One of my favorite presentations to deliver is “Let it Be: The Beatles, January 1969”, which explores the troubled context behind The Beatles' last-released album. Very much a reaction against their highly processed albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and The White Album (1968), Let it Be was conceived as a live recording (both a documentary film and a live album). But as the band discovered, there is good reason for the studio production: It makes the music sound better! So, unsatisfied with the live recordings, they eventually turned the project over to Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector, who ultimately produced the album after making substantial edits, including overdubbing a full symphony orchestra onto several tracks (most notably Paul's 'The Long and Winding Road'). The conclusion of the presentation is that Let it Be is a failed album because the band never committed to a single artistic vision. It could've been a great live album, or it could've been a great studio album, but instead it turned into a diluted mixture of both ideas rather than a wholehearted commitment to a single idea – and the resulting music suffers greatly for their lack of dedication.
I bring up Let it Be to open this review of The Rise of Skywalker because the same problem that hindered The Beatles' album also hinders Star Wars' latest episode.
But first, a detour back two years. I did not like The Last Jedi on first watch. I disliked it even more after my second and third viewings. But it took me a while to figure out why. It wasn't until reading David Roberts' 12 January 2018 article “The Last Jedi came thrillingly close to upending Star Wars — but lost its nerve” that I finally got it. It seems that most fans who disliked TLJ complained that director Rian Johnson went too far with plot ideas, especially regarding Luke Skywalker and his depressive funk. But Roberts and I disagree. “I thought Johnson didn’t go far enough,” writes Roberts. “He feints and flirts with deeper, darker themes, but again and again, loses his nerve before the tone and trajectory of the saga are seriously threatened.” Bingo! Reading that was a revelation – Roberts put into words everything I was feeling but hadn't yet found the words! The key moment of TLJ comes after Kylo kills Snoke, and Kylo and Rey fight side-by-side to defeat the Praetorian guards. Battle over, he pleads with Rey: “It's time to let old things die – Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels. Let it all die. Rey, I want you to join me.” It builds on his earlier words, during one of their ForceTime exchanges, when Kylo uttered perhaps the single most important line of the entire movie: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It's the only way to become what you're meant to be.” How brilliant it would have been to have Kylo and Rey team up not as Sith or Jedi but as a new breed of force uses. “The Rebellion is reborn today,” says Luke's Force projection towards the end of his confrontation with Kylo on Crait. What if it had instead been “The Force is reborn today?” Think of how that would have opened up vast new and exciting possibilities for that famous galaxy far, far away! But no. Kylo chooses the dark side, Rey chooses the light side, and, as Roberts' essay concludes, “That sets up director J.J. Abrams for a pretty conventional Episode IX. I wonder how big the Death Star will be.”
That brings us to the present. The Rise of Skywalker debuted three days ago; I saw it yesterday for the first time. The incongruous conclusion that plagues The Last Jedi returns with a vengeance in TROS. Instead of embracing this new vision and its consequent possibilities, Episode IX practically apologizes for TLJ and its innovative, if unrealized, ideas. Paul Tassi authored a review in which he argues, “one thing that it’s hard to avoid seeing in the film is how badly [director] JJ Abrams wants to 'fix' not only The Last Jedi, which went in some wild directions with major plotlines, but even his own, original film, The Force Awakens. … It is painful sometimes just how much it’s clear Abrams wanted to directly address fan complaints with the past two films.” Tassi proceeds to list the major retcons of TROS including Snoke's origins, Sheev Palpatine, Rey's Jedi training, Rose Tico, Finn's Force sensitivity, Poe's sexuality, the Knights of Ren, Rey's parentage, Ben Solo's redemption, and the Holdo Maneuver. Perhaps my opinions will change after multiple viewings, but my initial reaction is that the constant retconning severely undermines the episode at every turn. It was impossible for me to immerse in the current story when every other scene goes out of its way to apologize for the previous films. As a result, what could and should have been a huge emotional payoff as the Skywalker saga wraps up after 9 movies in 42 years instead comes off as fan service, as if Abrams was “playing not to lose” rather than “playing to win”.
Much like The Beatles' album Let it Be, the Star Wars sequel trilogy could have been successful either way – as a nostalgic, crowd-pleasing space romp (like Solo), or as an innovative and historically significant cinematic landmark (like the original trilogy). But instead, the trilogy never commits one way or the other, with the result that the three films severely lack continuity. And The Rise of Skywalker, being the concluding chapter, is more guilty than the others.
Here's how I rate the 11 Star Wars films out of 10:
The Phantom Menace: 4
Attack of the Clones: 2
Revenge of the Sith: 5
A New Hope: 10
The Empire Strikes Back: 10
Return of the Jedi: 10
The Force Awakens: 9
The Last Jedi: 7
The Rise of Skywalker: 6
Rogue One: 5
The Music of Star Wars
These posts will help focus and develop my analyses of John Williams' film scores.