Friday, December 20, 2019


And now we arrive at an ending, although we’ve been here twice before. Star Wars is now a collection of three trilogies: George Lucas’s great founding original and a largely terrific (divisive) prequel, and a sequel trilogy composed of deliberate echoes and remixes non-Lucas stewards have made. Back in the hands of writer-director J.J. Abrams, whose Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a skillful reboot in bringing the world back to life with new characters meeting the old, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’s biggest disappointment is that it’s in such a big hurry to end the story just as it was getting good. It has to rush to tie up loose ends while letting others linger, and making new ones along the way. The previous entry, Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, was an astonishing work, about as striking, surprising, and enriching as a corporate-mandated intellectual-property extension could be. It boldly deepened the stock personalities of aspiring Padawn Rey (Daisy Ridley), stubborn pilot Poe (Oscar Issac), and fresh recruit Finn (John Boyega), complicated the stormy interiority of villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), lovingly sent troubled old heroes into the sunset, and picked up the plot threads Abrams left dangling and ran with them. The future was wide open. After that film, it felt like the story could go anywhere in the galaxy. But now it’s time to end, and to do so we need a plot that moves at the speed of light, as spaceships moving at the speed of exposition need to hop planet to planet setting up the end game. Abrams simply steps back in, telling us right away that the conflict between the Imperial wannabe First Order and the woefully underpopulated Resistance is now, all of a sudden, at a tipping point. What’s new is old again. And vice versa.

As surface satisfying as it is to stage one last big galactic blowout, a confrontation of good versus evil with lineage stretching back across the trilogies, I found myself missing the characters already and wishing we could’ve set it up more thoroughly. Time spent zapping hither and thither is crammed into the first hour to set up the whiz-bang finale, each stop having the typically Star-Wars-ian menagerie of delights: fun creatures, cool robots, and a hodgepodge style all its own. There’s so much, cut so quickly, that there’s no time for this to settle, little patience for the character work of previous entries. That’s because the stakes are suddenly very high (although Abrams’ vision of the State of the Galaxy has nothing on Lucas’s brilliance at suggestive scope). This concluding chapter finds the evil Sith spirit of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) trying to come back to life and claim his place as leader of the Galaxy. (The gaps in narrative to make this make sense are begging to be backfilled with the ancillary materials this franchise has long enjoyed.) There’s high-energy action, zippy quips, reverent symbolism, and tearful goodbyes. (The narrative write-around for Carrie Fisher’s real-life death is strained, but better than writing her out entirely.) And yet, as it should, the film finds its center not in the voluminous fan service, a cast so overstuffed that great figures from past films are sidelined, or quickly, sparsely characterized new personalities destined for spinoffs of one kind (the usual books and comics and video games) or another (Disney+, here they come?). No, it’s in the faces of Rey and Kylo as they wrestle with the same old struggle their ancestors have in the stories told before.

There’s the push and pull of destiny and expectation, the draw of the dark side and the call to the light, the yearning for balance and the cravings for power. That their stories have been allowed to exist across three films as this peculiar connection — the one truly, beautifully unique addition to the canon in all this — gives these films their own power. Not just drafting off the hero’s journey architecture of the earlier trilogies, they gain from letting two fine actors play the psychic connection and the spiritual torment. Sure, it’s still in the context of space opera done up in glorious style with all the digital sturm und drang Disney can buy, but there’s a real charge between them. The movie’s at its best when it steers into the pulp fantasy spiritualism and romanticism — when the sky opens up, and there’s nothing but stars, and the voices of the past swirl and call. And though the past is fading away, and the present holds the promise of just more conflict like the ones we’ve seen before — dogfights and laser blasts doomed to repeat forever — in many iterations, the future is still unwritten. Ridley’s wild, vibrant eyes and Driver’s moody stares, her steady calm even in distress, his electric unpredictability even in control, bring them into two halves of a whole, the balanced force personified. They’re attuned to the film’s metaphysical undercurrent, even as Abrams world-building remains both imaginative and under-explained, a constant churn of movement and MacGuffins. It has this ice-and-fire emotional center latent in The Force Awakens, brought to the fore by Johnson and now taken to a fitting conclusion here. Abrams, always a fine technician of a filmmaker, here, with cinematographer Dan Mindel and the artisans in the effects departments, finds some of his loveliest images, and in the midst of the hurry and bombast brings it back to Rey. Fittingly, the hero of this trilogy is a scavenger, introduced digging in the wreckage of a story that came before her, and, by the end, has found something to hold onto.

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