The Rise Of Skywalker, And How Star Wars Is Junk

Star Wars is junk.

No, no, I know, but bear with me.

Junk, let’s just say this now, is not necessarily a pejorative.

Junk can be wonderful. Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout? Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream? They’re junk, too. Ever seen a kid play with an empty box? An empty box is junk. But what they do with it — I mean, it’s a pirate ship, a boat, it’s knight armor, it’s an action figure base.Some junk is just trash, admittedly. But some junk is artful. Masterful. Just because it’s old — or cobbled together from various pieces — doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it junk.

Star Wars, particularly the original trilogy and the new sequel trilogy, live in a galaxy of junk. Tatooine to Jakku, trash compactors to Jawa crawlers, it’s a galaxy of junk. A glimmer of the upper echelons of Cloud City swiftly give way to its bowels, of hissing steam and grim industry and those little junk monkeys, the Ugnaughts (sorry, Kuiil), who turn C-3P0 into, you guessed it, junk. (C-3P0, whose one leg was already junk, in fact. And later, an arm, too.) The prequels have a little bit of junk, of course — Anakin is born into it. But the worlds there are mostly shiny and new, and the CGI reflects it, having eschewed practical SFX built out of, well —

Junk.

The greatest piece of junk in Star Wars is the Millennium Falcon.

It’s a hunk of metal, lumpy and odd. It’s routinely shown being cobbled together at the same time it’s been damaged left and right. It’s name, the Falcon, is an ironic one — it looks less like a falcon and more like a, I dunno, a manhole cover. It’s not a sleek fighter. It’s a cargo ship. It carries things.

It’s also the coolest ship in the damn galaxy.

And that, to me, is Star Wars. Star Wars is the Millennium Falcon — they both are ill-fitted, cobbled-together hunks of space junk that carry a lot of weight and somehow still fly crazy fast, pulling off unbelievable stunts time and time again. And we love it. Despite its look, despite the junk, we love it.

Star Wars is junk.

* * *

I saw the Rise of Skywalker, and it is, indeed, junk.

It’s junk cobbled together from all the other detritus and debris from this galaxy — in many cases, literally so, as it endeavors to climb to the top of the pile of this wonderfully broken galaxy and culminate both three films (this trilogy) and nine films (the trilogy of trilogies). It makes this attempt, and mostly, gets it right. “Gets it right,” is subjective, obviously, and I’m not making any declarations here for how it objectively does this or that. Some people are going to love this film and some are going to hate it and all of those people, I think, could stand to remember that Star Wars is junk, and so is this movie. Just as Return of the Jedi was — just as, in a way, all of them are. Some are more “elevated” than others. Certainly Empire is often thought to be the pinnacle of Star Wars storytelling — and then comes along scrappy ROTJ, to bork it all up. I say that lovingly. Empire is the better film. Jedi is my favorite of the two. Just as The Last Jedi is probably the best of the sequel trilogy, but also, my favorite is (so far), The Force Awakens. Sometimes it’s good to see the art in junk and regard it as such, while also acknowledging that sometimes it is not the most artful things that spark joy.

We like what we like, you know?

So, before we begin any spoiler talk, my assessment of Rise of Skywalker is that it fits in neatly in the tradition of being delightful junk. It also remixes Return of the Jedi, same as the two earlier Sequel Trilogy films are broken mirrors of the first two Original Trilogy films. It does a lot of heavy lifting. It wants to show you so many things that it has cobbled together (put more crassly, it wants to show you its junk, hurr hurr, hurr hurr), and it’s like an eager kid telling you a story. AND THEN THEY DID THIS, AND THEN THEY WENT HERE, AND THEN AND THEN THIS AND THAT AND THIS AND AND *deep breath* AND THEN THIS. It is almost desperate to please you. (And, mostly, for me, that gambit paid off. I was indeed pleased and tickled. Mostly.)

Is it good? I dunno. It’s junk, and I liked it.

Does it have high points? It sure does.

Does it have low points? Well, yeah, it has those, too. And for all the wonderful talk of The Last Jedi, that has low points, too. CASINO PLANET, while admirable, doesn’t work for me in execution, only in idea. DJ is a stuttering cipher who has no meat on his narrative bones except to be a carrier of theme — he’s not a character, he’s a purpose. It’s fine.

