Note: This review does not contain any discussion of plot points beyond that included in the trailers and is limited to general discussion of plot points
Fans will be pleased, they said, it’s for the fans, they said.
Well I’m a fan. I’m a Star Wars fan – and this didn’t do us any service.
Everything about The Rise of Skywalker is designed to register with the faithful; not necessarily appeal, or surprise, or inspire, just, register. As if this generation’s own carbon refit of the Star Wars mythos could have more resonance than that so many have internalised and set to re-watch sooner than Episode IX.
There’s very little new or hopeful about J.J. Abrams’ return. It’s old, safe, heedless of the first and even the prequel trilogy’s savouring of originality; as if disappointment from the devoted was better than revilement, as if over-familiarity didn’t breed contempt.
And yes, Abrams’ The Force Awakens did indeed trade on nostalgia very heavily, but this was when the last instalment was Revenge of the Sith over a decade before and we weren’t getting a new Star Wars flick once a year; fatigue does not beget wonder.
And this entry is overly familiar, as familiar as Emperor Palpatine. Having no presence in Episodes VII-VIII, he’s here; a god-like threat nay hinted at by Episode IX’s precursors nor necessary in the context of conflicts set up merely four and two years ago.
The Last Jedi heedlessly consigned key dramatic beats from The Force Awakens to irrelevance, a fair criticism of an otherwise roundly good film. The Rise of Skywalker does the same, but instead shamelessly reverts not to something new or exciting, or even it’s 2015 precursor, but to narrative arcs that have come and gone.
There is nothing overly interesting about the Emperor either here nor in the first six films in which he appeared. He’s bad, we know it. What has made Kylo Ren the most interesting villain and indeed character in the whole saga is that he is petulant, conflicted, egotistical, self-assured and an overwhelmingly powerful raging hormonal cautionary tale of arrested development all at once.
Vader’s great, but multi-dimensional aspects to his terror are only really uncovered in Return of the Jedi and latently at that. It also helps that Adam Driver is working on a whole other level to anyone in this trilogy. Even tasked with reacquiring a helmet for no reason in what did turn out to be a blatant thematic reversion to the first movie, the only effect is to obscure his evidently excellent performance.
The Emperor, by comparison, is basically Voldemort. His presence by necessity detracting from the character focus on Ren that rendered these entries thus far compulsive, even less consideration is given to any explanation as to how he could return, with no attempt at all made to broach this gaping void. Consequentially, there’s no more central focus on those shades of grey amongst they who wield lightsabers; there’s light, dark and instead of being asked to contemplate these dimensions we’re just told to be on the nice wizard’s side.
For all this film’s faults, every sequence shared between Ren and Rey (Daisy Ridley in her best performance to date) is very involving; the only thing herein hinting at the sense of epic storytelling Lucas so revelled in those years ago. Rise of Skywalker too gradually develops our understanding of the force, it’s fascinating healing properties and what it can physically manage; too progressing Ren and Rey’s screen-crossing dynamic to exceptional new heights.
It’s visually grand, there’s a few decent action sequences (the best two being at the very beginning), long-time Abrams collaborator Keri Russell is well deployed and as much as endlessly-deployed nostalgia gets tired it is nice to spend some more time with characters we’ve come to know and love over now decades. The treatment and rendering of Leia (Carrie Fisher), amidst not unreasonable concerns from the faithful, is well managed and furthermore with dignity. There is one surprise cameo which works to great effect; the other, more predictable appearance emerging charming if lacking the sense of intended gravitas for the performer coming off noticeably detached from this whole affair.
Now; everything else. Story arcs aren’t the only dramatic aspect of the previous films those involved clearly reckoned wouldn’t benefit from even remote consistency or follow through. General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), having progressed from a terrifying visage to being tossed about rooms for a cheap gag, is here for a third time playing a wholly different character. His arc, and a groan-inducing, nonsensical reveal, is comparable to Matt Damon’s quip regarding his character in the Ocean’s series; the actor assuring that he was tasked to play three different characters as the stories so required.
His presence is ineffective at any rate, what with the introduction of Richard E. Grant’s poorly-monikered General Pryde, a Moff Tarkin-lite intended to evoke and replace the ruthlessness akin to Hux’s own in The Force Awakens yet lacking any discernible personality traits beyond ambition. Rose Tico, one of the most interesting new characters from this trilogy, here gets but a few lines that could just as well have been spoken by a nameless Resistance fighter when the comparably boring Palpatine gets to go ahead and boost off proceedings.
More foreboding still, Abrams has again returned to his mystery box-treasure hunt style of storytelling; this time around even more ludicrous than the map pointing the way to Luke. It takes our heroes on a trip around the galaxy meant to check off bits of fan-service, including a return to a key setting in Episode VI and the reintroduction of Lando (Billy Dee Williams). The slightest digging beneath the surface reveals the cracks; yes it’s a kids film but that doesn’t mean we need to treat children as if they are absent basic logic.
Most disconcerting of all, there’s a second act reveal that flies in the face and ethos laid out by a key turning point in The Last Jedi. It’s not possible to discuss this without spoilers, as soon as you see the film you’ll know it – look for the seasoned performer who can’t near emphatically enough sell this dialogue.
Episodes VII and VIII affirmed the idea, hearkened to in the original Star Wars, that anyone, anywhere, regardless of their level of force capability or connection to some dynasty can make a difference. Episode IX seems ill-concerned with what was a refreshingly sincere arc, introducing a revelation that will make even the most casual fans of The Last Jedi groan and it’s most ardent detractors at best smirk in mild appreciation. It’s an advent of misguided fan-appeasement wreaking of fan-fiction extinguishing the life-blood of a series which could otherwise have expanded and explored new thematic plains with the promise The Last Jedi offered. That opportunity, at least in the context this entry and it’s revelations suggest as the intended thematic trajectory for the saga, is now gone – replaced by a black and white good versus evil dichotomy we’ve seen time and time again and didn’t need following two noticeably different offerings.
Borrowing from it’s Marvel counterparts and concluding with a confusing battle, a disposable, ill-explained CGI cavalcade and indeed a sky beam, as if there weren’t enough of those, The Rise of Skywalker plays it as safe as possible. The best anyone will get from this film is middling satisfaction rather than inspiration or a sense of grandeur had something memorable been attempted, not unlike the finales for Game of Thrones and to an extent Avengers: Endgame.
We don’t deserve anything from Star Wars or any film, and we certainly don’t deserve the resolution we think we do. We just ask to be entertained for two hours and in two hours and twenty minutes that’s not what you get when it’s one step forwards and nine steps back.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas now