WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more. Rey’s journey continues and the Skywalker saga concludes. No one’s ever really gone...
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
This isn’t the first time we’ve been presented with a conclusion to the Skywalker Saga but, unlike Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker comes on the back of a trilogy that has been beset both by major behind-the-scenes difficulties and a particularly fierce backlash by a very vocal segment of die-hard "fans".
The Force Awakens was generally well-received at the time, but a growing irritation when the film continued to build as people started to notice that it was, for all intents and purposes, a remix of the original Star Wars. And then The Last Jedi happened. I have seldom misjudged an audience as much as I have after I was just completely blown away by what Rian Johnson had done with episode VIII. I was absolutely sure that those who had been royally pissed off that JJ Abrams had delivered something that was so similar to what had come before, would be elated with the thematically rich and constantly surprising Last Jedi. Not so much, as it turns out.
Behind the scenes at Lucasfilm, things weren’t much better. Solo completely tanked, which punctured the box-office invincibility of the Star Wars brand for its new owners at Disney. Writer/director Colin Trevorrow, meanwhile, had departed Episode IX over "creative differences" and J.J. Abrams was brought back to close off the trilogy that he had started – and, hopefully, to win fans back after the mega-divisive The Last Jedi. Most tragically by far, however, was the untimely death of Carrie Fisher from a heart attack before the release of The Last Jedi. Not only did we lose one of Hollywood’s greatest and most utterly individualistic figures, Episode IX, which was supposed to revolve around her, suddenly found itself in need of a new story and/or a whole lot of improvisation.
These background details are crucial to understanding what is wrong with The Rise of Skywalker – and why it’s far better than any of us perhaps had any right to expect.Actually, for all that these issues do plague the film, at the heart of The Rise of Skywalker’s biggest failings lies a single, utterly critical failure of judgement in not having J.J. Abrams in charge of the whole trilogy. The Last Jedi is easily the best in this new trilogy, but it was a radical departure from what Abrams started and represented a vision almost diametrically opposed to the nostalgiac familiarity of Episode VII. Johnson and Abrams are both excellent genre filmmakers but while the latter likes to immerse himself in his influences, the former always approaches whatever genre he’s working in with a slightly askew glance.
I, for one, loved both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi but trying to form a coherent trilogy out of two radically opposing visions means that The Rise of Skywalker has to work exceptionally hard just to make even the most basic of sense. Johnson, very simply, should not have done The Last Jedi, no matter how good it was – he should have been given his own trilogy to follow up on what Abrams does here. Or, of course, vice versa. It would even have made some sense to have Johnson close out the trilogy.
What we have in The Rise of Skywalker, then, is Abrams trying to reassert his own vision after Johnson’s somewhat deconstructionist take. He backtracks a bit on certain plot decisions in The Last Jedi (guess which?) and outright ignores most of the themes it sets up and then effectively crams the two final films in his own imagined trilogy into one overstuffed installment. Ironically, this leaves one wanting a whole lot more by the time the credits roll – but, because of all the good work that Abrams and the entire cast and crew do with the film, I certainly don’t mean that purely pejoratively.
The film barely slows down for a minute with plot points and characters disposed of at an alarming clip, while certain major details of the film – I’m looking at you Emperor Palpatine - are left frustratingly vague. The latter has, unfortunately, been a failure in both of Abrams’ movies as his desperate (and correct) attempt to move away from the boring exposition dumps of the prequels had him going too far in the opposite direction. I didn’t understand the relationship between the New Republic and the Resistance in The Force Awakens, and I don’t understand how and why Palpatine suddenly pops up here. Again, had JJ been in charge of the entire trilogy, he could easily have sewn the seeds of Palpatine’s return throughout Episode VIII, but instead, his return here just comes out of nowhere.
What makes these weaknesses particularly annoying, though, isn’t just that so much of them are really not Abrams’ fault, but that they never allow the many, many wonderful things about The Rise of Skywalker to properly coalesce into the wholly satisfying conclusion that it so tantalisingly comes close to being. That’s right, that 4-star rating is (hopefully) not just me in denial as a lifelong Star Wars fan but is a real reflection of just how much the film gets right; how much it deeply moved me at times, all in spite of its obvious faults.
It’s hard to specify what works about the film without getting into major spoilers, but I can say that it is every bit the warm blanket of a film that you would hope of any conclusion to this particular saga. Some live, some die, but this film is as full of hope, goodness and wonder as Star Wars has ever been. Yes, that makes it fairly predictable and safe (though there are tons of "Oh my god" moments too) but, contrary to the more cynical view that this is just Lucasfilm crafting the film around fan complaints of The Last Jedi, the obvious fan service in The Rise of Skywalker is clearly just JJ being JJ. And, honestly, a large part of me loves him for it.
Like the rest of the sequel trilogy, the real driving force of so much that is great about The Rise of Skywalker comes down to a single thing: character. Sure enough, there’s some fun dialogue, great set pieces and nicely intense Lightsaber scenes (I love just how much of a punch the Lightsaber duels pack in the sequel trilogy) but the reason the film works as well as it does is by honing squarely on the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren and their respective character arcs.
We do get some very nice moments with Poe, Finn, all the droids and Chewie, as well as a very welcome return of Lando Calrissian and a none-more-evil Palpatine, but they are all here in supporting roles. Through some often clumsy but always appreciated insertion of archive footage of Carrie Fisher from the time of The Force Awakens, we also get a truly lovely sendoff for Leia/Carrie who, as it turns out, has at least one more crucial part to play in all this.
All in all, though, this is Rey’s - and to a lesser extent, Kylo’s - film through and through. Those sexist windbags who criticised Rey for having the audacity to be super powerful and super confident while also being a girl are likely to have their heads exploded here as Rey becomes more powerful than – well, that would be spoiling it. Daisy Ridley is sensational here as an incredibly powerful but highly conflicted Jedi-in-training and her scenes with a similarly brilliant Adam Driver as Kylo Ren ensures that both will go down as two of the best Star Wars characters ever.
So, yes, there is plenty wrong with The Rise of Skywalker, and it pales especially in comparison to this year’s other major climax of a beloved franchise, Avengers: Endgame (what a miracle that film was), but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a massively entertaining, emotionally poignant conclusion to this particular story. I just hope Lucasfilm moves forward with a bit more of a vision for whatever comes next.