I’m sure every critic reviewing the latest Star Wars film has some spiel about their love for this franchise and how it has inspired them, and without getting into it too much, it is safe to say that I’ve dedicated a perhaps unhealthy percentage of my life to learning and exploring this universe, and that it means a lot to me. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn’t only the end to an untraditional trilogy of films, but the culmination of three trilogies over 42 years. I don’t envy the pressure that anyone involved faced, but I must be honest in that a lot of The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t work.
2015’s The Force Awakens was a joyous return for the franchise, and while its story was based off of archetypes we’d seen before, the series was reenergized by the spirited new characters Finn, Rey, Poe, and Kylo Ren, and the energetic direction from J.J. Abrams. 2017’s The Last Jedi proved to be the most thematically rich and provocative film of the series, a film that let go of the past while paving the way for a new generation to stand in, and remains an achievement that rivals, and perhaps even surpasses the original trilogy. It seemed that following The Last Jedi there would be many new directions the story could go, but The Rise of Skywalker makes for a sharp reversion to a more traditional story that still doesn’t seem fully thought out.
Without going too deep into the plot to avoid spoilers, the film opens with the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has amassed his own fleet called The Final Order that has the power to wipe out the entire galaxy. As Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks guidance from this legendary Sith Lord, Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her training to become a Jedi with Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). After Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) learn of the Emperor’s rise, they reunite with Rey on a search to find a pathway to defeating the Emperor and saving the Resistance.
After being separated for the past couple films, it’s fun to see Rey, Poe, and Finn all on an adventure together, and their quips back and forth feel very much like classic Star Wars; C-3P0 and Chewbacca are also the best utilized that they are in this new trilogy. However, the mission they are going on is almost incomprehensible; they jump from planet to planet and setpiece to setpiece on an intergalactic scavenger hunt for a Sith artifact, and there’s never a real reason to care about one mission over another, since its clear where the story is going. The editing is choppy, and the nuance of the process of getting out of a situation seems to be lost as a result of the story’s relentlessness.
This also comes to affect the characterization of Kylo Ren. I’ve been adamant that the character is one of the best in all of Star Wars, and here his characterization feels like a retread and a step back; Ren is once again the lapdog of an evil Sith Lord, and the strange decision to put him constantly on the trail of the heroes leads to some strange editing moments (Kylo Ren will show up on a planet as soon as they leave, or step off his ship as soon as they board). The conclusion crafted for the character is one that makes sense and Adam Driver continues to give an excellent performance, but his more simple motivations and revelations here don’t reflect the complex character we got to know after the previous two films.
This leads me to the Emperor; I’ve long held that while Emperor Palpatine isn’t inherently an interesting character, he’s the perfect embodiment of evil that can spur other characters in the right way. The throne room scene in Return of the Jedi works because Palpatine is taking advantage of the conflict between Luke and Vader, and similarly in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine is instrumental in seducing Anakin Skywalker to the dark side of the force. You can always count on Ian McDiarmid to give an entertainingly hammy performance, but the film never explains or justifies a reason for Palpatine’s return, nor does he seem to serve much of a purpose in developing Rey and Kylo Ren, other than giving the film an excuse to get those two together.
Palpatine also has a surprisingly small amount of screen time, which in a way isn’t surprising considering how many moving parts the story has and how many new and old characters return; looking back, none of the original trilogy films had terribly complex plots and were content in keeping the story to a few main locations. Jannah, played by Naomi Ackie, is a new hero who serves a critical role in the final battle, but she’s so woefully underdeveloped in her brief interactions with the other characters that I’m left struggling why we needed to add another hero at the last minute. Keri Russell shows up as bounty hunter Zorri Bliss, and she’s a fun character who fits into the story with ease. The same could be said of Richard E. Grant as Allegiant General Pryde, a member of the Emperor’s fleet; Grant is one of my favorite character actors working today, and his scenery chewing performance is one of the film’s highlights.
