Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, December 28, 2019

And Not A Trace Of Jar Jar Binks

“You are nothing. A scavenger girl is no match for the power in me. I am all of the Sith!” – Palpatine

“We’re not alone. Good people will fight if we lead them.” ~ Poe Dameron

“Never underestimate a droid.” ~ Leia Organa

“Rey, some things are stronger than blood. Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi. Your destiny. If you don’t face Palpatine, it will mean the end of the Jedi. And the war will be lost.” ~ Luke Skywalker

“People keep telling me they know me. I’m afraid no one does.” ~ Rey

The final chapter of the Skywalker saga has come out, as Star Wars ends one era (or until the studio marketing chimps decide to have another go at it). The Rise Of Skywalker answers some questions, poses others, introduces some new faces into the sci fi epic, and brings back some familiar faces along the way. It’s the ending of an era for the franchise, one with some ups and downs along the way, but in the end an entertaining one.

Picking up quite some time after the events of The Last Jedi, the story starts with the revelation that the late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen getting tossed down a shaft on the Death Star, might not be dead, with mysterious broadcasts alluding to his survival. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), having had killed off his master in the previous film and established himself as the supreme leader of the malevolent First Order, seeks to destroy this interloper from the past, viewing him as a threat to his own place in the galaxy. And so two forces of evil meet, but things take a different route than Kylo might have expected.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), the heroine of these films, is with the rest of the Resistance, hidden away, biding their time. She’s being trained by Leia (Carrie Fisher) in the ways of the Force. Her friends Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are making preparations for the fight yet to come. Familiar faces like Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO, and the other droids are with them. And it’s not long before the dark menace of the First Order makes its threat plain, and our heroes have to undergo a quest to save the galaxy. Lives will be altered, destinies will be met, and good will confront evil. Lots of light hearted material, in other words.

Director J.J. Abrams returns, having a hand in the script, which is also credited to Chris Terrio, while some story concepts were credited to previously attached director Colin Trevorrow and collaborator Derek Connolly. This being the end of a saga, there’s a lot of unfinished business to deal with, and the story reflects that, sprawling well over two hours, spanning the far reaches of a galaxy. It might be unwise, one expects, in presenting new characters into a crowded universe, though the new characters work quite well, on both sides of the conflict.

The story weaves together themes of destiny, of the struggle between good and evil, between anger and purpose, of friendship and loyalty, and of redemption and ambition. This presents itself in different characters in different ways. While the main players of the story get their share of the narrative, and most of the supporting characters get their due in that respect as well, it’s not always shared. The character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), introduced in the last film to much dismay by fanboys, seems to come up short in screen time, for instance.

Abrams has long had a pretty good handle on action, and on science fiction, and that shows itself here. He handled The Force Awakens well, and his return to the director’s chair here continues that. The story presents both new worlds and familiar places in different ways (the wreckage of the second Death Star is a particularly vivid and terrifying place, awash in angry seas on the familiar moon of Endor). We see a multitude of new creatures, reminding us that the Star Wars universe has always been a wildly diverse place of aliens, planets, ships, and cultures. The set pieces build on what’s come before; First Order destroyers are familiar to long term fans of the franchise, while the locations that we find our characters in, new or old, feel true to the Star Wars continuity.

It’s a large cast, with some surprising returns, either in person or in voice, as happens at two vital moments in the film. One of the big returns of course is the not so dead Emperor Palpatine, played with relishing menace by Ian McDiarmid. There’s nothing in the character, who’s had a way to cheat his own death, remotely capable of redemption of kindness. Instead it’s all malice, ambition, and ruthlessness, which fits in with what we’ve seen of the character before. Palpatine is pure evil, and that’s the way the actor approaches him.

Richard E. Grant, one of those character actors you see in so many films, plays a new character, a First Order general by the apt name of Pryde. He has a similar sort of personality we’ve seen in Imperial officers from films pasts- the ruthless, cutthroat energy, the sneering contempt fitting his role. Domhnall Gleeson returns as General Hux, still as petulant, arrogant, and condescending as ever. And yet there’s a nice twist involving the character that I liked, one whose motivation still very much fits how the actor has played the role.

I mentioned how Kelly Marie Tran has been largely cast aside in terms of screen time from what she did in the second film. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time as Rose, but the character continues to feel true to what’s come before- the steadfast faith in a cause, the rising to the occasion of someone who might otherwise seem ordinary. Two other actresses get new parts this time out. Naomie Ackie plays Jannah, who has something in common with Finn. She too was once a storm trooper in the First Order, and she too defected. The actress gives the character a wary at first approach, before showing her courage as the story goes along, and she winds up getting a fair amount of screen time. Keri Russell appears (though spends her onscreen time masked) as Zorii Bliss, an old acquaintance of Poe, and there’s clearly some history between them. She’s harder edged, cynical, willing to let the troubles of the galaxy pass by, and something of a scoundrel in her approach to things. Yet like another scoundrel of this franchise, she can’t quite back away from trouble when she finds it. I liked the banter and energy between this character and Poe.

