Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is directed, co-written, and co-produced by J.J Abrams. Multiple actors return to reprise their roles from the previous films: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Billy Dee Williams, and Ian McDiarmid. Newcomers to the cast include Naomi Ackie, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong'o, Keri Russell, and Joonas Suotamo.
It is rather depressing to see the level of disarray that the Star Wars franchise has fallen into in the years since Disney bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas back in 2012. At least for the first couple years, it didn't seem like there was anything dysfunctional about Star Wars now being Disney's property; The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office gold, and both critics and audiences seemed to be on board with the direction Disney was taking the franchise. Then came The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story. The Last Jedi, while garnering strong reviews and favorable box office results, sent the Star Wars fanbase into an almost total state of chaos, in which fans decried Disney for ruining their childhood heroes and tampering with all the supposed "rules" about The Force and how the Star Wars galaxy operates. Solo, meanwhile, was the first legitimate box office bomb for the franchise: a way for fans to give Disney the middle finger for The Last Jedi. So as you can imagine, excitement was at an all-time low when The Rise of Skywalker was announced, and given the less-than-stellar reviews from critics and audiences, I think it is perfectly reasonable to now question the future of the Star Wars franchise (if people hadn't started doing so already after The Last Jedi and Solo).
One word that perfectly summarizes The Rise of Skywalker is underwhelming. Disappointing might be the better word, because 2019 has seemed to be the year of disappointment for almost anything and everything pop culture not directly tied to Marvel. The absolute last thing a Star Wars film should be though is underwhelming, because these are supposed to be the ultimate fun time at the movies: watching heroes go on an epic space adventure, exploring wonderful new worlds and vanquishing the dark forces of the universe. No one can deny the entertainment value of the original trilogy, and while the prequels are heavily problematic, they at least show flashes of energy and imagination here and there. The prequels also offer the amusement of watching pure ineptitude when it comes to acting and dialogue. As for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, there is certainly entertainment to be had in both films, but let's not sit here and pretend that both films are not doing a whole lot of nudge-nudge, wink-wink fan service. Fan service, meanwhile, is rampant in The Rise of Skywalker, so much so that J.J Abrams doesn't care one iota for imagination, originality, or even simple spectacle. Almost nothing about the film is proactive: the plot, the characters, the direction. Everything feels reactive, as if Disney was so startled by the backlash generated by The Last Jedi and Solo, that their mindset was to treat Episode IX as an apology letter to fans and not the proper finale to this sequel trilogy.
The opening title crawl starts out with the words, "The dead speak!" It turns out that Emperor Palpatine (McDiarmid), almost out of pure screenwriting desperation, is still alive. He sends out a galaxy-wide broadcast announcing his return, drawing the presence of Kylo Ren (Driver). Palpatine reveals his plan to unleash a giant armada of Star Destroyers, each equipped with a planet-destroying weapon. Palpatine also tasks Ren with finding and killing Rey (Ridley), who is still training to be a Jedi. You know the rest: Rey and friends must find Palpatine and stop his dastardly plans once and for all.
This plot is as frustrating as it is tiresome. The bit I left out concerns Rey and her friends going on a treasure hunt, but you don't need me to fill in the blanks: Rey and co. must meet X, Y, and Z people and acquire Shiny Objects 1 and 2 in order to find where the bad guy is located. By the way, J.J. Abrams must think the Death Star is the coolest fictional weapon ever devised if he not once, but twice made it the focal point of the villain's scheme. Snoke and Kylo Ren worked to create what I always called the Death Star+ in The Force Awakens, and here, Abrams just takes the same powers of the Death Star and multiplies it across an armada of ships. Bringing back the Emperor, meanwhile, is an ill-conceived attempt at nostalgia and my biggest beef with the movie. To start with, Abrams completely neglects to explain how Palpatine can survive being thrown down a miles-deep reactor shaft, so good luck re-watching Return of the Jedi and not feel as if Disney violated one of the most grandiose moments of the original trilogy. I'm expunging material from my low points, so more on The Emperor's return in a bit.
- So what can I say about The Rise of Skywalker that qualifies as nice? Well, the best I have is that all the actors are giving it their best efforts, despite what little the screenplay has to offer in terms of characterization and memorable dialogue. Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and anyone else that has some kind of relevant role in the film are all giving it 100% and trying to act like they care for the sequel trilogy to end on a high note. I have to specifically point out poor John Boyega, who truly does everything in his power to keep his character Finn afloat, despite the fact that the character's arc was basically complete by the end of The Force Awakens, and thus, had little to no purpose for being in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Sykwalker. It's almost sad that the only interest the screenplay even remotely has in Finn is having him find the right time to tell Rey some sort of secret he's been keeping from her. The previous films would suggest this "secret" is just that Finn loves Rey and wants to be with her, but romance is something these newer Star Wars films do not care much for. So yeah, this one and only high point boils down to just, everyone is trying. Super deep, I know.
