MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

written by David Steffen

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the 9th and final movie in the “main” numbered episodes of the Star Wars Franchise that largely centers around the rebels vs the Empire. Between this and the last movie a strange message has been broadcast which has the appearance of being Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDirmid), the leader of the Empire in the original trilogy. Is this a hoax or has Palpatine actually survived somehow? It all appears to be part of a plan to take the First Order revival of the empire to again make it a galaxy-spanning dictatorship. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the leader of the First Order rises to take his place at the helm of this new Empire.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), the last Jedi after the death of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the previous film, is trying to complete her Jedi training under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, who had passed away before filming but is present in the film through repurposed footage from The Force Awakens). Rey and her fellow soldiers in the war seek out an Imperial Wayfinder, the only way they know to find the stronghold where Palpatine has supposedly been revived.

While the previous movie Episode 8, The Last Jedi, was directed by Rian Johnson, this one returned to being directed by J.J. Abrams (who directed Episode 7, The Force Awakens). The contrast is stark. Although there was a lot to love about The Force Awakens (primarily the more diverse cast) the plot had been very rehashed, almost an exact copy of A New Hope with different characters swapped in. The Last Jedi was probably my favorite in the series because I felt like it took more risks, told new angles on stories that weren’t just exactly what any fan could have guessed–it was clearly aware of the history of the movies and it played with those expectations by setting something up that you think you know where it’s going, and then going a different way instead. The Rise of Skywalker, you could tell it was back in Abrams hands primarily because it again did not take any risks, and largely did pretty much what any fan could have guessed. It had its moments, there were big epic battles with flashy special effects and some solid character moments, but overall it ended up leaving me feeling unaffected rather than moved. It felt like Abrams was trying to undo some of the amazing work from the last movie by suddenly downplaying characters that had played a huge role in the last one, retconning moments from the last one that were big character developments and trying to turn them into something trivial. I was hoping for something much more moving for the final installment of the main series.

If you’re a Star Wars fan I would certainly not try to talk you out of seeing it! It is the final installment after all! But, for myself, I might never rewatch this one, while I would happily rewatch The Last Jedi every week.

Ray Bradbury Finalists Review 2017

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is given out every year with the Nebula Awards but is not a Nebula Award in itself.  Like the Nebula Awards, the final ballot and the eventual winner are decided by votes from members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which despite the name has an international membership).

I like to use the award every year as a sampler of well-loved science fiction and fantasy movies from the previous year.  I have been very happy with this tactic, and this year is no exception.

Not included in this review is a nominated episode of The Good Place, because I don’t seek out individual episodes of TV shows for these reviews.  Also not included is Get Out because I haven’t managed to get hold of rentals yet (I’m hoping to rent it this week before the voting deadline, but I’m not sure if I’ll write up a review in time).


1. The Shape of Water (Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor)

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, lonely woman working as a janitor in a top secret government facility in Baltimore in the 1960s.  Generally ignored by the scientists and military men doing their work there, she witnesses the arrival of a strange man-shaped fish-like creature that was captured in South America.  She witnesses atrocities committed upon it in the name of science and in the name of the Cold War to get ahead of Russia, and she risks everything to be kind to the creature, offering it food and teaching it sign language in secret.  The connection becomes friendship becomes love, and she must make very hard decisions.

This was a superb film and I can see why it won the Oscar.  I was skeptical from the early discussion of it that they would be able to sell a romance with a fish-man without it turning out corny or unbelievable, but they did a great job expressing the appeal between the two characters, and selling us on why Elisa is willing to risk everything for him.  It’s certainly not romance-only, there is a lot of drama and action in there as well, and between everything there were moments where I caught myself holding my breath, or gasping aloud.  Excellent film, well done.  Guillermo del Toro continues do make incredible movies, and I always look forward to seeing his next.


2.  Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Written by Rian Johnson)

The latest in the Star Wars series, the second since Lucas handed the rights over to Disney, Episode VIII continues where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to seek her Jedi training.  Rey finds the The rest of the weakening New Republic led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is trying to hold itself together against the rising force of the First Order led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) as the young Darth Vader wannabe.  Finn (John Boyega), carrying the beacon that Rey will track to return, tries to leave the threatened Republic fleet, but is brought back by Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a loyal maintenance worker.  Together they concoct a crazy plan, something which is in no short supply with hotshot pilot Dameron (Oscar Isaac) Poe also trying to save the New Republic.

Opinions on this movie seem to be very polarized–either loved it or hated.  I loved it.  I thought there was more humor in this one than on average in the series, and the humor was played off well.  Much of the series was built on making some really stupid one in a million strategies and having everything work out perfectly, I felt like this movie made a nod to that tradition but made it so that the results of hare-brained strategies weren’t guaranteed, which I thought raised the tension as well as being a good basis for humor.  The diverse cast continues to be exciting and wonderful–as a woman Jedi main character, Finn continues to be likable and impressive, and the introduction of Rose Tico as a competent likeable maintenance worker contributing just as much as any of the rest of the cast.  The interaction between Rey and Luke was a great source of tension and humor in the movie, and we find out about the history between Luke and Kylo Ren.  Lots of great visual moments, great tension, fun movie.  I look forward to seeing Episode IX to round out the trilogy of trilogies.


3. Logan (Screenplay by Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green)

In 2020, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is in hiding in Mexico with an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) who can track the whereabouts of other mutants.  Something is wrong with Logan–his healing factor should allow him to live basically forever without aging, but he is aging, and he cannot bounce back like he used to.  He drives a limo to make ends meet, and spends much of his time in a drunken haze.  Charles has been having seizures that, combined with his psychic abilities, are paralyzing not just for him but for everyone within hundreds of feet from him, but the medication makes him confused and agitated.  As if they don’t have enough problems, they soon end up having a rebellious girl (Dafne Keen) without a name dumped on their doorstep, pursued by a militant group tasked with capturing her however they can.  The girl reminds Logan of himself in more ways than one–she has the healing factor, adamantium-plated skeleton, and arm-claws, and when cornered she fights like an animal, a formidable fighter despite her small size.  Logan, Charles, and the girl flee their refuge, following the scant rumors of a safe place for mutants in Canada.

Many of the other movies in the X-Men universe would be easily described as “fun” even when the consequences of the conflicts therein are catastrophic.  This movie is much more of a dark post-apocalyptic feeling film.  Everything starts out badly and only gets worse.  Logan, who we’re used to being the picture of health, and too stubborn to die, is ailing and has clearly had suicidal thoughts.  It’s hard to see him that way, and it’s hard to see Charles in such a sad condition as well, and that’s all before the mysterious girl brings a world of trouble into their lives.  The fight scenes in the movie are fast and brutal and don’t cut away from the killing like they have in previous movies–you see the consequences of those adamantium claws.  The ending was satisfying, and fit with the rest of the movie, but given the stakes and the desperate always fighting for that last grip on life tone of the whole film, it gets very dark, very quickly, and rarely surfaces from that.  It’s not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a feel-good light film, but I thought it was a solid entry in the X-Men series, most notable for how different it is from the rest of the series.



4. Wonder Woman (Screenplay by Allan Heinberg)

Diana (Gal Godot) is raised as the only girl among women on the secret isle of (apparently immortal?) Amazons, formed from clay by her mother and given life by Zeus.  They have been tasked with protecting the world from Ares who has long been determined to corrupt and destroy humanity, but their island is so masked from the outside world that they know nothing of the world outside until an American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane near the island and she saves him from drowning.  He tells the Amazons of the raging globe-spanning war going on, and Diana sets out with him into the world to find Ares and stop him from destroying the world with his war.

They’ve been talking about making a Wonder Woman movie for quite a while, and it always seemed to crumble before getting much of anywhere, so it’s great to see this finally hit the big screen, and looking great.  Wonder Woman is an old enough comic that it does run the risk of looking corny, but the writers and actors did a great job of making it fit the modern aesthetic without losing its roots.  I loved Gal Godot in this, as one who is both formidable but often naive because she’s never been out in the world, she doesn’t know the world’s current customs, and she has literally never met a man before.  She makes allies through her tough and straightforward nature, and heads straight into a war zone to meet her destiny, and you can’t get much more big hero than that.  It was a great movie, great to see an action movie with a woman as lead, and I look forward to future Wonder Woman movies.


written by David Steffen

The Last Jedi is Episode VIII of the main number Star Wars series, picking up soon after the events of The Force Awakens, and with many of the same characters as well as some new ones.  Rey has just arrived at Luke Skywalker’s secluded hideout to ask for training.  The First Order has broken the New Republic, so that all that’s left of the republic is very limited resources and people, and the First Order has taken over rule of much of the inhabited planets.  Kylo Ren continues to be a main figurehead of the First Order, even as young and inexperienced as he is, and he answers to Supreme Leader Snoke, his Sith master.

I quite enjoyed this latest entry in the Star Wars series, probably one of my favorite installments yet, in large part because it builds on the fun and adventure and strong characters of the previous versions, but it plays with expectations in interesting ways.  We have all been trained by past movies to expect that certain plot elements will be present, and when they’re present they will invariably turn out a particular way.  I’m not terribly opposed that style, especially for a movie like Star Wars that’s primarily meant to be fun and exciting, but at the same time it is refreshing to have those expectations played with.  I loved what they did with the Rey/Luke interaction, there were lots of fun epic battles, I loved what they did with the Rey/Keylo interaction, and I particularly loved the new character Rose Tico, a rebel maintenance worker who befriends Finn.  It was great to see Leia back, even though I was waiting to see how they were going to handle the story given the death of Carrie Fisher.

One thing that surprised me was that it seemed like there was a lot more comedy in this volume than in previous movies in the series, which I found a pleasant surprise.

I have heard some people say they didn’t like the movie for this reason or for that reason, usually citing plausibility reasons.  You can like or dislike a movie for whatever reason you like, but I admit I find citing plausibility as a reason for disliking The Last Jedi.  The entire series is based on implausibilities.  Laser swords.  Planet-destroying weapons.  Fatal design flaws in planet-destroying weapons that could’ve been prevented with a vent cover or a 90-degree angle in a vent system.  The plausibility issues are a Star Wars tradition.  As long as there’s lots of good characters and action and fun, I’ll forgive a lot of plausibility issues.

I would highly recommend seeing the movie.