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: “Frozen II”

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve reviewed a lot of movies—many of them exceedingly abstract. But I didn’t have any difficulty following or comprehending the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” or Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”

But I did not understand “Frozen II.” The sequel to Disney’s 2013 mega-hit couples gorgeous animation and songwriting with an ever-more-muddled storyline that never fully coheres.

We pick up with Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) several years after the original film. Elsa rules as Queen of Arendelle, a Scandinavian-themed city-state on the edge of a grand fjord, and seems to have finally mastered her elemental ice powers. But soon, Elsa starts hearing a spectral voice calling her northward, to a mysterious forest shrouded in near-impenetrable fog—where, many years ago, a great battle took place between explorers from Arendelle and the tribal people of Northuldra. That battle stirred up the forest’s elemental spirits of earth, air, fire, and water; the spirits have since grown discontent, endangering Arendelle’s stability. So, off to the forest Elsa and Anna—accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and anthropomorphic snowman Olaf—go.

It eventually becomes clear that Elsa’s ultimate destination lies still farther away: Ahtohallan, a legendary river that allegedly contains all memories and will unlock the secrets of her identity. But Ahtohallan is also a place of primordial truth, where the lies on which Arendelle itself was built will be revealed.

That’s a lot of plot for a kids’ movie—and we haven’t even gotten to the third act. (There’s no “big twist” in this movie like last time around, but fair warning, spoilers to follow.)

Elsa’s arrival at Ahtohallan is a euphoric, metaphysical experience, backed by one of the franchise’s most stirring anthems. Abstract imagery swirls across the screen as she ventures deeper into the river’s heart, progressing into a kind of “cloud of unknowing.” And at the climactic moment, she beholds her long-lost mother—who seems to be a fifth nature spirit, the one who promises to restore harmony between all the other elemental powers.

Immediately thereafter, Elsa plunges into a black abyss of memory within Ahtohallan, where she learns that the battle that triggered the forest’s elemental disharmony wasn’t a misunderstanding between two different peoples. In true colonialist fashion, Arendelle’s envoys betrayed the peaceful Northuldra people in order to construct a dam in their lands. That dam towers high above the fjord in which Arendelle itself now stands: destroying the dam and releasing the river will restore peace in the Northuldra forest, but will wash Arendelle into the sea. Elsa herself then immediately freezes—just like Anna in the original film.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To start with the obvious: though it never comes fully into view, “Frozen II” has some of the most radical political messaging I’ve ever seen in a kids’ movie: According to this film, any nation with a history of subjugation or oppression must be utterly destroyed, its foundations washed away, before anything else can be built. Howard Zinn (or, if you prefer, the New York Times’ “1619 Project”) would be proud. Now, I certainly don’t agree with that approach to politics (and in the context of a children’s movie, it feels nakedly propagandistic), but I have to grudgingly admire its audacity. Who knew Disney had the nerve?

But “Frozen II” pulls its punch at the last second, refusing to commit to its own thematic vision. As the story reaches its crescendo, Elsa—magically unfrozen after Anna triggers the dam’s collapse—dashes into the fjord and uses her magical ice powers to divert the tidal wave, saving Arendelle. As a result, it’s altogether unclear what the narrative takeaway is meant to be. Is this last-second rescue meant to imply that symbolic acts of moral righteousness can paper over the need for real structural change? Is this an Abraham-and-Isaac scenario where, following Anna’s choice to sacrifice Arendelle, Elsa (as an avatar or manifestation of the divine) then shows mercy? I have no idea, and I’m not sure directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee do either.

The film then concludes with a garbled bit of dialogue suggesting that Elsa herself is the “fifth spirit”—but also that Elsa’s mother had two daughters, both of whom are meant to bridge the gulf between nature and humanity—and…uh…I got nothing. Anna is crowned queen in Arendelle, and Elsa chooses to remain with the Northuldra. Roll credits.

I have many questions about the internal logic of…well, basically everything that happened in the last half hour. So, because I have an incorrigible desire to make things make sense, I propose an esoteric reading of the film that treats it as a Gnostic exploration of Neoplatonic Trinitarian theology.

To grasp this, consider how St. Augustine deployed a “psychological” metaphor for the Trinity. Just as memory, reason, and will are involved in every voluntary action, so too are the three persons of the Trinity involved in God’s activity. God the Father, the eternal and unbegotten, corresponds to memory: in Him all of time is contained, and from Him all things proceed. God the Son, the Logos, corresponds to reason: the ordering by which God makes the world. God the Holy Spirit, in turn, corresponds to will: God’s active, all-shaping presence in the world.

These themes play out—in heterodox fashion—beneath the surface of “Frozen II.” It is difficult to see Elsa as not, in some sense, a messianic figure. After all, early Gnostic tales of Jesus’s childhood are full of stories of Him frightening others with powers he does not fully understand (sound familiar?) and bringing living creatures forth out of inanimate matter (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). Moreover, in “Frozen II,”  Elsa’s primary quest is a journey to Ahtohallan, the source and repository of all memory—a repository that is metaphysically identified with her long-lost mother, who is (in essence) an all-unifying spiritual presence. That is to say, the Daughter (Son), who proceeds forth from the Mother (Father), is driven by an urge toward mystical restoration and unification—a process that closely tracks the Gnostic conception of spiritual progress as ascent into an ever-more-ineffable experience of God. Onscreen, this comes to a head when Elsa enters into her mother’s presence at the film’s climax and is—quite literally—transfigured.

On this reading, Elsa’s confusing concluding statements about the “fifth spirit” make more sense. Elsa’s mother (memory) is the “fifth spirit”—but so is Elsa herself (as the embodiment of will) and so too, in some sense, is Anna (as the embodiment of reason—she, after all, is most properly suited to rule Arendelle). Thus, what “Frozen II” is secretly about is the restoration of the cosmos through a return to the divine wellspring from which it emerged.

Now, do I think the filmmakers consciously intended any of this? No—and if I’m wrong, I hereby vow to eat an entire snowman bite by bite. But I like this reading rather more than the alternative, because it allows me to believe there’s some cohesive vision underlying the story. Eisegesis is fun! (Just don’t ask me to explain why Elsa spontaneously froze, because I have no idea.)

None of this is to say that “Frozen II” isn’t a fine time at the movies—because it is. Disney’s animation has never been better, and the songs are even stronger this time around (if you were underwhelmed by Menzel’s take on “Into the Unknown,” rest assured that the Panic! At the Disco version is a real banger, and Kristoff gets a hilarious hair metal-inspired power ballad midway through). Maybe I’m just thinking about this story stuff too hard and need a five-year-old to explain things to me. 

Or, maybe I just need to let it go.

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Posted by on November 23, 2019 in Fantasy

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