The issue isn’t as much with the addition of new characters as it is the ignoring of the old ones. Most criminal among them is the treatment of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran); after a brilliant set up in The Last Jedi, Rose has a role so insignificant here that it could be removed from the film and it wouldn’t make a difference. Also unfortunate is the treatment of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson); it’s a performance I’ve always liked, and while there’s a kernel of development added to the character that seems very promising, it’s abandoned quickly. On a more positive side, I did enjoy the return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian; Williams never overstays his welcome, but he makes every scene he’s in more interesting as a result, and seeing him reunite with Chewbacca is an endearing bit of fan service.
Of course, it would be impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher. It’s an unfortunate situation, and I respect the fact that J.J. Abrams and the creative team decided to utilize unused footage from The Force Awakens rather than recast or use a digital recreation. Considering the circumstances, I think they gave a lovely sendoff to Fisher and her character, and while its easy to point out how the scenes are awkwardly edited around the moments that they already had, the scenes of Rey training under Leia’s tutelage are perfect for the film’s thematic core.
Perhaps I’m in the minority in the critical community, but I’ve been a big fan of J.J. Abrams and his directorial style; Abrams’s five previous films- Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness, and The Force Awakens- are all straightforward adventure stories with charismatic characters that delivers raw pathos. Abrams seemed like an obvious choice to end this saga, but I think the convoluted script is what held him back; Abrams works best at introducing characters into exciting situations and giving them time to learn and breath, but a script with no breathing room limits his ability to give that sort of development.
“No breathing room” is fairly apt to describe the action set pieces; there are a lot of action sequences, and many of them are exciting, but after a while the one long chase feels too drawn out. Think of the best Star Wars action scenes. The trench run in A New Hope, the lightsaber duel in The Empire Strikes Back, or the skiff battle in Return of the Jedi are all moments that were preceded by intricate planning by the characters and some quieter moments to set them up. That’s something that’s often lost here, and the design of the set pieces often feels like a greatest hits compilation rather than a genuine innovation (save for a rather brilliant sequence involving crashing waves and the wreckage of Death Star II that is too good to spoil).
This reversion to familiarity is most evident in the film’s third act; its another battle where someone confronts the Emperor and the Rebel fleet amasses to take out a Star Destroyer. Perhaps they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, but it seems awful familiar, and the story arcs of Rey and Kylo Ren never really go in any unexpected places. More so, there isn’t a real struggle to Rey’s character; it never really seems like she’s actually wrestling with the dark side, and what she needs to do at the end is never really connected to the training she does.
I’ve always loved Rey as a character and enjoyed Daisy Ridley’s spirited performance, but people seem to only want to appreciate her within the context of other characters, and they often don’t view her just for her unique traits. The ongoing storyline of Rey’s parents is perhaps the least interesting of anything in this trilogy, and while The Last Jedi seemed to end the debate on a conclusive note that made an interesting statement, The Rise of Skywalker drags out the story again and comes to conclusions that are not only silly and reek of a desperate need to shock, but are also woefully underdeveloped and don’t delve into their serious ramifications.
There are certain elements going into a Star Wars film that you know will always be done well, and chief among them is another brilliant score from John Williams. There aren’t as many new musical themes introduced as there were in The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, but the nods to other moments in the franchise through musical cues are fun. This is a film that is tying together three trilogies of stories and characters, and I think longtime fans will appreciate some of the surprises closer to the end.
There’s a lot to like about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; there’s an inherent joy in seeing these characters onscreen together, and even though the build up is botched in many moments, it does reach a nice conclusion to everyone’s story. It’s a film I want to see again, both to solidify my opinion and to get a better grasp on what was happening at any given moment, but on first viewing I found it to be a major step down that crumpled under the pressures of ending the greatest series of all-time. There’s a lot of moments of pure joy that I felt in the theater, and it’s hard to not be touched by the film’s final scene, but when viewed as an individual film and not a saga ending moment, The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t heed all the lessons of the past. Grade: B-
For those that care, this would be my current ranking of the Star Wars films (this is often subject to change). I actually like every single one of these movies, but my degree of positivity ranges in this order.
12. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
11. Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace
10. Star Wars: Episode IX- The Rise of Skywalker
9. Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
7. Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith
6. Solo: A Star Wars Story
5. Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens
4. Star Wars: Episode VI- Return of the Jedi
3. Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi
2. Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back
1. Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope