Extras on major franchise home releases are for two kinds of people: Diehard fans and those under quarantine during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Since this applies to all of us right now, let’s talk about what’s packaged with the ninth installment in the Skywalker Saga: The Rise of Skywalker.
Back when my entire Catholic family was legally permitted to be in the same building at the same time, the movie industry —as well as Star Wars fans — was watching the March 17 digital release of TRoS with interest. This was the first new Star Wars film to enter a world featuring Disney+.
What would this mean? Would the movie reach Disney+ as a for-pay offering, or free? If free, when? If for-pay, how much? Would any of this make the re-appearance of Emperor Palpatine any less cringetastic?
Details on release
What happened instead was a global pandemic and the population of the entire planet running around while screaming, none of which, as of press time, have abated. Lucasfilm took on the convergence of these two events by dropping the (paid) release of TRoS early where digital releases are available and… that’s it.
It ain’t free on Disney Plus, and there’s no word on when it might be.
But in a world in which picking up groceries has become an event worthy of putting on the good yoga pants and taking photos for your lockdown scrapbook, that’s enough to make the CNN chyron crawler for at least 48 hours.
While the main documentary (which I reviewed here) and featurettes are beautifully shot, emotionally canted, and chock full of behind-the-scenes wonders, what’s truly deflating is what’s not included: Deleted scenes and a commentary from director J.J. Abrams.
A basic understanding of how Disney in general and modern Star Wars in particular operates suggests that these will probably appear with the Blu-Ray/DVD release, currently scheduled for the end of March — or even later, with a 3D edition, as was the case with Abrams’ The Force Awakens (Buy it once! Buy it twice! Buy the special editions five more times!).
However, if those expected goodies don’t appear by then, some fans wonder if this is evidence of rumored tensions between Abrams and Lucasfilm over micromanaging from the Mouse.
Where was the film edited?
I do know that the film was edited on set to meet a punishing and immobile release schedule, and while that’s not unheard-of in Hollywood, it applied needless pressure to a film that was not just a film, but a cultural event. It rendered an impossible task even tougher.
The heartbreakingly exhausted eyes and tight smiles of the cast which were so prevalent during the film release’s press tour are blessedly absent in these extras.
During filming, everyone seems to be having a lovely time, except, occasionally, Daisy Ridley, who was assailed by water cannons during TRoS’ not-really-final lightsaber battle.
In an interview, she reveals that she did not enjoy her experience with the water cannons. I can’t blame her. It was what every single person felt like coming out of this movie: Stunned, exhausted, overwhelmed, and at least a little moist.
Strong potential and straight nostalgia
TRoS’ extras point to the most prevalent problem with these films. This mishmash of a trilogy was attempting to resurrect a cultural phenomenon out of strong potential and straight nostalgia. What’s most frustrating is that the Disney trilogy had the ingredients of greatness: a spectacular new cast, all three main actors from the original films signed on, and Disney cash raining from the Lucasfilm sky.
A coherent three-part plot that sensitively intertwined the old and new cast was certainly possible — perhaps showing Leia as the fossilized, OK Boomer leader of a fat and sassy galaxy which has lost its way, Han as a restless elder with an identity crisis, and Luke struggling with loneliness as the sole remaining Jedi master — but, instead, their characters were either retreaded (General Leia), retreated (sad dad of divorce Han), or reshaped (Weird Uncle Luke).
Homages to the first films are mentioned again and again in the featurettes, and it seems the directive was taken somewhat too literally. This trilogy’s focus on the original characters and even repetition of their plots was so tight that the new cast seemed to be waving from the sides of the frame, struggling to lead in their own films.
The Rebellion-era heroes could well have nodded regally from box seats from time to time, involved in the plot but not anchoring it. Obi-Wan Kenobi, you will recall, functioned quite admirably as a Force ghost.
Star Wars: Saved By the Bell edition
With a few course corrections, weighty and satisfying arcs launched by the promising The Force Awakens were feasible — ones which paid enough respect to the original characters without hamstringing the new.
For example, Force-sensitive Finn might have struggled with his imprinted past and gone on to lead a First Order insurrection. In retrospect, the strikingly creative concept of a renegade, formerly faceless stormtrooper should have made this Finn’s trilogy, not Rey’s.
Hotshot pilot Poe could’ve bounced along at his side as a foil, lending big-picture battle leadership, even as the man who killed Finn’s friend in the first act of TFA. With overeagerness and valor, he pushes against an aging and intractable leadership personified in his mother figure, Leia (and not at the expense of building up out-of-nowhere and disposable characters, thank you very much).
And Rey and Kylo/Ben… eh, put the dyad at the head of the class at the Skywalker Jedi Training Academy or something as a pair of Dark Side-tempted students who have to figure out how to lead together. Every school needs a Jessie Spano and A.C. Slater vying to be student body president. Give them some classmates in the form of newcomers Rose and Jannah.
Han drinks in the background.
There: A somewhat serviceable plot cobbled together from Reddit, YouTube comments, and my bottle of SoCo. And I’m pretty much an idiot when it comes to fiction construction.
The world’s second most difficult job
Whatever you think of TRoS, in taking on the final part of Star Wars’ three trilogies, you must admit that Abrams agreed to the world’s most difficult job– right after completing the world’s other most difficult job. He was asked to bookend a sequel arc to Western Civilization’s most influential film trilogy with a middle act that divided the world’s most wide-ranging fandom as nothing ever dared.
Abrams was asked to act simultaneously as President of the United States, manager of New York Yankees, Queen of England, Pope, and opening act for Prince. He was destined to please precisely nobody.
The poor man did about as well as he could under the circumstances. Considering the fractured circumstances of the trilogy by the time he was handed the baton again, the roiled exhaustion of the fan base, and the way Disney reportedly stood over his shoulder, the affectingly earnest Abrams deserves credit for the film’s many merits.
Domhnall Gleeson’s hair, for example, looked terrific.
In the deadly interfan bickering after The Last Jedi, a reader asked me, “If you were in charge of the last Star Wars movie, what would you do?” and my answer was: “Vomit until I am dead.” Because that’s the only way out with the least amount of casualties.
But the fact that “Well, it could have been… worse” is even in the conversation is indicative of what these extras point to — that it was too late to take an offramp to mush this trilogy into the great series it could have been. And we’ll have to accept the net positives where we can.
I read parts of a reportedly early script. To spare you some of the horrifying details, some of which involve soup (I wish I were making this up), I’ll simply confirm for you that TRoS could indeed have been worse. Much, much worse.
J.J. Abrams isn’t a terrible person or even a bad director — he’s just not God. Surely we can forgive him for that.
We just can’t forgive him for sticking a pouting Luke Skywalker on that island in The Force Awakens to begin with.
Two forms of digestion
Like it or not, the matter of Luke on the island, and all the aliens he milked there, had to be addressed in this third act. To return to the two kinds of people discussed in the first paragraph, let’s examine the two ways one might digest the extras included in TRoS:
1) As a throwaway goodie a casual viewer watches with kinda-interest between checking the Reds score with one hand and checking the level of beer in a glass with the other.
2) An all-encompassing philosophical declaration on the state of Star Wars in the pre-age of coronavirus, which must be subject to speculation, freeze-frame analysis, and cross-referencing to current canon as well as expanded universe materials.
The good thing about Star Wars is that it can represent many truths to many people. The bad thing about Star Wars is that I am the second person, and writing this article, and you probably just came here to see whether Adam Driver’s shirt is on or not (Answer: On, but occasionally soaked).
A breakdown of Star Wars 9 extras
TRoS’ digital extras are — appropriately enough — incredibly frustrating if you have the Amazon Prime version, as I do. They’re crammed on to the end of the film as though part of the movie themselves, with no menu or chapter navigation, which means you’re doomed to re-watching the movie again, at least in fast forward, to get to them.
And since there’s a lot of impressive work in TRoS, that’s not entirely a bad thing, until you come to the scene which angers you the most (and this will be different for everybody), so I suggest asking a non-Star Wars obsessed friend to come over and FF for you.
I recommend this incredible badass, Eunice Huthart, who served as TRoS’ stunt coordinator. She shows up a lot in these extras, and she is really neat. I’m going to dress as Eunice during the next Halloween that we are permitted to leave our homes.
Now, when you have Eunice in your house and politely offered to throw your best pandemic snacks at her from six feet away, tell her to stop fast-forwarding when the messy part with the logos at the very end of the credits comes up. Not the initial card, DIRECTED BY J.J. ABRAMS, because not far behind is a list of Jedi Force Ghost Voices, and that’ll set everyone off all over again, and at this point, it’s just bad form to go on blaming J.J. for everything.