(We don’t have to love a thing entirely to still love it.)

Does Rise of Skywalker hit emotional beats? It does, it really does. I got misty-eyed at parts, because these are films I love dearly, and someone like JJ Abrams — like Rian Johnson before him and *checks notes* JJ Abrams before him — knows how to orchestrate feelings even when they can’t always orchestrate plot. Are sometimes these emotional beats right on the edge of manipulative? They are. And you can almost feel it, but it’s like how you know a roller coaster is designed to elicit your thrills — it doesn’t stop the thrills from happening.

So, if you want to stop reading here, that’s it, that’s my capsule review. I liked it. It’s junk, wonderful junk. I’ll see it again tomorrow, and I’ll see it dozens more times and dozens more after that, because I am a sucker for Star Wars, and I love these characters, and Star Wars, like pizza (another junk food), is great even when it’s not great.

But I like also to pick apart story, to see what lessons we can learn as storytellers.

And that part comes next.

Which means: spoilers inbound.

Spoilers, spoilers, spoooooiiiiilers. These will not be encoded with ROT13 as I do on Twitter, but rather, BOLD, FACE-SLAPPING SPOILERS. Ye be warned.

* * *

Let’s start off with pacing.

Pacing is hard. Doubly hard in action or adventure films.

Star Wars does pacing badly. Almost always. Even at its best, the films are nearly always paced super goofily. Now, there’s two aspects of pacing — what I would consider external pacing, and internal pacing. Internal is about the passage of time in the story itself. External is how we, the audience, perceive the rhythm of that passage.

Example:

Empire is amazing, but it kinda shrugs away how much time they’re spending in different places. So its internal pacing — the timeline — is confusing. How long is Luke on Dagobah? Does it perfectly line up with how long Han and Leia are on the lam? Ennnh. Answer unclear, ask again later. But the film does external pacing well! We feel a nice ebb and flow of narrative, we get moments of tension and action, and we get moments of conversation and exploration. In a video game sense, think of how Bioware encourages these long conversations with the other characters that seem like filler but are arguably the point — the treasure! — of the game. It’s not the shooting. It’s the talking. ESB does this well. So does, I’d argue, TLJ — though TLJ also has a muddy timeline, it does have a powerful rhythm to its narrative architecture.

On the other hand, TFA feels paced like the whole film fits in its own running time. Both internal and external pacing are largely in a rush. And that’s true here, too, at least for the first half — the first half of Rise of Skywalker is fucking breathless. It doesn’t stop. It just goes from place to place, from plot dongle to plot widget. It hastily hard-charges through the story and through action scenes without much pause. The second half is better paced. It takes more time. It is willing to stop.

And Star Wars is best when it’s willing to stop.

Think, if you will, of Luke regarding the binary sunset to the swelling score.

Think of Anakin in ROTS, staring out over Coruscant, clearly broken, but not realizing it.

Think of Rey in the desert, making her dinner, looking up at the sky.

These are moments of quiet contemplation — of, in SW terms, peace and purpose. And it does serve a purpose: it gives us a moment to catch our breath. To regard the vastness of the universe and the truth of these characters. In a more stripped down sense, these moments fill the room with oxygen — they are not building tension so much as they are building to the building of tension. We fill the room with oxygen so that eventually, we can set it aflame. We can blow it up, swallow it. It also gives us time to root ourselves, to care about the characters. Stories like Star Wars thrive on moments of quiet contemplation.

And Rise of Skywalker has too few of these moments.

* * *

I want the four-hour version of this film. I’m told one exists — a long, possibly clumsy cut. But I want it. Because there’s so much missing here.

Let me backtrack and explain: as I said, this film endeavors to culminate both three films, and nine films, and it does those things well. Sometimes, too well — it tries very hard to please everybody. Did you like TLJ? This film synthesizes it. Did you hate it? This film answers it. Did you want Leia to be a Jedi? Done. Did you want Rey to be both Somebody and Nobody, a Palpatine, a Skywalker? Done. All of it! Boom! Did you want Reylo? Done. Did you want Ben Solo’s redemption, but also, not too much of his redemption? Done. Palpatine? He’s back. Did you want Luke to catch a lightsaber instead of throwing it away? Done. But also, porgs? Yep, porgs. Han Solo as an almost Force Ghost? Fuck it, why not? Christ, are you still mad (as, admittedly, I was) that Chewie never got a fucking medal in A New Hope? WELL, THIS SHIT FIXES IT. It just throws everything at the wall. Sith! Jedi! Skywalkers! Death stars! Desert planets! Forest planets! Ewoks! AhhhHHHHHaaahhhh *hnnngh* narrative orgasm *hrrrrgggh*.

