Star Wars Reviews: Rise of Skywalker and Solo

A few weeks ago, I rewatched The Last Jedi, and I was impressed by how much I enjoyed it. I realized that all of my problems with it are actually problems with The Force Awakens. If you pretend TLJ followed a film that actually gave you context on the current state of the galaxy and what’s going on, all the problems with TLJ melt away, and it turns into a truly excellent movie full of heart and emotion.

Rey and Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker.Feeling better about Star Wars than ever, I was inspired to give one of the spin-off movies a watch on Netflix, and to go see Rise of Skywalker sooner rather than later.

I now bring you my thoughts on the two films.

Rise of Skywalker:

I have not hated a movie this much in a long time.

The Force Awakens was pretty much just a rehash of A New Hope, and with JJ Abrams back at the helm, my fear was that Rise of Skywalker would just be a rehash of Return of the Jedi.

This fear was justified. It is absolutely just a clone of what’s come before, right down to yet another super weapon with a single and easily exploitable weakness, because apparently there’s only one story that’s ever allowed to be told in this setting.

If you have watched the trailers, there is no need to see the movie. They’ve already given away the whole story.

There is only one genuine surprise in the entire movie, and it’s an incredibly cheap twist that utterly ruins everything that made Rey compelling as a character. Meanwhile her unique rivalry/bond with Kylo Ren is reduced to just another cheap love story.

Poe and C3PO in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker.

I’ve never been a big Star Wars fan, but I’ve stuck with this new trilogy because I absolutely adore Rey as a character, and Rise of Skywalker systematically destroyed everything that ever made her story interesting.

None of this is on Daisy Ridley, mind you. She remains an excellent actress, and she makes a heroic effort to inject some life into this soulless, illogical mess of a movie, but it’s just not enough.

Also on the subject of excellent actresses who couldn’t save this movie, Kelly Marie Tran’s character Rose — one of the best things about The Last Jedi — is now sidelined so much she might as well not even be there. It’s hard to see this as anything but a capitulation to the racist and sexist trolls who hated her character, and it’s despicable.

Meanwhile Kylo Ren/Ben Solo also has his entire character arc destroyed by making it just a rehash of Vader’s journey in Return of the Jedi. I don’t want him to be “redeemed” to the Light Side. He’s right. He’s the only character in the whole franchise who’s actually trying to make things better.

Yes, he makes the wrong choices in how to achieve his goals, and that’s what makes him compelling as an antagonist, but he’s the only one who sees how the traditional structures of Jedi and Sith have failed the galaxy. He’s the only one who understands that the old ways have to change if the cycle of war is ever going to end.

Rey and her companions in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker.Or he was, until JJ Abrams decided that all nuance must burn.

You can also pick apart the copious plot holes and continuity errors — Leia’s lightsaber is green in one scene and blue in the next, ships are frequently chased through hyper-space jumps even though the last movie was almost entirely about how that’s virtually impossible under normal circumstances, Poe is appointed to a leadership position by Leia even though the last movie made a major plot point of the fact he’s not leadership material — but that’s just the garden variety dumb I’ve come to expect of Star Wars. On its own, I could forgive that.

But Rise of Skywalker fumbles all the character arcs and major plots of the trilogy. It takes all of the potential created by The Last Jedi and throws it in the trash. All the nuance introduced by the last movie is ignored. There’s no acknowledgment that the Jedi are also to blame for the state of the galaxy. There’s no further exploration of the systemic issues in the galaxy that keep the war going. We’re back to a shallow fairy-tale where Jedi are good no matter what, and Sith are bad no matter what, and if those evil Sith are killed everything will be sunshine and rainbows for ever and ever. Let’s all cheer Rey as she heroically seeks the genocide of another culture!

What a disaster.

Overall rating: 2.5/10 Worse than the prequels. The prequels were bad from the start, but this trilogy had all the ingredients of a truly powerful story, and Rise of Skywalker squandered them all.

Solo:

Han Solo and Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story.I liked this one a lot better, though that’s a low bar.

The thing about Solo is that I liked most of it, but it just never really seemed to come together into a cohesive whole.

My one major complaint is the character of Qi’ra, his love interest. I’m generally in favour of prequels, but this is one case where being a prequel really sucked the drama out of the story. We know Qi’ra isn’t in the picture by the time of the original trilogy, so the only question is whether she dies or betrays him. You can’t really get invested in her or her story, and the whole movie is pretty much just about Han trying to get her back, and I think that really sucks the life out of it.

Other than that, it’s a solid ride. Being Star Wars, there’s no shortage of action and beautiful imagery. The iconic Kessel Run sequence definitely lives up to the decades of expectation built around it.