So, unless you’re using a cheat sheet like I am, you have no way of knowing what, precisely, the extras are, how many exist, how long they last, or even what they’re called. Therefore, I took it upon myself to name them. The Lucasfilm title is in parentheses.
‘They fly now?!’ (Pasaana Pursuit)
The Pasaana Pursuit featurette delves into how a certain sequence in TRoS was filmed and framed. As a short doc, it’s interesting, candid, and even winsome, showing how Abrams talked the actors through their movements. It charmingly reveals that even in this age of digital characters, some SFX still come down to a couple of giant fans and a team of stagehands jiggling the spaceship.
But the fact Pasaana Pursuit exists at all is immensely telling about the strained relationship between Lucasfilm and the fandom. More importantly, this featurette allows me to present you with a window on what life as a Star Wars fan is like here at the turn of the Freakout 2020s.
About a month before TRoS entered theaters, the chase sequence featured in Pasaana Pursuit was released as an extended teaser. It involved Rey, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, and the droids under fire from some First Order stormtroopers.
Well. They did. Just not the way Disney was likely expecting.
Midway through the scene, stormtroopers with jetpacks catapulted from the back of the First Order vehicles. The reactions of Chewbacca, C-3PO, Finn, and Poe, were varying degrees of shock and grim acceptance, with this line: “They fly now.”
Some words on Star Wars humor… it’s a delicate thing.
Just as there are two kinds of people watching movie extras, there are two types of Star Wars jokes: The kind that works and the kind that doesn’t.
The kind that works involves Harrison Ford and Oscar Isaac, and C-3PO kicking R2-D2, and that’s it. Ford and Issac are in cool possession of impeccable comic timing, and a mechanical English butler assaulting a beeping trash can is hilarious.
The kind that doesn’t work is every single thing else. I present to you BB-8 airsofting coins at various CGI casino patrons. Upon request, I’ll review the humor value of Young, Hot Obi-Wan Kenobi moments on an individual basis, with supporting presentations and supplementary evidence.
Personally, I placed “They fly now” in the works category. A major slice of the fandom, however, did… not:
That this reviewer’s initial reaction was to bury his head in his hands, remove his headset, and contemplate, with a great deal of sighing, the reality of life with this line now in it speaks worlds. With this third film not even out yet, this man was done. He was tired.
We were all so very, very tired.
If you doubt me on the widespread unpopularity of this moment within the fandom, “They fly now” became a meme in the approximate amount of time it took to load a screencap to Twitter.
There is, of course, more to this.
There always is.
The greater sin
There were two points of contention concerning “They fly now.” The first was, as mentioned, the perception that it simply wasn’t funny.
The second — and this was largely considered the greater sin — was that even within the terms of the established, up-to-the-second Lucasfilm canon, jetpacks were nothing to shriek over.
By Lucasfilms’ own timeline, losing it over the sight of jet packs is like someone expressing terrified amazement over a USB drive. Star Wars fans first saw jetpacks in a cartoon featuring Boba Fett during 1978’s infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (yes, “They fly now” was such a PR disaster it managed to drag THAT in). They were most recently seen in The Mandalorian.
This anomaly — one which was either a result of ignoring the extended universe or due to lack of research — wasn’t something a member of the general public or casual fan would notice, but the fanbase, the people buying the tie-in tee shirts and the licensed LEGO sets and the limited edition action figures… well, they did. And they were pissed.
Many felt insulted or ignored, all in the wake of stacking bodies and nursing wounds sustained during the Great Last Jedi Wars of 2017-2019.
So that Lucasfilm would choose to highlight this absolute dumpster inferno of a hype video is, to put it charitably, tone-deaf. It’s the equivalent of packaging a carefully crafted look into the creation of Boss Nass’ spittle with an Episode 1 DVD.
Anyway, to sum up, pursuant to the Ford-Isaac Corollary of What’s Funny in Star Wars, I thought “They fly now” was fairly amusing.
I said what I said.
This sand is different from the other sand (Aliens in the Desert)
There’s a reason why this franchise refuses, emotionally and pictorially, to leave Tatooine. Its sand has seeped into every part of the saga, with the sweeping dunes appearing even under the guise of other planets. Even The Mandalorian stopped by.
