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RISE Redux

NOTE: opinions expressed herein may not represent those of the other members of DEANS FAMILY PRODUCTIONS
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“I had to run onto the deck of the ship and say something to Bruce Greenwood about something, and I had…I just had no idea what I was talking about.  [I] asked J. J. – I took J. J. aside – and I’d like to do it one more time because I don’t know what I’m saying, and if you could tell me what I’m saying it’d be a great help, and he said, ‘it doesn’t matter. You just run on and you say it as fast and as earnestly and urgently as possible and no one’s going to care, because all the audience is going to think is (gestures wildly with his hands) something’s happening! Something’s happening!’.”

Chris Pine on J. J. Abrams, 24 March 2019, BBC

Revisiting the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie for the Uncanny Nerd “5Up3Down” show (which you can watch here), I thought it was only fair to revisit another film I’m not fond of, which is also by a director whom I don’t believe has fully developed the chops to write for film.

Would my opinions change upon watching THE RISE OF SKYWALKER for the first time since leaving the theater just over a year previously?  Would my thoughts on Abrams or the story soften at all?  Would learning about Colin Trevorrow’s script, which was rejected, shelved, and then eventually cherry-picked by Abrams, also change my opinion?

When I go into the movie theater, I try to have little to no expectations, mostly to avoid being disappointed, but also to be as fair as possible to the creative team.  It also helps to enhance my excitement as the story plays out on screen.  But, when Trevorrow’s replacements were announced for RISE, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of dread.  Not just because of my feelings on the replacements’ abilities as storytellers, but also because of the monumental task of creating a final film without one of the franchise’s most important actors, Carrie Fisher.  But, I kept my concerns to myself – unless someone asked me directly – to avoid letting my misgivings influence anyone else’s enthusiasm for Episode IX.

After the lights came up, I was feeling – for the first time with a Star Wars film (and yes, this includes the prequels) – almost like I wish I hadn’t bothered.  While the visuals were generally impressive and the performances were mostly solid, for the most part I found the film ridiculous.  I felt like I was being pandered to by a teenager, or a freshman in film school whose primary exposure to how to talk about film was like “The Chris Farley Show” on SNL.

And what about a year later…?

I think the film may bother me even more.

From the beginning, with the hyperbolic and poorly written crawl, when we learn that the real villain is (was?) Palpatine.  The clone angle, which was handled oddly in the prequels and not much better in “extended universe” novels and comics, here is glossed over completely in maybe a line or two of dialogue or exposition.  Regardless, it doesn’t work, and now, rather than elevating Ben Solo to the final film’s Big Bad, Ben is rendered a near eunuch story-wise.  His story arc becomes blatantly obvious, and as such reduces the potential drama for his character at the end.

The crawl reminded me of an interview I once read with Stan Lee in which he talked about writing for comics.  Comics have always been perceived as “kiddy fare,” but he never wrote the dialogue for kids.  Lee argues that to do so would be talking down to your audience, and kids are smarter than that.  The crawl came across as talking down to the audience.

And given the Chris Pine quote that opens this article, it makes perfect sense.  Given that quote, I don’t think Abrams thinks very highly of the audience.

Back to RISE and some of the story choices made: the fleet of Star Destroyers is indicative of several moments where it almost seems like Abrams is trying to address complaints that Force Awakens (co-written by Abrams with Lawrence Kasdan) was basically a remake of A New Hope.  Which then they do anyway with scenes like the First Order conference room scene mimicking the Death Star conference room scene, both ending in a force choke, and the direct line read of “locked, move on to the next one” from the troopers searching for the rebels on Kijimi.

There are other choices that seem to have been made more for nostalgia than logic, moments that take place which don’t do much for the story.  Things like the lightspeed skipping just to allow for cameos of Coruscant and other notable planets, or Luke’s old X-Wing being in completely fine working order after years under water.

There were other moments that were just too convenient to the story, moments that we didn’t really need as fans of Star Wars.  For example, the giant serpent was not necessary to show Force healing, or to show Rey as compassionate.  We saw Obi Wan Force heal Luke in A New Hope, and Rey’s compassion was evident from her first scene with BB-8.

What really annoyed me then, and possibly even moreso now, were the moments that made no sense to me as a writer.  Things that were mostly just “dropped in” without anchors to the story, or moments where their inclusion was answering the question, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ and not ‘but why would they do that?  Shouldn’t they do this…?’  Moments designed to be spectacular on screen – and that’s it.  Video game highlights.  Trailer grabs.

Things like the speeder chase at the celebration (and, did they really have to reuse the podrace noises?), Rey leaping over Ben’s TIE and cutting its wing off, Abrams’ Goonies ‘tribute’ (more on that later), or Rey – who has spent almost all her life on sand – expertly piloting a boat to the Death Star.

The Goonies tribute (that fold out knife thing Rey uses to see where the NecroNomiHoliCron is waiting on the Death Star ruins) is an example of Abrams’ storytelling that suggests one of two things: he doesn’t understand storytelling, or he doesn’t care.

Given the Pine quote opening this article, I think he just doesn’t care.  The timeline is roughly placing RISE 30-plus years after RETURN OF THE JEDI, but the knife and ruins suggest more time than that has passed.  None of that mattered, however, as long as the audience appreciated Abrams tribute.

This reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s speech in the brig in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS where Cumberbatch’s character reveals his real name.  It’s a well-delivered dramatic speech ending in Cumberbatch angrily telling Kirk, “My name…is…Khan!”  This revelation means absolutely nothing to Kirk.

But it means everything to the audience, who has known all about Khan Singh since 1967’s Star Trek episode Space Seed.  Abrams fills his movies with these “audience pleasing” moments that don’t bear scrutiny and ultimately mean nothing to the story.  But they’re great for an actor’s audition reel.