- I'll jump back into my gripes about the plot/screenplay shortly, but one low point that kind of surprised me was the film's action: perhaps the most vanilla of any Star Wars film ever. Any shootout scene, space dogfight, speeder bike chase, or even any lightsaber duel, all of it is just run-of-the-mill action that was done earlier and more inspired in previous Star Wars films, so watching the action is a lot of, "Been there, done that." There are no brand new space creatures, no new high-tech weapons, and no new battle layouts that you'd want to play for yourself in a new Star Wars video game. Remember how engrossing it was, watching the Rebels try to take down the Death Star at the end of A New Hope? You know what followed that awesome sequence in The Empire Strikes Back? Arguably the coolest battle sequence in all of Star Wars: the battle between the Rebels and the stop-motion animated Imperial Walkers on the snowy planet Hoth. Where is the creativity? Where is the inspiration to try something new and offer us a dose of action like we've never experienced before in a Star Wars film? The action in The Rise of Skywalker is so bland, that it never becomes something you look forward to. We can only watch the Millenium Falcon run away so many times from Imperial spaceships before we start yawning and demand for something else to show up on screen. In a galaxy full of endless possibilities, it's amazing how un-creative and lackluster that someone (Disney) can make it out to be.
- If I already said it once, then I'll say it again: this plot is so underwhelming and chock full of fan service, that it doesn't feel like something J.J.Abrams and Disney had in mind when Disney originally conceived this sequel trilogy. More so, The Rise of Skywalker is Disney's reaction to the backlash of The Last Jedi, and in hopes of getting back into the fans' good graces, they pump the film full of nostalgia and fan service, almost none of which works. The most egregious of The Rise of Skywalker's fan service crimes is the return of Palpatine, mostly because his return completely undermines the story of the earlier films, specifically that of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. If Rey was to one day confront Palpatine, then how are we supposed to feel about Anakin Skywalker's storyline and his transformation into Darth Vader? How are we able to not feel differently about the way Vader's story ends, knowing that Episode IX brings the Emperor back? As for other fan service, Billy Dee Williams comes back to play an elderly Lando Calrissian, you know, because he was in the original trilogy? Luke and Leia are also in the movie, although their endings are more about helping to bring closure to the some of the newer characters, which feels like a bit of a disservice to them and what they went through originally. It's so much for the film to try and wrap up over the course of 142 minutes, and the plot being so low-stakes doesn't help matters at all. Characters just go over here, then go over there, meet this person, then meet that person, and occasionally there will be some blaster shots and maybe even a lightsaber or two. The grand finale of a nine episode saga should not be this uninspired and discombobulated.
With the previous two trilogies, you can watch their respective finales, getting a sense of the stories they were trying to tell over a three episode span. Episodes I-III told the story of the Clone Wars and how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side. Episodes IV-VI depicted the war between The Galactic Empire and the Rebels, and how Luke Skywalker learned to use the Force and learn the ways of the Jedi. This is where I am especially troubled about Episodes VII-IX. What was the story they were trying to tell over this three episode span? A war breaks out between The First Order and Resistance, while scavenger Rey discovers she has the ability to use the Force and learn the ways of the Jedi? That sounds a lot like the summary of Episodes IV-VI, if you ask me. If this whole sequel trilogy was just one long nostalgia ride for Disney, then that's one of the most pathetic, albeit unsurprising, things I've seen from the film/entertainment industry in years. Star Wars is one of, if not, the most popular media franchise in the world, and instead of expanding upon the endless goldmine of opportunities that George Lucas had created prior to selling the franchise rights, Disney gave in to their laziest desires and created a new trilogy that went through nearly all the same beats of the original films. I had quite a few nice things to say about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, but now, after seeing The Rise of Skywalker and thinking over everything that happened in these last three episodes, I am not so sure how fond of those films I am here at the end of 2019.
