked gasps of surprise and awe, but its also the one in which it broke the world. I wonder how many times in The Rise of Skywalker a situation arises in which had the good guys done the same manoeuvre they could have wiped out Palpatines forces? Or more tellingly, how many times Palpatine could have wiped out the rebel armada by one of his ships doing the same?

Its all very sad. I don’t want any Star Wars film to fail but neither do I want bad storytelling to be rewarded. Lucasfilm clearly had no plan for this sequel trilogy, and while I believe it went wrong from the start with The Force Awakens so cynically remaking A New Hope rather than moving onto new territory, it went doubly wrong letting Rian Johnson then break everything Abrams started with The Force Awakens, I mean, where did they expect the franchise to go after The Last Jedi? I sincerely wish, for all my dislike of The Last Jedi, that Rian Johnson had been left to make the third film and try to conjure up some satisfying conclusion himself. It was too easy and let him off the hook, he took so much pleasure breaking everything with The Last Jedi and he was able to walk away like some triumphant auteur and I almost feel sorry for Abram’s position with this third film. Johnson got away with it and didn’t have to ‘fix’ what he broke.

That all being said, the ultimate failure is surely of Kathleen Kennedy and the heads at Lucasfilm who failed in oversight of the trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels (and they are pretty awful) but Lucas clearly had a narrative arc for them, telling the story of Anakin Skywalker and how he became Darth Vader and the rise of the Empire. I don’t know what the hell this new trilogy was supposed to be about.

In both The Phantom Menace and A New Hope, the audience is informed of the political situation, whether it be of the troubled Republic of the first film or the established positions of the Empire and the resistance in A New Hope. Somehow between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the defeated Empire has arisen as the nonsensical First Order, and instead of the New Republic post-ROTJ defending against the new evil its left to some kind of new bunch of freedom fighters instead. Its never explained how things have turned out how they have or who’s bankrolling the First Order or who the hell Snoke was, except that I gather its ‘explained’ in Rise of Skywalker that it was Palpatine all along. Yeah, the same dude that was blasted by his own force lightning and hurled down into a blazing reactor core subsequently destroyed with its vaporised Death Star- I gather all this is ‘explained’ by the Great Bard Abrams and I don’t know how Palpatine gets defeated/killed in Rise of Skywalker  but I wonder whats stopping the bugger magically resurrecting himself again.

From the start this new trilogy has been lazily written, ill-reasoned, and hell-bent on just rebooting everything from the earlier films whilst arbitrarily ignoring established mythology and internal logic. Every narrative has a beginning, a middle and end with sensical narrative and character arcs, whether it be a single movie or three films telling a whole larger story. Did Lucasfilm start shooting The Force Awakens with no idea where the story went in films two and three? It seems patently obvious this was the case and insanely irresponsible and reckless. They got what they deserved, alienating the core fanbase while they were at it. I’m sure The Rise of Skywalker has it fans and will pass a billion dollars at the box office but I’m pretty confident its a bad movie.

Solo (2018)

solo1While watching Solo, I was reminded of something I read a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away- in 1978, infact, and inside the pages of the Star Wars official collectors magazine that Marvel published back then. At least I think it was in that mag, it was a long time ago after all, but anyway, it was some comment referring to a review that cited Star Wars as being the first Western filmed in outer space. Solo is just that- a space western.

So in the spirit of laboring the space western allegory, lets look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this Star Wars movie titled Solo.

First, the good. Well, its okay. If that’s damning it with faint praise, then so be it: its no disaster (In the words of fellow blogger Gregory Moss, it could have been worse) and certainly nowhere near as divisive as The Last Jedi proved to be. Solo doesn’t usurp franchise tropes or chronology as TLJ did-  Lucasfilm has (eventually, considering this films troubled production) crafted a stable, steady adventure with typically workmanlike direction from Ron Howard’s exceedingly safe directorial hands.

While some of the action stuff such as the opening speeder chase was fairly mediocre at best, I thought the train heist in particular was great -the strangely reduced colour-palette of the film actually helps the CGI enhancements look all the more real. Some of the imagery of the windswept characters on the roof of the train reminded me of the Frazetta covers for the Battlestar Galactica paperback novelizations of the late ‘seventies. I’m also glad that the finale was rather low-key, it was a refreshing thing for a Star Wars movie, I thought, especially as the CGI-fest Kessel Run was so boring.  If we’d cared more for the characters it might have been all the better, but that post-Kessel Run stuff was fine and suggested a second movie (which we’ll now never see) might have been worthwhile. Maybe Solo should always have been a mini-series rather than a movie?

