Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise Of Skywalker
Looking back, I do marvel a little on my initial reaction to The Last Jedi, which was praising, but with a certain reserve based on some relatively minor points. If I had written that review after my second viewing of the film, those minor points would have been largely forgotten, and after the third the film may well have risen past the few movies I had ranked above it. I do genuinely think now that The Last Jedi may be the best thing that has ever happened to the franchise: an entry that took risks, that was inventive in ways the property has struggled to replicate elsewhere and that was awash with character drama being accentuated by the sci-fi action. Every braindead malcontent who decided that the film’s approach to women, to Luke and to the Force made it worthy of a scorn that barely masked a less worthy motive, only reinforced the point.
Rian Johnson proved that Star Wars could still be the iconic genre-defining production it once was, but I would be lying if I expressed confidence that J.J. Abrams could finish the job properly. While he did begin the journey, and isn’t a director that has ever made an outright bad film, he isn’t in Johnson’s league when it comes to visual story-telling, and the fear was that the vocal minority would encourage the creation of a nostalgia-fuelled 180-degree swing, that would row back on all of the good The Last Jedi did. Like it or not, fair or not, The Rise Of Skywalker had more at stake in its production than capping off an engaging trilogy, or being the final step in a “Skywalker Saga”. So, was it a credit to Abram’s set-up and Johnson’s continuation? Or is it a film to be relegated to the level of Clones, a genre-defining misstep?
The ghostly form of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) returns to haunt the galaxy, seeking to once again establish his Galactic Empire. Still engaged in a desperate struggle with the villainous First Order and its new leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) dispatches Resistance fighters Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) to investigate, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues to train in the ways of the Force. A final clash between the Light Side and the Dark is inevitable, with the fate of the galaxy at stake.
Well, if this is the end of the saga, at least as we have known it so far, then it is one that I happy to declare just fine. And some may think that declaring it so is damning with faint praise, but I do not intend for it to be taken that way. The Rise Of Skywalker is fine. Satisfying. It squares the circle. It’s fine. Everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?
There is plenty of good and a good bit of bad in The Rise Of Skywalker, so lets just get into it. It serves as a worthy conclusion to the trilogy that Abrams started with The Force Awakens and that Johnson continued with The Last Jedi, in so far as its thematic make-up is appropriately fully-formed. The central theme of the film, very pertinently for the world that we live in today, is a rejection of the politics of feat and fascism, with an appeal to a sort of mass popular rejection of such things: “There are more of us than them” is the defining statement of this theme, that Abrams follows to the full by the time of the conclusion. In conjunction, there is an appeal to sacrifice: not the violent self-sacrifice that Finn so wrongly sought in The Last Jedi, but a willing weakening of the self for the mutual benefit of the collective.
There’s also odes to the power of teamwork, that seem like a direct follow-on from the splitting up of The Last Jedi and the loneliness of the Resistance struggle there-in, when a cowed galaxy wouldn’t come to their aid. Where once there was isolation and failure, now the characters have grown to learn they are stronger together than they were apart and the galaxy embraces a degree of rebellion in return. A returning Palpatine is just the biggest possible opponent to place them up against, and his appeals to fear, power projection and hate carry allusions that are not difficult to see through (and are faced by appropriate reactions in hope, sacrifice and love).
The actual narrative is nothing that will set the world on fire, but that does not mean it is something to be dismissive of. There is a Macguffin to find (they call them wayfinders here, but EU fans will know them as holocrons), an X on the map to get to (into the Unknown Regions, to the planet formally known as Korriban), and a terrible evil to be defeated and destroyed (the First Order is still as preening and arrogant as ever, with Richard E. Grant joining Domhnall Gleeson as henchmen-in-chief). Yes, it can be accused of a lack of imagination, but Star Wars, in simple plot points, has never been imaginative. Rey’s journey is Luke’s, as his was Campbell’s, and that is as true today as it was in 1977.
But that’s just the backdrop really, this trilogy was always at its best when focusing on character. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is the star as always, and she’s only gotten better as the scavenger-turned-savior. The Rise Of Skywalker see’s her full of doubts and struggling with the pressure of having “a thousand generations” living within her. It’s a suitable continuation of where we have been with her before, with Ridley carrying us through her rise (geddit) to final greatness, fulfilling the promise seen in her by Luke, Leia and one Kylo Ren. Ridley embodies one of the great female characters of the modern era, a figure who struggles with the power inside her making her all the more human. Star Wars has always been about growing up, and Rey has grown up.