The Rise of Skywalker is extremely underwhelming and sends out this Star Wars sequel trilogy with a whimper. The complete lack of originality, a screenplay that screams of desperation, toothless action, and an abundance of fan service make this not only the worst film of this sequel trilogy, but one of the worst episodes of the entire Star Wars saga. All the actors are giving it their best efforts, but none of them can save this film from all its shortcomings. The Rise of Skywalker is not quite Attack of the Clones bad, but boy does it flirt with going down into that circle of hell at times. I don't care how successful The Mandalorian is turning out on Disney+ at the moment. The future of the Star Wars franchise has never looked more bleak, and now I feel a tad foolish for ripping the current Star Wars fan-base as toxic and an atrocity to the franchise. Maybe it still is, but if The Rise of Skywalker is the best Disney can come up with nowadays, then there may be more than just a fanbase that is toxic about Star Wars.
Recommend? I suppose if you've seen the previous eight episodes, you'll feel obligated to see this one. If not, avoid until it comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Knives Out is directed, written, and produced by Rian Johnson and stars an ensemble cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer.
It is worth mentioning that I am something of a sucker for a good ol' fashioned mystery: whether in print or audio-visual form. I've always been fascinated by the structure of a mystery-based story, largely because the payoff of when a (good) mystery is solved is one of the most satisfying feelings I've felt while reading a novel or watching a film. So when a juicy, all-star whodunit like Knives Out rolls around, you can bet your ass I'll be there to see it. The first thing that comes to mind when looking at Knives Out is questioning if the movie is essentially a modernized and more straightforward version of Clue. The title should be an indication that we won't be dealing with candlesticks, lead pipes, and wrenches, although they'll certainly still be a lot of deciphering of who was where and doing what at the time of the murder. Here's the thing: we don't want Knives Out to be a revival of Clue, because we've already seen that song and dance, and it isn't as fun watching it the second time around. What we do want is for Knives Out to be in the spirit of Clue: bouncy, unpredictable, and never taking itself too seriously. Being in the spirit of Clue is something Knives Out excels at, but the best part is, that's only the icing on what is a delicious cake of a movie.
Rian Johnson has been a bit of a notorious figure among movie-goers the past two years; The Last Jedi brought about the wrath of the Star Wars fanbase, and with the backlash came slamming remarks by fans about how Johnson "ruined" Star Wars and forever tarnished the overarching saga. Whatever your thoughts on The Last Jedi (this guy here ended up liking it by a lot), there is far more evidence out there that Rian Johnson is a stellar director and writer, and Knives Out, seeing its rave reviews and reasonable box office success I think is only going to quiet his critics further. There are certain movies you can watch and can say to yourself, "Yep, that's a Steven Spielberg film" or, "Yep, I've seen all those moments before. I am watching a Michael Bay film." So while I don't think Rian Johnson has developed that sort of intangible presence yet with his films, what I can say with certainty is this: Johnson's enthusiasm for making a film like Knives Out leaps off the screen and is highly contagious. This is a guy that always wanted to make a murder mystery and is psyched that his lifelong dream has finally come true. The last thing he cares about with Knives Out is what a bunch of angry Star Wars fans have to say about him.
The movie opens at the house of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Plummer). Housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) goes upstairs one morning and finds Harlan dead, his throat being slit. The police bring several members of Harlan's family for questioning: his eldest daughter Linda Drysdale (Curtis), his youngest son Walt (Shannon), his grandson Hugh Drysdale (Evans), son-in-law and Linda's husband Richard Drysdale (Johnson), and widow of deceased son Neil, Joni (Colette). Also involved is Harlan's nurse, Marta Cabrera (de Armas). Leading the investigation is the eccentric private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig), who learns piece by piece that Harlan had a falling out with each family member being questioned. A dead body and multiple suspects. Yep, it's indeed a whodunit.
For about a third of the way through, Knives Out is a whodunit, until Rian Johnson decides to turn his whodunit completely inside out and morph it into something else altogether. It's extremely difficult to discuss what I mean without giving direct spoilers, so bear with me if I sound rather vague. In a traditional whodunit, we have multiple suspects from multiple backgrounds; the fun is in learning about the lives of each suspect, what their motivations are, and how they came to know the person who gets murdered. Then comes the part where we have to take a step back and look closer at our interlinked web and find out which person's story doesn't mesh well with the others. Whoever's story doesn't add up is almost always the one who is guilty. Knives Out does about the first third of this process, and then it veers off course onto a stray dirt road that no one saw initially. Rian Johnson is not trying to be clever for the sake of being clever, nor is he trying to break new ground in the mystery genre. What it is is Johnson taking a story dressed up as a whodunit and using it to make a neat commentary on who the characters are representing.
