For an occasional new segment, Every Movie Has a Lesson will cover upcoming home media releases combining an “overdue” or “rewind” film review, complete with life lessons, and an unboxed look at special features.
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
Big as a billboard in some places and as small as a mobile ad in others, the marketing imagery of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker touts the tagline “The Saga Will End.” There’s something to be said for finality, especially with a 42-year-old franchise as venerated and cherished as this one. The virtues of remembrance, culmination, gratification, and other such lofty notions loom so much larger when an entity is billed to be the last of something important. The movie in disc form hits store shelves everywhere today.
LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF “FINALITY” — Diving deeper beyond the basic “something that is final” meaning, the dictionary of this galaxy describes “finality” as “conclusiveness,” “decisiveness,” or “an ultimate act, utterance, or belief.” J.J. Abrams’ massive space opera follows his own The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi to aim so very badly for those traits. In many peaks of scope and emotion, his movie achieves such finality. In others, overindulgence and disarray put question marks on the value or vindication of all this promised fulfillment.
Going back to the tagline, the key word out of that poster’s sentence becomes “will.” As grand of a finale as The Rise of Skywalker builds itself to be, the likelihood of its stewarding studio turning off this cash cow is zip, zilch, and zero. This saga had an ending already in 1983 and another in 2005. Those had legitimate finality. Time will tell if this one, and its willy-nilly trajectories, will resonate strong enough or long enough to be of honored and revered significance.
ANTICIPATORY SET AND PRIOR KNOWLEDGE:
.Announcing his presence to the galaxy (and to us immediately in the yellow title scroll), a resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has elevated the First Order into the Final Order with his Sith influence and the manufactured might of a colossal new fleet of Star Destroyers. His orders to his acolyte, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), are simply to “kill the girl.” That embattled female target remains Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has spent the undetermined amount of time since the Battle of Crait on the sidelines away from Resistance efforts to continue her Jedi training under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher).
LESSON #2: CONFRONTING FEARS— As she continues to grow in immeasurable power and skill, Rey endures visions abound of possible future fates that hinge on an eventual rubber match with the former Ben Solo. Matching a quintessential Star Wars motif, Rey has become the next emerging hero obligated to stare down the opposition with a will strengthened by summoned bravery. With “never be afraid of who you are” encouragement, Rey’s fears are hefty emotional obstacles made thoroughly compelling by Daisy Ridley’s lead performance, her best in the series. She may not be given the best scripted material (more on that later), but the actress squeezes every drop of rooting vulnerability out of this crucial plight.
Meanwhile, Rey’s supportive comrades and Resistance operatives, including Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), help her stay a step ahead of Kylo Ren and his masked squad of weaponized knights. Flanked by their handy droids, the tight crew zealously join Rey’s pursuit of items and information deemed vital for the fledgling revolutionaries being able to bring the fight to Palpatine instead of awaiting overwhelming decimation. The invisible ticking clock urgency to blow enemies away and prevent “all for nothing” disappointment sets the plot off on numerous (as in too many) busy-bodied and lightspeed races and chases with weakly-presented MacGuffins in the crosshairs.
LESSON #3: THE VALUE OF PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL SUPPORT— Long has Star Wars been about populating a heightened unity in support of influential individuals. Call it amassing an army or the intimate recruitment of trusted friends. For Rey, her verbalized chant is the powerful wish of “be with me.” It is answered with “we have each other.” Whomever stands behind the lead antagonist or comes to the aid of the lead protagonist does so with fervent dedication and multiplying motivation. True to this now ancient battle of dark versus light, not all assistance entering the fray comes in corporeal form.
J.J. Abrams has always been more than capable at delivering sheer adventure for the silver screen. His urge for kinetic energy is answered by the polished production teams. Borrowed from good buddy Steven Spielberg, two-time Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter teamed with VFX concept artist Kevin Jenkins to create otherworldly arenas of flash and flair. J.J.’s trusty cinematographer Dan Mindel (five previous collaborations between them) captured the accelerated action set to every possible hymn, horn, and hurrah from retiring composer legend John Williams. Merging four decades of cues and themes with impeccable placement and push, Williams earned that 52nd career Oscar nomination. Flying through this fantastical world will always remain a rousing treat. The wonderment and magic is there.
That said, no amount of razzle-dazzle filling eyes and ears can cover up the glaring examples of questionable creativity and incomplete development enacted by Abrams and lead screenwriter Chris Terrio. Even in a third film meant to wrap up storylines, The Rise of Skywalker compels itself to introduce even more tangents and swerves. It has characters that answer questions with more questions and moments ringing with vague parables rather than stamping cemented mythology. The arcs for Ridley and Driver fare the best, but the periphery is scattered with superfluous glaze. The isolation elements of The Last Jedi slowed matters down to create tangible suspense. This overpacked trilogy capper favors sprinting set pieces instead. Moving at a rush does not automatically or always create one in return, magic be damned.
To explain more crosses into spoiler territory, but there are downright mistakes here that expose the distance between forming merely a sense of finality, albeit a forcibly telegraphed one, and garnering a true, earned, and fitting consummation. Gauge all of this ambition straight toward the many synonyms of “finality.” Measure this film for “decisiveness,” “totality,” “resolution,” and even “integrity.” You may find its force more thin than thick.
For the first time in quite a while (re: see every Marvel disc release in ten years), Disney has finally put out a stellar disc release worthy of full purchase ahead of merely a digital download of the feature itself. All it took was a legitimate and immersive behind-the-scenes documentary that actually showed the full filmmaking process. Little seven to fifteen minute featurettes can’t do that, no matter how many of them you pretend to pack on a second disc, not when half of them feel like sales pitches instead of documentation.
The Rancor-sized beast feature in question is the feature-length The Skywalker Legacy documentary. Running a rich 126 minutes, the documentary follows the film’s production process from pillar to post. The access and observational intimacy into the process is phenomenal. Best all, they merge little flashbacks to the making-of footage of the original trilogy, making that “legacy” in the title the perfect term.
Those callbacks are some of the best moments to savor in the documentary because they each pile on a full circle of reflection and completion. For example, to see and hear Anthony Daniels compare walking onto the Tunisian heat with uncertainty in 1976 to stepping off the set in the same costume for the last time over 40 years later as a legend is beyond a treat. It’s a moment of pure satisfaction. Moments and threads like that are echoed and repeated for Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and the memory of Carrie Fisher, especially how this production had to remember here while finding a way to go on without her.
Probably the best legacy moment captured in The Skywalker Legacy is when director J.J. Abrams brought composer John Williams on the set to film a first-time cameo. After Williams finishes shooting his bit, J.J. has the octogenarian look around the “junk” around his character’s workshop table. Each tarnished prop in view was purposely constructed to represent all 51 of Williams’ Oscar-nominated scores. That’s an incredible display of easter eggs that will drop your jaw and just a taste of the complete devotion and keen respect J.J. Abrams operates with the entire shoot.
The figure to watch (and being watched) the most is Abrams. His insistence, no matter the time, resources, and expense, to shoot with as many physical layers of creation and authenticity as possible is extremely commendable. From black bean quicksand and an alien festival to the wild energy of scene-stealing stunt coordindator Eunice Huthart, the massive volume of sets, costumes, vehicle rigs, and puppetry is off the charts. The armies of people who train and put their heart, soul, and sweat into work that may only be seen mere seconds or minutes on-screen is dizzying. All the while, his skillful focus and constant smile make the pressures and expectations and returns look invisible.
Outside of the feature-length centerpiece, there are few more samples of blockbuster dessert. They come in the form of five smaller featurettes. Even these still beat the Disney/Marvel entries of talking schills and put their focus on the stories behind the movie.
One of the best of them is “Aliens on the Desert.” It’s a quick six minutes, but it outlines all of the set-up work in Jordan, where the visiting humans are the foreigners to the rugged vistas, that happens even before the circus-level main unit arrives. The scale of teamwork and practicality from the gear-loaded teams is something not normally shown for behind-the-scenes material that more often loves their headliners. The 14-minute “Pasaana Pursuit” feature is similar in its background focus.
If artistry gets you awestruck, you will enjoy the “Cast of Creatures” featurette. Like their shining moments in The Skywalker Legacy, the merger of makeup, engineering design, and puppetry have long made the fictional living things in Star Wars more tangible than any CGI power. This short is a tribute to the folks underneath the heavy gyros, foam, and rubber shells. The new droid D-O also gets a quick five-minute-and-change video on its character genesis of the more mechanical nature.
The final featurette is “Warwick & Son” and it’s the smile-inducing parting glance to the special features and nine-film saga. This snippet chronicles actor Warwick Davis returning to the Ewok role of Wicket and the chance to bring his aspiring actor son Harrison in to play his Ewok kin. Like the legacy circles earlier, to hear and see Warwick’s journey and sage maturity being celebrated is delightful. This caps a truly fantastic disc of special features.