Movie Review – Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise Of Skywalker

Principal Cast : Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kellie Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams.
Synopsis: The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga.

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Warning: This review contains heavy spoilers for The Rise Of Skywalker. It also assumes you’ve seen The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi

The Rise of Skywalker is the culmination of billions of dollars, years of creative work, and countless blog posts, tweets and social media dissection of the new Disney trilogy of Skywalker-themed Star Wars films, which began with 2015’s The Force Awakens, continued with Rian Johnson’s masterful The Last Jedi, and now concludes with JJ Abrams returning to the director’s chair. After the events of The Last Jedi, the galaxy is in a dire state, with the First Order effectively routing the Resistance on Crait and scattering its remaining forces into the stars. Johnson’s film was famously divisive among fans – and continues to be a sore point on whatever social media platform you deign to reside – but it took what Abrams set up in Awakens and delved deeper into the mythology of Rey and her link to Luke Skywalker, the former Jedi Master living as a hermit on a distant planet. It was also a subtle examination of family, destiny, and how who we are is our life’s propulsion through this world. Due to Johnson’s film being so divisive, The Rise of Skywalker has to accomplish a lot, wrap up a load of story points, and satisfy the divided fanbase with something akin to a minor miracle.

A year after the Battle of Crait, the Resistance continues to plan for their attacks on the First Order. Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her training as a Jedi, and has become quite powerful, whilst her friends Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) continue to work with General Leia (Carrie Fisher, whose performance is drawn from unused footage from the previous films in this trilogy, following her untimely passing in 2016) to locate a mysterious clue to find a secret location of the Sith. Unbeknownst to them all, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has followed his own path to a distant world known as Exegol, where he learns that the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) still lives, and has built an armada of super Star Destroyers with which he plans to annihilate the Resistance and restore the Sith rule to the galaxy.

I’m of a mind to think that Disney really had no choice but to make The Rise Of Skywalker as apolitical and undemanding as they could. Johnson’s Last Jedi, a film I still stand by as one of the best Star Wars films ever made, behind only Empire Strikes Back in terms of thematic structure and overall emotional impact, indisputably split the fanbase right down the middle. Many, like myself, loved that it was different and darker, and deeper than any Star Wars film had been before. Others felt the film deviated too far from what George Lucas had envisioned, and claimed that Johnson effectively threw out everything JJ Abrams had set up in The Force Awakens. Which was kinda true: The Last Jedi trashed Kylo Ren’s helmet, got Luke to ditch his lightsabre over a cliff, and gave us the infamous Force Skype methodology whereby two Force users can “speak” to each other across the vast gulfs of space – the latter of which I really thought was cool. Abrams, clapping back to Johnson’s treatment of characters he created, restores the balance a little by having Kylo Ren’s helmet restored (albeit damaged), call out the treatment of a lightsabre “needing respect”, and giving Chewbacca, the series’ indistinguishably verbal soul, a much needed moment of gravitas at the passing of a beloved character (remember, Leia walked right past him at the end of Force Awakens when Han is killed, to hug Rey for some reason, which caused a significant pushback from the fanbase). You get the sense that Disney felt they had to right the ship, so to speak, after The Last Jedi’s brave storytelling trajectory failed to score big with everyone.

And so The Rise Of Skywalker feels terribly rushed. It’s a film containing at least two separate films’ worth of story, crammed into a two-and-a-half hour running time (including credits), and feels desperately in such a hurry to get to where it needs to in order to fulfil the mandate that this series be a trilogy. The arc of several characters needs resolving – who are Rey’s parents, and why should we give a crap, will Finn ever profess his love for Rey and will she reciprocate, and can Poe make it as a leader, whilst Kylo Ren, aka Ben Skywalker, finds his own personal demons returning to haunt him following a fairly passive role in The Last Jedi. Remember, these are characters we’ve invested in across two legitimately excellent films, so the payoff needs to work and work well, because there’s no do-over or another film: this is the climax of a nine-film saga, which means the story needs to legitimately put a full stop at the end of the Skywalker story. JJ Abrams isn’t a stranger to big, operatic space stories, what with his work on the first two rebooted Star Trek films, finding an audience from within the notoriously prickly fanbase of that franchise. He knows how to build tension, knows how to craft a scene that works for maximum impact and delivers both character and story to razor-sharp degree. The Rise Of Skywalker should have been a home run for him. It isn’t.

The script here, by Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio (who also wrote Batman V Superman for Zack Snyder), is problematic in a couple of noticeable ways. First, the story never stops. I mean it never slows down, never takes a pause, never allows the film (or the characters) to breathe a little between chases, battles and enormous amounts of convenience and contrivance. Even the opening scrawl reveals that the Emperor has made his presence known to the galaxy – seriously, the Big Bad of the entire franchise returns offscreen? In the opening text? Fuck off, seriously? Okay, so with that out the way, the film launches into cutscene followed by cutscene as Kylo Ren journeys to the Emperor’s lair on Exegol, a planet so foreboding and so malevolent its defining characteristics are continuous lighting and a bowel-trembling low-frequency roar. Inercutting this furious, nonstop action with the Resistance, Rey’s training, and the search of a mysterious dagger whereby Rey can find the Emperor’s lair, the film never slows even for a moment. It’s a frustrating affair, really, because moments of reverence, awe or respect for the characters and the story are lost between the franchise’s patented transitional wipes and Abram’s refusal to take his foot off the editorial gas. As I said, he’s got soooo much story to get through to bring this thing to a close, he hasn’t a choice.

The second thing that annoyed me was the reduction of the three leading characters to their most basic form of exposition. Rey, Poe, Finn, the Emperor or Kylo Ren never speak dialogue, they speak exposition. There’s a difference; dialogue allows the character to grow, while exposition allows the character to go. Every single scene is built on exposition and getting our characters to their next scene, not to grow them as people or robots or whatever it is they are that we’re supposed to care about. By doing this, Terrio and Abrams neuter the characters’ established subtleties and nuances, turning them into jokey, shouty shadows of their former selves. Unresolved plot threads and character elements formed in Force Awakens that were jettisoned in The Last Jedi make a return here, often quite haphazardly and without tact, such as the friendship between Finn and Rey supposedly leading to a romantic relationship: at one point, near death, Finn almost reveals his true feelings for Rey, which is alluded to later in the film before never being resolved one way or the other at the end at all. It’s this kind of in-the-moment frustration with the script, how it simply exists to serve each moment without considering the overall story, that baffled and disappointed me.

This is the point I’m really trying to make: The Rise Of Skywalker feels like Abrams was trying to make out as though The Last Jedi didn’t exist. Had Abrams directed the second film in this trilogy, it feels like a lot of the material and preamble in this film would have been used at that time. Which is flat-out infuriating to me as a fan of The Last Jedi, because that is a great Star Wars film. The Rise Of Skywalker rejects everything thematic about The Last Jedi (excepting the fate of the characters within it) and veers back onto the adrenalized, heavy-petting fanwank side of the Disney-brand debate. Oh wait, I totally forgot that Kylo Ren was Han Solo’s son – this film returns to that well suddenly, given it was mostly absent in Last Jedi – and that his conflicted relationship with his parents formed the basis of his own neuroses, something which needs time to flex on screen to allow an audience to grab onto it. In The Rise Of Skywalker, this subplot is given almost no time to really gestate before being resolved, gratingly and with an enormous hyperbolic shrug of the shoulders. Had Abrams directed all three films, one suspects the bad taste of The Last Jedi could have been avoided, and that’s something I think Disney regret enough to turn this film into a really lazy “apology film” to satisfy the four quadrants. The reveal of Rey’s true lineage, whilst surprising, also isn’t afforded the gravitas it needed. Think of how Luke reacted to discovering Vader was his father. The corresponding scene in The Rise Of Skywalker is given exactly 10 seconds of time to land before we’re off into more exposition and plot mechanics. Honestly, I was shocked (pleasantly) when it was revealed, and I’d love to have had time to really imbibe such information: alas, we’re onto more Sith-ing and simpering Emperor shenanigans and that can’t stand in the way of the film’s breakneck pace.

