REVIEW: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

A message is transmitted through space: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), ruler of the once-defeated Empire, has somehow survived certain death and now threatens the galaxy again. While the First Order’s Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) races to hunt Palpatine down, members of the Resistance – Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Finn (John Boyega) – launch a last-ditch effort to finally defeat the First Order.

The Rise of Skywalker is the third and final film in Walt Disney’s sequel trilogy to George Lucas’ famous Star Wars saga. It also acts as the ninth film in Lucas’ saga overall, forming the culmination of a triple trilogy of epic adventure in which two out of five members of the Skywalker family turn out so murderously evil that the galaxy would have been better off had Qui-Gon Jinn offed little Anakin in his sleep all the way back in 1999’s The Phantom Menace. My first and primary recommendation on The Rise of Skywalker is this: don’t bother watching unless you have already done your homework. This is a film entirely concerned, and understandably so, with closing doors and putting toys back into their box. Does this mean Star Wars is done for good? Of course not, but it hopefully does mean a proper expansion of its fictional universe beyond the Skywalkers.

Writer/director J.J. Abrams was given an unwinnable battle with this film. He directed the first of Disney’s sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, and in keeping with his television works Alias and Lost he packed it with open-ended questions and mysteries. Who was this mysterious young woman Rey, abandoned by her parents on a desert planet and inexplicably drawn to the Force? How did Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, lost by his son Luke – along with a hand – on the planet Bespin, wind up abandoned in a chest in a storage room in the bowels of a jungle planet bar? Who was the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, a scarred alien gifted in the dark side of the Force, and how did he seduce Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son Ben? Why did Luke Skywalker hide himself away on a distant planet rather than fight to save the galaxy from the new Empire-in-all-but-name First Order?

It was Rian Johnson who wrote and directed The Force Awaken‘s sequel The Last Jedi, and given free rein chose to answer precisely one of those questions. The answer he gave – that Luke had abandoned the Jedi Order after almost killing his nephew Ben – displeased an entire section of Star Wars’ most ardent fans. Other questions he not only failed to answer on Abrams’ terms, but entirely deflated: Rey is told her parentage is dull and ignominious, and Snoke is unexpectedly killed off to render any questions over his origins moot. The true focus of The Last Jedi was the subversion and ultimate democratization of Star Wars mythology, making it very clear that anybody could be a hero and that being a Skywalker was not particularly special. It unshackled Star Wars from its back story and opened it up to enormous creative possibilities. While an admirable goal, it did so an entire film too early, and that left Abrams with a ninth film that was arguably narratively redundant and with a noisy sub-section of the fanbase throwing tantrums all over the Internet.

That this review has run more than 500 words to address two earlier films is ultimately the strongest explanation of why The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be an unholy mess. It does remain a broadly enjoyable film, with pitch-perfect sequences resonating with earlier films and various elements drawing in an enormous amount of nostalgia. At the same time it is too long, weirdly paced, and overwhelmingly too busy. Essentially, however, with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi clashing so badly with one another in content and style – and it’s important to stress that I deeply enjoyed both of them, this was still and always going to be the final film that we were going to get.

Abrams and screenwriter Chris Terrio take what they must from The Last Jedi. Luke and Snoke remain dead. The First Order remains ascendant. They otherwise not only discard Johnson’s film but actively seem to beat it up via dialogue. Significant moments of character development are abandoned: Luke’s Obi-Wan-style ghost apologises to Rey for being wrong. Kylo Ren has his helmet rebuilt. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the best new character of Last Jedi, is sidelined to near-cameo status in what looks too much like a concession to the sexist sub-group of fans that complained about her presence so much in the first place. Her budding romance with Finn is also dropped, with the latter returning to his Force Awakens pining after Rey. It feels like a back-and-forth act of franchise sabotage: Rian Johnson flies in the face of Abrams’ narrative arc, so Abrams returns and renders Johnson’s film all-but-irrelevant.

What is developed in its place is one of the messiest and most-rushed blockbuster films I can remember seeing. Palpatine has returned, with all of the logic and explanation of Ralph Wiggum in The Simpsons‘ Bible stories episode (“Ralph, I thought you were dead!” “Nope!”). Before the viewer has had a chance to settle down, Kylo Ren is already tracking down and confronting the former Emperor, Rey is being trained in the Jedi arts by Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), and Finn, Poe, and Chewbacca are racing around the galaxy gathering intelligence while fleeing the First Order’s TIE Fighters. The film opens at a breakneck pace, and runs with such ferocity that by the halfway point it feels like the audience has already seen two-and-a-half film’s worth of plot. One imagines there is a four-hour rough cut sitting somewhere in a vault, since one cannot imagine a film this fast and vague was deliberately made. The theatrical cut reeks of savage edits and emergency reshoots. The few sequences featuring Carrie Fisher are awkwardly cut around deleted scenes from The Force Awakens and feel deeply uncomfortable to watch.

Despite its significant faults, The Rise of Skywalker ultimately provides an entertaining two-and-a-half hours in the cinema and wrap up the so-called Skywalker Saga with plenty of emotional moments. I am not convinced that J.J. Abrams can plot a narrative, but he can direct the hell out of a scene. The film hits numerous beats that provide wonderful little bursts of enjoyment, to enough of an extent that – assuming the viewer keeps their overall expectations in check – it provides a fun sort of theme park ride. One skill he has demonstrated in spades is an ability to cast a film well: Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley in particular act the hell out of their scenes together, while their broad supporting cast is packed with the likes of Richard E. Grant, Domnhall Gleeson, Billy Dee Williams (returning as Lando Calrissian from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), and Ian McDiarmid. The actors paper over a lot of the cracks left in the script, while the treasure hunt storyline offers plenty of opportunities for action sequences, chase scenes, and lightsaber fights. The production design and photography is pure eye candy. John William’s final-ever film score is predictably excellent. The screenplay is broadly speaking terrible, but the cast and crew at least work hard to give the film a quality shine.

Describing The Rise of Skywalker as a good film is to be overly charitable, but it is easier to describe it as a fun one. Spaceships fly around. People exchange gunfire in pitched battles. Good battles evil, and destinies are resolved. This Disney-backed sequel trilogy has been a rough and uneven ride, but it has entertained us pretty well over the past five years – and with the Skywalker soap opera now tidily underway, it will be interesting to see where Disney takes the saga next.

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