This newsletter contains spoilers for the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker after the image. Proceed with caution etc etc.
On the 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.
Prime Minister David Cameron swiftly resigned and the ruling Conservative Party chose Theresa May to replace him. After a divisive referendum in both the party and the country as a whole, May was presented as the unity candidate. She would first bring together the Conservatives, and then the country as a whole, on her direction of travel for leaving the EU. The deal she negotiated for the terms of departure was built around satisfying both “hard” and “soft” brexiters, of finding common ground for future relations, and triangulating something that would be acceptable, if perhaps not preferable, for everyone.
May’s deal failed in parliament on three occasions by unprecedented margins. She was forced to resign on these grounds and that withdrawal agreement was scrapped, with her political career ending in not just failure but complete humiliation. The country briefly became united - in opposing her. By trying to please everyone she, of course, pleased absolutely no one.
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is the May Withdrawal Agreement of blockbusters.
Almost every frame of this 142 minute film is trying to please you. It’s like a labrador puppy desperate for your love and attention, giving you everything you could possibly want. Do you like the Death Star rescue sequence from the original Star Wars? Here it is again! Do you wish that Chewbacca had received a medal for rescuing Princess Leia? He gets one here!
Did you dislike the reveal that Rey’s parents were nobodies? Well it’s retconned here, and she’s in fact part of a very important lineage! Did you like that twist? Well, don’t worry! Technically, technically, it’s still true! It’s got something for everyone! It’s triangulated the conclusion to this saga that should keep everyone happy and no one mad! It’s a product that should offer something to all disgruntled Star Wars fans! Yay! Here’s Han saying “I know” again!
Maybe you liked The Last Jedi or maybe you didn’t, but it had a perspective. It was a film made by a genuine director with a point of view. It might be a point of view you couldn’t stand, and that’s a valid position to take, but it had something to say. Maybe you liked the prequels or maybe you didn’t, but all three of those films had a perspective on the world, a point of view, a reason to exist. Every entry in the Skywalker Saga until now has had some kind of idea at its core, an interest in something, a take, on the world or the characters or even just the franchise.
The Rise of Skywalker has no perspective. It has nothing to say about anything. It’s just desperate to please everyone which means that, of course, it infuriates at every moment.
Jeffrey Jacob “J.J.” Abrams has had a long day on set. He’s been shooting some very intensive scenes and he’s exhausted after such hard work. He goes back to his hotel, orders room service, and puts on some mindless TV to relax. He’s so tired that he falls asleep pretty quickly.
What does J.J. Abrams dream about?
When it’s just him and that big brain of his, what does he imagine?
After spending so much time with Star Wars, I have a keen sense of George Lucas’ imagination. I can also vibe with Rian Johnson’s. Pretty much any writer-director I’ve seen multiple films of starts to come across as having some sort of imagination, but Abrams? I know what he likes. I know he looks to those late 70s/early 80s blockbusters the likes of Lucas and Steven Spielberg made as his guiding principle. I know the kinds of techniques he uses, from the, yes, lens flares and mystery boxes to the fast sense of pacing. I know what kinds of movies he makes.
But his imagination? I just don’t feel like he has much of an imagination at all.
How does Abrams tell stories? Everyone looks to the infamous “mystery box” TED Talk for the answer. This is definitely part of it, but I think it only starts to get to the core of what makes his work so successful and infuriating. Abrams views every story as a puzzle to be solved, yes, but more fundamentally as a magic trick. The question you ask after any magic trick is “how did they do it?”, and Abrams asks this about films he likes. He looks at Star Wars, or E.T., or whatever else he cares about and asks, “how did they make the audience feel that way? How do I get that response from the viewer?”
And thus the central thing every Abrams work, some of which I like a great deal, feels is reverse-engineered. He starts from “what do I want the audience to feel?” in any given scene and works back from there. “J.J. always has a clear idea of what he wants you to feel”, Rise of Skywalker co-writer Chris Terrio explained, “and then our job is to create a story in which those emotions could be evoked”. This can be incredibly effective at its best, and it’s a key part of Abrams’ success that his work is able to cut through any story mechanics or sci-fi logic and get to the core emotional beat of any scene. I could not for the life of me tell you what Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s plan was in Mission: Impossible III, but it doesn’t matter because the whole thing is exciting when it needs to be, tense when it needs to be, and emotionally upsetting in exactly the brief moments when it needs to be. Abrams is remarkably good at manipulating the audience to feel what he wants to feel at the right times.
It is all manipulation, though. Stories to Abrams are sleight of hand. Every storyteller obviously cares a great deal about getting the audience to feel something, but there surely has to be something fundamental that the author (or authors) wants to say underneath it. Abrams, more often, feels like he’s trying to figure out what the audience will respond to and do that. The Force Awakens works better than Rise of Skywalker because he was so engaged in trying to reverse-engineer the magic of Star Wars. He took the 1977 film apart trying to figure out what about it caused such a phenomenon, and followed every step to the letter. This caused the absolutely fair and true criticism of Force Awakens that it’s overly derivative, but at least he was copying something good. He had a strong template to work from on that film, a sturdy base from which he could add the really strong character work the movie achieved. This time, he has no template. He’s starting from scratch, and it seems like all he knows how to do in that situation is throw as much stuff at the wall as possible, and when it doubt, have the film rush through it all fast enough that it hopefully suggests coherence. The mystery box has no clothes.
Should we talk about the plot now? It would be nice if there was more of a narrative to discuss. What we have is everyone on a scavenger hunt to find the Emperor, which is a very important thing to do for reasons I forget about. This involves finding the knife, that finds the Wayfinder, that finds the way to Palpatine. Of course, this plan all goes wrong along the way, at which point Rey just manages to find him by using her feelings. This all leads to a final battle against Palpatine, which Rey and suddenly reformed Ben Solo win, all of which somehow defeats the First Order? Remember the First Order? As we travel on this journey, things happen and un-happen for no real rhyme or reason except to momentarily upset us, but don’t worry, it all goes so quickly you’ll barely even notice the extent to which this is Fridge Logic: The Movie. But fridge might be too kind. You’d figure out something doesn’t make sense here long before you’ve made it to the kitchen. Even the transition wipes move faster here than in other Star Wars films as to keep the pacing at a mile a minute.
The whole thing, more than anything else, feels un-Star Wars. It doesn’t have any of the rhythms and rhymes these films generally contain, instead producing a more typical noisy blockbuster. The thing it resembles most is Abrams’ own Star Trek Into Darkness, constantly ramping up the tension with cheap stunts and moving so fast it hopes you won’t notice. The greater sin in this regard is Abrams’ inability to tell any kind of thematic story this franchise is built on. I’ve written thousands of words in this newsletter about the rich tapestry of political and philosophical ideas Lucas was weaving (often very shoddily) into the prequels. The joke I make is that the only thing Abrams’ Star Wars has to say is that we all really love Star Wars, but now it isn’t even about that. It’s ticking off a list of surface elements from the franchise, but without any of the soul or purpose that made them matter in the first place. It’s an algorithm reproducing all the things you remember, with the speed turned all the way up. It’s a monstrosity. It has no place in this story. It comes from nothing. It’s nothing.
And that’s fine. This film is so unrecognisable from the Star Wars I love that I can pretend it doesn’t exist. The Last Jedi’s emotional power isn’t undercut for me here because it just feels like bad fanfic by comparison. The last thing in the Skywalker Saga to feel authentically Star Wars is the kid picking up the broom. This whole film is meaningless by comparison.
More than anything else, I’m just tired of this franchise, of the way the IP is being managed, of the discourse, of everything. All of it. I never expected to say this, but I just want Star Wars to go away, at least for a while. Not only am I not writing any more newsletters on the subject next year, but I don’t think I’m even going to watch anything Star Wars in 2020. Not even an original trilogy rewatch. For me to love Star Wars again, I need it to go away.
Until we meet again, old friend.