Following close behind her is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. If Star Wars was always about growing up, its also always been about a search for redemption, and one of key points of The Rise Of Skywalker is whether Ren has the ability or the drive to seek it. He’s still the sullen bully who can’t stand the fact that a girl has been able to best him, and he’s still all too easily enthralled by the kind of people – Palpatine in this case – that he should stay away from. Driver is excellent as always, imbuing the character with so much hidden rage and a desperation to be greater than he is. As such, he’s still representative of that element, and some may wonder if he deserves the kind of redemption that Rey and Leia try and find for him. Without going any further, Ren’s final fate is both a surprise and satisfying, though a bit rushed: more on that in a bit.
The two – Rey and Kylo – are opposite sides of the same coin, and The Rise Of Skywalker is their story. They share a number of emotionally fraught scenes, using the Force connection introduced in The Last Jedi that allows for them to be in two places at once with each other (one scene, where they move in and out of a sterile Imperial warship and then a snowbound slum street, is exquisitely done). There’s a very clear, if unenunciated tension between the two that borders on the sexual, and both Ridley and Driver are to be commended for nurturing that spark without it becoming awkward or weird.
Everyone else does have to give way to those two, with The Rise Of Skywalker having less in the way of balance than the previous two entries in the saga had. Poe is back to being the hotshot pilot with little in the way of the internal doubts that plagued him a film ago, and Finn is relegated to a hanger-on for the most part here, barring a somewhat aborted sub-plot regarding some unresolved affection for Rey. They have plenty of good moments – Poe is still dashingly charming and Finn’s eagerness continues to make him likable – and their characters really shine through when they and Rey share the screen together, a trio more than a match for Luke, Han and Leia. That’s when the script, from Abrams and Chris Terrio, really sparkles, in every glib remark, every angry retort and every affectionate gesture. It’s pure old school chemistry, that makes what could be terrible lines – “They can fly now” Boyega exclaims, after seeing a rocket-propelled stormtrooper; “They can fly now” agrees Isaacs – into great ones. But the arcs that Johnson made for the two have been left to suffocate by Abrams, and that’s a shame, especially as Isaac and Boyega slot right back into the roles with ease.
Now is as good a time as any to expand on those course corrections. Unfortunately, The Rise Of Skywalker cannot get away from the reality that it is pandering to that aforementioned malcontent minority, in a number of critical plot decisions. Poe’s self-doubt and Finn’s suicidal streak are forgotten. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose is disgracefully shunted out of the film’s main action, having little more than an extended cameo (Naomi Ackie’s part of a Resistance fighter could easily have been adapted for her). Palpatine’s involvement, while actually being far better than I expected (the fear of death becoming meaningless is effectively dealt with), is a refutation of Johnson’s decision to axe Snoke, and is treated as such. The helmet is back, and not just as Ren rejecting Snoke’s comments on it.
Rey’s ancestry, so decisively and effectively closed off as a plot-point in The Last Jedi, is re-opened, in a serious of revelations that adds precisely nothing to the film or the trilogy, other than to make it seem more like the original saga. Super weapons are back, Endor and the Death Star make an appearance, and the final battle bares more than a passing resemblance to the conclusion of Return Of The Jedi. In other words, to at least a partial extent, we are being served what we were served before, and progressive, inverting and exciting elements of The Last Jedi are discarded. The Rise Of Skywalker undoubtedly has a degree of cowardice in its production, and that will not be forgotten. Johnson’s revenge is Knives Out, a better film with a better reaction.
But even with that, with all of that, I have to say that I had fun with this movie. It’s remarkably well-paced, its two and a half hour running time flying by, thanks to a series of well-placed actions sequences. Through the details of its central narrative – a quest to find the way to a secret Sith homeworld, where Palpatine and his mega-fleet of Star Destroyers awaits – we get a fly-by through new locations, filled with new backdrops and characters. It’s speed is breakneck at times, but it’s a Star Wars film, much like The Force Awakens, that delivers engaging sci-fi action and blockbuster entertainment, with every speeder chase, every lightsaber duel and every starfighter battle.
There are plenty of marvelous, potentially iconic, moments here. C-3PO, faced with a memory wipe in order to access secret files, actually gets a moment to remind everyone that he’s been here from the start, and knows more than anyone how much is at stake (Anthony Daniels has his best run of the new trilogy here). A recurring message of being willing to sacrifice parts of yourself for the betterment of others is demonstrated repeatedly, my favourite being BB-8 using his power to bring an old abused droid, D-O , back online. Ian McDiarmid, back to his best Revenge Of The Sith form, gives us a cackling Emperor that you can’t pull your eyes away from. Billy Dee Williams’ return is well-handled. Carrie Fisher may have become one with the Force, but Leia’s involvement here is respectful and limited. A moment where Chewbacca howls in despair brought tears welling up. A line from the original trilogy carries new resonance in a scene with Kylo Ren. And, in the critical moment, the saga really does feel like a large inter-connected thing, with some surprising cameos making the point.
