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Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

(Full of spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

Cards on the table: “The Rise of Skywalker” is not, by any measure, a good movie.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. There’s plenty of material here—the return of old faces and old locations, rapid-fire plot twists, a heaping helping of lightsaber battles, and so on—that I love, because I’ve been a huge “Star Wars” dork for more than twenty years. But rarely have I encountered a film that forces such a sharp contrast between entertainment value and quality: I honestly don’t know if I enjoyed “Rise” because of pure nostalgia, because a certain strain of fanboy-ism runs through my soul, or because it’s really that rousing on its own terms.

But let’s take a look, shall we?

The first act of “Rise” is such a sharp turn away from the languid plotting and downbeat ending of “The Last Jedi” that you might end up with whiplash. Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is reintroduced in the first five minutes, and we immediately learn that he’s still alive, that he was the man behind Snoke, and that he’s built a fleet of Star Destroyers on the Sith world of Exogol. In that same five minutes, villainous Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) signs up with the Emperor, puts on his old mask, and we’re back to the age-old Sith master/apprentice dynamic (the “Rule of Two”).

On the other side of the galaxy, our three heroes—young Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and hotshot pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac)—set off on a desperate search for a map to Exogol. (Sound familiar? It should, because this was the plot of 2015’s “The Force Awakens.”) Their travels take them to the Bedouin-styled planet of Pasaana, the rainy city of Kijima, and an oceanic moon of Endor. And by the way, there are some new Force powers afoot—Force healing, Force life drain, and some super-duper Force lightning and Force pulls that allow manipulation of spaceships in orbit.

Boom! Bang! Zzzt! That’s the soundtrack of “Rise,” layered over with some familiar John Williams leitmotifs. We’re swept from battle to battle without time to catch our breath as we hurtle toward a final showdown at Exogol, where Rey—just like Luke Skywalker so many years before—must confront the Emperor.

If this sounds an awful lot like “Return of the Jedi”…well, you aren’t wrong. Indeed, virtually everything that I like about “Rise” is directly cribbed from some prior “Star Wars” film. Cool masked bounty hunters? Saw them in “Empire Strikes Back” first. Alien festival in the desert? Saw that in the “Phantom Menace” podracing scene. Final duel in a menacing throne room while the Emperor forces our hero to watch the destruction of their friends in a massive space battle? “Return of the Jedi,” all the way. (Oh, and by the way, this is the fifth Star Wars movie to have its plot hinge on “stopping Death Star planet-killing weapons.” Are you kidding me?)

It doesn’t help matters much that director J.J. Abrams is practically obsessed with undoing the most criticized elements of 2017’s “The Last Jedi” In one of the most egregious instances, Rey hurls her lightsaber into a fire, but Luke’s Force ghost appears and catches the blade, chastening her that “a Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect”—a clear swipe at Luke’s tossing away his lightsaber in the opening moments of “The Last Jedi.” Similarly, the fan-disfavored Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is unceremoniously shunted aside for most of the film, despite her developed character arc in the prior film. All of this is obvious pandering to the worst of the “Star Wars” fandom—the angry subset of Very Online viewers who refuse to allow the story’s themes to progress and spend hours tearing apart anything that’s insufficiently familiar.

Now, considered purely as blockbuster entertainment and nothing else, “Rise” is…fine. It’s big and propulsive and full of high-dollar action set pieces that are certainly entertaining. But I would like to think—and i doubt I’m alone in this—that “Star Wars,” at its best, is more than just groundbreaking sci-fi action (if I just want that, there are half a dozen films every year that’ll provide it). The pull of “Star Wars,” for me, has always been rooted in the fact that there’s a rich metaphysical dimension underpinning all the action that unfolds onscreen, a dimension totally absent from stories like “Star Trek.” At the risk of sounding too theological, the finite (the visible action onscreen) is always permeated by the strange infinity of the Force.

For all the failings of “The Last Jedi”—and they were legion, even if I do think it’s a pretty compelling movie—director Rian Johnson seemed to understand this. It’s impossible to watch Episode VIII and not see Luke Skywalker’s struggle as a crisis of faith; he even uses, for the first time since 1977’s “A New Hope,” the phrase “the Jedi religion.” Johnson teed up the possibility of serious thinking about the Force’s nature , and laid the groundwork for a genuinely satisfying conclusion to the nine-part saga. For instance, what if the much-discussed concept of “bringing balance to the Force,” at bottom, meant an end to demanding that the Force fit the rigorous concepts of either the Jedi or the Sith—a willingness to let the Force be the Force? What if Luke’s “Last Jedi” crisis of confidence wasn’t reducible to “fear” (as he says in “Rise”), but rather the product of a genuine discovery that the Jedi tradition had gone astray in certain crucial ways?

