Thursday, January 02, 2020

Rise of Skywalker (JJ Abrams, 2019)

Recyclable Skywalker

Finally, the last installment of this third trilogy that George Lucas a long time ago in an era far far away once cobbled together, from Flash Gordon serials, The Adventures of Robin Hood, World War 2 fighter plane footage (particularly The Dam Busters) and most of all Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (with a brief callback to Yojimbo). The capstone to his grand edifice of a fantasy* franchise if you like.

Does the movie live up to all expectations?

Doubt if any film no matter how well made can live up to the hype; the producers took the cautious step of rehiring JJ Abrams--the Jedi master at giving wornout franchises a shiny updated spin--giving this particularly worn out franchise a shine, updating it, adding a clever (but not too clever) spin, enough to stick an undisastrous landing. Did his gambit work? Well at $400 million on opening weekend chances are it'll earn its money back, with change. 

Is the movie satisfying entertainment? I guess, if the barrage of swordfights chases quests and intermittently amusing quips fired at you nonstop is your idea of a good time; personally I'd rather rewatch the live-action Dumbo remake--may not be any more sensibly assembled, but at least there's a distinct emotional tone and visual style. 

Does the movie give us a satisfying conclusion? Haven't liked a Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back--well, Rogue One was at least made by a filmmaker--so I'm faintly satisfied that it's concluded. Should have concluded some years ago. Should have stopped at Empire. Shouldn't have started in the first place. Not satisfied at all, come to think of it.

Of course Disney isn't satisfied with leaving things alone--hasn't been even with its own back catalog. Another trilogy is planned in a few years and if I'm not rolling my eyes at the prospect that's because Disney might actually hire someone good for the next few pictures.

Yes I'm that much of a masochist. No I'm not holding my breath. 

Palpatine is back, which is consistent with Abrams' probably unintended theme of recycling--for better or worse the dotard is the most memorable bad guy in the movies after Vader, who through sequel after prequel has been whittled down from towering dark menace in Empire to twitching emo neurotic crawling up volcanic slopes in Revenge of the Sith. A replacement is required, so they cast Adam Driver as a twitching emo neurotic Vader lite, and if that sounds funny, just remember the unstated theme of this third trilogy--we're being consistent, is all. 

And yes I've been told The Last Jedi broke new ground, in my book didn't break new enough, just a few fairly clever twists here there, and a visual style that on occasion rose to the occasion--if they really wanted to break new ground they should have gone with David Lynch on Return of the Jedi. Scary? It's Star Wars, they could've done anything and the fans would've scarfed it up; difference is I might have been scarfing with everyone else, and we'd be talking about the significance of the dream sequence involving the dancing midget Wookie for decades to come.

I figure the franchise's fate was sealed when Lucas sold the whole kaboodle to Disney--you don't look to that studio for creative ferment, only a smoothly calculated return on your investment. Lucas wasn't thinking of sending his most famous creation in a more interesting direction; he just wanted to make sure he was well provided for in his retirement (his dotardhood if you like).  

JJ Abrams is careful to avoid the mistakes Lucas made--using dramatically real landscapes and locations where the latter used bland and weightless CGI constructs, maybe carefully integrating said locations with sets and discreet CGI enhancements. It's the only element of real interest in the movie, and maybe the location of most interest is the Death Star crash site with its jagged wreckage jutting rocks titanic waves--though didn't that thing blow into a billion pieces at the end of the movie? 

Otherwise--zilch. Nada. A chore to sit through, though at least the dialogue is passable (if not particularly witty) as opposed to Lucas' grammatically and dramatically challenged idea of conversation.

Reminds me of a joke: Magical tree to lumberjack about to chop it down "Stop! I'm a talking tree!" Lumberjack replies "and you're going to dialogue." Lucas' onscreen talk has always been wooden.

Some general notes on the franchise as a whole: Star Wars isn't much of a tactile experience--people die of blaster as opposed to gunshot wounds and there is no blood, no rent flesh, just a clean carbonized hole (helps the movies keep their PG rating). The most gruesome onscreen damage caused by violence are the lightsabres lopping off a limb or two, but they're light (and scientifically ludicrous) creations, leaving cleanly cauterized stumps.  

Human contact is like what you get on a chaperoned date: a chaste kiss on the lips--no tongue--and god forbid anyone make a reference to actual sex. Remember that Vader was brought to this world via immaculate conception and Palpatine likely grew his progeny out the side of his neck. I wonder at Ben Solo's existence--did Leia and Han use test tubes? An email attachment?

I've said the movie's subterranean theme is recycling but the finale belies that environmental slant. What is it with all the crashed star destroyers expelling thick clouds of black carbon in various planetary atmospheres? Is there a plan to clean all that wreckage up? Are we going to experience global warming on a galactic scale? If the First Order Last Order Whatever Order's intention was to destroy all life as we know it they may be having the last posthumous laugh after all.

And while we're on the subject of death--apparently a strictly temporary state. You get cut in half or jolted with lightning or collapse in a state of telepathic exhaustion just wait a bit and you'll be up and about in very little time, nagging the living and making cameo appearances throughout the rest of the franchise, though somewhat translucent. Maybe the worse story development (and lamest special effect) in the Star Wars universe is this coming back as some kind of Jedi ghost; takes the sting out of death the drama out of tragedy the--but you know what I mean. Recycling is good for the environment but hell on cinema as an art.

Maybe the only question I'm really interested in answering is this: which is the less painful experience, Lucas' excruciatingly awkward attempt to take the franchise in a newish direction? Or Abrams' relatively more polished attempt to retread ground we've gone over a few times, like well-flattened roadkill? Which is the less painful experience, the fairly well made secondhand or the clumsy new creation? The root canal or the colonoscopy?

I know what I prefer--leaving it to the interested reader to guess. Not the best of the year.

*(As for the debate on whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy--let's not go there. Star Wars' trappings, from spacecraft that corner like drag racers to swords made of light exactly three feet long are silly beyond belief; there's no science involved and even less interest in exploring the consequences of the science, which is what quality SF is all about.)

First published in Businessworld 12.27.19


DaGol said...

Regarding Star Wars not being science fiction: Yes! It has never had any scientific component, not even social science! I would say it has more in common with rom-coms than true science fiction. And this new Abrams bunch? The man can make money, but his films have no soul at all and will be forgotten in 5 years time. He sucked the life out of Start Trek and now Star Wars.

Noel Vera said...

The Star Trek--not too bad, not great. But I prefer Star Trek as a whole.