Anthony Daniels has played C-3PO in nine films (ten, when you count the cameo in Rogue One). The droid has often been a whiny, worrisome, neurotic source of humour for the audience, baffled as he finds himself in the midst of galactic conflict, rattling off statistics and telling people how many forms of communication he’s fluent in. He remains the source of humour at times in this film, perpetually worried, and yet one of my favourite moments in the film belongs to the character and the actor: a moment of pure selflessness and heroism that makes you admire him.

Joonas Suotamo took over the role of Chewbacca from the late Peter Mayhew. The Wookiee is a veteran of the Rebellion and now the Resistance, a favourite character for many. With the death of Han in the first film of this trilogy, Chewie has had to move beyond that partnership to work with others more extensively, which we see in this film. The character might growl and be incoherent to us, at least in words, but his actions continue to show him to be the fiercely loyal friend willing to step right into the thick of things.

Billy Dee Williams returns to the franchise as the suave charmer and rogue, General Lando Calrissian. He's older and wiser, something more of a sage, but still with that charming streak to him, loyal to his friends and still a natural leader. The actor makes the best of the opportunity, relating well to the newer characters, and even reminding us of the older bonds with characters he doesn't interact with in this film. One of the great treats of the film is watching Lando and Chewie at the controls of the Millennium Falcon, and the expression Williams has with his character on board the ship: a man who's come home.

Adam Driver has been the primary antagonist in the sequel trilogy, but one with divided loyalties and inner conflicts. His Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo is a tortured, wounded soul, broken and distrustful, deep in the Dark Side of the Force. And yet his journey through this film takes him in new directions and new choices. There are times he lashes out in anger, times he seems lost in himself, and times when he finds his purpose. The actor plays to these elements in his performance, making the character compelling to watch, and ultimately even sympathetic as he struggles between the darkness and the light. We can empathize with him in a way we never could with Heyden Christensen's descending into darkness Anakin Skywalker, and that reflects the talent of the actor.

John Boyega was first introduced to the franchise as a storm trooper with doubts. His role as Finn is an engaging one, as the character has progressed over the films from just trying to run away from it all to ultimately investing himself fully in the just cause of the Resistance. That doesn't mean he can't be distracted- there are times he's more concerned about Rey than about what's happening right in front of him. But for the most part he's grown into the role of a believer, both in the Force and in the cause of the Resistance. That character growth makes him more interesting, and someone the audience can appreciate.

Oscar Isaac has had a good role in the sequel trilogy's new characters as Poe Dameron, the brash and devil-may-care Resistance fighter pilot and commander who chafes at authority but finds himself becoming the authority. The actor balances the character's carefree rogue personality with his increasing awareness that the mantle of leadership is on him, something that's been building through all three films. Poe has his moments of doubt and uncertainty, but brings himself back to lead the path forward despite them. 

To say this was a complicated matter bringing the late Carrie Fisher into the film is an understatement, and yet it works. Abrams made use of unused footage from earlier in the sequel trilogy of Leia with other characters, but the dialogue feels written for this film, as though meant for it. Fisher's Leia is still the resolute, principled leader with a will of iron and a heart filled with empathy and purpose. She's ever wise, leading an effort against a rising evil, dispensing advice as needed, and coming to a crossroads of her own. It turns out to be a poignant final performance from the actress, and a fitting way to go out.

Mark Hamill returns, much as Alec Guinness did before him, as a Force spirit version of Luke Skywalker. It's a cameo appearance this time, but a timely one, as he reaches out to his apprentice Rey when she's at a low point, and gives her purpose and strength. His Luke is at peace, capable of admitting his own errors, and at a point where wisdom has long since replaced the young farm boy looking to the horizon. This is almost certainly the last time the actor will play the role, but it's a fitting finale that brings closure to his own journey, and that of others.

Daisy Ridley has been the protagonist of the sequel trilogy as Rey. Starting out her story as a scavenger in search of herself, the character has grown into someone learning of her own abilities and place in the galaxy. Her journey in this film includes revelations, moments of doubt and anger, and ultimately steadfast resolution and courage in the face of pure evil. The actress makes her role a compelling one, someone the audience can empathize with. She's not a perfect person, but that makes her all the more interesting to watch.

Is The Rise Of Skywalker a perfect film? No. At times it feels a bit too rushed, and there's the sense of one or two characters getting marginalized. It could have easily been expanded to three hours to flesh things out. But the film is an entertaining one, keeping you drawn into the story of these characters against a grand backdrop of a galaxy at war. There are surprising returns, fresh humour, and new characters I did like. All in all though, the film is a fitting way to bring an epic saga to a conclusion.

At least until the studio marketing chimps decide to tell the story of an unrevealed Skywalker grandchild running around on Hoth.