Those are the issues I wanted “Rise” to tackle. But we simply don’t get anything like that onscreen—we get, yet again, the Jedi simply driving back the Sith, rehashing the conclusion of “Return of the Jedi” for all intents and purposes. We don’t get any reflection on the themes at play. And frankly, it is not even clear to me that Abrams is aware of these story angles—“Rise” plays out like a love letter to the prior films in the saga, but only by way of aesthetic imitation rather than thematic continuity.

Despite how this review may read, I did not hate “Rise.” In fact, I liked it and would happily see it again (there’s one spot at the end that’s a genuinely triumphant, fist-in-the-air moment—in addition to what may be the most erotically charged lightsaber fight in cinematic history). I just wish it possessed an iota of its predecessors’ narrative courage—or, at the very least, understood what made the “Star Wars” saga so special to begin with. (Honestly, I’m halfway tempted to break out the old PC and replay the “Knights of the Old Republic” titles, just to scratch that particular itch.)

So be it. With the House of Mouse working the strings, I fully expect I’ll live to see Episodes X, XI, XII, and heaven knows how many more. There’s still time to do this thing right.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2019 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “Ad Astra”

My sci-fi tastes have always run in the broadly philosophical direction: perhaps it’s my lack of a STEM professional background, but I’d rather see a story more focused on the great search for meaning than on the technical details of orbital superweapons or warp drives. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Fountain,” and “Interstellar” are my jam.

“Ad Astra”—this month’s art-SF blockbuster from director James Gray and star Brad Pitt—is a superb example of that sensibility. Blending haunting visuals with a compelling and original narrative, it’s exactly the kind of “movie for adults” that Hollywood should make more of.

In the near future, Roy McBride (Pitt) is a successful astronaut who’s reached the top of his profession by deadening his emotions. Ubiquitous “psychological evaluation” computer systems, administered by the United States Space Command (“SpaceCom”) constantly assess the mental stability of astronauts traveling through deep space, hoping to avoid psychotic breakdowns.

Roy’s life is disrupted when SpaceCom informs him that his long-lost father, astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), may be alive on the outskirts of the planet Neptune. At last report, Clifford was conducting mysterious experiments involving antimatter with the enigmatic Lima Project. Now, with cosmic-ray energy surges producing electromagnetic pulses across the solar system, Roy must find his father and somehow put an end to the surges. The journey takes Roy from Earth to the Moon (via a Virgin Atlantic flight—the Moon has become an elite tourist destination), from the Moon to Mars (where a lone military outpost beams laser-guided messages into deep space), and from Mars to Neptune’s rings.

Without giving too much away, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence plays a key role in the film. And as a result, the movie’s pivotal plot points admit of multiple interpretations. Viewed from one angle, “Ad Astra” is a critique of scientific research practices that prioritize an ever-elusive “quest for intelligent life in the cosmos” over improvement of the human condition. Viewed from another, the film is a critique of religion—that is, the search for transcendent meaning and purpose beyond what humans create themselves. But at the deepest and most fundamental level, I think “Ad Astra” is best read as a critique of scientism—the philosophical stance that life’s meaning is exclusively found within the process of empirical investigation, and that that which is non-quantifiable is not worth speaking about.

It’s this very ambiguity of message that makes “Ad Astra” so deeply compelling. And similarly, in keeping with that general approach, there are all sorts of things in “Ad Astra” that we glimpse once and never again: a miles-high antenna stretching from the Earth’s surface into outer space, violent separatists on the Moon who prowl the Sea of Tranquility on plundered rovers, raging primates in an abandoned space station, and much more. I’ve often thought that the movies that haunt us most are those that don’t feel the need to explain themselves at every step. Contemporary Hollywood, all too often, feels the need to provide backstory for everything: since the rerelease of “Star Wars” in 1997, every peripheral character in every blockbuster seems to end up with a plotline of their own (and sometimes even a cinematic spinoff). Overly commercialized, “Ad Astra” is not—and it’s so much the better for it.

The film also holds water on technical fronts. From a narrative standpoint, the film mercifully avoids cumbersome subplots (“Interstellar,” for all its virtues, was a pretty bloated product): it’s a propulsive, pitilessly linear tale that never loses itself in navel-gazing. And, to be sure, Pitt is great in the lead (as plenty of reviews have already pointed out, his star turn here is borderline Oscar bait).

In short, if philosophically-minded sci-fi is your thing (and you were a little annoyed that “Interstellar” lapsed so heavily into sentimentality and over-exposition by the end), “Ad Astra” is the movie you’ve been longing for.  It’s a genuinely original story in a marketplace saturated with reboots, sequels, and reimaginings—and it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2019 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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