I think I went into this most recent (and supposedly final) Star Wars with the right attitude: I didn’t pin my hopes and dreams on the filmmakers bringing us back from the edge of the crushing disappointment of the prequels (and yes, I will happily admit that the prequels have a handful of lovely sequences in them, if you will admit that they still suck overall). My only bit of wishful thinking about episodes 7 through 9 was that they bring something new to the familiar settings and characters and give us some idea of how this far away galaxy would move forward once the so-called Skywalker Saga was complete. I’m not talking about setting up new sequels—I am firmly done with these stories—I just wanted to have an idea that the universe was in good hands.
So now this 40-plus-year-old story is done being told, with director and co-writer J.J. Abrams back to wrap up what he began in The Force Awakens, and I’m genuinely stunned that not only did he learn nothing from the risks taken by interim writer/director Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi), but also that Abrams, in some cases, actively attempts to dismantle some of Johnson’s boldest choices—choices that needed to be made, if only to breathe some fresh air into this virtually lifeless nostalgia corpse that seemed more interested in parading a series of familiar faces and storylines before our eyes than in actually doing anything unexpected (heaven forbid!). With The Rise of Skywalker, you can almost feel Abrams and his team checking off a list of complaints about The Last Jedi and either ignoring them, undoing them, or minimizing their importance to the greater story.
I’ll keep this review as spoiler free as possible, but I can’t promise not to dance around a few key plot points. I’m just assuming that the fact that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) isn’t fully dead isn’t even a secret any longer, and if you thought it was, well, an announcement that he lives is right there in the opening crawl. Not only is he alive, but since he was defeated at the end of The Return of the Jedi, he has built the largest fleet of Star Destroyers ever assembled. Apparently he’s been lurking in the shadows of the creation of the First Order since Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was in metal diapers and had a hand in bringing Ren and Snoke (from the previous two films) together to worship at the altar of Darth Vader’s melted helmet.
The film opens with Ren locating Palpatine with the express purpose of killing him, but when the zombie Emperor reveals not only his ultimate plan to beat the Resistance but also his specific plans for capturing Rey (Daisy Ridley) to bring her over to the dark side, Ren has a change of heart and joins forces with Palpatine, at least for now. Driver continues to bring a supreme angst and depth to Kylo Ren that is so clearly not in the screenplay (co-written by Chris Terrio, an Oscar winner for Argo), and if anything elevates this movie far beyond its nostalgia dry humping, it’s him.
But Ridley’s work in Skywalker is a close second. Not unlike her Force buddy Ren, Rey is struggling with who she is, where she came from, and why she is showing signs of being the most powerful Jedi ever. Finally receiving some practical Jedi training, her power, skills and commitment to staying on the light side of the Force seem firmly in place. But when she receives another message from Ren, she returns to the hub of the Resistance and her friends Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, playing the crack pilot with a bit more humility and dignity than before). I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised at just how much Carrie Fisher shows up in The Rise of Skywalker; using unused outtakes from The Force Awakens, the footage fits in seamlessly with the story being told, without feeling crowbarred in. Although I don’t feel the film overall does justice to the legacy of the franchise, Abrams does a solid job paying tribute to Leia Organa, letting her go out as the leader and inspiration she always was.
Old friends are back as well, in the form of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2, and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). A few new faces also show up with varying degrees of effectiveness, including characters played by Dominic Monaghan, Keri Russell (as an old friend of Poe, Zorii Bliss, who never fully takes her helmet off), and Naomi Ackie as Jannah, another former stormtrooper who befriends Finn and introduces him to a legion of troopers who defected from the First Order. Kelly Marie Tran returns from the last film as Rose Tico and is largely lost in an ocean of secondary characters. And the weirdest return belongs to Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, still suave and still a friend to the Resistance.
The supporting players on Team Bad Guys fare better. I will always love Domhnall Gleeson’s take on prissy little ginger bitch General Hux, whose character supplies us with one of the film’s truly major surprises. My favorite new addition to the saga is Richard E. Grant as General Pryde, a First Order leader who has secretly been taking orders from Palpatine. Grant can play charming and personable so convincingly, but when he turns his acting powers to evil, he’s magnificent. I’m guessing any other surprise appearances in Skywalker are ones I’m not supposed to mention, and so I won’t for now.
Ignoring specific plot points for now, it should come as no surprise that Rey finds a reason to confront both Kylo Ren and eventually the Emperor, and in doing so, she must confront a few hard truths about herself and where she comes from. In part of his dismantling of The Last Jedi, Abrams has now made the issue of Rey’s lineage important again after Rian Johnson thought it best not to get caught up in such meaningless devices. By saying that Rey’s parents were just ordinary people, Johnson emphasizes that anyone can be a hero and not just the son or daughter of someone powerful. I guess Abrams didn’t agree, but tying her to nostalgia does nothing to make the character any more interesting or meaningful, and it takes a great deal of the potential kick of this movie right out of it.
All of that being said, The Rise of Skywalker is a stunning, often haunting, movie in a visual sense. Abrams has designed certain sequences almost like horror movie set pieces, especially in the realm that surrounds Palpatine. The action sequences are also spectacular, but action has never been an issue with Abrams, as he’s proven in one other Star Wars film and two Star Trek movies. His bigger issue is caring too much about what other people think and trying to please everyone, especially the most vocal among fanbases.
I still don’t know what Abrams actually thinks of The Last Jedi, and while his treatment of it in Skywalker literally includes a character saying his choices in the last movie were “a mistake,” he was given so many opportunities to take these films to new and interesting places. Instead, he revisits familiar locations and even more familiar characters over and over and over again. It’s like comfort food that fills you up but offers no substance. I think the filmmaker believes that by capturing a familiar feeling with his movies, he’s doing the soul some good, and that might be true for some. I’ve always been of a mind that such nostalgia-mining results in empty and lazy movies.
I will give Ridley and Driver full credit for acting their hearts out in The Rise of Skywalker. I could have watched an entire film in which they were the only characters and been wholly satisfied. But when you bring back Emperor Palpatine, don’t have him simply spout out the same old lines about the Dark Side and have him shoot Force Lightning from his gnarled fingers; we’ve seen it all before and worse, we know it can eventually be defeated.
There’s a coda to this final film that exemplifies what’s wrong with Abrams’ approach to Star Wars movies. And while I won’t ruin the moment, on so many levels, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, mostly because I didn’t want to be seeing it. I didn’t dislike The Rise of Skywalker because I enjoyed The Last Jedi so much; I disliked it because I don’t tend to like any movies that don’t branch out from their humble origins and try to be original within the framework of a set universe. I acknowledge that Abrams had an impossible task in wrapping up these nine movies, but like many, maybe he needs to spend less time on the internet and more time remembering what made these stories special in the first place.
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