But as a film, it also forgets to be a singular unit.

It forgets to conclude itself.

It introduces things, and then… forgets them entirely.

Finn has something important to tell Rey. It’s referenced multiple times!

And then, forgotten.

Finn has a destiny, is maybe Force sensitive! But it’s mostly a plot thing. More a “cake and eat it too” component, or a piece designed to simply urge the plot forward (“How do we get from A to B? Uhh, Finn has a ‘feeling’!”).

Finn and Poe are at odds for… reasons? Maybe romantic reasons?

And then it’s gone.

Chewie is dead, but then he’s not… somehow? I have to see it again, but I don’t remember there being two transports. And Rey certainly should’ve been able to sense his life presence — as she is able to do literally 20 minutes later in the movie.

The film seems to forget that it has characters whose arcs need an end. It mostly eschews them to finish off Rey and Kylo’s arcs — Finn and Poe and muddled. Poe seems to be relitigating his same lessons from the first film, oh he’s a hothead, and now also he’s an ex-criminal which makes him shady. Finn is Force-sensitive, and maybe loves Rey, but maybe doesn’t, and maybe he loves Rose, but maybe Jannah, but then, nah, nobody. None of it concludes. Poe maybe loves Zorii Bliss, and she wants to kill him until conveniently she doesn’t want to kill him anymore For Reasons, and then even at the end, Poe doesn’t get to kiss anybody, which seems like a crime punishable by the Hague. Doubly so because it’s not Finn he’s kissing, because at the end of the day the two characters with the most onscreen chemistry are those two. (Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the LGBT thing.)

Lotta love in the air.

None of it fulfilled.

Except between Rey and Kylo — by then, Ben. I don’t know that I’d say it’s forced. I think it’s there, and it’s not surprising, and it’s earned. But it then fails to address that there should be complexity and consequence to that choice. By redeeming him and kissing him and then watching him die, Rey has gone through some shit. And there’s no real consequence for that because by then, we’re at the end of the film, and there’s little more to see, or do, except to see our trio of friends back together one last time. Which warms the heart, and brings the tears, but also makes me wish for more with these characters. I want to see them navigate that fallout in a way that’s real, that’s earned. I’d honestly want to see them be together — romantically. Either earn the earlier tension between them, or dissipate it by bringing them all together, literally, romantically.

The film earns an ending to its trilogy.

It somewhat earns an ending to the trilogy of trilogies.

But it doesn’t really conclude itself. To thine ownself, it is not true.

And I think it could get there with another 20-30 minutes — or, ideally, a whole other film, way the last Avengers film was split in twain. But I suppose we won’t get that. I’ll always wish for it. I’ll always wish to see the bigger emotional panorama, because it’s clear a lot was flayed from the emotional meat in order to accommodate the swiftly-moving plot.

* * *

Small stories are why we care about stories.

It’s not big stories. Big stories are too big. They’re just architecture — when done right — for small stories. Luke as a kid who wants off a planet, who is struggling with finding out he has a bad dad. Han as a gambler with debts, selfish to selfless. Leia as a princess without a home.

Rise of Skywalker cares about Rey’s small story. Maybe Kylo’s, too.

It mostly forgets about everyone else’s small story.

Their stories are lost in the crashing tides of the galaxy’s churning narrative seas.

* * *

It suggests, perhaps, that films are no longer the best way to tell these stories.

Ironically, Mandolorian (so far) feels stretched thin over its episodic structure (though Chapter 7 was amazing), but Rise of Skywalker could play better over 8, 10, even 12 episodes. Gosh, I wish it would. Could you imagine seeing this story told more in the framework of Avatar: The Last Airbender? As a structure, how amazing would that be? To give the big emotional beats the time to percolate, to boil over, to be earned?

Alas.

* * *

Babu Frik forever. Babu Frik for life.

* * *

Palpatine fucks, I guess? Ew.

