Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

This is Christmas week, so many of you will be anticipating the holiday and gifts under the tree. When you were young, you probably dreamed of the best toy, the most awesome electronic device or maybe a puppy. Did you ever get a knockoff or a stuffed animal instead?  It was probably a perfectly decent gift but it was not what you wanted and the thought is overwhelmed by disappointment, regardless of how much you ultimately enjoyed the substitute. Get ready for the same kind of feeling. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is a Star Wars movie, it’s just not the one you wanted.

Regardless of where you come down on the Star Wars movies, whether you are a prequel hater or you liked what Rian Johnson did with “The Last Jedi“, this one will probably confound you. My main objection to the film is that the plotline is a mess of interrelated incidents that feel like a string of those plastic monkeys that come in a barrel. You have to hook the next one with the last one, and you do that by what is available to you rather than what might be most logical. For instance, a twist involving C3PO comes up as a complication. A big chink of the film id directed at addressing that point and suddenly that point becomes irrelevant and a different issue comes up that the heroes must overcome. The tracks made by each of these developments are so apparent that it might as well be a diagram/flowsheet on the screen. Unfortunately, several times, when you follow the path it is a dead end designed to merely fill the plot with opportunities for more planets, creatures and battles. Say what you will about the awful “Phantom Menace”, at least the plot points were all relevant to the story. The stitches on this amalgam of retcon and repair from the previous film is just to obvious.

Another reason that it feels so paint by the numbers is the introduction of an old character, being plugged into a the story, primarily for the nostalgia factor. This sort of fan service will be rewarding to we long time acolytes but the reappearance of at least four characters that were either dead or absent from the previous two sequels is sometimes just awkward. At least we were spared a return of Hayden Christensen. There is a major plot point which is probably not a spoiler if you have watched the trailer or heard anyone talking about the film before it was released. If you are worried about a spoiler that’s not really a secret, skip to the next paragraph. A major Sith figure returns to the story and it feels incredibly inorganic. It is used to explain some of the events of the previous film, but mostly, we just needed a main figure to turn into the ultimate “big bad” so that the story arc of one on the major characters here can play out and repeat a redirection trope from the original trilogy. Thirty-six years ago, when a second Death Star was introduced into the plot, some fans groused about a lack of creativity, but at least it made sense that the Empire would be relying on it’s existing technology to continue their program for enslaving the Galaxy. The fleet that suddenly appears in this story, complete with enough personnel to manage it, makes no sense whatever.The two sentence explanation is a major irritant. When we discover that each one of these thousand ships is capable of doing what the Death Star did, or what the Planet Killer could, nothing in the story feels right anymore.

For two movies we have been watching the character arc of Rey and Kylo Ren get more involved and more apparent where it it headed. I did like that ultimately this is the A-plot of the movie. There are a couple of revelations and memories that come back to answer the questions we had about the prior film, but those points seem relatively contrived. Why can a memory accomplish what a flesh and body person could not? Does the heritage of Rey really need to go down the plat it did or is this just a way to justify the main plot? The reveal has a momentary injection of adrenaline but it doesn’t take long for it to turn into a WTF development. I was perfectly content with the return of a character in an ethereal form,  but I recognize it for what it is, fan service. This is the conclusion of the nine part “Skywalker” story, so fans are going to want a lot of these things, whether they are necessary or not.

Other characters that were introduced in “The Force Awakens“, continue to be in the story, largely without purpose and squandering what made them worth in that film.  Poe and Finn should have been the kinds of characters that Leia and Han were in the original trilogy. In those first movies, those characters had a story arc and their actions mattered in the long run. No one seems to have figured out what to do with the new secondary characters except plug them in for exposition or as appendixes to the main story arc. Did you think the character of Rose was going to be relevant after being introduced in the last film, well guess again. General Leia Organa has a more developed part and a bigger role in the story and Carrie Fisher is of course entirely in this film through archive footage and some technical wizardry. That was not a problem for me, but obviously J.J. Abrams and his team of writers thought that was more important than doing something with new characters. I liked the fact that Chewbacca and C3PO have story time given to them, but it again feels like this is because this is the last film they will appear in rather than it was necessary for the plot.

I didn’t count but it felt like there were a half dozen separate light saber battles in the film, most of them involving Rey and Kilo Ren. I did not hate this but a little bit goes a long way and the drama of a one on one confrontation gets undermined when it is repeated and all that is being accomplished is an opportunity for some different sword-work. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone needed one big duel to make the point, and it was a climax of the movie. These light saber battles feel like a version of tantric sex, lots of foreplay and then deferred payoff. The spectacle of the fight on the water was great to look at but it had no point, like many of the plot threads in the rest of the movie.

I wanted real emotions in the movie and I felt like I was simply being run through the process. I understand why the Rey and Leia dynamic was handicapped, but so many other relationships were as well. Finn and Ray needed to be going somewhere and there is a humorous thread about that which gets tugged on but not followed. Finn and Poe have a friendship which should be explored more, but they are rushing through so many plot complications, we don’t feel like they have the connection we expect of them. A love interest for Poe comes out of nowhere and then goes no where. There are two adorable new characters, a mono wheeled droid and a tiny monkey hacker, their presence does nothing for the plot except create a diversion while the next thing is coming along.

Long standing fans of the series will like the movie well enough. It is going to be measured by the other films in the series. But do we really want the legacy to finish on the note that “at least it was better than “The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones”? That seems to me a sad way to finish off the pivotal film franchise of  the last fifty years. That’s like opening your Christmas present and being grateful that it wasn’t underwear and socks.

Star Trek Beyond


I will tell you up front, I’m a Trekker. I’m not the type to do cosplay or read every variation of the stories, official or unofficial, but I’ve been watching Star Trek since 1966 and I’m a fan of the show and much of the philosophy. I know that J.J. Abrams got a lot of s*** from fans because he emphasized the action more than the cerebral, although in the context of a two hour movie, I think that criticism is hollow, especially for Star Trek Into Darkness. I also thought the first film from 2009 was the best film of that year. There, I said it and you now can filter this post as you think fit. Star Trek Beyond is a major let down for me. I found it lacking in depth, confusing to follow, full of plot wholes and guilty of all of the criticisms that people have made about the previous two films (minus the lens flare).


As I was traveling a couple of weeks ago, the electronic poster boards were big and ubiquitous in the London area for this film. I hated that I had to wait until we got home, almost a week and a half after it opened to see it. After seeing it however, I’m satisfied to be commenting on it a day later than my usual posts would go up because there is not much here to get excited about. I’d hoped that the influence of comedy writer and actor Simon Pegg would be enough to make the film feel more humanistic and emphasize the comradeship of the crew more. My guess is that the bits that were funny, he is responsible for, but the overall structure, plot and characters are the result of multiple hands and it is a mess. As usual, no spoilers here, but what the hell did the villain need with the macguffin when his weapons systems and technology are so easily able to defeat Star Fleet  vessels as demonstrated early in the film? The backstory and transformation of the character Krall makes almost no sense. There is a seed of an idea for a philosophical discussion of the need for conflict, but it basically goes nowhere except to become cliches in the mouths of both our heroes and the villain.

When the ship met it’s end in Star Trek III, I was moved. When it has subsequently been destroyed or damaged  so substantially that they just rebuild it and move on to the next episode, there is a loss of engagement with the audience. This is one of the things that has been missing from the rebooted series, a sense of loyalty to the craft and the crew. Except for the main figures, everyone else is an extra that hardly bears mentioning much less mourning, they might as well all be wearing red shirts at the start of the story. Speaking of secondary characters, there is an explanation of the lead villain in the story, but the data on all of the other bad guys is not clear at all. A couple of them actually have names and it is not clear if they were with their leader when transformed or if they came from later groups or if they are indigenous and represent the pure form of the species. This film is in such a rush to get to the next action sequence that they don’t bother with basic explanations and the ones that they do come up with are the techno gibberish that often fills the dialog of a Trek film, only now it is delivered at warp speed.


There are a few things that work pretty well in the film. I think the relationship between Spock and Kirk continues to develop and I liked that Bones and Spock end up spending time together. Karl Urban has been a great Dr. McCoy and he has all the best lines and comic moments in the film. The character of Jaylah is potentially a good add to the character mix but her dialog is often so “you Tarzan, me Jane” that the character mostly has to be appreciated for the action scenes. Since they have come up, let’s talk about the action, it is a special effects and editing nightmare. It is often so dark you can’t see what is happening, and the constant movement of the set, while interesting, renders perspective meaningless. It is very difficult to tell what is blowing up and what is causing it to do so. Sometimes you can’t even say who is in the scene. The sequences are edited frantically, as is the style these days, which means there is almost no development of tension in any of those sequences. Everything is spectacle and narrative goes out the window. There is a long sequence with a motorcycle that was awkward and the effects shoots are not as well paired up with the live action as they need to be to sell it. This was at least one place where the quality of the visuals was not up to snuff. On the other hand, there are some solid mixes of make up and CGI effects to make some of the alien creatures seem real. I must say however that it sometimes feels like an extended version of the Cantina sequence from Star Wars.

So on the plus side you have some good visuals, and a few funny lines from Dr. McCoy and once in a while from someone else. On the negative side, you have a confusing story, a lack of character development (being gay and having a kid does not count if they are only props and not integrated into the story), plot holes that should make for some great YouTube parodies in the next few years. The movie also feels small, despite the size of the base they are ultimately trying to protect. There is no big issue except the bad guy wants to destroy things. Once again the old adage proves true, “You are only as good as the villain”, and in this case, Idris Elba can’t compensate for a poorly written antagonist. Look, it’s still Trek and you should see it, but it is closer to “Nemesis” or “The Final Frontier” than I think anybody wants to admit.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

A long time ago, in a theater not too far from here…

I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since May 25th 1977, when on opening day, for the second showing, my group of friends walked right up to the box office and bought tickets and we went inside.  There was no hype, there were no lines yet and the phenomena was just about to hit. By the time the weekend arrived, the lines were around the block and the film was making headlines. If you watch the first primitive trailer for the film, you might think it looked corny and old fashioned. In a way, that’s what sold it to me and millions of others trapped in the 1970s. Cynicism had run amok, in politics and popular culture and Star Wars was an antidote that went down smoothly. Almost 40 years later, with the world in sad shape and our culture dominated by pornography masquerading as television and political fecklessness as a national mantra, we need another dose. “The Force Awakens” attempts to be that cure and for the most part it works. This movie is fun and real in a way that has not been the case since the 1980s.

