'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' Is a Sloppy End to the Saga
When J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens hit theaters in 2015, the new Star Wars trilogy carried an electric energy along with it. The movie, with an exciting cast of rising stars playing characters that immediately clicked and franchise legends Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill reprising their famous roles, felt like an event, one that portended a wise path for a George Lucas-less incarnation of the tale. Four years later, this latest trilogy's final installment, The Rise of Skywalker, has arrived and the fanfare has dimmed considerably.
There is little triumph in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Instead, the movie plays out like a confusing sequel to a film that doesn't exist. The bones of what made the new era of the saga exciting -- the talented, appealing actors, the charming practical effects and creatures -- are still there, but it's all mired in a plot that's as sludgy as planet Dagobah.
Of course, discussing The Rise of Skywalker requires relitigating its predecessor, Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi. The film, critically successful and a massive box-office success, was the subject of intense backlash, for reasons ranging from purported plot holes, and Johnson's reimagining of beloved characters to despicable racism and misogyny. Back at the helm of the franchise, Abrams appears to have been intent on course-correcting from where Johnson took the trilogy, throwing out or retconning many ideas introduced in The Last Jedi to match a heretofore nonexistent narrative.
This is to say if you liked, as I did, the existential and playful direction Johnson took with the franchise -- in which both characters and audiences were made to interrogate their pre-established opinions on Star Wars lore -- you're bound to be disappointed. If you didn't, well, you might still be at least underwhelmed with the haphazard way in which Abrams chose to bring this all to a close.
If you want to go into The Rise of Skywalker without knowing literally anything about the plot, it'd be best to stop reading here, but these don't really count as spoilers, per se. As indicated by the trailers, Abrams' biggest and boldest move is bringing back Ian McDiarmid's Emperor Palpatine as the principal villain -- in other words, an ex machina villain who had never been mentioned as a relevant player in this timeline. The opening crawl explains that the galaxy has been besieged by mysterious broadcasts coming from the thought-to-be-dead Sith Lord. Palpatine's always been a frustrating puppet-master type whose maniacal brand of evil isn't as compelling as his more fallible counterparts, and it turns out he's serving the same function here.
After Adam Driver's brooding Kylo Ren locates the source of these messages in the opening sequence, the rest of the film finds our good guys trying to get to the same location to save the day. In the case of Daisy Ridley's Jedi-in-training Rey, this particular journey will also mean coming to terms with her own history. (Yes, we find out more about who Rey is, and yes, there will be thousands of takes on this matter.) From the outset, the whole mission immediately registers as inorganic thanks to dialogue that labors to dump all the info necessary to understanding just what the hell is going on. The natural chemistry between Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac -- as Rey, Finn, and Poe -- do wonders to keep matters entertaining, for the most part, even when the mechanics around what their characters are doing border on nonsensical.
This trio -- along with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8 -- are given the bulk of the screen time, at least when it comes to the Resistance. Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico, a standout in The Last Jedi, is sidelined here almost entirely, her diminished screen time an unfortunate casualty of Abrams' rebuke of what came before. New characters, like Naomi Ackie's Jannah and Keri Russell's Zorii Bliss, are given little in the way of character development before it's time to move onto the next planet. Even the posthumous appearance of Carrie Fisher as General Leia using footage salvaged from The Force Awakens feels hurried, though at least it results in a touching send off for the character and her portrayer.
For all the complaints I've registered above, The Rise of Skywalker isn't completely devoid of pleasures. There are fun new aliens like Babu Frik, a little tinkerer who sounds vaguely like a Brooklyn wiseguy, and battles staged in gorgeously rendered landscapes, including a waterlogged fight between Kylo Ren and Rey on the remnants of the second Death Star. That fight also serves an emotional centerpiece, and highlights the power of Adam Driver's work in which malice and sweat coalesce into heartbreaking agony. It's a credit to Driver, finishing a banner year, that Kylo's arc ends up being the most moving on screen.
The Rise of Skywalker aims to wrap up in a way that quote-unquote satisfies viewers, offering answers for just about everything. But to tie up all those loose ends and give the people what he thinks they want, Abrams sacrifices some of his movie's soul. By the end, all these big adventures in a galaxy far, far away end up seeming rather small.
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