In fact, as you might guess, The Rise Of Skywalker actually does too much. Abrams crams so much in, in terms of planets, characters, plot points and conclusions, that The Rise Of Skywalker could easily be two films, and maybe should have been, an Episode IX (my pick for a title: The Last Hope) to set things up and follow the Rey/Kylo plot to the crucial point, and an Episode X to be a blow-out, an expanded version of the narrative that props up the films final 45 or so minutes. I’m surprised Disney didn’t take that option, but maybe they wanted to get this saga over and done with, so they could focus on some new things.
It’s Star Wars, so it looks great. The production details, in every costume, prosthetic and manufactured alien suit or landscape, has been undertaken with care and precision. The CGI creations, be they spaceships, glimpses of a past Luke and Leia or gigantic, screen-encompassing battles, are as good as they have ever been or better. The cinematography is still epic in scale and scope, be it the shadow-drenched Tartarus of the Sith homeworld, the haunted remains of the rain-soaked Death Star II wreckage, the fascist straight-lines and brutalism of the First Order, or the colourful, living and altogether chaotic Resistance and its allies.
The down-to-earth action is choreographed with an eye for the kind of restrained substance that is still a rejection of the prequels style, with a ocean-borne duel between Rey and Kylo the real standout, the two swinging back and forth until genuine exhaustion kicks in. And then there is pure imagination, as a band of horse-riding rebels engage stormtroopers on the hull of a Star Destroyer. I could go on, but I don’t really see the point: Star Wars has always been, and always will be, at the apex of visual wonder on-screen.
This is John Williams’ final bow with the franchise that he has done more than most in making as beloved as it is, and it may well be the 87 year old’s final great hurrah with the craft that he has done more than most with. His score for The Rise Of Skywalker, much like that of The Last Jedi, may be missing the really stand-out “Duel Of The Fates” type moment, but it is still an inspiring and soaring thing, full of the winds, string and percussion that brings this galaxy and this story to an auditory life that few other settings can boast. Motifs from the far past make a reappearance, as do some more recent one’s (I particularly enjoyed the re-airing of “March Of The Resistance”) but at all times Williams stokes, toys with and controls the mood of the audience with his music, long since the benchmark for film-composing, and now presented as his final flourish.
I must move towards a conclusion. I said before that The Force Awakens felt like a “passing the torch” movie, from old cast to new. Now that this new trilogy is over, I realise that all three films were exercises in passing the torch, with a reverence for what came before that at times threatened to, and at others did, overshadow the efforts to craft a new story. They opened with a line about Luke Skywalker being missing, and they end with Luke and Leia still being key to everything.
But now, that torch has been passed. It must have been. If Star Wars is to grow and evolve, if it is to be more like the better parts of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and Rogue One, if it is still be of relevance, charm and meaning, it can no longer be nostalgia-bait. Going forward, it must resign Episodes I to IX, to a long time ago, and a galaxy far, far away, respected, revered but out of reach. Otherwise, anything that is to come will just be pandering missteps, that hollow out a beloved franchise.
That’s my warning to Disney and company. But The Rise Of Skywalker must be judged first and foremost on its own merits and demerits, and then as a conclusion to this trilogy. In that, it is a success, mostly. It’s trying to please too much of the fanbase at times instead of challenging them, and its character focus is skewed. It’s crammed to the bursting point, and retains just a bit too much respect for what came before. It is not a perfect film, and it is not the bests sequel to Johnson’s much more accomplished addition to the saga two years ago.
But it is a film that understands why Star Wars has such mass appeal. It’s an epic tale of growing up, redemption and the fight between good and evil. Its central duo are fantastic, and have a cackling villain to go up against that moves past nostalgia and into the realms of true enjoyability again. The cast is great, the camaraderie between them all is tangible, and as a sci-fi action set-piece, it’s more than worthy of the Star Wars name.
At its very core it has a positive message about facing fear and evil down wherever we can, because there are more of us than them. The smile I had on my face when the credits rolled may not have been as big as it was for The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, but it was still there. This story can still get me, and The Rise Of Skywalker did. If this is the saga, as we have known it, seeing its binary sun’s set, then it has gotten a send-off that we can look back on with happiness, while we look to the future with a new hope. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).