As usual, you will find no spoilers here, and J.J. Abrams may have achieved the near impossible in this era of social media by keeping the pleasures of his new film under wraps for us to discover on our own. There are plot twists and secrets everywhere in the film and fan service sufficient to satisfy even the neediest of old school geeks, but there is also a freshness to the film that makes the plot devices less important than the spirit of action and adventure we are witnessing on the screen. This movie is highly accessible to fans and non fans alike. The Force Awakens looks more like a sequel to the original trio of films than the prequels do, and that in large part accounts for it’s ultimate success.


There are deep roots to the story we are given, and not all of those rhizome sprout plants in this episode. In fact, the very first section of the opening crawl, gives us a macguffin that drives the plot and very little else. In the course of the story we learn a few things about our past heroes and the lives they have lead since the restoration of the Republic, but it sometimes feels like the facts and stories are being parceled out by a selfish Santa.  There is just enough information to explain a plot point, but not enough to satisfy our interest in just what happened. Some of those seeds are certainly going to come to bear fruit in future episodes, but it is a bit frustrating. There is an exceptionally obtuse sequence in the basement of character Maz Kanata. It raises our expectations, makes some soon to occur events more plausible but ultimately raises questions that are designed to be answered in episode IX.


The structure of the story will be familiar to everyone who saw the original Star Wars in 1977. There is an as yet unaware hero, ready to step forward, there is a set of secrets hidden in a droid, there is a wild card rogue second lead, and there is a wizened master to teach the ways of the force (or at least the rules of the game). The action beats will also be familiar. Agents of the First Order, the remnants of the empire and a new developing Sith relationship, are pursuing our heroes and adventure ensues. J.J. Abrams and the writers manage to substitute a few scenes and use different characters, but you will recognize the Cantina scene and the escape from the empire dogfight. The call backs to earlier films are found throughout the movie, including the story line. I did not see it as a lack of creativity but a desire to make sure that the audience understands the universe that these characters inhabit.

Maybe it is bad form to pile on, but I think it is necessary to explain how this film manages to do so much that the prequels did not. To begin with, the casting is correct. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are not cardboard pretty faces being moved around on the gameboard. The character of Rey is dynamic rather than passive like Padme from the prequels. Finn acts as if what he does matters and unlike Hayden Christenson, Boyega has more expressions than a scowling face. Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and Abrams himself, have an ear for how dialogue should sound when being spoken in a scene. The veteran actors also add some zing to the film, especially Harrison Ford, who in returning to the character of Han Solo, has managed to age gracefully and still be charmingly funny. The biggest asset to the films success in entwining us in the Star Wars universe was the decision to limit CGI to those elements of the story where they are needed rather than where they might save money of merely produce awe. The actors interact with their environment more effectively when there are real sets and locations being used. The desert looks like it is made of sand dunes rather than pixels. That sequence near the end was a real ocean scene and not a painting created in a computer. The forest may have some CGI trees, but in the running sections, those are real trees. The way the film looks helps us project ourselves into the story rather than holding it at arms length admiring the cleverness of the computer guys. There are still some stunning effects scenes that use computer generated images effectively, but they work better in the battle scenes and action moments than they would in the quite transition or narrative spots in the film. In preparation for this experience, I watched all of the previous six films and it was so clear how much better those choices were in the original trilogy. The technology is important but it can’t substitute for what makes the scene believable.

A few plot points are rushed, and that feels like a cheat but it may be that we will be getting more detail in the next stories. There is plenty to enjoy here and there are light saber battles, comedic characters that don’t irritate, and a strong sense of fun rather than a permanent sense of dread hanging over the characters. The transition of the story from our older characters to the newer ones is done much more smoothly than say the same technique which is used in a film like “The Expendables 3”. We care about the new characters because we get a chance to know them. Early on, a great new relationship develops in a good action scene and then that relationship is ignored for two thirds of the movie. That was one of the few mistakes in character development in the story. There are two new digital characters that are introduced and both are intriguing but they seem peripheral to the main thrust of the character arcs we are looking at, so either use them more effectively or lets move on.

The final shot in the movie manages to raise the hair on the back of your hand a little bit and whet your appetite for the next film in the series. As I understand it, there will be a stand alone film next year and it will be two years until we get the next chapter in this story. That should give everyone enough opportunity to reset the hype machine back to a level that is tolerable. I doubt that any film could live up to the expectations that this movie carries with it. Still it manages to be successful and entertaining, if slightly less than perfect. If you want a ranking, I’d put it exactly in the middle. Not quite original trilogy perfection, but so far above the prequels that it might be embarrassing to the creator himself.