STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Aims to Please, Mostly Misfires

The Skywalker saga comes to an sorry end — spoiler-free review

We all have opinions on cinema. Favorite films, genres we dislike, directors and writers we abhor or adore. We may watch a film and envisage something we’d do differently, but at the end of the day the films we view are largely the product of the writers and directors at the helm and their creative intent. Until now. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t come across as a cinematic vision, but rather the product of a checklist wherein director J.J. Abrams sought to satisfy generations of fandom built up around a revered franchise. The result is a messy, hollow endeavor, built on platitudes, lacking anything fresh or bold.

As alluded to in trailers, the opening crawl throws the orchestrator of the events of the original trilogy and the prequels immediately back into the mix. Emperor Palpatine’s voice has emerged from the outer rim, carrying with it a threat of his rebuilt power threatening to take over or destroy the remnants of the Republic. General Leia Organa looks to tackle this threat on two fronts, by galvanizing the resistance to seek out new information about Palpatine’s location and plans, and by continuing her mentorship of Rey, as she learns to control her Jedi powers.

Their best hope comes from resuming a search long abandoned by Luke Skywalker to find an ancient source of Sith power that could point the way to the fallen Emperor. Another is also intent on finding the source of this transmission: Supreme Leader of the First Order Kylo Ren, who is determined to not only extinguish this rival to his power, but to also hunt down the scavenger Rey who turned her back on him.

Were you to actually summarize the actual story of The Rise of Skywalker to someone, they’d think you’d lost the plot.

A hyperspace “light-skipping” sequence at the beginning is rather stunning, but an encapsulation of the frenetic hopping the film kicks off with, lurching from place to place, character to character (many of them new), in a convoluted and (pardon the pun) forced setup to get the players in this final part of the saga into position. Our heroes set out on fetch quests for various ridiculous MacGuffins (a mythical Sith dagger that also works like the doubloon from The Goonies being a standout), finding and overcoming an obstacle, finding a new MacGuffin, and repeat.

It’s a galaxy far far away from the relative simplicity of the ‘rescue a princess from a castle’ outline that drove the A New Hope. What adds to the clutter is the intentions of Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio to add scenes and even use fleeting moments to address minor issues or points of contention left dangling since 1977. It leads to a film that is part sequel, part fan film, part course correction (more on that later), all of which bogs it down as it ungainly moves towards its resolution.

There are some touching moments, some stunning visuals, and a fair amount of humor shines through on occasion. Much of the charm the film has comes courtesy of its cast, many of which were the strongest parts of the derivative The Force Awakens and something for which credit must be given to Abrams. Ridley carries a lot of the film with ease, Driver continues to show why he is one of the standout actors of his generation, but it’s Oscar Issac that steals the show with his roguish Poe Dameron stepping up to the plate in terms of leadership and wisecracking. John Boyega again proves his worth, but an interesting side-plot about his encounter with some other renegade troopers is given no real time to develop.

Chewie and C3-P0 provide plenty of comic relief too, but a great deal of emotional heft comes from a final turn from Carrie Fisher to craft a fitting and poignant ending for Leia. There is evidence the footage used is indeed being reworked from existing scenes rather than deliberately scripted, but it is done so in a considered and graceful manner. There are plenty of new faces too, notably Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), Beaumont KinAllegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) and Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan), but their time is so fleeting this assemblage of talent don’t get a real chance to make their mark. One addition that does, however, is the black market droid engineer Babu Frik who rivals Baby Yoda for best addition to the Star Wars universe this year.

Perhaps the biggest thing to address is the return of Emperor Palpatine, once again played with gusto by Ian McDiarmid. It’s a creative choice (generous wording) that lands with a thud. Little explanation is given for his return, his presence undermines the developed threat of the First Order and positioning of Kylo Ren/Rey over the preceding two films, and largely serves to reconnect the film into ideas of legacy and inheritance. His deployment feels more akin to a video game baddie than the master manipulator he is, which seems fitting given the quest-like structure the film kicks off with.

It’s worth addressing one more thing, comparisons to and the legacy of The Last Jedi. It was a divisive aspect I planned to avoid in this review but seeing as Abrams sometimes subtly, and oft-times bluntly, refers to or outright dismisses the preceding film in this new trilogy, let’s have at it. My review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi stated “as Abrams embraced the past (in The Force Awakens) putting familiar tracks on repeat, Rian Johnson riffs off and shreds them in ways that devastate and delight, while deepening the mythology of the franchise.” It is a film for which my appreciation has only deepened and this new outing only reinforces the approach of Abrams.

By regressing to what came before much of the nuance and conflict stoked is lost, the chemistry between Kylo and Rey fizzles out, the emotional weight dissipates into a hollow spectacle. Rather than taking advantage of what TLJ sets up, he walks back Rey’s parentage (and the uplifting message of heroism coming from anywhere), Luke’s human response to his own failure as a teacher, and when that can’t be done, he sidelines ideas or characters he has no idea how to handle (farewell Kelly Marie Tran, essentially).

Let’s be clear, it’s not just when comparing to Episode VIII that IX disappoints. Anything that occurs in TROS that might be considered bold is walked back soon after. Even in those immediate moments, such acts lack conviction and fall flat (the transport sequence, is all I’ll say). It’s remarkable how the film pulls every punch it could take while assuming that bigger means better. In the Abramsverse planets can be wiped out with ease but none of this carries the weight of the destruction of Alderaan. George Lucas had the Journal of the Whills, a overarching plan that gave a foundation to the trilogy and prequels. J.J. Abrams doesn’t even have a clue what the Knights of Ren are meant to be nor how to use them. The Rise of Skywalker is a patchwork effort to cram in the last word on everything and cobble this trilogy together. Rather than achieving that, it just highlights filmmaking without conviction or true purpose.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is stunning in how something can be so epic and yet entirely hollow and devoid of risk and adventure. It’s not just an underwhelming Star Wars entry, but a poor exercise in filmmaking and fan service. J.J. Abrams’ intent on Force feeding you nostalgia is hopefully at an end and whatever future the Star Wars universe holds, let’s hope it offers up something bold and new. It needs it.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens December 20th

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