There’s some memorable side characters, too. Droid rights activist L3-37 particularly stands out. The show kind of ping pongs between different groups of side characters, though, so none of them quite get the screen time they deserve.

On the downside, Alden Ehrenreich’s Solo himself is probably the weak point of the cast. I think this is less his fault and more down to Harrison Ford being such a tough act to follow. I honestly feel bad for the kid. Those are such big shoes to fill; there are so few people who can hold a candle to Ford’s charisma.

Donald Glover as Landa Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story.All in all, Solo’s a decent ride, but it does end up feeling like less than the sum of its parts. Its tortured production process does show, and it’s definitely about thirty minutes longer than it needs to be.

Overall rating: 6.9/10

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Is a Virtually Perfect Remaster

As a long time fan of the franchise, I of course pre-ordered the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition as soon as the option became available. As launch date grew closer, I became increasingly excited, but I worried I was over-hyping myself. Could a game that old, even polished up with modern graphics, still be exciting in this day and age?

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

The answer is yes.

I remember now why I spent what feels like half my childhood playing this game. It’s hard to even point to any one specific thing that makes it special, but something about the way all the pieces of this game come together — economy, military, exploration — makes it fiendishly addictive.

I’m a bit jaded these days, and I don’t often find myself binging games the way I used to, but I’ve spent the last few days devoting almost every free moment to this game.

There are a few things that have lost their luster now that I see them through an adult’s more critical eye, but only a few. Mainly, I do somewhat resent this game’s dependence on siege weapons. They’re a hassle as an attacker because they’re so slow and clunky and fragile, and they’re a hassle as a defender because they can tear through your defenses so fast if you don’t counter them.

All that does make for interesting micro and counter-play on both sides, but I just wish it wasn’t such a huge part of the game. Castles are so strong that you have pretty much no hope of winning against them without siege engines, so there’s no escaping that gameplay. Every match just turns into baby-sitting your trebuchets while they slowly tear down the enemy base.

It’s not an unenjoyable way to play; there just needs to be more variety.

A mission briefing from the Malian campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Other than that, it’s a blast. The Definitive Edition does a beautiful job of updating the game with needed quality of life changes without harming the spirit of the original in any way.

And of course the graphics are massively improved. Considering the age of the engine, this game is downright gorgeous, and yet they’ve done a truly amazing job of being faithful to the original art. Everything looks the same, just better.

This is the gold standard for how to execute a video game remaster.

What makes this even more of a treat is how much new content there is. The Definitive Edition includes all of the expansions from the previous “HD” edition, plus more new content on top of that. The number of civilizations and campaigns has roughly doubled compared to when I played as a kid. It’s staggering, almost overwhelming.

I’ve completed four new campaigns so far, plus some standalone missions and skirmishes, and it’s all pretty high quality.

I also dipped into some of the older campaigns briefly just for comparison’s sake. Doing the first Joan of Arc mission was a massive nostalgia trip, let me tell you. I was a bit jarred at first because they’ve replaced all of the original voice acting for the campaigns, but except for Jean de Metz, the new actors are all as good or better than the originals, and since this isn’t the most story-driven game anyway I learned to accept it pretty fast.

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Any other changes to the campaigns are minor, and entirely the sort of thing it makes sense to change. For example, Joan the Maid now has a unique character model, rather than looking like a standard female villager.

My one disappointment so far is the new Indian civilization. They’re a bit wonky. They’re mainly a camel and gunpowder civilization, but their unique unit is an elephant archer, which is neither, and they don’t get gunpowder units during their campaign. Okay?

On a related note, I guess my other disappointment with the new civilizations is that despite the proliferation of elephant units, there still isn’t really a civilization that can go for a pure elephant army the way you could in other AoE games. Closest is Khmer with their ballista elephants, but you still at the very least need some regular archers and siege weapons to back up their elephants. It’s baffling that they didn’t give battle elephants to the Indians; then they could have had a proper elephant-focused build.

On the other hand, my favourite of the new options so far is the Inca. They’re possibly a little over-powered, but very fun. With the ability to eschew archers entirely in favour of skirmishers and slingers plus one of the game’s more unique unique units (a pikeman whose spear is long enough that their attack has range), their playstyle feels very different and fresh.

I’ve also enjoyed the Malians and the Bulgarians. It’s downright disgusting how cost effective the Bulgarian unique unit can be. In general, Indians and a few other minor complaints notwithstanding, the new civilizations feel like a good addition to the game.

A Bulgarian city in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Undoubtedly soon I will begin to lose steam. As excellent as it is, this game surely cannot keep me this addicted forever.

But for now, I need to go finish the Bulgarian campaign.