* * *

Okay real talk I thought we’d get more, there. Thought we’d learn that Palpatine created Anakin, we’d hear more about Plagueis and his ability to never die, thought if Rey was part of him at all she was like Anakin — manifested from the living Force, or drawn from the Dark Side. Not that Palpatine literally fucks. Because I guess he literally fucks. What the fuck.

Seriously, what the fuck.

I don’t want to bow-chicka-bow-wow that wizened scrotal Sith goblin. Ugh. JFC.

* * *

Okay.

Ahem.

Let’s reset.

* * *

The last thing to talk about is the worst thing to talk about. Not worst as it, unnecessary. Worst as in, the least satisfying aspect of the film.

There exists a much-vaunted LGBT kiss in the film. It’s about a half-second of screen-time. I guess to their credit, it’s at least a named character from TLJ — er, though I confess, I forget her name. But it’s hasty. It gets less time than the banana slug. It gets less time than nearly everything. You might miss it. Many probably did.

The reasons for this are potentially so it’s easy to cut out for Chinese censors — but even that feels like an excuse. Because a film could always be cut in a way to excise that. Not that one should do so just to make money, to be clear! Only that, we still could’ve gotten Finn and Poe tongue-fucking in a Millennium Falcon cargo bin and they could’ve clipped that for Chinese audiences. This sort of thing should be present. On-screen. And I joke about the tongue-fucking, but it doesn’t need to be explicit — LGBT characters should be allowed to exist in this universe, on screen, in a lived-in, live-there way. Not backgrounded. Just present. Always present. We can have aliens and robots but not LGBT representation? C’mon. We watch a lot of cartoons with our kid, and they’re doing it better. Way better! Craig of the Creek! We Bare Bears! She-Ra! Dragon Prince! Steven Universe! Star Vs The Forces Of Evil! C’mon, Star Wars. Get it done. JFC.

Certainly others are better equipped too to talk about the film’s representation in other directions. Finn being largely underused, chasing after Rey, is not ideal. Poe being hot-headed again and now, a criminal, and having to re-do the same character arc as before — that’s not great, either. But Jannah and Finn have good moments. Lando, too. Rose being totally sidelined? And I mean, totally sidelined?

Oof.

It’s certainly a place where the film could’ve done more work.

A lot more work, probably.

* * *

Star Wars is junk, and so is this movie.

It’s a candy bar, but a really good one.

It’s a junker car, but one that feels great when you’re driving it, even if it sometimes looks janky as fuck bounding down the road.

It’s the Falcon, it’s Threepio, it’s the Jakku desert. Junk strewn everywhere, but often to artful purpose, to articulate a feeling, to paint a picture.

I know the cool thing to do is “rank” the films — I’m always dubious of that because my rankings fluctuate wildly. And also I have two rankings: how much I like a movie, as noted, is not always the same as how “good” I think the movie is. I guess if I had to rank this one, right now it’d fall somewhere in the middle? Above nearly all the prequel films (including RO and Solo), but below a lot of the others. It satisfied me like a Snickers, but like a Snickers, it did not always feel like a complete meal — satisfying texturally, satisfying to the dopamine hit, satisfying in its sweetness and its crunch, but not in how long it leaves me feeling good. Maybe sometimes too sweet. Maybe other times not enough. And maybe sometimes I question my decision to have eaten candy in the first place.

I look forward to the next thing. Because I always do. And perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this movie is it makes me want to write Star Wars again — not to fix anything, not to patch over this film, but to play in the galaxy again, to extend out what was done here, to keep seeing these characters come back. Because I don’t want their tales to be done. Their tales can’t be done. There has to be more — otherwise, whatever was the point?

I could say more. It’s Star Wars, after all. Gimme a pot of coffee and a slice of pie and we could sit at this diner all night. But I’ve said my piece. And as with all these movies — which mean a lot to me, for good and for ill — I’ll keep thinking about them, and finding things I love, bits of preciousness among the debris. I’m sure you will, too.

For now, we rest.

And wait for the ending of the Mandalorian because NO BABY YODA NO I LOVE YOU BABY YODA I WILL GIVE MY LIFE FOR YOU AHHHHH ahem.

What I’m trying to say is:

MTFBWY. See you on the other side of the (Star) War.