- The best thing of all about Knives Out is just how damn fun it is: a mystery comprised of meaty, thought-provoking details, an all-star cast, and a script that allows said all-star cast to exchange caustic and hilarious dialogue with one another. Rian Johnson takes the whodunit structure and plays around with it for almost the entirety of the film's 130-ish minutes, and this playful state of mind permeates throughout the entire cast, all of whom are having as much fun as the their director is. Daniel Craig soaks up every little bit of eccentricity that the script displays of Blanc, because a goofy, offbeat family requires a goofy, offbeat detective. The Thrombeys, meanwhile, are prime examples of snobby rich folks who believe themselves to be on a higher plane than everyone else. Every Thrombey member wholeheartedly believes they will get a piece of Harlan's fortune, because the rich always get richer. The reason the humor in the movie works so well is because the Thrombey family suspects are all vying for control, and they all look like total buffoons while doing it. There's nothing to distinguish these people; it's the same stuck-up personality multiplied several times. Watching the Thrombeys clash is like watching a bunch of lemmings race to see who can be the first one to jump off the cliff; they're all goners when it's all said and done. The Thrombeys are a great example of why watching people trying to be serious and failing will always be funnier than watching people try to be funny. The rich folks yell, scream, and rip each other to shreds, and we're laughing our heads off every step of the way.
- Much to Rian Johnson's credit, Knives Out presents a thoughtfully put together murder mystery, layered with much more than just a dead body, a weapon, and a bunch of suspects who are connected to the now deceased person. I will reveal details about the murder which I think borders on minor spoilers, but nothing that I think would make you turn away from this review now and come back after watching the movie. Anyway, we first see that Harlan has his throat slit, but it's quickly revealed that Harlan apparently committed suicide, which complicates the question of if he was really murdered. Furthermore, Marta was responsible for giving Harlan pain medicine every night, and sure enough, the medicine plays a part in Harlan's death as well. This is a mystery that ends up being about much more than just uncovering events of the not too distant past, events that Rian Johnson is more than happy to provide us much earlier than expected. What happens is that Blanc and the other detectives have to uncover the clues about Harlan's death, while also keeping up with the events of the present, specifically the matter of who gets Harlan's fortune. The characters are in a tug of war with both the past and present, and it presents a series of challenges that never allows the film to become totally stagnant.
- Actually, to say the film is never stagnant would be a bit of a betrayal of my own thoughts towards the movie, because I do think the movie is a bit slow in the beginning. Once it gets going though, it moves gracefully. The slow beginning isn't the biggest issue with the movie, though. The biggest issue in Knives Out is what it does with the character of Marta Cabrera, specifically with her motivations and general thought process throughout the film. Marta goes back and forth between being an innocent bystander and a potential suspect, and it's never clear (at least, not until the very end) as to what she hopes to get out of this murder investigation, and how she feels towards those around her. Again, it's extremely difficult for me to discuss this point without sounding vague, so bear with me as I try to stick to my motto of never giving major spoilers. Marta is understandably horrified when she learns of Harlan's murder, and so she cooperates with Blanc and the police. Later on however, Marta gets an opportunity in which she sheds her innocent skin and starts to act in opposition to Blanc and the police. Then when more details of the murder are revealed, Marta goes back to being the innocent party that she was initially. It's incredibly erratic behavior for a character that has no reason to be erratic; her actions and decisions end up hindering the flow of the story. Luckily, Rian Johnson still ends up where he wants to when all is said and done, but the journey getting there is rather bumpy. If this behavior was with one of the Trombey characters, I probably wouldn't give it much thought, but because Marta quickly develops into one of the movie's main characters, it's impossible to ignore.
So while Knives Out is advertised as a Rian Johnson whodunit, the truth is that it's a Rian Johnson whodunit that takes the whodunit mystery formula and turns it completely upside down. We have much more than a dead body, multiple suspects, and a cheeky detective. We have extra character motivations, more depth, and a final result that ends up saying something quite effective about the characters and their backgrounds. Rian Johnson once again proves his directing and writing talents with Knives Out: a razor sharp murder mystery that is as fun as it intelligent. While the movie is slow in the beginning and has some inconsistencies with one of its central characters, there is so much entertainment to be had watching an all-star cast play a bunch of snobby rich people who get their comeuppance. This was a movie Rian Johnson always wanted to make, and his childlike enthusiasm is prevalent in every frame. Nothing like watching people see one of their dreams come true.
Recommend? Yes. The movie is a ton of fun and definitely worth your time.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: