STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER – WORTHY CULMINATION OF 42 YEARS AND NINE FILMS

SHORT TAKE:

The culmination of 42 years and nine films, the “last” Star Wars installment, which follows Rey as she seeks out the truth about her parentage.

WHO SHOULD GO:

No inappropriate sexuality, tiny amount of mild profanities, no blasphemy, BUT there is a good deal of very intense and cartoon-violence fighting scenes in a variety of frightening landscapes: underground, in extremely high seas, space, etc. So young teens or, with parental discretion, any age.

LONG TAKE:

I had read a lot of bad press about this latest Star Wars installment: Disney princess-fied, rehashing of old storyline, feminist diatribe, devaluing of men. So two of my kids and I went in as fairly hostile audience members. Honestly, none of the complaints were truly justified. We all kept waiting for it to be bad or get bad and it never happened.

Now if repetition is your irritant of choice, certainly there was an avalanche of nostalgic homages in this (supposed) last installment of the 42-year franchise, but that was to be expected.  And director J.J. Abrams (contributor to Star Trek, Star Wars and Mission Impossible installments) with his team of writers does not disappoint with: exciting non-stop action, classically Star Wars-ian pseudo-science/fantasy, exotic species, deeply committed and self-sacrificing leads and smart aleck supporting cast dialogue.

The late Carrie Fisher appears thanks to CGI, left over footage and clever cinematography by Dan Mindel who has lent his talents to many franchises including Star Wars, Mission Impossible, and Star Trek. The most prominent of supporting cast members also include: Oscar Issacs (multi-talented actor whose resume includes The Nativity Story, Operation Finale, and X-Men) as Poe, the wisecracking pilot; John Boyega as Finn, former First Order (read new Storm Trooper) inductee and Rey’s best friend; Anthony Daniels reprising C3PO as the only cast member to be in ALL NINE movies (R2D2’s Kenny Baker having passed away); Domhnall Gleeson (About Time, the Cohen brothers True Grit, and Peter Rabbit) as the comically nefarious General Hux (whose success rate is about that of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes); Billy Dee Williams who cheerily reprises Lando with contagious enthusiasm; Ian McDiarmid returning as the oozy evil Emperor Palpatine; and the list goes on for miles. The majority of every character and actor who have ever appeared in a Star Wars movie show up regardless of whether they and/or their characters are currently dead or not.

Abrams’ writing team includes himself, Chris Terrio (D.C. universe and Argo), Derek Connolly (Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom SEE REVIEW HERE, and Kong: Skull Island), and Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). There is a lot of sci-fi fantasy credentials involved and it shows.

This – allegedly – last Star Wars film examines who Rey (Daisy Ridley – Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express) really is as she fights the last remnants of the Empire with a coalition of freedom fighters. As to having a female in the lead I saw nothing wrong with their handling of this story decision. Anyone who has read previous reviews knows I am adamantly against rewrites to crowbar in females where men had previously starred (ahem – Ghostbusters 2), and am on record for looking with a jaundiced eye at female led action movies. However, I also am equally vocal in praise of well done movies like Wonder Woman and characters like Black Widow, where the protagonist is awesome and the storyline well done and the lead just happens to be a female – hero first, woman second. Rey, here, is an action hero first who just happens to be a female. Well done her.

The music by John Williams (who else?!) blends smoothly with all the rest of the franchise music. It is but a variation on the same themes, but that is not a bad thing. (They don’t call the original soundtrack the “Star Wars Symphony” for nothing.) This iconic music is as much a character in all nine of the movies as Chewie or R2 or Lando or Leia or, for that matter, the Millennium Falcon.

The cinematography is visually spectacular – as you would expect from any Star Wars film. From a stark desert landscape to a fight surrounded by CAT 5 hurricane level waves, from a space dog fight to a duel underground, the screenwriters went out of their way to be sure we got the length and breadth of how a Jedi deals with hostile environments of all kinds.

If it were not for the fact this movie is supposed to be the wrap up to four decades of films catering to three generations of Star Wars fans, I would think they maybe had over egged the pudding. As it was there were both cheers and tears from the audience as the storyline went through its paces in a most satisfying effort to pull out all the stops.

