WARNING: This is not a spoiler-free review. If anything this is more a discussion piece meant to be read post viewing rather than a traditional film review. Many spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
I saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for the first time in 1997 when it was rereleased to theaters. Greedo shot first! I was eight years old. Without warning my mother took me and my younger sisters to see this movie. To this day I still don’t know why she took us to see it. She’s not a sci-fi fan. My sisters aren’t sci-fi fans. I believe she just thought I would like the movie and decided to force herself and her two young daughters to sit through it for my benefit. In any case, I absolutely loved the movie and became a Star Wars nerd. To this day A New Hope is still my favorite Star Wars movie of all time.
I consider myself a classic Star Wars fan. I believe in the canon. I believe in the established rules of the universe. I have taken the time to learn a lot about Star Wars outside the movies. I don’t hate the prequels but I’m happy to admit that they’re bad. I do hate Revenge of the Sith and I don’t know why people defend it. I was angered by The Force Awakens. I had massive problems with that film and to date I have never watched it a second time. But I do not hate the film. It has tons of problems, but honestly I believe most of them could be corrected with a few minor changes. Maybe one day that movie will get the George Lucas style patch treatment and become decent. I absolutely loathe The Last Jedi. I don’t even consider it a Star Wars film. It’s the most insulting, condescending movie ever made within an established IP built around a developed universe with fairly well defined rules. It left me so bitter that I considered not watching Episode IX, for just a second. My wife was so unhappy with The Last Jedi that she refused to pay money to see it in theater and had me go watch it alone so I could let her know how it is. She plans to watch it at home when it’s available for streaming.
Given how I felt about Episodes VII and VIII, I was very apprehensive going into The Rise of Skywalker. I expected it to be bad. Let me clarify, I didn’t think that highly of J.J. Abrams before he made The Force Awakens. I liked Super 8, but I wasn’t amazed by it. I enjoyed his Star Trek films as much as any diehard Star Wars fan can enjoy them. But to say that I turned on him because of Episode VII would be a false statement, because I wasn’t with him to begin with. Rian Johnson I had even less of an opinion on than Abrams. I liked The Brothers Bloom. I did not like Looper. I haven’t seen anything else by him. So my judgment of these latest Star Wars films has nothing to do with the directors/writers and everything to do with Star Wars and Star Wars alone. And to be clear I’m speaking as someone who has a B.A. in Cinema Studies and believes that the original Star Wars script (the original pitch script not the shooting script) is one of the worst screenplays ever written by an employed member of the Hollywood film industry. George Lucas is an abominable writer in his own right. So please don’t read my judgments as comments made with rose-tinted glasses.
As I have already said, this is NOT a spoiler free review, but I am taking the time to warn you one more time before we get into the real meat and potatoes of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. For those who haven’t seen the film, go see the film. I highly recommend it. For the rest of you who will continue reading, let’s get down to business.
I’d like to start by presenting my rankings of the nine mainline Star Wars films as it currently stands.
- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
- Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
- Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
- Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
- Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
- Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
- Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
- Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
- Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Look at that list again. I ranked The Rise of Skywalker fourth best. That’s basically the highest praise I could possibly give any Star Wars movie not in the original trilogy. I need you to understand how impressed I am with J.J. Abrams after watching that movie. He made a movie I ranked third from the bottom, let some joker follow his movie with the worst of the worst, and then jumped to the highest possible rank that anyone could ever hope to achieve outside of George Lucas himself building a time machine, going back to 1977, and ruining the original trilogy. I was so impressed with Episode IX that I hope they never make another Star Wars film, because no future film, possibly from any IP, will ever hit me as positively on an emotional level as The Rise of Skywalker did. I’ve watched 11 different feature length live action Star Wars films. I’ve only cried in The Rise of Skywalker, and I cried multiple times. This ladies and gentlemen is a real Star Wars film. Now allow me to tell you why.
I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve come to two conclusions about Star Wars films. The first is that Star Wars films are not actually for children and haven’t been since Return of the Jedi. They are marketed as for children, as Disney wants it to be so, but this is inaccurate. At most they are child friendly, as in children can safely watch them without parents having to worry about the content shown, but they are not for children. Star Wars movies are for adults. The only real topic of debate is which adults are they actually for? The second, more important conclusion, is that good Star Wars films, at least in the mainline sagas, are not good films. In fact, I will go as far as saying that it’s fairly impossible to make a good film that’s also a good Star Wars film.
I have a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema Studies. I know a hell of a lot about “good film making”. I know why the movie that makes the most money every year almost never wins the Oscar for Best Picture. I know why established paid film critics grade a film one way and then the audience grades it completely opposite. It’s because the established conventions of traditional quality film making are very clearly defined over several decades of intentional implementation. The problem, if it can be called that, with the textbook definition of good film making is that it almost directly opposes good Star Wars film making. A New Hope was considered good film making at the time of release because it revolutionized special effects, established the modern sci-fi genre, and possibly began the modern day blockbuster film system. But it’s also full of hacky writing, plot holes, and it’s fairly predictable. I’m not saying these are bad things. I’ve already stated that A New Hope is my favorite Star Wars film. I’m just acknowledging the fact that even the very first Star Wars film isn’t an example of “good film making”. The fact that every single film in the mainline nine has the line “I have a bad felling about this” should tell you everything you need to know about the quality of Star Wars films in comparison to movies that most people agree are just objectively good movies. Because again, good Star Wars movies aren’t the same thing as good movies and vice versa.
What makes a good Star Wars film? This is the question that has plagued writers and directors since 1983. Possibly 1980, if you’re one of those Return of the Jedi nay-sayers. I believe that the question is hard to answer because the question isn’t framed correctly. The question shouldn’t be what makes a good Star Wars film. The question should actually be “What is the goal of a Star Wars film post 1983?” The answer to that question ultimately shapes how a person approaches making a Star Wars film in 2019. Disney would say the goal of a Star Wars film is to captivate and excite new audiences to the franchise with a focus on children and non-nerd females with the understanding that the established audience is already established and thus will go see the movies regardless of how they are. If this is your thought process going in then it makes sense that you would do things like ignore established canon, create Mary Sue characters, and shit on old favorites, and their fans, by doing things like killing off Han Solo in the opening film of the saga. In my opinion, it’s not that Episodes VII and VIII were made incorrectly. It’s that their objectives were wrong to begin with.
I vehemently disagree with Disney’s answer to the question “What is the goal of a Star Wars film post 1983?” As an old school Star Wars fan, I believe the goal of post 1983 Star Wars films should be to create films that continue to prop up the original trilogy as the greatest films in the series while rewarding fans for their long-term loyalty to the franchise. If that’s your mindset, you’ll make a much different film than you would going in with Disney’s goals. Now obviously the goals I’ve stated as correct Star Wars filmmaking aren’t nearly as lucrative in the long term. They aren’t going to expand the franchise’s market nearly as much. They aren’t going to appeal to outsiders at all. It’s simply not as profitable on paper. That’s not to say that Star Wars films can’t work to expand audiences while accomplishing these goals. It’s just to say that the expansion will be much more tempered and not nearly as fast. I think the way a good Star Wars film expands the franchise’s market is by including moments that get new audiences interested in checking out the older films. Episode IX absolutely takes the time to do that. The best example of this is the inclusion of and dialog surrounding the character and legend of Lando Calrissian. The movie goes out of its way to make you like Lando, show you that everyone knows and respects Lando because of events in the past, and establish that Lando’s character could still do even more. So when you leave the movie, if you don’t already know who Lando was prior to Episode IX, you will leave wanting to know more about him and that will encourage you to go back and watch the original trilogy. That’s how you expand the Star Wars audience while still making good Star Wars films. The reason The Rise of Skywalker works is because it understands the goals of making a good Star Wars film, while its two direct predecessors don’t.
Rogue One is an objectively good movie. It has good characters, solid character interactions and development, real stakes, and a surprising ending. Or at least it would be surprising if it didn’t have the name Star Wars attached to it. You could have easily released that film and never connected it to Star Wars and it would have been just as well received. Maybe even more so. But in my opinion it’s a terrible Star Wars film. It accomplishes literally nothing other than taking people’s money in exchange for telling them a story they already knew going in. There is nothing of consequence shown in Rogue One. No characters that actually matter are shown, save for cameos of Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin. No information that we didn’t already know that has any long term consequence to the Star Wars film universe is given. It’s basically Star Wars fan fiction. That’s why I didn’t like that the film was made. It’s a good film but it’s a bad Star Wars film. It doesn’t include any of the things that make Star Wars movies Star Wars movies. Again save for the cameo of Darth Vader at the end.
The problem with The Force Awakens is that J.J. Abrams refused to commit to a side. He tried to make both a good film and a good Star Wars film. As a real Star Wars fan, it feels like he was talking to a room full of people that we were invited to enter but he wasn’t actually talking to us. He simply included us in the room because it seemed like the right thing to do. That’s why it’s a bad Star Wars film, but it’s still absolutely a Star Wars film. The Last Jedi on the other hand isn’t a Star Wars film at all because Rian Johnson did commit to a side. It just happens to be the incorrect side for making good Star Wars films. Watching Episode VIII is so angering for old school Star Wars fans because it feels like we weren’t even invited into the room. He was absolutely not talking to us at all. He just wanted to make a good film that people with no background in Star Wars would enjoy and connect with. He even went as far as saying that he wasn’t trying to do Star Wars in an interview. He wanted to do something completely different. I believe he made the wrong choice and that’s why I ranked his film at the very bottom of the totem pole. I will however commend him for at least committing to a side. I would rather see a director make a hard decision and risk the entire franchise being destroyed then see one fence sit and pretend to make a good Star Wars film while really just trying to cater to his/her Disney overlords.
The Rise of Skywalker succeeds where The Force Awakens fails because J.J. Abrams finally committed to making a good Star Wars film. Watching it didn’t just feel like Star Wars fans were invited into the room. It felt like everyone else was asked to leave the room and he was only talking to us true fans, occasionally inviting Rian Johnson in for a stern lecture about following the rules of Star Wars. That’s what makes it a good Star Wars film. That’s not to say that the film is perfect. It’s absolutely not. I have a number of notes. For instance, the film goes out of its way to pander to Black viewers. So much so that it made me uncomfortable and I am an African American. A Black female character, not the first in the film with a speaking role, is introduced fairly a ways in. The only two characters she talks to for the entire rest of the movie are Finn and Lando, the only two Black male characters with speaking roles on the rebellion side. Her exchange with Finn came off like a weird callback to slavery and the exchange with Lando makes absolutely no sense. They defeat Emperor Palpatine and the first person she talks to is the old Black guy? And after talking to him for less than 60 seconds they decide to go off on a new adventure together? That’s not how Black people interact. Because that’s not how people interact.
There are plenty of other flaws I could list. Like why was Babu Frik in the ship with Zorii Bliss at the final battle? It would make no sense and has never been established that high level engineers just jump into battle ships to go along for the ride. Like he’s literally just standing on the dashboard looking cute. The movie is definitely flawed. But none of the flaws I mentioned make it a bad Star Wars film. They make it a politically questionable one. And, as with all Star Wars films, not a good film in general. But as far as Star Wars films go, the flaws don’t detract from the movie.
If I had to sum up why The Rise of Skywalker is a great Star Wars film in one sentence that sentence would be “Chewie finally got a medal.” Leia dies and leaves a medal from A New Hope to Chewbacca. This adds literally nothing to the story in this film. It doesn’t affect the plot in any way and if you completely removed that scene it would change nothing to the non-Star Wars fan viewer. But it’s one of the most important moments in the entire post 1983 franchise for real Star Wars fans. A New Hope was an amazing film that featured no non-White humans. Not one. So in a weird way Chewbacca filled this sort of every other man role for minority viewers and pretty much anyone who wasn’t a straight white guy with short hair. Now later we, as in Black people, got Lando. But pretty much anyone who couldn’t identify with a straight white guy or girl in A New Hope only got Chewie or a droid. And no one identifies with the droids. At the end of A New Hope you’ve watched a pretty much perfect movie and the best Star Wars movie that has ever and will ever be made and the heroes get medals but for some reason, that to this day I still don’t know the answer to, Chewbacca gets snubbed. He just doesn’t get a medal. No explanation. No answer. He stands on the stage and just doesn’t get a medal. For more than 40 years real Star Wars fans, of all races, have complained about the fact that Chewie didn’t get a medal in A New Hope. J.J. Abrams making the choice to feature that scene where Chewie gets a medal from Leia is exactly what post 1983 Star Wars is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be referential, nostalgic, and self-aware. And that’s exactly what The Rise of Skywalker is.
I cried multiple time while watching Episode IX. Not a single tear was shed due to some emotional sympathy for any of the characters. Not a single tear was because the narrative was so powerful and emotionally moving. Every tear I shed was a tear of nostalgia. The movie is 142 minutes of J.J. Abrams apologizing to real Star Wars fans for the last two films by acknowledging and rewarding them for 42 years of dedicated service as fans. They brought Lando back. They brought Han back. They brought Palpatine back. This was the first time since 1983 that all the original heroes appeared in the same movie. Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, R2D2, C-3P0, presumably Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda’s voices, and the Millennium Falcon all appeared in the same movie 36 years after the last time that happened. Of course I cried in that movie. It’s not particularly original, and it’s not supposed to be. The plot has twists but ultimately isn’t too unpredictable, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s not an example of generally good film making, and it’s not supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is Star Wars, and that’s exactly what it was. Apology accepted J.J. Abrams. You’ve earned my forgiveness, because you did your research and listened.
I haven’t actually read any of the other reviews for Episode IX but I’ve seen the headlines and it’s very divided. Now I don’t really see how an OG Star Wars fan could not like this movie. Because it’s basically a movie made to clean up the messes made in the last two films. When viewed from that framework I don’t really know how it could have been any better other than nitpicky issues like the ones I brought up already. It’s literally made for us. And that starts from the beginning of the film. In fact, the movie goes out of its way multiple times to trick you into thinking that it’s going to be another The Force Awakens and then flips it on you to let you know that they actually listened this time. In the first 10 minutes of the film Poe light speed skips the Millennium Falcon. Now any traditional Star Wars fan knows that YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO DO THAT. Why? Because the late, great Han Solo said that you’re not allowed to rush light speed travel back in 1977 when Luke suggested it. So seeing it in the opening minutes of the film was really jarring. Until you realize why it happened. As soon as they land the Falcon, Rey who wasn’t with Poe and Finn in that light speed skipping scene, shows up and the first thing she says is “You can’t light speed skip the Millennium Falcon.” This is one of many important meta moments in the film. They’re intentional and they matter. These are moments where J.J. Abrams is acknowledging that the last two films got it wrong, that the rules actually do matter, and that when they’re not adhered to that needs to be addressed and apologized for in some way.
Another big example of the film acknowledging and apologizing to the true fans was the faux death of Chewbacca. You spend about 10 – 15 minutes thinking Chewbacca is dead and it’s an angry 10 – 15 minutes. It’s like a consider walking out of the theater in disgust 10 – 15 minutes. But then it’s revealed that actually he’s alive, he gets saved, and he gets a medal. I believe this was an apology for killing off Han in such a vainglorious way in The Force Awakens. And bringing his ghost back to redeem Ben Solo was exactly what I needed to see happen. So was Ben dying at the end of the movie. Him turning back to the light side was great. Him giving up his life and saving Rey was great. Rey kissing him was great in such a meta way. But he still needed to die. Because you don’t get to just kill Han Solo. Again J.J. Abrams, apology accepted. So my assumption is that the negative reviews aren’t from old school Star Wars fans, save for those who disliked VII and VIII so much that they just refuse to enjoy Episode IX regardless of how good it is, but from new agers who actually liked Episodes VII and VIII. I understand how those people could hate Episode IX because it basically fixes most of the things wrong in VII as best as it could and pretty much erases VIII. Like there are multiple moments where the movie openly shits on The Last Jedi, and I loved every second of it. Like the fact that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter was just the best reveal ever after that garbage orphan nonsense in The Last Jedi. Screw the broom boy. I don’t care about him.
As I said at the beginning, I hope they don’t make more mainline Star Wars films. I know they will but I don’t want them to. But since they will, I hope Disney and future directors takeaway the key lessons that this saga and this individual film have hopefully taught us all. Star Wars is not about gender. A woman can be the protagonist or a man can be the protagonist. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the rules surrounding the Force and how that person navigates them. To say Rey was disliked because she’s a woman is dishonest and inaccurate. Rey was disliked because she didn’t adhere to the established rules of the Force. She also had some attitude problems. I particularly liked that her main takeaway in The Rise of Skywalker was that she couldn’t do it alone. She spends the whole movie getting her ass metaphorically kicked until she finally accepts that she has to trust her friends and let them help her. Star Wars isn’t about sexuality, unless we’re talking about bloodlines being built up for the next generation of great Force users. In general, characters can be gay or straight. It doesn’t matter because that’s not, nor should it be, the focus of Star Wars. I was really happy with how tasteful their inclusion of a lesbian couple in Episode IX was. It’s not talked about. It’s not focused on. It’s simply shown in a celebration scene and then they move on, like normal people would in a story that has nothing to do with sexuality
Star Wars can and should include everybody, but it shouldn’t change to suit the whims and desires of anybody. Star Wars shouldn’t focus on or justify anybody specifically because of their race, gender, or sexuality. Star Wars is a universe of rules. As the long as the rules are followed, the rest of the stuff doesn’t really matter one way or another. And thankfully all the rules only concern how the Force works, who gets to use it and to what level, the limitations of technology, and respecting established canon. Other than that, have at it. Make a Black Jedi. Make a gay Sith Lord. Make a trans rebel commander. It doesn’t actually matter. Because if we’re talking about that then the movies have already gone too far by focusing on those things when that has nothing to do with Star Wars. Nobody in the movies ever calls Lando Black. He just is Black and that should be good enough for Black viewers. And it was for Black viewers in 1980.
Star Wars is about good vs evil and good always wins in the end. But good doesn’t win because it’s stronger. It wins because those on the side of good are stronger together. The climactic scene near the end when Lando shows up with an armada of random ships was beautiful because that’s exactly what Star Wars is supposed to be about. I especially liked the line delivered by the Final Order Commander’s first mate when asked where this navy from. He says “It’s not a navy sir, it’s just people.” That’s what Star Wars is actually about. It’s not that everyone is an epic hero that gets to lead an army or wield the Force. It’s about how while there are some people who stand above everyone else, everyone else has a role to play and even if we don’t know their names, they’re just as important because good only wins when everyone helps. That’s why we don’t need random people sprouting up around the galaxy being the next great Jedi. Because that’s not their role. But that in no way diminishes the fact that they are needed for good to triumph over evil. For most people, that’s your role in Star Wars. And if you have a problem with that, the problem is with you, not Star Wars.
In conclusion, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker was a roaring success. It was everything I wanted from the final act of this saga and more than I expected from it. J.J Abrams has redeemed himself as a Star Wars director in my eyes and I’m glad that I’m able to say that. If you’ve read this far, I commend you. If you’ve read this far and haven’t seen the movie, I hope you now choose to go see it. Thank you for reading and may the force of others be with you. Sorry scratch that. That’s actually the garbage original phrase that was written in the first draft of the original Star Wars screenplay by George Lucas. What I meant to say was May the Force be with You.