Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Every Generation Has A Legend.
And so the Skywalker Saga comes to close, nine films and 42 years after Star Wars, then bereft of the subtitle A New Hope, hit cinemas in 1977 and completely rewrote the rulebook. It’s worth remembering that George Lucas’ original film was a surprise hit; its only comparable cinematic antecedent was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which came out two years earlier. Now every film wants to be Star Wars, to the point where Star Wars, in its current form, wants to be the films that want to be Star Wars, an ouroboros of influence and inspiration. Are we better for it? I don’t know. Soon I will rest. Yes, forever sleep. Earned it, I have. I’m very tired. And so too, frankly, is Star Wars.
The logline review is that The Rise of Skywalker is an overstuffed space adventure that tries very hard to be too many things but delivers the big hits of spectacle and mythic posturing that the series is noted for. You can take that and run with it — fans will most likely enjoy themselves, viewers who are fans of cinema first and Star Wars second will most likely not, and those who straddle the line — like me — will find themselves conflicted.
Spoilers ahead, folks. Indeed, the marketing campaign gave so little away that almost any plot detail is gonna be new to somebody, so if that’s a concern: three stars, vaya con Dios.
The Rise of Skywalker kicks off with the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) back, just like that, broadcasting from a hidden planet like an angry podcaster and apparently revealing that he’s been the architect of all the galaxy’s woes all along. Both Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), now Supreme Leader of the fascist First Order, and the Resistance are trying to track the old lightning-slinger down, with pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), apostate stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and old mate Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, taking over for the late Peter Mayhew) haring around in the Millennium Falcon running down clues while nascent Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains under General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, and it is clear that the actress’s premature death hamstrings the proceedings somewhat).
And then things happen. And happen. And keep happening at an impressive clip. The events don’t hang together well, either in relation to each other or to the film that immediately precedes this one, and we get an awful lot of expository dialogue to set up events and revelations. The Rise of Skywalker frequently feels like two full movies worth of events brutally compressed into one feature, and as a result, nothing has room to breathe. Character moments are rushed or absent, relationship dynamics footnoted but not dramatized (Finn and Rey — what the heck happened there?) in favor of foregrounding action. And while Star Wars movies have always been action-packed, they’re not, strictly speaking, action movies. In this one, the balance feels out.
Which is weird, because The Rise of Skywalker invokes a lot of lore along the way, too — not just Emperor Palpatine’s legacy and the nature of the Jedi and the Sith, but a seemingly endless cavalcade of callbacks and cameos (Lando Calrissian, once again played by Billy Dee Williams, is but one). Some of it works — I get a Pavlovian response to the triggering of treasured memories, too, folks — but it does get a bit wearying after a while, knowing that the nostalgia well will be revisited with mechanical regularity. While Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017) attempted — and to my mind succeeded, but you may differ — in broadening what Star Wars could be both narratively and thematically, The Rise of Skywalker is very much back in the mold of generational, cyclical storytelling.
Perhaps the reason why the film feels like its straining at the seams is that it’s ignoring almost everything The Last Jedi left us set up for, acting as almost a direct sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens with the exception of a couple of unignorable story elements: the deaths of Mark Hamill’s Luke and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). That Force-capable slave kid at the end and the implications thereof? Don’t worry about it. The Resistance being now small enough to all cram into the Falcon? Don’t worry about it. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)? Don’t worry about her — she’s barely a cameo, which is pretty piss poor when you consider a couple of the newer characters introduced — Dominic Monaghan’s Resistance flunky Beaumont Kin and Naomi Ackie’s Jannah — could easily be folded into hers just to give her something to do. It feels like an active and ill-judged attempt at course correction, and the result of a shrinking of the fictional universe, a closing off of possibilities.
Interestingly, a couple of the things The Rise of Skywalker does take from The Last Jedi are elements the vocal detractors really went to town on — space horses (or Orbaks as they’re called) and perceived inconsistencies in hyperspace physics. I can’t wait to see how they react to ‘em this time around.
But hey — it’s still Star Wars, right?
Yes, yes, it is, and all the attendant derring-do and the particular flavor of the franchise is present and correct. If you enjoy hanging out in the Star Wars universe (and I have a theory that these days the setting holds more appeal than the story for a lot of people) you’ll have fun here — but the same could be said of The Last Jedi, and look at the discourse around that. There are X-Wings and TIE fighters, marching columns of Stormtroopers, rag-tag bands of rebel fighters, lightsaber duels a-plenty (and the Knights of Ren actually get to do something, albeit not much). I don’t think a lot of it makes sense, even beyond the Saga’s usual Rule of Cool standards, but it’s illuminating to see what passes muster in certain quarters, and what doesn’t.
Director J.J. Abrams, returning to the franchise after helming The Force Awakens, handles the staging well, giving us some striking locations, iconic imagery, titanic battles and heart-in-mouth moments, and if more than a few of them are cribbed from earlier films in the series? Well, like I said, it’s all cyclical. Callbacks are apparently features, not bugs.
But this is it, folks — we can stop arguing now. What’s exhausting about Star Wars isn’t the films (and now TV series, with The Mandalorian on Disney+) themselves, but the endless tense, tribal conversation around them, even if it is largely limited to vocal tweeters and FB commentators. This, for better or worse, is the Star Wars we’ve got, and while this final (for now, for now … ) installment never reaches the heady heights of the first couple of films of the Original Trilogy, neither does it bottom out like George Lucas’ Prequels. It’s pretty good, and maybe that’s good enough.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson