Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Rise of Skywalker with medium-sized spoilers, casually thrown hither and yon

I’ve been reluctant to try and set my thoughts down on paper about the ending of the Skywalker Dysfunctional Family Drama, also known colloquially as The Star Wars Saga. I knew I would need to write about it, but I didn’t have any idea how I was going to get into it. Then a funny thing happened as I was recovering from my surgical procedure; I realized we were at the Fin-de-Siecle of sorts.

After all, it’s not every year that several major franchises wrap up long-time over-arching storylines, is it? We didn’t really celebrate the actual 21st century event horizon, since we were all too busy making sure Y2K didn’t happen. And then 2001 sucked all of the oxygen out of the room and, without getting off on a tangent, knocked us back into the 1980s in a lot of ways that we are only now seeing come to light.

All of the last 20 years feels like a virtual reality simulator designed by Cold War scientists to simulate what the Matrix was trying to provide us with; a reality fraught with strife, held together with flashes of popular culture, and an ever-expanding arsenal of shitty things to react to so that we stay miserable and jaded.

It’s fitting, really, that the last six movies in the Star Wars saga should be completed during these dark times.

But first, let’s get the White Elephant out of the way: I liked Episode IX: The Rise of Skwalker. It was, unquestionably, a Star Wars movie, and more importantly, an ending. It had banter and bickering; it had fast-moving spaceship fights, it had lightsabers clashing, it had a couple of cliffhanger (in a delightful nod to the original source material), and it had drama and pathos, fan service cameos, unnecessary callbacks, and surprise moments where you gave a little cheer in the audience. And of course, there was the music, the visuals, the aliens, and on and on and on.

In other words, Star Wars. And most especially the Star Wars movies of the last five years. These nine films, not counting all of the interstitial material on both the small and the large screen, have developed a kind of checklist over the years that, if we’re being honest, was in place by the third film, Return of the Jedi. This movie certainly checked most of those boxes and in doing so, gave me what I wanted, which was not to be arguing with people online about it.

These last three Star Wars episode films really did a number on everyone, myself included. But I want to state up front that the reasons for it are concrete and observable. You’re not a bad person for liking or not liking the thing that took forty-two years to complete, running through three generations and many shifting filmmaking landscapes. It’s not your fault.

But did Lucas (and later Disney) change Star Wars on us? Or was it always that way? I am going to argue for a little of both. We had collectively put Star Wars up on this really high pedestal and then we got mad when we had to knock the pedestal over to play with it again. We put our Star Wars toys up in the attic and then we re-discovered them decades later when we were busy looking for other stuff and couldn’t believe we ever liked the toys in the first place.

The current defense is the movies were ALWAYS aimed at a juvenile audience. It would certainly seem so, with the toy line that started in 1978 and continues to this day as being the most damning evidence. But I don’t think that was true, at least, not quite. Not really. Only after the fact did Lucas apply baby gates and safety locks on the House that Star Wars Built. 1977 Star Wars was a juvenile subject, but it was made by an adult who wanted to revisit Flash Gordon, for adults who wanted to do the same. As kiddie fare, Lucas missed the mark. And Empire Strikes Back really missed the mark. But he dialed it in with Return of the Jedi; a film that manages to have the cuteness of the Ewoks and heavy themes of good and evil with Luke, Vader, and Palpatine. War, death, romance, redemption.

The whole of Young Adult literature from Harry Potter on down trades freely on being exactly what a boy of thirteen would want to read and the parents glancing at each other and saying, “Waitaminute, this story is about WHAT?” I contend that if the kids are loving it and the parents are freaking out, it’s probably pretty good stuff. That’s where Star Wars tries to be. It doesn’t always get there, but that’s the target, I think. How else do you explain the Prequels?

I would say that The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t have a lot for the kids to glom onto, as much as it wraps up stuff that the adult fans in the audience care most about. Burning questions get answered. Long-standing injustices are addressed. All done in the midst of the new characters trying desperately to have their own resolutions for their character arcs. In this event, I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Not when they have to share cinematic space with Leia, and Lando, and Chewie, and Force Luke, and Force Yoda, and Ghost Han, and everyone trying to squeeze every last drop of resonance out of the material, now stretched so thin that it appears downright gossamer.

I think this film really shows off what I personally believe to be the failing of Episodes 7, 8, and 9; they serve two masters. The prequels were about some of the same characters as the first trilogy, but they were played by different actors at very different times of their life. There was, overall, many more new and different characters in the Prequels. Not so with the sequels. We get to meet a few new characters, and we are meant to care about them, but how can we fully invest our time and attention when Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are reprising their roles?

That aspect of nostalgia—that desire to re-ignite the spark of excitement—that desire to play it safe and give the fans a warmed-over version of the meal they know we’ll eat—or some combination of them all, is what made these last three films so uneven and, if twitter is to be believed, so wildly disparate. I’m not saying it’s the only problem, here, but follow me on this; No single fan anywhere can say of episode 8 “Luke Skywalker would NEVER do that” if, in episode 8, you don’t have Luke Skywalker anywhere in the movie. That familiar revisiting of these beloved characters was the double-edged sword that we nicked ourselves on, over and over and over again.

I mean, I still liked them better than the prequels, but I was an easy target. All they had to do was show me a picture of Harrison Ford. Hint that Luke was in a hermitage. Show Leia still being the leader of the resistance. It may not be exactly what I was hoping for, but it sure beats what we got in The Phantom Menace.

This is the rub, right here: With three generations, and 42 years under its oversized belt, It’s impossible to apply a unified field theory to Star Wars. They were made in three very different socio-economic environments, for three very different audiences, in systems that were demonstrably different, to appeal to three different groups of fans. If you want to like the whole of Star Wars, unironically, and unapologetically, that’s all on you. You make your own glue and you patch your own holes. In that respect, it may be the purest fan activity around.

I think, conversely, that it’s okay in 2019 to like some but not all of the movies. It’s okay to not be completely and totally invested in this sprawling franchise with all of its ups and downs, highs and lows, and metric shit-ton of secondary, tertiary, and ancillary stories to absorb or ignore depending on your own personal obsessive-compulsive behavior.

I may talk about this more later. This is a good place to stop for now.

No comments: