Fifteen years ago today, my mom and dad took me to see Revenge of the Sith. I was not quite 15 years old. We had seen all the Star Wars movies together in the theater, and so of course we had to see what was then expected to be the last one.
I loved the movie, as I had loved all Star Wars films. It was dark and unsettling, and it had a message to it. Maybe it was a message only I could see, but it was a message all the same. More about that later.
On the way home afterward, we went to our local Borders bookstore. We always went to Borders (and Toys “R” Us) after the movies. This is something I suspect kids a few years from now will completely cease to understand—bookstores, toy stores and cinemas are all being shuttered, replaced by streaming, online orders, e-books and so on. These things are safer and more convenient, but make for less memorable experiences. If not for brick-and-mortar stores, I would not to this day recall walking across the parking lot with my dad, talking about whether or not it was ridiculous for Obi-Wan to come swaggering up to General Grievous like he does.I would have no memory of the way the clouds outside the store gathered on the horizon, portending a late spring storm in a way that I thought was just perfect given the mood of the film I’d just watched.
One thing I can’t remember is if we got the novelization at Borders or if my parents had already bought it for me and saved it as a gift. But either way, I recall reading it later that day and being enthralled by Matthew Stover’s prose as he retold the story of the film, adding depth and nuance to the characters, explaining their thought processes in certain key scenes.
Another memory that sticks with me from that day is a feeling of gratitude. I can distinctly remember thinking how happy I was to get to see a Star Wars film with mom and dad one more time. I was semi-aware that I was getting older, growing up, and for an instant, at least, was conscious enough to appreciate that moments like this wouldn’t last forever, and that I’d better be thankful for that one. I remember this vividly, because it’s such an important insight, flashed as if spoken by some deity of Greek myth (who were said to do such things) into the mind of an otherwise typically arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boy.
For I was arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled, make no mistake about it. I was only dimly conscious of it at the time, but Revenge of the Sith is a story designed to speak to arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenage boys. I had but recently been introduced to the joys of literary analysis thanks to Gayden Wren’s A Most Ingenious Paradox, and was far from good at it, but even I was aware, for the first time, that this story was meant to do more than just entertain. It was telling me something else.
George Lucas has talked many times about the deeper meaning of the Star Wars prequels. He has said repeatedly that they were meant to explore how a democratic society can give way to authoritarianism. While drawing parallels to many different times and places throughout history, Lucas once claimed that his fictional galaxy most closely resembles the Roman Republic–and its eventual transformation into the Roman Empire.
In my opinion, this attempt at social and world-historical commentary is what sets the prequel trilogy apart from Lucas’ original trilogy, not to mention the Disney sequels. Nothing in the original films was explicitly designed as a commentary on forms of government and phases of a civilization’s existence. Sure, there are rebels and there are imperials, but it was only meant as a fun space adventure in the style of Flash Gordon.
The non-Lucas sequels have turned it into more of a space soap opera—a family saga, like the epics of old mythology. The family saga thread runs through the prequels as well, but only to the extent that Lucas meant for Anakin Skywalker’s personal story to mimic the life-cycle of the Republic itself.
Of course, careful readers will note that above I have said that this sets the prequels apart, and of course, setting apart is exactly what a prequel should not do—its aim is to tie together, to make a coherent whole of a story.
Revenge of the Sith fails catastrophically in this regard. A callback to the original trilogy’s first spaceship interior and a shot of silhouetted figures watching the twin suns set do not begin to make up for all the ways in which Revenge of the Sith not only does not tie-in with the originals, but actively contradicts them. For example: how do Yoda and Obi-Wan even know the Lars family exists? Why do they give the children to them, and not to, oh, say—Padmé’s family? You know, their actualgrandparents?
In the novelization, Stover tries mightily to make it all add up, but even he cannot square this circle—or perhaps, circle this square, since the whole idea is supposed to be that we have come back to the beginning.
The prequels are best understood not as an earlier part of the story told in Star Wars: A New Hope, but as a separate series of spinoff films meant to tell an entirely different story. This story is about how a constitutional republic is gradually replaced by a tyrannical government that imposes its will through naked military force.
To put all this in context: at the time Revenge of the Sith premiered, the United States was divided over the Iraq war and the broader “War on Terror.” Some feared that President Bush, and especially Vice-President Cheney, were expanding the powers of the executive branch far beyond what was normal or healthy. The scene where Anakin tells Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” was seen as being a reference to Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
I was just becoming politically aware at the time, and finding out that my favorite movie series also was relevant to politics was pretty exciting, and I was delighted to study the social commentary aspect of the films.
But because Lucas was writing a drama, and not simply a dry treatise on forms of government, he needed a protagonist for his exploration of how republics collapse, and that is where Anakin Skywalker comes in.
Nobody much likes Anakin Skywalker as he is portrayed in the prequels, and for good reason. He demythologizes Darth Vader, who was an ideal villain in the original films. Hayden Christensen’s performance is uneven at best; although any actor probably would have struggled with some of the lines he’s given.
I’ll admit, reading the book so soon after seeing the film may have colored my impression of the character. Anakin’s behavior, which on the screen is over-the-top and ludicrously unstable, seems in the novel to be the product of an emotionally-drained, profoundly exhausted man struggling to think clearly. If you understand him to be suffering from extreme sleep-deprivation, as the novel explains, some of Anakin’s actions make more sense.
But even then, there are inherent flaws with his entire story arc that Stover couldn’t completely correct. Although I dislike the term, Anakin is what’s typically called a “Mary Sue,” in that he has everything handed to him on the basis of nothing more than some vague talk about prophecies and midi-chlorians.
Viewed this way, the Star Wars prequels are the story of a spoiled child who gets privileges he doesn’t deserve. In Revenge of the Sith, he’s granted a seat on the Jedi Council and doesn’t even seem grateful for it. (This is somewhat explained in the novel.)He’s a brat who keeps demanding more and more to feed his insatiable ego, throwing tantrums whenever his older, wiser teachers give any hint of a rebuke. As someone with a far better ear for the English language than George Lucas once put it:
And this is what I mean when I say that Revenge of the Sith is a story about and for spoiled teenage boys. The moment I’ll never forget from Revenge of the Sith—the emotional climax of the film—is the scene on the Mustafar landing pad when, soaking in the afterglow of a rage-fueled bloodbath, Anakin brags to Padmé about his newfound power. When she reacts in predictable horror, he flies into a rage and chokes her—ultimately leading to her death.
I could write a whole post about Padmé’s death and how it makes no sense. As if a strong woman would “lose the will to live”—after having just given birth, no less! Everything about Padmé up to that point tells us that she would, if anything, be motivated to fight harder for the republic she loves. And that’s not even touching the ludicrous plot hole it creates with Return of the Jedi when Leia is somehow able to remember her mother.
But remember, Revenge of the Sith is targeted at a very specific audience: arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys, and arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys aren’t empathetic enough to realize how contrived this is. No, what I remember thinking at that moment was:
Dude was married to Natalie Portman and he threw it all away because he was angry and wanted power.
Revenge of the Sith is a cautionary tale about where acting like an arrogant, narcissistic spoiled teenage boy gets you: you lose your lover, you lose your best friend, and you get mentally destroyed. (The fact that Anakin is also mutilated and burned alive is in line with the longstanding dramatic tradition of physical injury symbolizing psychic or spiritual wounds.)
As Stover writes, describing in the second person how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker:
“You killed her because, finally, when you could have saved her, when you could have gone away with her, when you could have been thinking about her, you were only thinking about yourself… it is in this blazing moment that you finally understand the trap of the dark side, the final cruelty of the Sith—because now your self is all you will ever have.”
It’s a morality tale, and characters in morality tales are rarely notable for their depth or nuance. This is a key thing to understand about Revenge of the Sith, because it makes a lot of its weirdly clunky dramatic choices more comprehensible. The fact that the entire universe seemingly revolves around Anakin Skywalker—a classic flaw in any story guilty of Mary Sue-ism—is because it’s fundamentally a story for narcissists. Stover himself makes mention of this, in a passage told from Mace Windu’s perspective:
“Skywalker no longer had a shatterpoint. He was a shatterpoint. The shatterpoint. Everything depended on him. Everything.”
The tragic irony is that Anakin thinks he’s doing the right thing; he thinks he’s helping the people he loves, but only because he’s too solipsistic to think beyond what he himself would want. He sells his soul to the devil to buy eternal life for Padmé without ever bothering to think about whether that’s what Padmé would want. In typical Faustian fashion, he is left with nothing at all.
This underscores the other obvious way the prequel trilogy is unlike the other Star Wars film cycles: it ends on a downer. It is a tragedy; a story of decline and defeat. The film tries to de-emphasize this slightly in the final scenes, but the novel’s ending is much more melancholy: “The long night has begun,” the final paragraph tells us, and Stover’s last image is not Owen and Beru watching the sunset, but Obi-Wan riding off to begin his exile.
By filling in Lucas’ visually stunning but sometimes incoherent sketch with rich details of nuance, emotion, and backstory, Stover’s novelization makes the story of Revenge of the Sith vastly more layered and complex. It’s a story of manipulation, betrayal, and civilizational collapse. Above all, it’s a story of how a young man’s passion and fear cause him to destroy himself.
Perhaps I feel this way because I saw it at just the right time in my life, but more than any other Star Wars film, it’s about coming to terms with the end of something: for the characters in the story, it’s the end of the republic, the end of the Jedi, the end of a romance. For audiences at the time, as well as George Lucas himself, it was about the end of cinematic Star Wars. And for me, it was about the end of my childhood. I grew up with the Star Wars movies—the special edition was released in theaters when I was seven, and I had followed it to the cusp of adulthood.
Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t really the end of Star Wars. About a year and a half later, I found myself playing what I still consider to be the single greatest Star Wars story ever written: the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, which to this day remains one of my favorite works of fiction. And, for good or for ill, there has been a whole new crop of Star Wars movies, and no doubt there will continue to be.
But for all its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the one I always come back to. It’s the darkest one; the one that isn’t about heroes toppling the evil empire, but about how the evil empire can be brought into being when we grow complacent, when we become arrogant or hard-headed, when we give in to our worst tendencies and emotions.
And it’s also about celebrating those who fight on even amid such dire circumstances, battling valiantly against overwhelming odds. As you can tell, there are many lines I cherish in the novel, but the one that I think of most often is this, from early in the book, as Stover introduces the massive space battle that kicks off the story:
“[T]he adults are wrong, and their younglings are right. Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”
I love that line. It’s so beautiful and so poignant. It’s about how there can be something noble, even amidst decay. It’s about finding something to hold on to, even when everything is collapsing around you. And for me, that’s what Revenge of the Sith is–at once a final, nostalgic glimpse at the joys of being a child who could be mindlessly entertained by a movie about space wizards, and a recognition that at some point, I had to move beyond such things; that sometimes such hero fantasies lead to more harm than good.
How much of that is the film, how much is the book, and how much is my own recollection of my 15 year-old self’s mindset, I can never say for sure. All three are forever intertwined in my memory, and that’s why Revenge of the Sith will always be special to me.
Look, folks, let me warn you up front: this is going to be one of those where I go on at length. There are going to be tangents, digressions, and detailed analyses of minutiae. Lots of spoilers, obviously. But you know, I think I was the last person in the world to see this movie, so I bet you already made up your own mind about it. This review is probably not going to be helpful to anyone as far as deciding whether they see it or not; it’s purely a form of therapy for me. So don’t feel like you have to read it. Or at least for balance, you should read Joy V. Spicer’s review of the film. She enjoyed it more than I did, and also, well, she’s just a fantastic reviewer and you can never go wrong reading a review that she has written.
Now, before we begin, some perspective: I first saw Star Wars when the Special Edition came out in 1997, when I was seven years old. I was thrilled when Han Solo arrived to save Luke during the Death Star attack, and I was shocked when Vader revealed he was Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back. I was terrified that Emperor Palpatine would triumph in Return of the Jedi, and I watched in awe as the climactic battle of Naboo played out in The Phantom Menace. I swooned over Padmé in Attack of the Clones, and I… well, actually, maybe I’ll save my thoughts on Revenge of the Sith for another time. But the point is, I’ve been watching Star Wars movies for a while now.
I loathed The Force Awakens, but I thought The Last Jedi was a great improvement. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this installment. And I’m still not.
This movie is baffling. It starts off with the massive revelation that the Emperor, who we last saw being thrown down a miles-long shaft aboard a space station which blew up shortly thereafter, has somehow returned, announcing his resurrection in a broadcast stating that he intends to resume his malevolent designs.
And sure enough, the first thing that happens is Kylo Ren’s arrival at Palpatine’s HQ on the planet Exegol. Exegol, we are informed, is the legendary hidden world of the Sith. Whatever happened to good old Korriban?
Palpatine orders Ren to kill Rey, promising him the aid of a massive fleet of Star Destroyers, which he has up till now been concealing.
In the scheme of things, this is a minor gripe, and one that could reasonably have been raised as far back as the origins of the Empire’s military in Episode II, but: where the devil do they get all this stuff? Is there a factory somewhere that churns out Star Destroyers? If so, why hasn’t some enterprising rebel destroyed it?
You see, I wasn’t kidding before. This is going to be a long ride.
The film now cuts to Rey, who is training in the jungle where the remains of the rebels are hiding out. Sensing that Ren is up to no good, she is distracted from her training, and has a few brief chats with Princess Leia. I thought it was awfully sweet that they wanted to make sure she still made an appearance, despite the sad fact that Carrie Fisher passed away before the film was made. It was a nice idea to do as a tribute to the late actress. However, the fact that the scenes had been repurposed from The Force Awakens was painfully obvious.
Meanwhile Finn, Poe, and Chewbacca have gathered data from a spy within the imperial fleet, which tells them that Palpatine is on Exegol, though how to actually get there is not clear. Fortunately, from notes found among Luke Skywalker’s belongings, Rey learns that Exegol may be found through something called a “Sith wayfinder,” which Luke had been looking for.
And here again, we must pause. There are two questions this raised in my mind: first, how does nobody know where anything is in this galaxy? Every third thing is on “the outer rim” or the “unknown regions.” Their ability to map things in deep space seems decidedly worse than our own on present-day earth.
But that’s a mere technical gripe. The bigger problem here is the assertion that Luke was looking for this mystery planet. The Last Jedi makes it quite clear Luke was not looking for anything other than to live out his days as a hermit. This attempt to retcon Luke’s motivations undermines his behavior in the previous film, and weakened his character. Now, maybe I could let this slide except for… well, lots of things, which we shall get to in due course.
Rey, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca and C-3PO all head off to the planet Pasaana to find a clue to the Sith wayfinder. Not the wayfinder itself, per se, but a clue–a clue possessed by a Jedi hunter named Ochi, who back in his day had landed on Pasaana.
Unfortunately, Kylo Ren and his droogs, the Knights of Ren, also arrive in hot pursuit. Ren, establishing a pattern that he will follow throughout, decides not to make use of his massive numerical and technological advantages and instead attack Rey alone by trying to run her over with his spaceship, an attack which she easily thwarts.
Ah, also, I should mention that I’m not telling this in strict chronological order, though trying to hew fairly close. The film is so fast-paced and frenetic that it’s difficult to remember what order things occurred in. For example, there is also a minor sub-plot involving the spy in the Imperial ranks, which seems important but we ultimately learn isn’t really. Also, at some point on Pasaana prior to Ren’s attempted vehicular homicide, our heroes met Lando Calrissian, who has helped them to locate the clue–a dagger, found near the late Ochi’s ship, which contains a clue written in the ancient Sith language. C-3PO’s programming prevents him from translating–the Sith language is so evil that it has been banned from being spoken aloud.
This is progress, after a fashion, but alas; even though Ren’s attack on Rey failed, his forces were nevertheless able to capture Chewbacca and haul him, the dagger, and the Millennium Falcon, aboard a waiting Star Destroyer.
All is not lost, however; because Poe suggests using Ochi’s ship to travel to the world of Kijimi, where a there is a specialist who can alter C-3PO’s programming to enable him to speak the forbidden Sith words. Kijimi is also home to Zorii Bliss, an old flame of Poe’s who wears a Rocketeer-like helmet and lives the life of a rogue, constantly tangling with the authorities.
Lest you think me incapable of saying anything nice, let me state clearly that I loved this character. Even though her appearance didn’t quite fit in with the Star Wars aesthetic, it looked so cool I could forgive it. I loved her chemistry with Poe. I loved the fact she never removes her helmet, but, in one of the few quiet scenes in the film, she does lift her visor to reveal her eyes to Poe. It’s a small, subtle thing; but it illustrated the intimacy between them perfectly. I’d gladly watch a full-length movie about Zorii and Poe’s adventures together.
But back to the story: the droid specialist, Babu Frik, wipes C-3PO’s memory, enabling him to speak the dagger’s message, which reveals the location of the wayfinder. At the same time, Kylo Ren’s Star Destroyer arrives, and Rey senses that Chewbacca is aboard. The heroes hasten to board the ship to rescue him, with the aid of a medallion Zorii gave Poe that… entitles the bearer to enter any Star Destroyer, apparently? I dunno, seems like the crew could just, you know, look out the window and notice it’s not one of their ships docking.
As fortune would have it, Ren has departed for Kijimi at almost exactly the same time the people he’s hunting are boarding his destroyer. It’s a wonder they didn’t pass each other. Again, Ren does not utilize his resources well.
Aboard the Star Destroyer, the heroes split up–with Rey running off to find the Sith dagger, hidden in Ren’s quarters, while Poe and Finn rush to save Chewbacca. Perhaps underscoring her mysterious connection with Ren, Rey shares his knack for going it alone without explaining where or why to anyone else.
Honestly, this sequence on the destroyer was one of my favorite parts of the film, and it gives me a golden opportunity to talk about something I really liked: the weaponry.
I talked about this a little bit in my review of The Last Jedi, but the small arms designs in these new films are fantastic. Weapons in the original Star Wars are basically old firearms with various gewgaws attached–e.g. the stormtroopers’ carbines are Sterling submachine guns, and Han Solo’s blaster is a Mauser C96. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does seem a little jarring for futuristic weapons to be recognizable as antique Earth weapons.
The weapons in Rise of Skywalker are still based on Earth firearms, but the modifications are far more extensive. First up, we have Poe’s blaster, which is a modified Sig Sauer:
I love the look of this–a well-shaped grip that fits naturally in hand, but a properly sci-fi barrel that we can easily imagine houses the “laser cells” or whatever.
There are still a number of Sterlings being carried by the stormtroopers, but they’ve been outfitted with white plating that makes them look much more futuristic. Rey and a couple other characters use these small, almost derringer-like pistols that have a very elegant curve to them.
And then there is the pièce de résistance, the thing that convinced me that I had to take a detour when I wrote this review to talk about it. It’s not actually in the part of the film I’m currently discussing, but this seems like a good opportunity to bring it up:
Look at that thing! Compact, sleek, and menacing. You’d never know it, but it’s built around a Glock-17, obviously heavily modified. Here it is being carried by the elite Sith troopers:
I know these seem like very minor details–and to be honest, they are. But details matter in movies, and especially in sci-fi. Set and prop designs tell us about the world in which the story takes place.
I also just loved the whole gunfight sequence–in particular, one long tracking shot of the heroes gunning down stormtroopers as they race through the halls. That was great. It called to mind similar scenes from A New Hope, but actually better. Again, I’d cheerfully watch a whole movie that consisted of Poe and Zorii doing that.
Poe and Finn rescue Chewbacca, but are quickly captured, and just as quickly freed again by General Hux, who has decided to betray Ren and help the rebels. This was an interesting idea, and I was curious to see where it went. As it turns out, the answer is nowhere–Hux is quickly executed by General Pryde, who easily slides into the role of “sneering imperial officer.”
Meanwhile, Rey retrieves the Sith dagger from Kylo Ren’s quarters, and has a vision of her parents being murdered by Ochi. She then has a sort of telepathic duel with Ren, continuing the odd psychic relationship between them established in The Last Jedi, which enables them to somehow project themselves across vast distances so one can physically contact the other. Ren then returns to the destroyer in person, and reveals the big secret that Palpatine told him: Rey is Palpatine’s grand-daughter. Ren explains that the strange bond between them is what is known as a dyad in the Force. It’s very rare, although it will be old hat to anyone who played Knights of the Old Republic II.
For the umpteenth time, he urges Rey to join him and rule the galaxy, and once again she refuses, escaping with the others aboard the Millennium Falcon.
If you can’t tell by now: this movie is filled, absolutely overflowing, with references to earlier films in the series. This scene is an obvious callback to the “I am your father” scene in Empire. At the very beginning of the film, Palpatine repeated a line from Revenge of the Sith verbatim. (“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some would consider to be unnatural.”) We’ve already had “I have a bad feeling about this,” and it was delivered by Lando, who has finally been heard from again for the first time since Jedi. It’s typical to have an ensemble reprise of the big numbers for the finale, but at this point, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me.
Little did I know…
They continue on to the coordinates C-3PO gave–to the Endor system, where they find the wreckage of the second Death Star. Rey realizes the dagger points the way to the location of the wayfinder, but before they can venture within, they are halted by a woman named Jannah, leader of a group of ex-stormtroopers who have rebelled against their commanders and formed a mounted infantry unit. She tells Rey and the rest that it’s too dangerous to enter the wreckage and they had better wait, but Rey once again ignores this and ventures ahead without telling anybody. She and Kylo really are made for each other, aren’t they?
The Wreck of the Empire’s Death Star is stunningly well-preserved. Remember, it was blown into tiny pieces and then presumably burned up in the atmosphere when crashing onto the planet below. And yet there are nearly-intact TIE fighters, stormtrooper helmets, and even the Emperor’s old throne room still lying about–a bit moldy and wet, for sure, but in fine shape considering the circumstances. Inside the remains of the throne room where Luke confronted Vader and Palpatine, Rey finds a hidden chamber containing the wayfinder, and upon picking it up, is confronted with a Dark Side doppelgänger–again, evoking Luke’s experience on Dagobah in Episode V.
Of course, Kylo Ren shows up, seizes the wayfinder and destroys it. He and Rey then proceed to fight a protracted lightsaber duel in the sea-tossed wreckage.
A word about lightsaber duels, if you will indulge me. And if you’ve come this far, it’s pretty clear you will.
In my opinion, the best lightsaber duel in all of Star Wars is Jinn/Kenobi v. Maul in The Phantom Menace–the “Duel of the Fates,” as the accompanying musical score is titled. And that score is a big part of what makes it feel so epic, but it’s also the pacing, the choreography, and the way it’s intercut so perfectly with three other action sequences. It feels, appropriately, like it’s the first maneuver in a grander battle, as the name implies–a lethal cosmic dance in which the course of galactic history itself is being shaped.
All the other battles pale in comparison–the ones in the original trilogy feel dull and restrained, and the subsequent ones in the prequels became unrealistic and exaggerated to the point of absurdity in a futile effort to top the climax of Episode I.
All the good things I said about the Star Destroyer shootout earlier? This is the opposite of that–this duel, like all the lightsaber duels in the new trilogy (and there aren’t that many), feels hamstrung and stiff. The energy and thrill just isn’t there. Even the Original Trilogy’s duels, while technically unspectacular, were at least interesting in that they felt organic and spontaneous, rather than labored and plodding.
The duel ends with Ren about to finish Rey off when he receives a telepathic message from Leia, imploring him to stay his hand. He does, which allows Rey to stab him in the stomach. However, Rey regrets this immediately and, using Force powers presumably inherited from her infamous grandfather’s line, heals his wound. She then departs aboard Ren’s starship.
Meanwhile, the psychic energy Leia expended to communicate with her wayward son has proven lethal, and she dies surrounded by the remaining rebel forces. Poe, Finn and company return to the rebel base and learn of Leia’s passing away, at which point Poe is promoted to general. (Which is kind of odd, because he’d been busted back down to captain in the last film. I’m not sure exactly how ranks work in this outfit, but if we assume it’s comparable to the U.S. Air Force, that’s a three-grade jump.)
Ren, meanwhile, stands on the Death Star ruin, brooding and staring out at the sea, when what should appear but a vision of Han Solo. Despite having been murdered by Ren, Han apparently bears no hard feelings, and offers his son words of encouragement. He tells him that “Kylo Ren”–the identity Ben Solo assumed when he turned to evil–is dead, and his son still lives. The vision, or ghost, or whatever he is, disappears, but now Ren is Ben once more.
I complained in my review of The Last Jedi that this Force ghost business was getting out of hand, but now it’s to where you can’t swing a lightsaber without hitting one. Almost literally, because we next see Rey on the planet where Luke Skywalker had been hiding. She is burning Kylo Ren’s ship (with firewood, apparently?) and throws Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber into the blaze when it is caught by none other than the spirit of Skywalker himself.
Ghost-Luke lectures Rey about the need to not simply hide out, as he had done, but to confront the Emperor and save the galaxy. He leads her to Leia’s lightsaber, which princess-turned-general had constructed decades earlier, when Luke trained her in the ways of the Force. Luke instructs Rey to take both sabers and go to Exegol to face Palpatine. Then, for his next trick, Luke reprises another scene from Empire and lifts his old X-Wing out of the water.
I felt like I should hold my lighter aloft each time they played one these “greatest hits.” But instead of doing that, let me pause here to do something that Rise of Skywalker rarely does, and surprise my audience.
Anybody here remember the 2013 film, Star Trek: Into Darkness? I reviewed it on here back when it came out. One of my big problems with that movie is that, not to spoil too much, Kirk dies, but Dr. McCoy revives him, using Khan’s regenerating cells, which are treated effectively as a cheap plot device that allows us to have a Capt. Kirk death scene, and then to have a living Kirk again at the end of it. I think it’s kind of supposed to be an homage to how Spock sacrificed himself in the original Wrath of Khan, but the difference is, Spock’s death took an entire sequel film to undo, as opposed to being reversed in five minutes. That feels cheap. There’s no drama in a world where a character’s death can be undone in an instant.
Why is this relevant? Only because J.J. Abrams directed both Into Darkness and Rise of Skywalker, and in the latter, I see this same cheapening of death. Nobody really stays dead in Star Wars anymore–even if they die, they can come back as Force ghosts, which enjoy ever-increasing power. Palpatine is back as a zombie or something. Even minor things, like C-3PO’s memory being wiped, are soon reversed, as R2-D2 quickly restores him from a backup.
Something similar also happened in the video game series Mass Effect. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, dies during the prologue of the second game, only to be restored to life during the opening credits. Again, this cheapens it. The audience isn’t going to worry a beloved character might die if they know they can just come back later.
Remember, it was supposed to be a really big deal in Revenge of the Sith that Darth Plaguies could stop people from dying. By Rise of Skywalker, try not to stop people from dying. Rey has already brought Kylo Ren back to life once. There are no stakes; nothing feels important.
Case in point, to get back to the story: Palpatine sends one of his new Star Destroyers, which is equipped with a Death Star-caliber cannon, to destroy the planet Kijimi. There’s real emotional resonance because it’s like, the fourth-oldest of the new planets introduced in this film, and Zorii was there, so we had really become emotionally invested in it over the last forty minutes. Right? Right?
The rebels are able to track the signal from Luke’s X-Wing as Rey pilots it to Exegol, and decide to launch a final daring assault to wipe out Palpatine’s fleet before it can disperse. Lando and Chewbacca meanwhile depart in the Millennium Falcon to see if they can possibly scare up anyone else in the galaxy to help the small rebel fleet.
While the utter insanity of the space battle–which somehow turns into a ground battle that sees Jannah’s mounted infantry charge across a destroyer on horseback–rages overhead, Rey makes her way to Palpatine’s throne room. Palpatine launches into his classic “strike-me-down-wth-your-hatred-and-join-the-Dark-Side” routine. And for some reason, it appears to work, as Rey seemingly goes along with the Sith ritual.
But then Kylo Ren–I mean, Ben–arrives, and joins the fight on Rey’s side. Together, the pair stand before Palpatine, who then drops the pretense at temptation and instead absorbs their force energy into himself, granting himself even more power.
Meanwhile, the desperate rebel attack on the massive fleet goes poorly. Poe and his forces are badly outmatched and find themselves facing annihilation. But then Lando and Chewbacca arrive, leading what is, by far, the biggest fleet of ships ever assembled in a Star Wars film.
I would have liked to know how Lando pulled this off. He’s actually one of the few characters who you could sort of imagine doing it–he’s charming, charismatic, well-connected, and presumably knows a lot of people who owe him money and favors. I would have enjoyed, say, a five-minute montage of him cajoling, flattering, arm-twisting, flirting, bartering and threatening everyone who’s anyone into lending their ship to the cause. But alas, no such luck. He just shows up to save the day with no explanation, in another blatant throwback to an Original Trilogy moment. But I’ll admit, even as corny and predictable as this was, it kinda worked for me anyway. Even my heart of stone warmed a little at the idea of everyone banding together.
And I do mean everyone. Remember what I said earlier, about how the destruction of Kijimi had emotional resonance because that’s where Zorii was? Yeah, I was kidding. She’s fine, and comes back to help our heroes in the big space battle. And I can’t even really complain, because she’s my favorite of all the new characters.
Before we move on, one other thing I like about the space battles in this movie: the noises the spaceship cannons make. They have this great percussiveness that makes them feel really powerful. I liked that. Admittedly, sticklers may complain about the fact that they are making any noise in space, but, you know, in the words of Harrison Ford as quoted by Mark Hamill, “It ain’t that kind of movie.”
Meanwhile, back in the heart of all evil, Palpatine throws Ren–that is, Ben–into a deep abyss, which you would think Palpatine, of all people, would know is not an effective way to kill someone in this galaxy. He then turns his attention to Rey, but she has just had a moment of tremendous psychic clarity during which she communes with the Force ghosts of all the Jedi–we hear the voices of all the big names speaking to her.
Renewed by the spirit of all the Jedi dead and gone, Rey defeats Palpatine, reflecting his Force lightning back at him. She then slumps to the ground, apparently dead of exhaustion.
But then Ben emerges from the pit and, somehow, manages revive Rey using Force powers of his own.
I’m just going to pause here to note that Anakin Skywalker betrayed all his allies and turned to the Dark Side specifically for the purpose of acquiring this very power, and yet he never got it. Palpatine implied that he possessed it, although all indications are that he was lying, at least at the time. And yet both Ben and Rey have learned it without ever having even taken the final exams at the Jedi academy.
Anyhow, Ben revives Rey, she kisses him, he smiles at her, and then falls over dead. It is not clear why Rey does not revive him.
With the Emperor dead, the massive rebel fleet easily wipes out the destroyers and everyone heads back to the jungle planet for a celebration. Somehow, all imperial forces all across the galaxy are defeated simultaneously, allowing for a victory montage similar to the one at the end of Jedi. The best part is the wordless exchange between Poe and Zorii. Have I mentioned I like them?
And then Rey heads off to Tatooine in the Millennium Falcon, to make a pilgrimage to the Lars homestead.
All right, we’re almost to the end, but I’ve got to pause here one more time. The Lars homestead is iconic for us as the audience, because we all remember seeing Luke Skywalker standing there, staring wistfully out at the twin suns setting. That’s a great moment–but it makes no sense for it to be iconic in-universe. I mean, even Luke himself was doing that because he couldn’t stand the Lars homestead and wanted to get away from it. It’s hard to imagine that he, or anyone else in the galaxy, would remember it as a historically important place.
Admittedly, this isn’t totally the fault of the people who made Rise of Skywalker. This problem goes back to Attack of the Clones, when Lucas contrived the plot so Anakin and Padmé would visit the moisture farm, and then again in Episode III, when Obi-Wan somehow knows about the place and, rather inexplicably, brings baby Luke there. It’s as if Lucas confused what was significant to the audience with what was significant to the characters. And Disney just picked it up and ran with it.
This points to the real problem that afflicts Star Wars: somewhere along the way, the people who make it forgot what it was about. Back in 1977, Luke Skywalker was an everyman–the whole point of his character is that he is just a regular guy who dreams of being the hero of an epic adventure. And sure enough, that’s what he does! The promise of Star Wars is that anyone can be a hero.
And then Darth Vader turned out to be Luke’s father, and ever since there’s been this family drama aspect to the story that keeps diverting it. That’s why the prequels focus on Anakin, and why the sequels focus on Rey’s heritage.
Ah, actually, let me correct that: two of the sequels focus on Rey’s heritage. The Last Jedi conspicuously made it clear that she didn’t have a heritage of note. She was everywoman, a no-name swept up on a grand adventure. In that regard, The Last Jedi is the one that’s truest to the spirit of the original film. And look what it got for it: they spend most of the first act of Rise of Skywalker undoing the stuff that happened in Last Jedi.
Oh, which reminds me, if I may digress from this digression; what happened to Rose and Finn’s romance? Rose is barely in this movie, and Finn spends more time with Jannah than with her. What’s up with that? I liked Rose.
Star Wars is a playground; a galaxy far, far away where the imagination is free to roam. Why restrain it by turning it into the muddled story of the Skywalkers and Palpatines feuding like Hatfields and McCoys when there exists the potential for so much more? I think the fact that The Mandalorian has proven much more popular than The Rise of Skywalker just goes to show that people didn’t want a “Skywalker saga,” they wanted Star Wars!
Okay, that’s enough of that. Time to wrap this thing up, which is just what Rey does with Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, enclosing them in cloth and burying them in the sand outside the old farm. An old woman comes by–apparently having trekked into this vast desolate wasteland just to check if someone happened to be at the colossal wreck of an old moisture farm–and asks Rey who she is. She replies, sensibly enough, “Rey.” The woman then asks, “Rey who?”
Rey looks over her shoulder for a long, and what must seem to the old woman very awkward, moment, at the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia. Then she answers, “Rey Skywalker.” And with that, she turns to look at the twin suns setting, and the credits roll.
I have this haunting fear, whenever I carry on like this about a Star Wars movie, that you all will think I’m one of those crazed fans who furiously creates internet petitions whenever he doesn’t like something in a movie. I’m not quite that bad, I promise. Star Wars is fun, and while I may say harsh things about it sometimes, I enjoy writing about it, and I enjoy making fun of movies when they are silly. The Force Awakens annoyed me maybe more than it should have, because it felt so cynical to me, but oddly this film didn’t strike me that way. It’s kind of a disjointed incoherent mess, but it feels like it has a heart. Not a brain, nor a central nervous system, but a heart.
Anyway, that does it for the Star Wars sequel trilogy. The Last Jedi was sort of interesting, the other two were just pastiches of Star Wars moments jumbled together kind of at random. At least that’s how it seemed to me. But then, Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon, and even flawed Star Wars stories have a way of striking a chord with people, if they see them at just the right moment in their lives. Maybe I’ll write about that sometime. But not now. I have gone on far too long already.
I think most people have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, right? It usually gets assigned in high schools, and as a result, most of the familiar tropes of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian state are ingrained in our culture: telescreens broadcasting propaganda, a police state violently crushing all dissent, and of course, the corruption of language to control the population’s thoughts.
Orwell didn’t invent these ideas, of course; he merely extrapolated the methods he observed being used by dictators like Hitler and Stalin into the future, resulting in one of the seminal works of 20th-century literature.
V for Vendetta reimagines what Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been like if Batman had been there.
Is that a bit flip? Maybe you think so now, but let’s look at how this film begins: we have pretty young damsel Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) walking home after curfew in a crumbling, futuristic London when she is attacked by government security agents known as “Fingermen,” who, upon finding a damsel, immediately propose to put her in distress. Already this movie is off on the wrong foot with me.
But then, the hero of the piece enters the scene: V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious terrorist or freedom fighter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who rescues Evey from her attackers and then proceeds to give the following melodramatic speech:
Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.
He goes on like that for a while longer, and then takes Evey to the rooftops of London to watch as Old Bailey is demolished while the 1812 Overture plays over the public address speakers.
Okay, I can accept this character is a terrorist with a flair for drama. I can even accept, although it’s logically impossible, that he managed to miraculously time his rescue of Evey so that they could be on the roof at the stroke of midnight on November 5th.
But why the 1812 Overture? Why is a piece of music written by a Russian to commemorate the Tsar’s defeat of Emperor Napoleon I’s Grande Armée being used by a man who is supposedly fighting to liberate England? Why not use something from the English Civil War? For that matter, wouldn’t he see Napoleon’s defeat as a bad thing? A victory of the Tsarist aristocracy over a People’s Army? V is really much more like Napoleon than he is like Guy Fawkes, but that’s for later.
I know the reason the filmmakers used the 1812 Overture, of course: it’s because it’s a great piece of music, and it works well dramatically. But it feels contrived–an empty spectacle, lacking earned emotional weight. In truly great cinema, the filmmaker’s hand is invisible; the spectacle must arrive organically.
Anyway, later that day (?) Evey goes back to her job at the TV station. It’s not exactly clear to me what she does–apparently she’s some kind of assistant for a variety program hosted by Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry). She takes delivery of a bunch of boxes which prove to contain more Guy Fawkes masks, and soon after, V launches an attack on the television studio.
Meanwhile, police detective Finch (Stephen Rea) is working to figure out who attacked the Old Bailey, and from security camera footage, realizes Evey may know how to find V. He races to the television studio, but in the confusion of V’s attack, fails to capture him or Evey.
V takes over the airwaves and broadcasts a message to the people, condemning the government of High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt):
[W]hile the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression.
And how did this come about? V addresses that as well:
I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.
Finally, he tells the bewildered citizens his demands:
I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.
And with that, V departs, leaving a bunch of captives clad in Guy Fawkes masks. A policeman attempts to stop him on his way out, but Evey distracts him. The policeman punches her, but V knocks him out and takes the unconscious Evey to his secret underground lair.
Yes, his secret underground lair, full of priceless art, luxurious furnishings, and various other trinkets which V has acquired over the years. And here we must ask: exactly how scared can you be of a government that, for all its Orwellian bluster, can’t find a flamboyantly-dressed terrorist who resides in a maze of tunnels underneath their own capital city? I mean really, this would just not happen on Big Brother’s watch.
V explains that he needs Evey to stay with him for the entire year, until next November 5th. If she leaves, she could be captured and tortured to give the government information on his whereabouts. Evey gets mad at V, and then immediately forgives him. Evey does stuff like that–her psychology is based purely on the dramatic needs of the scene she happens to be in.
V then enlists Evey’s help in a campaign of murderous revenge against various people in the government–the host of a propaganda talk-show is first on his hit-list, followed by a sick, perverted priest. Evey continues her policy of doing random things and tries to get the priest to help her, but he doesn’t, because he really is a vile, twisted monster. V kills him, but Evey runs away and back to Deitrich’s house. Deitrich welcomes her and confesses that he, too, is a subversive whose activities the government would not look kindly upon–he owns a Quran and a collection of homoerotic photos.
While all this has been going on, Finch has been pursuing his own, much better, storyline. He has been uncovering connections among V’s victims, and traced them all to an experimental facility called Larkhill, where government prisoners were subjected to cruel and ultimately lethal experiments with biological weapons. This is further confirmed when V kills a doctor who experimented on him at the facility.
Meanwhile, Deitrich, for some insane reason, does a sketch on his television show mocking Chancellor Sutler, which prompts the police to raid his house. Evey escapes momentarily, but is knocked unconscious and dragged to a prison where she is tortured and her head shaved.
While imprisoned, she finds a note hidden in a small hole in the wall. It’s from a young woman named Valerie, previously imprisoned for being a lesbian. She recounts the rise of Sutler’s fascistic party and their murder of her partner. Evey takes courage from reading Valerie’s words, and refuses to submit to her captors, even when they threaten to kill her and offer her freedom in exchange for information about V.
At last, Evey is released from her cell to find that she’s actually back in V’s subterranean bat-cave! Yes, all along, it was V torturing her, as a test of her loyalty, as well as, he claims, a way to free her from fear. By losing her fear of death, Evey is now liberated! Or something.
This is stupid. First, it makes V seem less like a freedom fighter and more like just another gangster, almost as bad as the people he’s fighting. And second, it once again forces us to consider the question of “How the Hell has the Government Not Noticed V’s Fake Prison Adjacent to His Underground Art Museum?”
Meanwhile, Finch has pretty much pieced together the mystery of Larkhill. The biological weapon being tested there was a deadly virus, which then-Secretary of Defense Adam Sutler deployed against his own population in order to induce panic. Blaming the attack on terrorists, Sutler then used the promise of restoring order to lead his party to an overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, the upper-management of the Larkhill program enriched themselves by controlling the distribution of the vaccine.
Finch’s faith in the government is shaken by this. (Why he ever had any faith in this blatantly corrupt horror show is less clear.) Meanwhile, V is busy setting up dominoes on the floor of his secret lair to fall into an intricate mosaic of his “V” logo. Seriously, there’s a scene like that. It’s a metaphor, I guess.
V then distributes Guy Fawkes masks all across London, inspiring the increasingly discontented populace to rise up. Sutler responds with a heightened police and military presence to fight the angry mobs.
Once again, we reach November 5th, and Evey finds V and learns his ultimate plan, which is to send a trainload of explosives rolling into Parliament.
Yes, a train. Somehow there is an un-patrolled train tunnel leading into Parliament that the supposedly intrusive police state knows nothing about. These people aren’t totalitarians, if only because “totalitarian” is derived from “total,” and their control over the public is clearly not total. This state’s power ends at the ground, and anything that goes on below that is the Wild West.
V tells Evey that it’s up to her to pull the lever that will send the bomb-filled train on its way. He says that both he and the regime he is destroying are part of an old world, and the people who outlive both will make a new world. “They deserve to make that choice,” he says. I actually liked this bit. It’s a nice illustration of the philosophical concept of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis.
V heads off to confront Chancellor Sutler, who has been betrayed by the head of his secret police. V then kills them all by bringing knives to a gunfight. (Only in Hollywood, folks.) However, in a small sop to plausibility, he sustains mortal injuries in the process.
He stumbles back to the train station and dies in Evey’s arms, telling her that he had been living for revenge every day until he met her, at which point he fell in love. It’s not really clear why–there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about her. On the other hand, since V has presumably been living alone in the catacombs all this time, you can see he would have been susceptible.
Evey loads V’s body onto the train and sends it on its way. Meanwhile, a huge mob of citizens wearing Guy Fawkes masks storm the military barricades surrounding parliament. The soldiers, with their government decapitated, stand down, allowing the crowd to surround the building and watch as it is blown to pieces, again accompanied by the 1812 Overture. Finch finally catches up with Evey, and as they watch the building explode, he asks her who V was. She replies, “He was all of us.”
One big problem I have with this film is that despite the omnipresent Guy Fawkes imagery, it seems only dimly aware of who Guy Fawkes actually was. V is fighting a religious extremist government; Fawkes was a religious extremist. And he was kind of a screw-up, judging by what a catastrophe the Gunpowder Plot turned out to be for him.
The film tries to draw on a lot of historical material to give it weight, but it doesn’t understand the historical context of its own references. The 1812 Overture was one example; another is V’s repeated references to The Count of Monte Cristo. V spends the lonely hours in his base of operations watching the 1934 film adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas. V identifies with the protagonist’s quest for revenge.
Here’s an interesting factoid about The Count of Monte Cristo: the protagonist is sympathetic to Napoleon, as was Dumas himself. Quite frankly, if you want an example of someone who successfully led a movement to destroy a failing government and replace it with one that was at least semi-functional, Napoleon is a much better example to follow than Fawkes.
I know my loyal readers are wise to me, and will say I only think that because I’m an unreconstructed Bonapartist. Well, it’s a fair cop. But there are other historical figures who fit much more closely to the mold of what V is trying to accomplish. Oliver Cromwell was a religious zealot and a murderous thug, but at least his revolution succeeded for a while. Another possible model would be Alexander Kerensky, who arguably did what V does at the end of the film, giving the people a choice in their future. (In Kerensky’s case, the people did not choose wisely.)
I don’t think the filmmakers ever quite made up their minds about the age-old question asked of every fictional character: what’s their motivation? V’s motives are murky: he talks a lot about symbols and ideas, and how his masks and theatrical terrorist acts symbolize some idea or other. But when we find out he’s seeking vengeance against specific people in retribution for things they did to him, he seems less like an idealist and more like somebody who’s been wronged and is looking to get back at the people who wronged him.
There’s nothing wrong with either story. Stories about idealistic freedom fighters can be good. Stories about people seeking revenge for some wrongdoing can also be good. But by trying to be both, the end result is that V seems almost as hypocritical as the government he’s trying to destroy. That idea itself could be quite interesting. “He who fights with monsters…” etc. But the film doesn’t explore that either. It suggests we’re supposed to view V as unambiguously heroic, as Evey, the on-screen proxy for the audience, does–despite the fact that she is almost certainly suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
It took me years to finally watch this movie all the way through. I’d start it, get fairly deep into it, and then get so irritated I’d have to stop. Part of it may have been the dialogue, which takes a lot of words to say a little. People frequently say things like, “Can I ask you something?” to which the other character replies, “Yes,” and then they go on. Fat like that ought to be cut from a script.
But despite this, I wouldn’t say I hate this movie. It’s not what I consider a good film, but it is interesting. It has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why: it’s weird and offbeat and a bit subversive. There is a wealth of promising material here, but it’s not utilized as well as it could have been.
And yes, I know it’s based on a graphic novel, and no, I have not read it.
This is a modern take on a classic mystery setup: an older gentleman (Christopher Plummer) is murdered in his country estate, and there are plenty of suspects, each with possible motives for committing the crime. Into this atmosphere comes detective Benoit Blanc, (Daniel Craig) a master detective who has been hired to solve the crime. In addition to this mystery, he also is faced with a related question: who hired him in the first place? To aid him in solving the crime, he enlists the help of Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the deceased gentleman’s nurse, who has an uncontrollable physical reaction to lying.
There are a lot of things I could say about this movie—about the eclectic cast of suspects, each one of which is unique and interesting, or the absolutely brilliant dialogue, or the intricately woven, well-paced plot and satisfying resolution. And then there’s Craig’s incredible performance as Blanc, which would be a showstopper by itself. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and, I’m pleased to report, makes full use of the color palette, as opposed to that washed-out greyish-blue that’s so prevalent in modern movies.
Honestly, I could go on at length about so many things in Knives Out, but it would feel like taking a beautifully assembled jigsaw puzzle apart piece-by-piece to do so. The beauty of it is in the full effect of the finished product, and audiences deserve to see it all fall into place in the film’s own time. This movie is so fresh, so energetic, and so much fun to watch that it doesn’t need a critic’s eye to analyze or interpret. It’s just a good old-fashioned detective yarn that’s a pleasure to watch.
One thing I will say is that this is how you do an homage to a particular style or genre of story. If you like the classic murder mystery tales, you don’t need to “reboot” or “modernize” Poirot or Holmes; you just need to tell a good story of your own that follows the same principles Christie or Doyle used. That’s what Knives Out is, and it’s wonderful. One of the best movies I’ve seen in years.
Sometimes the most fun movies are the ones you stumble across purely by chance. I happened to be flipping through the channels the other night, and this came on.
It starts with an animated sequence narrated by a woman named Rebecca (Lori Petty) and the post-apocalyptic world she lives in. She tells us about “the Rippers,” a race of underground monsters that menace the struggling population, which has been largely deprived of water ever since a comet struck the earth. The majority of the water is controlled by a corporation called Water & Power, and run by a sadistic psychopath named Kesslee. (Malcolm McDowell)
The film switches to a live action sequence in which Water & Power thugs attack Rebecca’s home, killing her lover and kidnapping a young girl named Sam. The goons also capture Rebecca and torture her in the Water & Power prisons.
Rebecca befriends a fellow prisoner, a jet pilot/mechanic called simply “Jet Girl,” (Naomi Watts) who is repeatedly harassed by Kesslee’s second-in-command. Rebecca and Jet Girl escape after a Ripper attack on Water & Power; Jet Girl in a jet and Rebecca in—of course—a stolen tank, which she soon decorates according to her own punk-y tastes:
Together, they set out on a quest to find Sam, which takes them first through a surreal brothel, complete with an ensemble performance of a Cole Porter song, and then to the lair of the Rippers themselves.
The Rippers turn out not to be monsters, but rather a race of genetically engineered human/kangaroo crossbreeds. Created by the army to be the ultimate soldiers, they prove to be a friendly group of eccentrics. Though initially suspicious, they grow to trust Rebecca and Jet Girl, and ultimately they join forces for a final showdown against Kesslee and Water & Power.
I won’t spoil whether the heroes rescue the little girl from the hands of the over-the-top, eminently hate-able bad guy, or whether Jet Girl gets to serve the second-in-command his richly deserved comeuppance, or whether they are able to end the monopoly of Water & Power and the drought. But perhaps readers will guess the answers to all these when I say that what amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.
It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.
I’m amazed I haven’t heard about this movie before now. It’s a funny, entertaining action film—Tank Girl’s one-liners are great, and most of the supporting characters have humorous lines as well. The film never takes itself too seriously, but it has an earnestness underneath all the silliness. Petty’s performance really encapsulates it: she seems cynical, snarky and sarcastic 90% of the time—but when she’s trying to save her young friend, there’s genuine concern in her eyes.
Interestingly, the film is directed by a woman, it features a woman in the lead role, another in the role of the sidekick, and the main plot concerns the two of them trying to rescue a little girl. Recently, there has been a lot of call for female-directed, female-led action movies, and yet I’ve never heard people mention this one, made all the way back in 1995. The film was neither a critical nor a financial success at the time, but it deserves to be re-evaluated. I think it might be more relevant now than it was in the ‘90s.
“It was reported in September 2019 that a reboot of the film was in early development.”
Okay, time for one of my rants…
Look, movie people: you don’t need to reboot things all the time. The point of movies is that… follow me closely here… they record images to be presented again at a later date.
I agree with the sentiment that a Tank Girl movie released in 2020 or beyond could be a hit. What I don’t agree with is the idea that you need to make a whole new one. Just take the existing one, which probably most people have not even heard about, and re-release it in theaters.
Now, I get it: the special effects in Tank Girl are unmistakably those of a mid-‘90s low-budget film. Nobody is going to mistake it for a modern Marvel movie or anything like that. But so what? The aesthetic is unique, and screams “’90s Punk stuff.” Why mess with that?
And yes, I know there’s a comic book that it’s based on, and presumably a new film would attempt to be more faithful to it, and incorporate more of the undoubtedly rich and nuanced lore of the Tank Girl universe.
But here’s the thing: no adaptation can ever be 100% faithful, so it’s pointless to try. Make an adaptation, see what it looks like, and then move on to the next thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve on a concept, but when did the idea of a “spiritual sequel” become extinct?
Because there’s definitely room for more action comedies about wisecracking women fighting their way across surreal dystopias. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But that doesn’t mean you should make the same one over again. Make a new one.
This is why I don’t watch more movies—a week ago I didn’t know Tank Girl existed, and now here I am complaining they might do a reboot of it.
Anyway, the point here is that it’s a surprisingly good film. It does have a lot of swearing and a few sex jokes that might put some people off. (Most of these are through implication and innuendo, rather than anything explicit.) The violence is stylized, in typical action movie form. And the animation sequences can be so rapid I could imagine that they might cause some viewers to become nauseated. The film is rated R, although I kind of suspect that today it would be PG-13. It’s fun, it’s weird, and it has gunfights and tanks and cheesy one-liners. What else do you want from an action movie?
Go ahead, say that title out loud. (Okay, maybe not if you’re in a public place.) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” The words seem intrinsically strange together, and become even more bizarre when you know that William Bonney, the famous outlaw known as “Billy the Kid,” was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker published his Gothic novel of vampire horror, Dracula.
Now it’s true, Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad III Dracula, who lived in the 1400s and thus—if he had been an immortal vampire, which most reliable historians seem to feel he wasn’t—might have found his way into a showdown with the famous outlaw.
But as the film begins, it quickly becomes clear that these details do not matter after all, because Billy the Kid isn’t really Billy the Kid—the film apparently is set in some sort of alternate history in which Mr. Bonney abandoned his outlaw ways, did not run afoul of Sheriff Garrett, and instead became foreman at a ranch, where he is engaged to marry the young daughter of the ranch owner.
Careful students of the craft of storytelling may here ask the question, “Why did the writer choose to tell a story about Billy the Kid in which Billy the Kid does not act like Billy the Kid, but somebody else altogether different?” Careful students of the craft of storytelling are advised to take a stiff drink before going any further, because it is also worth noting that the vampire is not once referred to as Dracula throughout the entire film.
So, it’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, except Billy the Kid isn’t Billy the Kid, and Dracula isn’t Dracula. All quite clear? Smashing! We proceed.
The film begins with the vampire, (played by John Carradine who portrayed Dracula well in the surprisingly decent film House of Dracula) descending upon a family of German immigrants traveling by wagon in the American west. He bites the young daughter of the group, but is warded off at the sight of a crucifix.
Later, the nameless vampire comes upon a stagecoach, carrying wealthy travelers towards their ranch, where, he learns, their beautiful niece Elizabeth resides. He is much taken with a picture of young Elizabeth shown to him by the travelers. When the coach stops for an evening, the vampire attacks a young Native American woman camped nearby, sparking the rage of the rest of the tribe. They assume it to be the work of the stage coach’s occupants and retaliate by killing them—allowing the vampire to assume the identity of the ranch owner and Elizabeth’s uncle, Mr. Underhill.
Meanwhile, William Bonney and young Elizabeth are playfully shooting tin cans and flirting with each other, much to the annoyance of the previous foreman, who watches jealously from afar. Apparently, being foreman also entails being Elizabeth’s lover, since apparently Billy took both positions from him at the same time.
Realizing that Elizabeth’s uncle Mr. Underhill is due to arrive in town soon, Billy rides off to meet him at the saloon. He arrives just after the vampire, posing as Underhill, has come to the saloon and taken a room. Moments later, the immigrant family arrives, still shaken by the earlier vampire attack, and are horrified when their daughter recognizes “Underhill” as the vampire who attacked her. However, he is somehow able to convince them that he is not a vampire, and, as a gesture of goodwill, allows them to take his room for the evening while he follows Billy to the Underhill ranch.
But of course, this is all a diabolical trick, and the vampire returns that night to finish the job on the poor immigrants’ daughter. Meanwhile, Billy and Elizabeth ponder the idea that there is something odd about her uncle, although what it is they can’t quite put their fingers on…
What could it be?
So, after much riding back and forth, Billy getting into a brawl with the ex-foreman, and the old immigrant woman’s attempt to keep the vampire away failing, Elizabeth is carried off into a makeshift lair the vampire has created in an abandoned mine. Billy rides there furiously, ignoring the town doctor’s advice that to defeat the vampire, he must drive a stake through his heart. Instead, in typical outlaw fashion, he tries to gun him down with his revolver. But the bullets have no effect.
Okay, look: I know it’s absurd to complain about logic in a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But I can’t help myself. Bullets are just fast-moving, miniature stakes, right? So why shouldn’t they work on the vampire? Now, you might say, “Well, they didn’t hit his heart, so it didn’t work.” I could buy that… except that then Billy throws his gun at the vampire and hits him in the face and knocks him down!
Seriously, what is this? If being hit with bullets didn’t hurt him, why should being hit with a much slower-moving hunk of metal? I know, you all are thinking I’m being Comic Book Guy at this point, but I have a reason for talking about this, and it’s not because I’m one of those people who is going to go off and start a petition demanding that Billy the Kid vs. Draculabe remade with proper consultation of a period firearms expert and a close-quarters combat specialist.
The reason is because it’s an important lesson for anyone who writes fiction: there are bound to be illogical things in any work of fiction. That’s a given. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be fiction. But the important thing is that the logic must be internally consistent. We get to make up our own rules for our fictional worlds, but they must never conflict with each other.
All right now, where was I? Oh, yes! So, Billy then stabs the vampire through the heart with the doctor’s stake, and releases Elizabeth from the spell the creature placed on her. He then carries her out of the mine, in the words of Wikipedia, “presumably to live happily ever after.” I love that use of “presumably.” Like, we think they’re going to live happily ever after, but who knows? It could be they’ll realize that they’re just two very different people who happened to get involved in this weird vampire business, gradually grow apart, and eventually come to the point where they argue over petty things like who should do the dishes before finally realizing that they need to go their separate ways.
So we’re 1,097 words into this review and you’re wondering, “Berthold, why are you even writing about this random lousy 55-year-old movie?”
The reason is very simple: I’m fascinated by the Weird Western genre. I like westerns for the desolate desert landscapes and their frequent use of themes of loneliness and revenge, and of course, weird supernatural horror was my first love in fiction, and the combination of the two will always interest me. And so while I’ve made a huge amount of fun of the film, it’s nonetheless, in its own odd way, significant as one of the first Weird Western films.
I mentioned the title at the beginning because I honestly think that a competent storyteller could make something interesting out of that. Make Billy the Kid be honest-to-God Billy the freakin’ Kid, the ruthless outlaw who boldly escaped from a New Mexico Jail, and have him encounter a vampire while on the run from the law, somewhere in the gorgeous New Mexico landscape. A skilled writer could spin all kinds of compelling yarns about death, murder and revenge out of that.
But, instead we got a move that shows a vampire strutting around in daylight! For shame!
That’s okay, though. They say that once you invite the vampire in, your fate is as good as sealed. And since early Weird Westerns invited the vampires west, it’s paved the way for all sorts of interesting stories to follow.
I like making lists, but it feels odd to just say, for example, that both Lawrence of Arabia and Duck Soup are favorite films, because I have to be in the right frame of mind for each. And it would be absurd to try and rank them. Lawrence is a great film, but it doesn’t work very well if you’re in the mood for a musical comedy, and Duck Soup fails as an exploration of a complex individual’s psychology. So, I’ve tried to categorize these films not by genre so much as by what “vibe” I need to want in order to watch them.
To be eligible for the list, I have to have seen a film at least twice, and be willing to watch it a third time. There are plenty of films I’ve enjoyed on seeing once and might watch again, but those don’t make the cut for now.
The Mummy (1999)
Ghost in the Shell
Last Action Hero
When I Want To Think
Lawrence of Arabia
The English Patient
I Want It Darker
The Omen (1976)
The Haunting (1963)
The Mothman Prophecies
Muppet Treasure Island
Movies That Are Terrible But I Enjoy Them Anyway
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
Diamonds Are Forever
Star Wars Movies (Possibly some should be in the preceding category.)
All the original 6 Star Wars movies, but not the Disney ones.
I Only Like Medieval/Fantasy Movies That Are Funny
[As is my wont, I’ll be spoiling everything. Although as you will see, I’m not the only one doing that…]
The Wind is a psychological horror western. The opening scene tells you that this is not going to be a light movie: Elizabeth Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) emerges from her remote cabin, covered in blood and carrying a stillborn baby, while two men stand solemnly outside. The scene then cuts to the men burying the baby and its mother, who is missing a portion of her head.
There is no dialogue in this scene; just three grim-faced people and two corpses, and the howling wind in a harsh and desolate landscape. The first lines don’t come until the next scene, when one of the men—Elizabeth’s husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman)—tells her that he and the widower Gideon (Dylan McTee) will be gone for a few days, leaving her alone in her cabin. Elizabeth hardly responds to this, instead simply repeating “How did she get my gun?”
Elizabeth tries to go about her daily routine, but is constantly on edge. As she’s hanging laundry, she is attacked by wolves, forcing her to retreat into the house and shoot the wolves through the door. Or are they merely wolves? The scratches on the door seem awfully high, and strangely fit the shape of a human hand. Later, she finds a goat carcass with its side ripped out—and then encounters it again; seemingly healed and oddly threatening.
The film soon turns into something like a montage of flashbacks and flash-forwards, explaining how Elizabeth found herself in this situation. It moves around so much that I’m not going to try to summarize everything in the order the film shows it. I’ve seen some reviews that complained the flashbacks were confusing, but I didn’t have too much trouble following which scenes related to which. And even when I did, the disordered structure sometimes—with a big exception I’ll address later–makes the gradual revelations more interesting and powerful. It does, however, make the film hard to summarize.
Briefly, what seems to have transpired is this: Elizabeth and Isaac lived alone in their remote cabin. At some point, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, but he was stillborn. They make a grave marker for him with an “S” for “Samuel” carved in a stone. Later, Gideon and his wife Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) showed up, and although Isaac thinks them a bit “funny,” he and Elizabeth invite them over for dinner, where it quickly becomes clear that Gideon and Emma don’t really get along very well.
Emma has some strange ideas about the plains, which eventually become a superstitious fear of them.She also has a great deal of admiration for Elizabeth and Isaac, both for their toughness and their kindness towards her and Gideon.
Emma soon falls “ill”—meaning pregnant—and begins to behave strangely. At one point, she’s in such a state of fear over some unseen threat that Elizabeth advises Gideon to tie her to the bed. Emma reads from a mysterious little pamphlet about demons of the prairie, which includes the names of varioussuch spirits. She also hints, ominously, to Elizabeth about her expected baby’s name, asking her to guess it. Elizabeth guesses “Gideon” and then “Samuel,” but neither is correct. After she guesses “Samuel,” Emma says “I’m not a monster.” This is probably the most significant point where the non-linear structure works in the film’s favor—we find out after this scene that Elizabeth’s stillborn was named Samuel. (The name Emma has in mind is, of course, Isaac.)
More strange things happen; both in the present and in the past. Emma believed there was “something out there” at night, and in the present, alone in her cabin, Elizabeth feels the same. An old preacher (Miles Anderson) arrives briefly, and Elizabeth hosts him for breakfast and then allows him to stay in the opposite cabin, telling him not to answer the door for anyone after dark.
Naturally, he arrives back at Elizabeth’s door in a panic that night, screaming that there is “something out there.” Elizabeth, despite her own advice, lets him in, and he asks her why she stays here, since she knows of the evil presence that haunts the land. He then says “Surely Emma would have…” and this horrifies Elizabeth, since she never mentioned the existence of Emma to him. At this point, the man turns into a glassy-eyed monster, and Elizabeth flees the cabin in terror, finding the preacher’s body on the ground the next day.
Elizabeth is increasingly haunted by visions of Emma, or rather, Emma’s corpse-like ghost, appearing to her and saying, “Lizzy, where’s your gun?” She is further disturbed when, on finding Emma’s diary, the entries seem to hint that her child was fathered by Isaac.
Finally, Isaac returns, finding Elizabeth on the verge of a breakdown and contemplating suicide. He tries to comfort her, but soon begins to argue as she insists on the existence of an evil presence. He finds the same pamphlet about demons that he had previously burned, and becomes infuriated with Elizabeth, ultimately tying her to the bed just as she advised Gideon to do to his wife.
As Isaac and Elizabeth fight, she cuts herself free of the ties with a shard of glass and…
Okay, folks, here’s the Big Spoiler! At least, I think it is. I pretty much figured it out five minutes in, when it was clear just how dark this movie was, but anyway…
In a flashback, we see that the pregnant Emma was behaving strangely one night, screaming wildly in the rain, and Elizabeth shot her after wrestling her gun away from her. In the present, as Isaac realizes this, Elizabeth struggles free of her bonds and stabs Isaac in the throat, killing him.
She stumbles out of the cabin, and into the field, and here we get the flashback that made the least sense to me—the reverend, back in his kindly preacher persona, handing Elizabeth the pamphlet about demons. I have no idea when or where in the timeline this was supposed to have occurred. In any case, the film ends with Elizabeth lying wounded on the empty plains.
So, that’s the bare-bones outline, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I said at the beginning the disordered narrative didn’t confuse me too much, but as I wrote this, I realize maybe that isn’t completely true. There were actually a couple scenes where I didn’t know the chronology. That is, I thought I did when I watched it, but thinking about it some more, I’m now not sure they occurred when I thought they did.
There is clearly supposed to be a strong unreliable narrator component to this story. Is Elizabeth just making all this up because she’s paranoid? Does she kill Emma because she’s jealous that she is having a child, and hers died? Or because she suspects Emma is having an affair with Isaac? And if the latter, is she right, or is she imagining all of it? Are any of the supernatural elements real, or are they all just in Elizabeth’s head? Isaac seems to think so, although it seems very hard to account for most of Emma’s behavior by chalking it all up to Elizabeth being crazy.
At one point, Elizabeth is shown reading to the pregnant Emma from The Mysteries of Udolpho, the classic Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe. I suspect this is actually a sort of double-reference: it’s both a nod to the tale itself, and also to Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s satire of Gothic fiction, whose protagonist imagines herself to be in such supernatural tales as Udolpho, though in fact she is not. I think something similar is supposed to be going on in The Wind.
There were definitely moments when I was worried it was going to turn intoIt Comes At Nightall over again. (Spoiler Alert: In It Comes At Night, nothing, in fact, comes at night.) But ultimately it wasn’t that; not quite. It’s much closer to The Haunting, where it’s truly ambiguous whether there are supernatural beings or if the heroine is just suffering from some combination of grief and serious psychosexual disorder. You could make a case either way, really.
I happened to stumble across this movie completely by chance while checking for some other film at my local theater. I saw the combination of horror and western and was immediately intrigued. Then I started reading the reviews, which described it as a revisionist western with a female lead, a spare, tight script, lots of long silences that say a lot, and gorgeously desolate landscapes that give an overall feeling of isolation. Some also alluded to the way the story is gradually (some complained too gradually) revealed through flashbacks.
All of this could also describe Jane Got a Gun, which is one of my favorite films ever. I absolutely love movies in remote desert settings, and female protagonists are also a plus. The element that differentiates this from Jane, of course, is that it’s a psychological horror flick rather than a romantic thriller. And psychological horror with unreliable narrators is very much my cup of tea.
I know not many of my readers are gamers, but there’s a term from gaming lingo that fits almost perfectly here: modding. At its most extreme, modding is when people build essentially a new game using the underlying assets—physics engines, graphics, music, etc.–from some existing game, often completely changing the plot and tone. The Wind is about what you would get if you did a horror mod of Jane Got a Gun.
And, like most video game mods, it’s kind of rough in places. In particular, the acting here is pretty uneven: Gerard is fairly good, Zukerman (who reminded me a little of Humphrey Bogart) is good, Telles is decent if a little wooden, and McTee…
Well, I’m not going to say he’s a bad actor. Maybe he was following his directions, or maybe the scenes were shot in a hurry, but the upshot is that his line readings are really flat. At first, I wondered if maybe this was deliberate, but I don’t think it is. However, he’s not in it that much.
The cinematography, on the other hand, was great. I know some reviewers, who apparently have the attention spans of espresso-drinking hummingbirds, thought it was “boring” and “slow,” but I personally can’t get enough B-roll of the wind howling over desert hills or shutters creaking in the twilight. The film’s only 86 minutes long, for heaven’s sake. And this demon pamphlet! This may sound silly, but seeing it in the trailer was what ultimately convinced me I had to watch this movie. I haven’t seen such creepy drawings in cinema since the sketches at the beginning of The Mothman Prophecies.
Also, there’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes mystery here, in that some people claim this is a remake of a 1928 silent film, also called The Wind, based on a 1925 novel of the same name. I haven’t seen the 1928 film, nor read the book, but seemingly they are also about a woman in a relationship that goes disastrously wrong, and who is driven mad by the howling wind on remote prairies. The demonic element, however, is not mentioned in the synopses of the earlier works. If anyone has seen/read either of these, I’d be interested to know what you think.
Now then, let’s get to the heart of the matter: Did I like this thing or not?
I love unreliable narrators and ambiguity in horror. It’s one of the coolest tricks in storytelling, in my opinion.
But, having seen and written quite a lot of deliberately ambiguous stories by now, I’ve come to realize there’s a dark side to this technique. And no, I don’t mean the dark side that unreliable narrators usually turn out to be bad people.
It is very easy for ambiguity and unreliable narration to become the last refuge of a bad storyteller. Does your plot not make a whole lot of sense? Are your characters’ motivations maybe not so clearly defined, even in your own mind? Hey presto! You can just introduce ambiguity and unreliable narration and suddenly, these flaws disappear. It was supposed to be like that all along! It’s not that your plot doesn’t make sense; it’s that it’s “ambiguous” and “raises questions.”
I know this because I myself have been guilty of it in some of my short stories. I thought I was so clever for doing it; but I think in reality this can easily become a subconscious crutch a writer leans on to avoid having to actually flesh out the characters, or iron out problems with the story.
And don’t get me wrong: when it’s done well, there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of realizing you’ve been reading or watching a different story than you thought you were. The gold standard for me is The Repairer of Reputations, but there are plenty of other examples.
But like anything that’s so effective, it’s reallyhard to do it well. Put a single foot wrong, and you make a mess of the whole thing. The Wind does a lot of things right, but it makes a few mistakes—the big one being that it seems so weird from the outset that you’re already primed to be on edge and question what you’re seeing. It walks up and kicks you in the gut and says “All right; maggots! This is a dark and terrifying movie you’re about to watch!”
The best horror doesn’t do that. It seduces you at first. It presents itself as a normal, even borderline cliché story that you’ve seen a thousand times before. And only then, once you think you know what you’re dealing with, does it start to mess with your mind.
I think this is the unarticulated problem at the root of all the complaints about the non-linearity of the plot. The problem isn’t that it’s out of order as such, but that it starts off with a scene that is gruesome, unsettling, and ambiguous. The audience immediately starts asking questions, and—the film not being willing to provide any easy answers—starts speculating about what exactly happened here. And they know, given how grim the tone is, that anything, however horrible, is a possibility.
If you’re planning to pull some twist on the audience, you don’t want them asking questions at the beginning. You want them thinking they’ve got it all figured out, and then you start to slowly make them realize that they don’t.
All that said, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s bold and different, and many of the individual scare scenes are quite well done. There was one jump scare that got me; and I’m pretty hardened against such things.
And the atmosphere! I know I went on about it already, but these bleak deserts just never get old for me. If anything, I wish the filmmakers had given us more of these windswept plains, let us hear more wolves baying in the distance, until we can’t help but believe that yes, of course there is something evil out there—how could there not be? An extra ten minutes of that at the outset might have made the whole thing work better.
I guess I’d say I was disappointed with the film, but that’s only because I think there’s potential here for something really awesome, and this only scratched the surface. It’s so rare to get a film that even tries to do some of these things, though.
The Wind is not a film for everybody. There’s violence, one (totally unnecessary) sex scene, a childbirth scene that’s gut-wrenching to watch, and a ton of disturbing images. (It’s not exactly shown onscreen, but the film strongly implies how Elizabeth removed Emma’s infant from her after her death.) I have a very strong aversion to films with violence against women, which made some scenes tough to watch.
But if you can stomach all of that, and you like creepy, unsettling psychological horror in harsh, barren settings, it’s worth a watch.
Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox LuxbeforeA Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.
And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.
When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.
And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.
Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?
Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel, you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.
Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.
Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.
In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:
Hey, turn the light on ‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way. Please, I will follow ‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say
This is the chorus:
So teach me. Show me all you’ve got And in your words, I will be wrapped up. Speak to me, you’re my last hope And I will say nothing and listen to your love.
I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?
At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.
Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”
Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)
Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.
In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”
Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.
The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.
And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.
The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.
Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.
As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.
And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.
Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.
Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:
“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”
In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.
The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”
Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.
Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.
She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”
They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.
This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.
I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.
The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.
And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.
Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!
Note I had to say that this is about the 2018 version, as opposed to the 1937 version, the 1954 version, or the 1976 version. This concept of a young woman being plucked from obscurity by an older male star and rising to fame is an enduring one, apparently. In this edition, the young woman is named Ally, and portrayed by Lady Gaga, and the man is named Jackson Maine, and portrayed by Bradley Cooper, who also directs.
I’d give you the plot summary, but in truth, I pretty much just did: there’s not a lot to the story besides what I outlined above. The two meet, Jackson instantly sees Ally’s promise, and soon has her singing onstage at one of his concerts. Before long, the two are married, and Ally is skyrocketing to fame, while Jackson is plagued by alcoholism and lingering issues from his troubled family life. All seems poised to work out until…
…Jackson kills himself, apparently because of a combination of worsening tinnitus, and the fact that Ally’s manager, Rez, has taken a dislike to him. No, really; he has a brief confrontation with Rez, in which Rez tells Jackson to keep away from Ally–that’s right; from his own wife--and Jackson hangs himself afterward. I wasn’t buying that.
Look, I don’t want to be flip, but there wasn’t much more to the movie than that. I’m not saying it’s an awful movie–most of the performances are good, and I’ve always liked Lady Gaga, even though I’ve never listened to her music. She has a very nice voice, and most of the musical numbers are therefore pleasant to listen to.
It just felt… artificial. The story is not a complex one, apart from the sad ending, which seemed tacked-on to give the story weight. Though, in fairness, this seems to be an inherited trait from the original. I think that someone back in the ’30s (Dorothy Parker, probably) realized there was no interesting way to end the story unless somebody died.
Well, it showed. The quality of the plot seemed soap-opera-ish to me. Indeed, I get the idea that the writers must have felt that what they had was rather saccharine, and so they were looking for a way to make it edgier.
The answer the writers appear to have hit on was to use the F-bomb as much as they possibly could. It is used as an intensifier when people are angry. It is used when they are not angry. It is used repeatedly in casual conversation, and for no apparent reason. An occasional “goddam” is sprinkled here and there, but this is the exception that proves the rule.
To be clear, I have no problem with strong language. There are times when the scene and the character demand the strongest obscenities a writer can command. These words exist in our language for a reason, and when the situation arises should be unhesitatingly deployed.
But the word is used too liberally here; and by many different characters. It is used so much it grates on the ear. At a certain point, I found myself wishing they would use a different word, any word, even if it were one more hideously offensive than the obscenity du jour, just to break the monotony.
And I hate to make this accusation; I really do–but I have to believe this was done just to make this “PG” story a solid “R”. There’s some brief nudity that I suspect was included for this reason as well. But that was only for a second; if they had taken the same approach to nudity as they did to language, everyone would have gone around naked for half the film.
(If anyone’s wondering, the single best use of an obscenity I’ve ever seen in cinema occurs in the comedy The Brothers Bloom. That’s some effective swearing.)
Again, it was not a terrible film, but I didn’t feel like it was a must-see. A decent romantic drama; nothing more. It felt overlong to me, but then, the easiest scenes to cut would be the songs, and I think everyone would agree those are also the best parts.
I’ll be honest: I wish they’d written a new story. Something else with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga singing, as opposed to just giving an old story a new coat of obscene paint. But I guess this theme is one that resonates with people, and has for a long time: the idea that a seemingly ordinary person can be elevated to the ranks of the wealthy and famous–it’s a quintessentially American rags-to-riches story, in the spirit of Horatio Alger, and therefore will probably always be popular.