Since Tatooine already re-appeared as Jakku in The Force Awakens (poor Finn hangs a lampshade on the matter when he screams in frustration about “everybody wanting to go back to Jakku”), many fans were pre-wincing when yet another sandball showed up on the screen.
But this is another desert — different from the first desert and also the second desert. Tunisia and Death Valley provided the background for Tatooine, but Pasaana scenes were filmed in Jordan, where dramatic rock formations and crystalline sunlight are reminiscent of the American Southwest.
The attraction for Abrams and his fellow directors is understandable, even as he stood his actors in front of a green screen for some shots on the sand. He knew, as Lucasfims’ computer wizards did, that pixels can only provide so much natural light.
Within the fandom, this particular scene in TRoS is known as Star Wars Burning Man:
“Aliens in the Desert” details how The Kingdom of Jordan built a small town in the middle of nowhere for TRoS filming. The venture involved plumbing, helicopters, hydraulics, prayer tents, shipping containers, and metric tons of equipment. The Jordanian army got involved.
As in The Skywalker Legacy, Aliens in the Desert highlights the immense amount of work involved for just a few on-screen moments. Did you see baby aliens in these shots? There were baby aliens in these shots, controlled in a puppet trench especially created for their wee selves.
Also, Chewbacca is shown walking with a dainty black parasol, a visual I recommend to all human beings.
Cone Face (DO: Key to the Past)
When viewed in a string, it is at this point the behind-the-scenes featurettes begin to become exhausting, so I recommend against binging. Best wishes.
DO: Key to the Past discusses the creation of an abandoned ship which is… just kind of conveniently sitting there on top of an enormous outcropping for the good guys to find on Pasaana. I was so overwhelmed by then that I was momentarily lost as to who this belonged to and why it was important and even where we were. I had to look up a plot summary just to remember what the hell was going on in front of the scenes, let alone behind them.
Apparently, there was a Jedi hunter named Ochi, and this ship was the same ship that Rey’s parents were taken to, but the ship wound up here on Pasana, or… something… and… this was the whole movie, wasn’t it? Cramming 50 pounds of plot into just one of Poe’s little manbag utility pockets.
The ship was influenced by the design of the Apollo lunar lander. Which is cool.
But see, nuggets like this just roll past when you’re frantically trying to piece together who this guy is, where he came from, what’s happening now, and hey look the special effects crew used old-school forced perspective to get that ship up there on the mesa!
This little featurette also discusses D-O, a droid that has one wheel and is very cute. You can’t not like D-O, because he has one wheel and is very cute, but mostly because — this is a thing, I guess — he was an abused droid.
Poe calls him Cone Face, because ESTPs are into name-face memory hacks, I guess, and Poe’s at his slickest in TRoS.
“No thank you,” says D-O, backing up whenever anyone or anything approaches, dialogue you’ll be feeling a little too deeply if you fail, at regular intervals, to seal yourself into a sensory deprivation tank while absorbing this film.
It is telling that D-O is introduced when C-3PO is undergoing — traumatically and permanently, one presumes — a memory wipe. Rey sees this about to happen and seeks a quiet moment; hope swells in the viewer for maybe five consecutive seconds without explosions or plot-drops.
But no. Along squeaks D-O, who now we have to learn about and care for and fit into this ever-enlarging conglomeration of people, places, and things. There is no end to the nouns in TRoS. The speed at which the actual universe expands has absolutely nothing on the Star Wars galaxy.
Eight-year-old me is ecstatic about this endless cavalcade of content. Freakout 2020s me? Slow down, J.J. I have to have brain space left over to shred the census forms and occasionally rinse out the shot glasses.
The introduction of sweet little D-O is emotionally burdensome, not because he’s a mechanical shelter dog, but because he’s next in an apparently unending line of diminishingly small, increasingly adorable robots. Future trilogies will feature Micro Machines tagged after by nanobots.
This documentary reminds me of how I was suspicious I was of BB-8 when I first saw him rolling along the desert floor in The Force Awakens trailers; it seemed as if Lucasfilm had pieced together another R2-D2, only smaller and more darling — a pet for the pet droid.
Now the pet droid for the pet droid has a pet droid.
Hey Look it’s Warwick Davis (Warwick & Son)
This lovely featurette is about Warwick Davis, who has played many roles in the Star Wars saga, not the least of which was Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi. His son Harrison joins him in The Rise of Skywalker as… Wicket’s son.