Rey’s knife is one of many moments where I’m asked to ignore logic and just enjoy the ride because, look – isn’t this cool?!  Unfortunately, as a writer, I simply can’t.  I’m not talking about “plot holes” most folks rage about on social media, because more often than not those are things in the film people missed because they were opening candy, running to the loo, checking their phone, or simply not paying attention.  What I’m talking about are leaps of logic, or behaviors that are remarkably out of character or in an over-exaggerated manner.

For example, why was 3PO so highly annoying in this film?  Added comic relief?  Normally he’s fussy and charmingly clueless, but in RISE he was nerve-pluckingly obnoxious, apparently designed to make us feel less sad when that annoying cockroach rebooted him.  3PO was written to serve comedic interests, not the overall story, until the one key moment when 3PO was the story.

It’s indicative of other unearned moments that we simply don’t get to “enjoy” or aren’t allowed to emotionally resonate with us before we’ve been forced on to the next thing.  Take for example Chewbacca’s death.  Forgive me, his supposed death.  Ben and Rey Force fight over the ship, ship go boom, and ‘oh no, Chewie’s gone!’  In the next scene, we see Chewie’s all good as a First Order prisoner because – surprise! – he was on the other ship the whole time!  Rey and the others don’t learn this for at least another ten minutes of screen time.

Effective storytelling means NEITHER SHOULD WE.

Instead, we get to watch Baboo Cockroach mindwipe 3PO because that’s what they need to do with Chewie dead, while we all know Chewie is fine and has the knife.  I’m not sure what exactly that is supposed to mean for the audience, other than make me wonder if Abrams is slightly sadistic.

And then there are the parts of the story I just felt were outright obnoxious.  Be they stupid, insulting, or blatant “Eff Yous” to Rian Johnson.  Things like making Rey the granddaughter of Palpatine.  Making Hux the double agent?  Given his whiney attitude towards everyone, it was obvious he was the spy, and turning on the First Order out of spite.  D-0?  Was there any point to that droid other than Abrams giving himself a SAG check?  Keri Russell’s character came across as much as a link to Kijimi for Poe as a way to tell the audience he wasn’t gay.  The Knights of Ren were just goofy, looking like they belonged at a backstage meet and greet for a Cure concert.  Abrams also continued his habits of simply treating Sci-Fi ships as merely transports (see his Star Trek films) when in truth the Falcon is as much a character as Solo or Leia.  And, because I have to bring it up:  quicksand?!  Moving on.

It really bothered me that Rose was all but written out of the saga in RISE, because it seemed like Abrams was pandering to the loudest (meaning, the most racist and misogynistic) fans.  If you think I’m overreacting here is rendered moot by the fact that Charlie from Lost was added to RISE and given more to say and do than Rose.  A love interest was written into the story for Finn, with just as interesting a backstory, yet he still spent the film pining for Rey.  Other peculiarities that felt like panderings or unnecessary responses rather than moments feeding the story were the fleet of Star Destroyers with Death Star cannons (maybe to show that the writers weren’t dipping in the Death Star well again?), and one of Luke’s first lines being “I was wrong.”  And, I’m still not sure what was going on with Palpatine’s Aliens/Akira head-grabby-transport thingy.

And the one thing in RISE that REALLY pissed me off was that Rian Johnson had set up a fantastic situation for the final film of “where do we go now, where will we find hope…where will we find HELP?” with Leia and Rey in the Falcon.  No one came to help, and now the Resistance was at its lowest point.

Abrams’ response was apparently a story where all that had to be done was have Lando wave the flag in the Falcon and tell everyone to follow him.  Once again, EVERYONE shows up for Lando but NOT LEIA.

I love Lando, and Williams seems a cool guy.

But, COME ON!

In the interest of fairness, there were a few things I actually liked about RISE, then and now.

It was nice to see John Williams get a cameo, as well as Denis Lawson reprising Wedge.  I liked the early moments between Poe, Finn, and Chewie playing the game in the Falcon.  Abrams is a smart enough director in the small, quiet moments to let chemistry amongst talent take its course.  Such as the silly moment in the cave with Rey’s lightsaber countered poorly by Poe’s flashlight.  This may be me reading too much into things, but I liked how Rey’s outfit was a bit of a mix of Luke’s from Episode IV, Leia’s from Episode V, and Padme’s from Episode II. 

The saber fights were quite well done, and not the overly-choreographed messes of the prequels (although the one in the ocean was a little too ‘Crouching Tiger’).  The scene immediately following, between Han and Ben, was a solidly performed moment between two good actors that allowed for a well-paced emotional moment.  The saber transfer between Rey and Ben towards the end, followed by Ben’s shrug, was also very well done.

I understand heartily the Kobayashi Maru the producers had with Fisher’s loss in creating a story to finish out the saga, but it’s difficult to ignore the film’s abundance of unmet potential.  There’s far too much exposition, too much ‘standing-around-telling’ instead of simply showing us.  The Mandalorian does a much better job of this, as did saga chapters The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi.

I may still be in the minority (which is fine as it’s just my opinion), but I feel that The Rise of Skywalker was made by a fan for fans.  But it wasn’t a ‘final film of an epic saga.’  It was a roller coaster ride, designed to elicit a series of nostalgic emotional responses resulting in little or no lingering effect.  It was the cinematic version of the late Chris Farley remembering fun bits from the previous chapters, and filmmakers agreeing, “that was cool.”

Films – final parts of major sagas, especially – should not work that way.  Fans can – and will – argue up and down forever about the choices made by the filmmakers, but we have to select filmmakers who ultimately make choices that respect the story first.  Not just directors (or writer/directors) who fill the space between big visual moments with vague dialogue to make sure we know “something’s happening.”

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