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

Review: Dark Phoenix

I never listen to critics. I almost never agree with them. Nonetheless the buzz around Dark Phoenix was so uniformly negative that it did eventually dampen even my hype. It doesn’t help that the last X-Men movie, Apocalypse, was a bit underwhelming.

Promotional art for X-Men: Dark PhoenixSo even though I’m a huge fan of the X-Men movies, I went into Dark Phoenix with very low expectations.

I was a fool. The critics are wrong — Dark Phoenix is fantastic.

The film begins with the X-Men ascendant. They’ve achieved the acceptance Professor Xavier has worked so hard for, and they’re now a household name, beloved by mutants and humans alike. But the success has started to go to Xavier’s head, and after Jean Grey is nearly killed on a dangerous mission undertaken despite strident objections from Raven, events start to spiral out of control, threatening to destroy the X-Men and all that they worked to achieve.

It isn’t perfect. There’s a few minor things that made me do a bit of a double-take, and not in a good way. The writers definitely don’t understand how physics work in space, and I’m not sure I’m onboard the X-Men suddenly having Dragonball Z style power level meters.

There are times when Dark Phoenix does feel like it’s repeating the same story beats as the last take on this arc, X-Men: The Last Stand, but on the plus side this is a better movie than that was.

It also feels a bit rushed at times, and the ending feels a little too inclusive for my taste, but at the same time, “it left me wanting more” is kind of a good problem for a movie to have.

Dark Phoenix is not the best X-Men movie, but it does capture a lot of what is best about this franchise and its characters.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey in Dark PhoenixWhat strikes me most about this movie is how human all of the main characters feel. Dark Phoenix shows Xavier at his worst — he screws up badly in more than one way — but his reasoning for all of his choices feels very understandable. It doesn’t feel like it runs counter to how virtuous he’s been in the past. Indeed, it’s his very optimism and desire to always do the “right” thing that trips him up.

Dark Phoenix is about Xavier making terrible mistakes, but at no point does he feel unsympathetic. He just feels human.

The same is true of Jean Grey. This movie also takes her to a very dark place — no pun intended — but again her emotions feel valid throughout. You still feel sympathy for her.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is what makes the X-Men special. No matter what powers they may have, they still feel like three-dimensional people, with flaws and vulnerabilities. They feel real in a way that most superheroes don’t.

Dark Phoenix is a movie that easily could have slid into the ridiculous with its godlike cosmic forces and sinister alien threats, but by focusing on nuanced characters and believable emotion, it manages to still feel grounded and relatable.

Another strength of the X-Men films that Dark Phoenix carries on is that it nails the tone very well. It’s ultimately a very optimistic movie; it’s about the power of love and compassion to conquer all. But it’s also not afraid to go to dark places when story calls for it. The victories feel earned because they come at a high price.

Professor Xavier and the X-Men in Dark PhoenixDark Phoenix also does an admirable if slightly imperfect job of maintaining another strength of the X-Men: its ensemble cast. The heart of the story is Jean Grey, but lots of other characters get their spot in the sun, too. There are a few I’d like to have seen more of — especially Storm and Quicksilver — but the film does do a pretty good job of giving every cast member at least one moment where they get to be awesome, whether it’s a powerful character scene or kicking ass in battle.

Beast, in particular, gets a lot of attention, and the movie is better for it. All credit to Nicholas Hoult for a very strong performance.

This is why I don’t listen to critics. I loved this movie.

Overall rating: 8.5/10