Warwick & Son is chock full of vintagey goodness, including heart-tugging footage of the late Carrie Fisher playing with his hair during the shooting of RoTJ. “I do this for your entertainment,” he tells the camera as he’s foamed up for a modern-day costume fitting.
It’s a nice, quiet look back, and includes such fan-friendly moments as Davis (the elder) selecting just the right weapon for Wicket for this go-round.
I got no snark for Wicket.
Space Horses (Cast of Creatures)
“I want to prove to myself that I can put a lot into a tiny head,” one of the Lucasfilm’s creature shop experts says as he cobbles together Babu Frik.
Babu Frik is introduced not long after D-O, and he’s yet another candy bar on the pile of YOU WILL LOVE ME cutiepieness. And I can’t be mad. Look at him.
There’s no digital to Babu. He’s all robot, and all puppet, and voiced by actress Shirly Henderson right on set. That just a few minutes of the featurette were dedicated to this incredible creation (so tiny!) alone is a tribute to the truly stupendous skills of these engineers, performers, and artists.
“Cast of Creatures” lovingly mentions the stop motion of the original trilogy and draws a direct line to the many practical effects of the Disney films. Candidates for a more honest title include “This Poor Dude Inside the Suit,” because holy crap it’s got to be nasty in there.
A bit of time is also spent on the Orbaks, the space horses which thunder down the side of a First Order Star Destroyer because why not. Orbaks were played by actual horses and given costumes, which pretty much translated to extra mane.
It seems the designers originally attempted to give the Orbaks armored masks, and as a horse person, I could have told them how that was going to end. Very badly, I would have told them, and I would have been right.
The Space Horses just got more hair up top instead.
The One About John Williams (The Maestro’s Finale)
The Maestro’s Finale is a digital-only exclusive, which is a shame. This look at John Williams’ work on the Skywalker Saga —all nine main films — is a reverent send-off to our modern Tchaikovsky.
The Skywalker Legacy documentary takes a closer look at Williams’ cameo in TRoS, in which he plays Oma Tres (“Maestro”), surrounded by props representing his body of work.
The most interesting aspects of this featurette are the glimpses into Williams’ work method. He watches the unscored movie, all at a go, without seeing the script first (there’s wonderful footage of him doing so with The Empire Strikes Back, sitting on the same tan and black couch my aunt and uncle had in the ’80s. It was a great couch. John Williams deserves this couch).
Williams still also scores by hand, and listening to him describe the increase in the complexity he designed for Rey’s Theme is a fascinating class in music theory. In this way, Rey’s music echos the way she is styled through the three films — in a feminine manner, but powerfully, and never reduced to a simple collection of parts.
The Maestro’s Finale emphasizes that final scoring took place on November 21, 2019, just a month before the film opened. Part of me wanted to guide this dear of an old man back onto the tan and black couch and let him take a nap; the rest of me wants him around for infinity, to score everything, every time.
Williams is a factory of masterpieces. Not just music, but memorable, indisposable, so-perfect-you-don’t-even-notice-it music.
I’ve obsessed over Star Wars for almost thirty years. Sometimes I’m tired of Star Wars. Sometimes I’m angry with Star Wars. But the musical impact of Star Wars never ever wanes; even as we watched the documentary and the main theme began, Josh The Pilot reached for my hand, because… Star Wars main theme (I realize, however, that not every couple walked into their wedding reception to the Throne Room March).
Even more telling is that no matter how disappointed a viewer might be in the movie itself, Williams always found a way to wrap it in dignity. Episode 1 gave us JarJar Binks, yes, but it also gifted this world forevermore with Duel of the Fates.
And John Williams faced this difficulty eight times: He always had to score at least as well or better than the move which came before, and… how do you just… top the Star Wars theme? Who does this?
John Williams does this. In the trailers and the resolution of Kylo/Ben’s theme, familiar music is treated to a harmonic shift, which signals to the synapses and the emotions that hey, you recognize this Big Thing, but guess what, it’s kinda different, and even bigger. And it works.
In this way, then, John Williams is the true, steadily burning light of the entire Star Wars saga. Where even George Lucas torched his own creation and all-powerful Disney covered itself in Porgs trying to match his early genius, John Williams has never let us down, never let a moment founder despite itself, and never failed to find a way to turn a great scene into a cultural touchstone.
“I wish we had more to play,” he said as he laid down the baton.
No matter what else clatters around us, on-screen or off, we do, too.