Alden Ehrenreich is okay as a young Han, albeit never really convinces. I would have preferred to have seen Anthony Ingruber (already cast as young Harrison Ford in The Age of Adaline) or Ansel Elgort, who looked like a young Solo in much of Baby Driver, at least they might have physically matched Ford better. Although he performs well considering all the pressures and baggage placed upon him (its pretty thankless signing on for a role like this), Ehrenreich is clearly no Harrison Ford- if anything, he’s more a young Dennis Quaid, particularly whenever he smiles or turns on the charm (which reminded me, ironically, of watching Inner Space back in the cinema and thinking how Quaid could have played Han Solo back then). Although he never really convinces as Han Solo, thankfully this young Solo is not an obnoxious and irritating infant re: Jake Lloyd’s Anakin of The Phantom Menace. The art direction is okay (I always get a kick out of seeing original Star Wars-era Storm Troopers), the music feels like that of a Star Wars movie (indeed even is Star Wars movie music as it re-uses themes from the original scores).

solo2Now, the bad. Its all a bit ‘meh’ if I’m honest. Not once does it genuinely shock or surprise or shake expectations of what a Han Solo movie could be. Indeed, it largely spends its time ticking boxes: Han meets Chewie, Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, we get a game of Holo-Chess in the Falcon lounge, we get to witness the Kessel Run. Han is a scoundrel yes but at heart he’s a good guy and does the ‘Right Thing’. Nothing new that happens in Solo can really be important as it cannot retro-actively effect the cannon- nothing new in Solo can ever be referenced or name-checked in The Empire Strikes Back or The Force Awakens. Han doesn’t make some mysterious comment about someone named Beckett in The Force Awakens, for example (and if these new films were being masterminded properly, maybe he would/should). So we never really get any dramatic suspense. Which leads us to-

The ugly? Misguided. Cynical. A production nightmare that was always doomed to fail, whatever its success at the box-office (is it really fair to saddle this finished film with the purported $300 million cost of combining its production with the abandoned original shooting of the previously fired directors?). A salient lesson to Lucasfilm of how to make/not make a Star Wars movie.

Well, that is the whole thing with prequels, isn’t it? Dramatically they are always flawed because we go in with knowing how things end up. Han can’t die, Chewie can’t die, the Falcon may get some dents but it can’t be destroyed, etc . Prequels inherently are hamstrung by the Magic Reset button- whatever happens during them they have to leave the status quo in place for subsequent editions in order to maintain continuity. And likewise, they are weighed down by unfair expectations, comparisons to better films back when Star Wars was new and fresh and exciting, better directors, better actors, all looked at through rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia.

Disney’s Star Wars films have a problem, and it isn’t competing against fellow franchise juggernaut Marvel- its the ravages of time. Star Wars is now in its fifth decade and the world has moved on. The Matrix films, good or bad, were a Star Wars for a new generation, and maybe the Jurassic Park films were too, and while the jury is out on James Cameron’s Avatar films, I suppose it could well be argued that the Marvel Studios films are indeed a Star Wars for today’s generation of film-goers. Lightsabres and Jedi and droids and everything else wrapped up in Star Wars dates back to the days of Disco and can leave some of us original fans labelled as dinosaurs.

I have no issues with Disney shaking things up with its Star Wars films- its just that The Last Jedi, in my mind, was the wrong place to do it. If you’re going to have Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars movie then he has to act for good or ill as his established character would. For instance, if Han Solo were alive in The Last Jedi, would Rian Johnson have gotten away with making him a craven coward? Whatever Rian Johnson eventually does in his proposed future Star Wars trilogy is fine by me as long as its genuinely new and seperate from the established canon. I do feel that Disney might have been better off leaving the Skywalker saga and the Jedi etc well alone and not making Episodes  7-9 at all.

In anycase, returning to Solo, these standalone prequels of course cannot do that- by their nature they have to play safe with continuity and what constitutes a Star Wars movie. I’m a big fan of Rogue One and think its a neat film from a neat idea. Solo– well, we never really needed a Han Solo movie, did we? Maybe the whole prequel thing lacks sufficient ambition- maybe they should have looked further back to the days of the Old Republic and then been freer to play looser with chronology if only because the distant past is vaguer.

Solo is what it is. I would have preferred a different lead. I would have preferred a different arc- why not have made young Han a genuinely bad guy and used the prequel story to redeem him, perhaps explain why the smuggler in the 1977-1983 trilogy has a decent streak deep down? Otherwise, whats the real point of a prequel, other than showing us what we know and have come to expect?

As it turned out, few people really wanted a Han Solo movie and it largely turned out as mediocre as everyone feared it would- albeit better perhaps than the production woes would have suggested. Its box-office failure means it will likely lead to a rethink at both Lucasfilm and Disney, and that might be a good thing in the long run. That does return me to a question I raised earlier- maybe it should never have been a movie, but rather a mini-series instead? After all, Disney will have its streaming service/channel next year. Maybe that is where the future of these standalone Star Wars movies lies, in mini-series form.