5 Ways Movies Screw Up Exciting And Emotional Scenes
Movies keep taking cues from older movies and hoping you don't notice. And that's fine! Copying predecessors can actually be a good way of discovering what makes successful movies work.
But you know what else is a good way of discovering what makes successful movies work? Looking at how movies try to copy predecessors ... and totally fail in the execution. So join us as we compare some good famous movie scenes to eerily similar awful ones.
Note: We're not going to compare low-brow offerings to life-changing, brilliant art. That's not fair. Today, we're just looking at blockbusters. Such movies use simple tricks to hit you emotionally. And simple tricks should not be so easy to screw up.
Palpatine's Defeat In Rise Of Skywalker Looks A Whole Lot Like Thanos' In Endgame
Quite a few people have pointed out the similarities between these two movies' big showdowns. The villain on the left says, "I am blah blah blah," and looks about to kill the hero. Then the bloodied hero on the right responds, struggling against the creeping electricity, "And I ... am blah blah blah," and wins using a hidden weapon:
Now, we're not here to chart out reshoot schedules and determine whether one Disney movie really plagiarized another. But just check out how the Star Wars scene used the exact cadence of the Avengers one and yet somehow copied none of the aspects that made it work.
First, look at the dialogue. Endgame took the line "I am inevitable" (which doesn't really mean a whole lot of anything) and strategically placed it in two spots in the film before the finale, driving it into our heads. "I am Iron Man," of course, has been in our heads for more than a decade. Neither line, incidentally, has any significance to the other person in the scene, making this exchange of catchphrases utter nonsense as a conversation, but that's not important. What's important is that we feel meaning behind the lines and see each one as summing up one character.
The Star Wars lines, on the other hand? "I am all the Sith" and "I am all the Jedi," mean "I'm bad" and "I'm good," for what that's worth. But this talk about each character somehow having the power of everyone on their side was an idea introduced just minutes ago, one we're still puzzling over at this point. There's nothing satisfying about hearing these lines.
Then there's the weapon reveal. Tony has the magic glowy things that characters spent this whole movie getting ... and which characters spent the whole previous movie getting, and really the whole movie series getting. So yeah, we know that's a big deal. On the other hand, Rey has a second lightsaber? Uh, not sure why we're supposed to be excited about that. That evil robot from Revenge of the Sith had a whole collection of lightsabers on him, and that didn't do him much good. This entire movie's plot was about Rey hunting down a magical item, by the way, but they didn't set it up so that item came into play in this fight.
And when we hear Tony's line and see those stones, we know he's about to die in a sacrifice, and so that's really a big deal. Now, I kind of have a pet peeve about heroic sacrifices, and I've written several times about how this one was needless, but when a character sacrifices themselves, the audience feels that. But Rey gathering up the strength to kill Palpatine? Uh, real hard to feel anything momentous about that. That's something he actually asked her to do just a couple minutes earlier.
But that's not the only bit of Endgame that made its way into this movie …
The Cavalry Arrival In Rise Of Skywalker ALSO Looks Like The Counterpart From Endgame
Here too, the similarities between the two movies really are striking. As the good guys are hopelessly outnumbered, we get a close-up shot of our hero, looking to the right. Then his earpiece crackles and he gets an unexpected transmission from a buddy. Suddenly we see an overwhelming number of supporters teleport in to the battlefield. As our pals in The Editing Room point out, in both movies, the transmission announcing help even comes from The Falcon.
While we don't have a video comparing the Avengers: Endgame portals to Star Wars, it's telling that if you just type "on your left rise of skywalker" into YouTube, they'll give you the right scene:
But the Endgame portals scene is about more than just help arriving. It's also the return of the vanished. It shows the heroes succeeded at the movie's quest. I've previously argued that the movie falls short when it comes to showing trillions of people returning all over the universe, but it does show the heroes' snapped friends returning, and that's why this scene feels so powerful. Over in Star Wars, the thousands of ships also represent something. They tell us the rebels have supporters. But it's not like this movie was all about rallying those supporters. In fact, Lando's ability to round up support in a matter of hours renders just about every previous struggle in this trilogy absurd.