Tapping into the nostalgia factor again, Abrams takes us back to the crashed Death Star near Endor, where he celebrates the past by allowing our memory of the Vader/Luke fight in the throne room to elevate a fairly insipid sequence of unending lightsabering. We get more glimpses of Original Trilogy iconography, notably the various X-Wing and Y-Wing derivations, as well as a number of cameos eagle-eyed fans will enjoy. Part of the fun of the franchise has always been glimpsing the past in the corner of the frame, although in this instance Abrams one-ups the return of Yoda in The Last Jedi by giving us a brackish Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, who looks like he’s still having a blast with the role) reprising his turn as the former pilot of the Millennium Falcon (which, by the way, is treated so badly in this film I’m surprised that hasn’t caused more backlash), and the throwback to already established characters like Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Katana, Kelly Maire Tran as Rose, and Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux. The treatment of Hux in this film is awful: a character with huge potential and interest reduced to snivelling and a presumptive death that isn’t built to, isn’t given any time to unfold, and isn’t worthy of all he’s been through in the previous films.

Newcomers to the franchise include Naomi Ackie as some nameless ex-Stormtrooper (like Finn) stuck on the crashed-Death-Star-planet, for some reason, and the always excellent Richard E Grant as Allegiant General Pryde, easily the sequel trilogy’s more venal and ruthless villains. Grant’s work, while limited to snarling through each scene he has, is terrific and justifiably memorable, while Ackie’s is less so. You almost see the start of construction on an entirely new subplot story when she appears on screen, but because of the film’s breathless pacing it never goes anywhere or becomes important enough to remember. Keri Russell must be ruing signing onto this film for all the good her character brings; hidden behind a mask almost the entire time, Russell’s performance hinges on a hitherto unseen past with Poe that feels too contrived to really hit home. Frankly, she’s there to simply boost the character roster for the inevitably convoluted and overburdened climax. And the much vaunted Knights of Ren, hinted at in The Force Awakens and never seen again? They return here in a more forceful mode, but are practically useless for all the Bad Guy stuff they accomplish.

On a positive note, John Williams’ orchestral score is beautiful, harkening back to the original trilogy mostly, although “Rey’s Theme” pops in to dominate at times. I didn’t note any reprise from Prequel Trilogy scores but a touch of “Duel Of The Fates” towards the end would have at least had been apropos of the dichotomy of the film’s very existence. The CG effects and production design are all of a high quality, and the landscapes Abrams delivers, together with the beautiful cinematography by Dan Mindel make for visually arresting viewing. The sound design is truly thunderous, from the enormous space battles to the copious lightsabre fights (which go on, and on, and on, to be honest) to the return of Kylo Ren’s awesome enhanced voice when he’s got his mask on, it’s a surround sound lover’s wet dream to sit inside an auditorium and hear it all together.

The Rise Of Skywalker will do more to hurt the Star Wars brand than anything The Last Jedi or aborted Solo movie could accomplish. As the climax of a thoroughly unneeded sequel trilogy it’s a child’s crayon drawing with characters from a place of legitimate operatic literature. Rey, Finn and to a lesser degree Poe are all compelling characters in their own right, who by pure chance had really good character arcs in the first two films (irrespective of whether you think The Last Jedi serviced your hopes and dreams correctly). With this film, they’re reduced to barely recognisable superficiality, shadows of their former selves forced to bend to the will of a studio desperate to rekindle interest in their prestige brand. [Side note: it’s interesting that the seventh episode of The Mandalorian series debuted the same week as this film; in that episode, Baby Yoda uses the Force to heal a critical wound on another character, something we’ve not seen before on-screen to my knowledge. Rey repeats the feat in this film, and I think had Baby Yoda not done so merely days prior to this film’s release, the fan outrage at Rey’s “Mary Sue” accomplishment might have burned down the internet. Wise move by Disney to bring this into Force canon in such a clever manner.]

With its refusal to give the audience time to find their footing, or the characters time to marinate in the plot and story given them, The Rise Of Skywalker is to Star Wars what Season 8 of Game of Thrones was to that property: rushed, filled with fan service nobody asked for, and devoid of a compelling climax that mattered (the return of the Emperor should have been kept from all marketing, at the very least) with revelations and plot twists that largely spring from nowhere to a resounding shoulder shrug of antipathy. It’s Star Wars filtered through a Fast & Furious franchise mindset: a disappointing, frustratingly dispiriting affair that ends with a blip and a whimper rather than a euphoric slam-dunk.

 

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