I didn’t see any of the Original Trilogy films during their original theatrical runs. The first time I saw a Star Wars movie on the big screen was the release of the Special Editions in 1997. I wasn’t crazy about all of the changes in the Special Editions, but they didn’t loom very large in my mind — any unhappiness over the changes was massively overshadowed by the excitement of getting to see my favorite movies on the big screen for the first time.
I remember being stunned by The Phantom Menace, because it was just so different from what I expected. It felt very staid and kid-proofed compared to the Original Trilogy. That didn’t stop me from seeing it 5 or 6 times in the theater, mind you.
I don’t like these two. They’re badly acted and boring and irritating and they get everywhere in this movie.
My enjoyment and appreciation of almost every subsequent live-action Star Wars movie has followed this specific arc: on the first couple of viewings I am so swept up in the excitement of seeing new Star Wars on the big screen that I frankly have a hard time thinking very critically about the film. Then after a few days the blush is off the rose, I settle down and start actually thinking about the movie, and I find all kinds of problems. For example, I remember thinking that Attack of the Clones was pretty much perfect after my first viewing. It was only later that I realized that the Obi-Wan plot is hilariously convoluted in its implications, and that the movie is larded with set-piece battles to distract from the fact that the Anakin-Padme romance is both boring and horribly acted. And Mike Taylor regularly reminds me of my initial gushing praise for Revenge of the Sith (on my old blog, here and here) — although rereading it all now actually I’m pretty happy with what I wrote back when, it’s not as obsequious as I’d feared.
The point is, after a brief period of infatuation, the flaws in each movie come into sharper focus, and eventually I just sigh and accept each new movie as the imperfect-but-still-entertaining weird thing that it is, and ponder to what degree I look back at the OT with rose-colored glasses.
I said this has happened with almost every live-action Star Wars movie of the 2000s. The exceptions are the Star Wars Story movies, Rogue One and Solo. I loved Rogue One out of the gate and never found any reasons to like it less. They had me as soon as they had the courage to kill the entire main cast at the end of the movie. I thought Solo was just okay on my first viewing, neither amazing nor terrible, and nothing has moved the meter on that movie either. I watch Solo and think, “Yep, that is a story set in the Star Wars universe”, and I don’t feel like I wasted my time watching it, but I don’t feel moved or wish for any more of that particular dish, thank you. (Thought experiment: if Solo had been the first live-action movie after the prequels, we might all have thought it was amazing. I think TFA got a lot of goodwill for just being competent entertainment in the wake of the prequels.)
Anyway, this has been a long walk to the title of the post. After seeing The Rise of Skywalker three times over the past week, I’m in a similar position to where I am with The Force Awakens. Which is, it’s an incredibly fun movie and while I’m watching it I am swept along by the story and I have a good time and it feels like Star Wars. But when I step back and think about it later, it has a lot of problems.
All you really need to know from Dark Empire.
It definitely feels like at least two movies’ worth of ideas smooshed into one film. I think it retrospectively makes the sequel trilogy worse in some ways. As a long-time Dark Empire fan I was amazed at how much of Dark Empire made it to the screen in TROS, but Palpatine’s return is so obviously tacked on as a new idea for this movie. Surely, surely, if JJ and Rian had known that Palpatine would be coming back in Episode 9, they would have built in at least some foreshadowing in Eps 7 and 8. As it is, we now know that pretty much everything happening in TFA and TLJ was just a sideshow, other than Rey and Kylo. That wasn’t the case in the OT — the stories of Han, Leia, and Lando don’t feel any less important or consequential than what happens to Luke.
Also, in the same way that it’s hard not to read TLJ as a “fuck you” to TFA, it’s hard not to read TROS as a “well, fuck you back” to TLJ. I wish we’d gotten a sequel trilogy that was more than a dick-measuring contest between two directors with very different styles and ideas on where the sequel trilogy should go.
Originally I was relieved that they handed the reins to directors other than JJ Abrams after TFA, because I didn’t trust JJ to successfully resolve any of the mysteries that he had set up. In the end, I was fairly satisfied with his answers to those mysteries in TROS, except that answering them meant crapping on a lot of TLJ. So now I’m wishing they’d just given JJ the whole sequel trilogy. And I say that as someone who loves TLJ! But it definitely feels like a swerve from TFA, and TROS feels like JJ grabbing the steering wheel and giving it a hard pull in the opposite direction. My son read a review somewhere that said that the OT was made up of good movies that made a good trilogy, the prequels were bad movies that made a good trilogy, and the sequels are good movies that make a bad trilogy. I think that’s pretty spot on.
So, as a stand-alone movie, I love TROS. A lot of critics have bitched about all the to-ing and fro-ing on Pasaana and Najimi as the protagonists chase the Macguffins, but I love all that stuff. It feels more like a comic book or a roleplaying session than anything else on screen since the OT. I like how the plot feels like a funnel narrowing down on Rey and Kylo, I like the new Force powers and how they build on what we saw in TLJ (basically the only way in which TROS doesn’t crap on TLJ), and I found the climax moving and satisfying. But as the conclusion to a trilogy, in a way that retrospectively makes those movies better and not worse, it’s pretty rough.
My main beefs with the movie are that (1) the existence of Exegol and the return of Palpatine are not set up AT ALL in TFA or TLJ, and (2) those things make Luke retrospectively a moron. He knew that Exegol existed, enough to go hunting for it (so this movie tells us), so presumably he knew that there was a hidden world populated entirely by Sith cultists and they probably weren’t out there singing kumbaya and making care packages for the homeless or whatever. But what the hell, forget about the Sith being a whole planet of trouble now, it’s time for the Jedi to end. Oh, and Luke apparently also knew that Rey was a Palpatine, which makes his refusal to train her at the start of TLJ even more insane. Like, she’s a Palpatine, in a galaxy where Snoke and Kylo and Exegol would all like to get their mitts on her, but it would be better to turn her loose than to give her some guidance? As much as people were unhappy with Luke’s decision to exile himself in TLJ, TROS makes that decision a thousand times dumber.
Two pet hates:
- Regarding the Knights of Ren, JJ can have Chewie get his friggin’ medal 42 years too late (apparently it was dropped off at the Resistance jungle base by Fan Service ‘R’ Us), but can’t be arsed to explain where his set of bad guy action figures came from?
- The lightspeed skipping scene at the beginning. Not only does it break hyperspace jumps as we’ve come to know and love them, every other Star Wars movie said you can only track stuff if you put a homing beacon on the target ship. Then TLJ made a huge deal about you can only track stuff through lightspeed with a special thingy on a giant dreadnought. Now apparently Special Forces TIE fighters can do it just because? Anyway, like the Holdo maneuver, lighspeed skipping looks cool and it would have been fine if TROS was a stand-alone space opera movie, but there are 10 live-action movies of prior art here, you can’t just ignore all that for the sake of a cool-looking scene. Except YOU CAN because JJ. Grrr. At least JJ and Rian took equally large shits on how hyperjumps work, so they’re “tied”. Yay.
Ultimately the whole movie feels very ad hoc, like Kathleen Kennedy pulled over JJ when he was drunk, and to get out of a DUI he had to pretend to recite the story standing there by the side of the road, hoping that she wouldn’t notice that he was just making it up as he went along. At some point it’s just unexplained backstory piled on unexplained backstory. “Okay, so Palpatine’s back. AND he’s got a planet full of Star Destroyers that are basically Death Stars. AND he had a son who got married and had a daughter who by the way is Rey. And…” Aaaaand I’m pretty sure you’re just pulling stuff out of your ass and counting on the audience to forgive you because it looks cool and punches the nostalgia buttons.
And yet, for all its failings, it still feels like Star Wars. So maybe that’s a viable strategy, or maybe I’m just a victim for laser-sword movies.
I feel obligated to point out that George Lucas wanted the sequel trilogy to go hardcore into midichlorians and how they generate the Force, so as much of a mish-mash as the movies we got are, it could have been a lot weirder/dumber/awkwarder.
MAN did the sequels need a Kevin Feige to make the story build logically between movies and across the whole trilogy. Or maybe not a generic Kevin Feige, but just actual Kevin Feige. By now it’s old news that he’s going to be producing a Star Wars movie. I hope that morphs into “producing all the Stars Wars movies, or at least all the ones that are going to have to interlock with others”, because damn, if anyone has shown that they are up to that job, it’s him. And if there’s any IP that needs someone like that, it’s Star Wars.
So, obviously I’m going to go see it a bunch more times because it’s fun and it’s Star Wars. So I guess they got me in the end anyway. Oh well.
The ideas in this post, and much of the actual prose, are cribbed from an email conversation with my friend Jarrod Davis, who has a penchant for putting Star Wars ships in strange places.