We also respond to the Avengers scene because we see a bunch of familiar faces, and that would feel good even if these weren't lost souls retrieved from the void. In Star Wars, we just see a bunch of faceless ships (with the exception of Lando of course, and of one single ship with Poe's ex). But Star Wars totally could have shown us a bunch of familiar faces here, if they wanted to. These are supposed to be supporters from all over the galaxy, and we have years of movies to pull those from. Close-ups could have shown us one ship piloted by Wookies, one piloted by Gungans, and one by a bunch of Hutts in gangster hats and carrying revolvers.
This would have been very stupid of course, but that's not a reason to reject it. If they were aiming for fan service, they should have really gone for it. And speaking of familiar faces ...
Rey Is Guided By The Dead Returning, Like Harry Potter
We're going to switch gears a little now and talk about something different: the 2019 Star Wars film The Rise of Skywalker. At her lowest moment, to get the strength to face Palpatine again, Rey is guided by the voices of the dead, including characters we recognize. It reminded me of Harry Potter getting guidance from the ghosts of his parents, Sirius, and Remus right before he faces Voldemort in the final movie. The difference, though, is Harry converses with people who mean something to him. With the exception of Luke, Rey has zero idea who any of these dead Jedi even are.
But we know the dead Jedi, right, so that's something. Except, here too, Skywalker falls short. In the Harry Potter scene, we get to actually see the characters as ghosts. We get to see, visually see, the return of characters we like. In Star Wars, bafflingly, we don't, even though we have ghosts and self-made visions of dead people elsewhere in this very movie.
They actually got Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Frank Oz, Liam Neeson, Samuel Jackson (and of course Mark Hamill) to record voice lines, but they chose not to film the actors and show them all together as ghosts. Even though just about all of these actors have said they want to return to Star Wars, or have even already signed up for TV series. Why? Was it just a matter of money? It wouldn't even have to look good, since they're ghosts, you could shoot them separately and let it look all fuzzy.
There are fan edits out there showing force ghosts all helping out in the fight. Maybe that would be too much, but then there's the below video that plays old clips alongside the voices, to mock up how Rey could have seen these characters as visions. There were so many ways to do this if they wanted the returning characters to move us (which they clearly did):
Aside from the fan service, the Harry Potter scene beats this one because the dead really are guiding him about something. They're guiding him on how to die. Again, I'm not personally a fan of movie heroic suicides (Harry Potter has its cake and eats it too by letting Harry come back to life afterward), but that way, it means there really is something significant about conferring with the dead. They help Harry do the sort of thing Voldemort wouldn’t, because Harry's good. In Star Wars, the wise dead Jedi just convince Rey that she's strong enough to ... get up and kill that guy.
There are like a dozen Star Wars movies, and none of them besides this one ends with "and then the hero is strong enough to kill the bad guy." These ghost guides don't convince Rey she's better than Palpatine, just that she's stronger than him because she has more people backing her up. Almost like there is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it.
A Memorial For The Dead Hero, Burying Their Keepsakes, Like In Gladiator
Okay, the game's up now. This article isn't an analysis of a bunch of different films. It's only about Rise of Skywalker. Specifically, it's only about the END of Rise of Skywalker. And the very final scene of Rise of Skywalker is Rey burying Luke and Leia's lightsabers. She covers them with sand then goes off on her own, as we look up at the sun.
We've had a bunch of movies end with funerals, but I was reminded of the end of Gladiator (4:30 into the video below). Djimon Hounsou's slave character buries in the sand two wooden figurines belonging to the dead Maximus. Then he leaves to go on with his life because he's free now.
It can make for a good ending, the impromptu memorial for one character and then a far shot of another character leaving. Logan did something similar. These work well when the dead character is the main character, because you end the film by focusing on their importance, with the side character mourning as an epilogue, someone minor whose story goes on. And yet I'm pretty sure Luke was not the main character of this movie (he wasn't even alive in it) nor of this trilogy (he was alive and had lines in just one of the movies).
Okay, I'm playing dumb here—we all know why they wanted us lingering on Luke and Leia in the final moments. Nostalgia weighed down this whole trilogy, and this movie in particular, but let's leave that criticism for another time. Let's accept that they wanted to end the movie with us mourning Luke. Was this a poignant way to do it?
Compared to the Gladiator mourning scene, it feels hollow. Rey isn't a lowly character honoring Luke and Leia in her own humble way. She's a war hero and was probably present at the large funerals that both characters (definitely Leia anyway) got. Tatooine is not a good spot for a memorial—as many others have pointed out, Luke hated the place, and Leia hated it even more, knowing it only from her short time there as a sex slave.
And let's talk about those keepsakes that get buried. In Gladiator, they're symbols of Maximus' family. They have no value, only sentimental significance, so upon seeing them buried, sentimentality is all we feel. The lightsabers? Lightsabers don't represent a person. Luke's was made by his father long before he was born, he used other ones too while alive, he cast this one aside for many years, and he most recently appeared to will it to Rey, to use.
That's a valuable tool you're burying, Rey. It was so valuable that you reassembled it, after Luke died, after breaking it in the last movie. You should keep it, for combat or household chores, or you could gift it to an apprentice. Burying it as a memorial is like solemnly burying a giant pile of money to rot. Which, to be fair, is a dumb thing we could totally see a movie doing. Remember Titanic, where Rose tossed that diamond in the ocean? Ha, ha!
Wait. Titanic makes me think of something else ...
The Heroine, Now Alone, Takes The Name Of A Dead Man
The closing line "Rey ... Rey Skywalker" has earned a ton of mockery, but the basic idea of a character ending by switching last names is fine. Take Titanic, where a steward asks Rose her name. Instead of saying her real name "Rose DeWitt Bukater," a name I had to look up, she replies with "Rose Dawson."
She chooses a new name because she's starting a new life. She's choosing freedom, and looks at the Statue of Liberty while saying her new name ... then the camera shows the Statue of Liberty again, in case you missed it the first time.
Now, if that sounds like I'm mocking the symbolism as unsubtle, I'm actually not. Symbols are meant to be understood, and there's every chance that you did miss what it meant till the second shot because the statue fits so naturally into the scene even if it symbolized nothing. Also fitting naturally: the steward asking her name. That had to happen aboard the rescue ship and so doesn't feel contrived at all. But if it's subtlety you want, note that (despite what the meme above says), she doesn't say "Rose. Rose [pause for suspense] Dawson." She says, "Dawson. Rose Dawson." We're seeing the name change when it make sense to reveal it, but she already decided it.
Then we have Star Wars. A woman asking Rey for her name, and then her last name, does feel contrived. If this traveler really is a stranger, her last name will mean nothing to you, lady—and instead of interrogating her, you should fear this trespasser with a laser sword, and you should flee. Rey pauses for 25 seconds between saying "Rey" and then finishing with "Skywalker," during which the horsewoman just waits.
Above all else, a name change signifies change of course, and this scene doesn't show much of that for us. Rose, alone and unidentified, hair down in the rain? That's a big change from how she was when she was DeWitt Bukater. Rey, alone and unidentified, in the desert with a robot? That's not a change, that's how she started this story.
As for the choice of the name "Skywalker," lots has been said already about how dumb this is, so I won't break down why the name doesn't really mean "Jedi" or "rebel" or "Leia's heir." I'll just point out that it's possible for a name change to represent some bond between characters that the audience cares about (like in Titanic), and we don't have that here. In the writers' defense, maybe Disney started with the title Rise of Skywalker and then forced the writing team to write in a justification. Starting with the title only occasionally leads to a successful movie. Like Snakes on a Plane. Or, I guess, Titanic.