I couldn’t help but see the parallel to the long running thread at the heart of  The Blacklist‘s seven-season (and still going strong) tale, wherein the FBI’s most wanted (James Spader’s Red Reddington) turns himself in to aid the FBI in hunting down criminals so dangerous and elusive the FBI doesn’t even know they exist. But Red will only speak to Elizabeth Keen, newbie Quantico grad, who has never even heard of Reddington aside from his rap sheet. Though the titular storyline involves pursuing bad guys in clever ways, who Keen is to Red is the engine that propels the core of the show.

Similarly, the Star Wars Saga’s wrap up films have explored Rey’s search for closure. Rey is their new version of Luke – the Padawan with inexplicably extraordinary Force abilities – who searches for her parents and is occasionally sorry she asked.

There is something eternally appealing to the quest to reveal our origins, harkening back to our search for our place in the Universe and ultimately our relationship with our Creator. The annals of cinema history is rife with examples of orphans searching for their place in the Universe: Little Orphan Annie, Oliver Twist, Heidi, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Cosette from Les Mis, even Billy Batson from Shazaam! and Peter Pan – all search for what they see as their missing piece. Some, like Billy and Dorothy discover they never truly lacked anything to begin with and there was no place like home with people who already loved them. Others were disabused of idealized fantasies. And this is the identity crisis with which both Rey and her antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver – Paterson SEE REVIEW HERE and Logan Lucky SEE REVIEW HERE) wrestle. Rey wants to know who her mom and dad are/were and why they left her. On the other hand, while Ren knows who his parents are, he is in a constant state of struggle in coming to terms with them and their beliefs. (And boy with 6 kids isn’t THAT a familiar theme.)

SPOILERS

Dove-tailing with the search for identity embarked upon by the lead antagonists, the resolution for Kylo Ren comes from a very Christian based theology. Ren has done terrible things: genocide, patricide, torture of innocents, random violence, all in the service of becoming a galactic tyrant.  All very NON-Jedi activities. For the 3 or 4 people in the solar system who might not know, a Jedi is a monk-like warrior who leads a fairly aesthetic existence while fighting, armed only with a light saber and his connection to the “Force” of life, to ensure freedom and protection for innocents, even at the cost of their lives. Ren is the polar opposite of this, despite his parentage of Princess Leia, twin sister to Luke, a powerful Jedi master-knight and Han Solo, Luke’s best friend. But when Rey fatally bests him in battle, then, in an act of mercy, shares some of her life force with him to heal his mortal wound, he turns his back on what he has become. Ren repents! And when  he dies, in a turn about to save Rey by re-offering ALL of his life force back to her, he disappears as Yoda and Obi Wan had done – a sign of ultimate acceptance by the Jedi Force of his worthiness.

So with Ren’s genuine repentance and his willingness to die for his one time enemy, to love his “neighbor” as himself, came true redemption. A laudable and admirable lesson with which to close out (if this truly IS the last) the Star Wars Saga.

On a completely different topic – A lot of ink has been spilled over a same-sex kiss. The film makers made a big deal about this but it is truly “much ado about nothing” and a ridiculous effort at some glad handing political correctness. It occurs during a World War II Victory-like moment of joyous abandonment and celebration of life so that everyone is hugging and kissing everyone else. The kiss was about a sexual as if, in the joy of the moment Poe had kissed Maz or Rey had smooched Chewbacca. It had the same feel as when Ernie kissed Burt on the forehead after they finish singing for George and Mary’s wedding in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Were it not for the hypersensitivity in this artificially created lame-stream media’s constant attempts at shoving politically correct agendas down mainstream audiences throats, I don’t even think anyone would have noticed. Noticing it and attributing any particular significance to it hints at a subtext. But the kiss comes out of nowhere and BECAUSE of the attention brought to it in advertising campaigns, it effectively commits the cardinal sin of breaking the suspension of disbelief, needlessly popping the viewer out of this otherwise wonderful moment which was 42 years in the making.

The only other significant critique I would give is the insufficient amount of time given to the, as my kids put it, non-“Emo” Kylo Ren. Ren spends the majority of his time in these movies growling behind a Vader-like mask, barking orders, destroying things in fits of anger, glowering, killing people, and generally  being a REALLY tough audience. Ren’s moments of slight gentle humor after his miraculous healing by Rey are a surprise and delight. They are simple and little but effective moments where Ren is FINALLY channeling his father, Han Solo – like saying “Ow” after a fall or giving a wry smile and shrug as he pulls a lightsaber from nowhere to school some opponents. These are the best moments in all of Ren’s appearances in the entire franchise. They are memorable but tragically ever so brief minutes before he dies. Would that they had made an entire feature film with this aspect of his character.

So after all the reveals and (sort of) character deaths and familial connections resolved within the Star Wars Universe, you might think they really mean it when they say this is the LAST Star Wars movie to ever be made. Everyone who believes that shout out loud. (*so quiet crickets can be heard*) I agree and that’s just fine. See you at the NEXT “final” Star Wars movie.

The Orville – A Delightfully Fresh Change of Pace to the “Star Trek” Universe

 

SHORT TAKE:

Never thought I'd say this but I have come to recommend (tentatively) a TV show by Seth (Ted, 50 Million Ways to Die in the West) MacFarlane. The Orville is a homage to the Star Trek Universe … but only for mature sensibilities. Soaked in mild adult humor it is a charming combination of Star Trek and Galaxy Quest with just a pinch of Saturday Night Live thrown in for a bit of spice. In the honored footsteps of Gene Roddenbury, MacFarlane uses the setting of a space ship in the future to intelligently examine sensitive cultural issues, but takes this trip with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

LONG TAKE:

Ours is a three generation science fiction family – Heinlein, Asimov, EE Doc Smith were read to me as bedtime stories by my Dad.

I introduced my kids to Star Trek. I have been a Star Trek fan my entire life. The first show came out when I was seven years old and I grew up watching the shows in syndication.

I accepted the fact that Star Trek went off the air after 3 years and was excited by the movies.   I was ecstatic when Star Trek: Next Generation appeared and devastated when it was killed at the height of its popularity and in its prime because it became cheaper to syndicate the old shows than create new ones.STNG None of the other Star Trek shows quite hit the bull's eye for me the way STNG did. And the last show to date, Star Trek: Enterprise, ended on the lamest of notes by killing off one of its main characters as a flashback told by an embarrassingly … out of shape Riker. While I enjoy the reboot of Star Trek it  has no TV show to back its alternate universe up…. And it's a long time between movies. *sigh*

So when they said there was going to be a new Star Trek TV show – Star Trek: Discovery – no one anticipated its premiere more than me – or was more disappointed to find out it was to be held hostage by CBS's membership "service"  – like I need to pay for another subscription on top of Amazon, Netflix, Pureflix and Youtube payments.

Then out of nowhere, like a Galaxy class ship to the rescue, appeared an unlikely contender –The Orville – brain child of Seth MacFarlane – positively infamous for his crude humor, liberal attitudes and atheism. Hesitant is a massive understatement to describe my feelings about this project. But the trailer was funny and desperate for anything even close to a Trek fix, I tuned in through Amazon. Shocklingly, I found it good. NOT for kids – this is not your or your father's Star Trek to be sure.

I've seen all four of the shows they have released so far and I've come to the conclusion that THIS is what was REALLY going on aboard all those impressive star ships while Kirk and company presented us with the sanitized version of the events.

And no, it isn't even really part of the Star Trek universe at all. But it follows so closely in those stellar footsteps that thinking of The Orville as Star Trek's little brother is inevitable.

While not part of the Trek universe, everything in The Orville is a Trek echo, but with a slightly different spin. In The Orville universe the ships are part of the Union (And every time  MacFarlane, as Captain Ed Mercer, refers to Union ships, I can't help but wonder if they get overtime. LOL) The aliens are "new" but very familiar. The Orville's Moclus – an all burly-male single-gender planet whose main industry is weapons making

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are very much the Orville's version of Trek's Klingons, only without women. And there's Isaac, from Kaylon-1 – an entire planet of artifical lifeforms whose Greek chorus objective view of the human race is obviously a nod to Trek spock dataVulcans and Data. Then there is the caring but tough female chief medical officer, Dr. Penny Johnson Jerald (Claire Finn – Kassidy Yates from Deep Space Nine),   counterpart to Trek's Dr. Crusher and Alara (Halston Sage) a tough female security officer like Trek's Yar.

potato headOne early sub-plot examined a mainstay topic of our favorite emotionless aliens – humor. Without giving any spoilers, let's just say that there is a more "no holds barred" to their…ahem…Enterprises. The humor is rougher and slightly bawdier but nothing you wouldn't hear in a day to day after hours conversation with close friends. They gossip, they gripe, they insult, they even occasionally threaten each other – and that's just on the bridge.

This is not the cream of the crop. Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber) makes no bones about why Ed has been chosen to captain The Orville – because with a new crop of 3,000 new ships to be manned the fleet was spread thin…and Ed was available.

The crew of the Orville are the guys who do the heavy lifting while crews like the Enterprise in Star Trek  go on diplomatic missions and save the universe.

helmsmanThe command crew drink sodas and beer and watch old TV show excerpts while on duty. The First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki mostly recently Bobbi in Agents of Shield)  refers openly to the helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes – Mystery, Alaska and Crimson Tide) as an idiot  – and he will agree. There is an amorphous amorous blob named Yaphit who crassly flirts with the ship's doctor.  First Officer Grayson is also the Captain's ex-wife who cheated on him – an event which, while a source of great regret to both Grayson and Mercer, is the source of a lot of needling by and occasionally unfiltered amusement for the crew.

These are not the dress blues we're used to, but the cargo ship-construction crew. Though everything looks spit and polished, there is a realistic familiarity among these guys which strikes a more homespun note than the tunic tugging Picard. picard maneuverDon't get me wrong – I LOVE the proper Star Trek universe. But these guys just SAY the things we KNOW darned well Kirk or Picard or Scotty or Dr. Crusher or even Data were DYING to say but couldn't – like Captain Mercer to a bigoted and cruely rude Moclus: "Dude, you have been a colassal d*** all friggin' day. Shut the H*** up." It wasn't polite or proper etiquette for a STAR TREK captain, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to applaud and laugh when he said it.

ed and first officer.jpgAnd the storylines follow quintessential threads: examination of other cultures in comparison to our own; time travel paradoxes; stifling tyrannical societies which MUST be exposed with the help of our intrepid heroes……maybe not heroes. More like good natured friends who will follow the rules most of the time because they don't want to get their butts kicked. And The Orville crew manages to clever their way out of problems just like the best of Trek – only with the occasional dose of deliberate silliness thrown in to remind us we are here for a good time. Kind of like Firefly only with more resources and a cleaner ship.

lasersWhile they don't take themselves too seriously, they present the characters and stories with obvious respect and affection for the source concepts. There is humor but fights break out, career making/breaking decisions have to be made, people die and the scenarios have hazard – just like the original ST:TOS – if that was happening at your average family holiday get together.

shootingAnd yes, MacFarlane has a liberal world view which comes out now and again. But I was pleasantly surprised to find he does not use his platfiorm to villify or unfairly castigate points of view he likely doesn't follow…at least not so far. MacFarlane has already begun to delve into hot button issues such as homosexuality and gender orientation but with tact and civility. moclusFor example, the Moclus, the all male planet, has an inevitable male-male couple who procreate by hatching eggs. But because it is another species it is, frankly, not as in your face as the heavy handed presentation of Sulu's "husband" in Star Trek: Beyond.

security officerTo be fair Roddenbury founded the Star Trek universe on the examination of the sensitive social issues of his time: racism, class structure, the hazards of interfering in less technologically developed cultures, the definition of life forms, the inherent dangers in protracted automated warfare, the tyranny of nanny states, the constant struggle with our baser natures. So it would be hypocritical of me to complain if The Orville explores the hot button issues of our times. And I was very pleased to find that MacFarlane is following Roddenbury's example. The Orville so far has reviewed these areas wth a certain dignified grace.

trialOne story in particular dealt with the single-gender society in a way that I believe fairly examined the different sides – a rarity when most liberal agendas include screaming over their conservative opponents instead of debating. The issue of gender identity at birth became a leading topic, and was treated with thoughtful clear headed discussion resulting in the crew uniformly taking the conservative side!

hanger.jpgAll this being said, it is possible Mr. MacFarlane could be luring the mainstream population in to lower the boom and cram yet another politically-correct driven anti-"everything traditional" agenda down the throats of anyone near by. But for the moment Mr. MacFarlane has created an extremely well written show for its genre. Funny, occasionally bawdy, but thoughtful.

And as an added bonus – again no spoilers – but I will note there are a few jaw dropping "A" list guest stars MacFarlane has managed to acquire in just his first 4 shows.

The Orville is a charmingly whimsical combination of Star Trek (mostly, I think, Next Generation era) and Galaxy Quest, with a hint of Dr. Who and a restrained splash of Saturday Night Live. I'll give Seth MacFarlane credit for now and the benefit of the doubt ………… for now. I just hope he doesn't eventually hand us a politically correct disappointment.