THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
2019, PG-13, 141 mins.
Daisy Ridley as Rey / Adam Driver as Kylo Ren / John Boyega as Finn / Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron / Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa / Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker / Anthony Daniels as C-3PO / Naomi Ackie as Jannah / Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux / Richard E. Grant as Allegiant General Pryde / Lupita Nyong'o as Maz Kanata / Keri Russell as Zorii Bliss / Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca / Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico / Ian McDiarmid as Darth Sidious / Palpatine / Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian
Directed by J.J. Abrams / Written by Abrams and Chris Terrio
For the absolutely hypersensitive when it comes to spoiler culture...consider yourself warned...
Not so long ago in a galaxy very, very nearby George Lucas released what many thought was going to be the last STAR WARS film ever made in 2005's REVENGE OF THE SITH, which was the final episode in the "Prequel Trilogy" that also filled in all of the gaps of the six film Skywalker family saga that included the "Original Trilogy." For all intents and purposes, STAR WARS - cinematically speaking - was over.
seven years later and the flannel shirted Yoda of this iconic saga sold it
to Disney for a cool $4 billion in 2012, followed by an announcement that
the House of Mouse was going ahead with a "Sequel Trilogy" of
films (all without much in the way of Lucas' input). The 2015 J.J. Abrams directed THE
FORCE AWAKENS opened to great fanfare and Death Star sized box
office, and it's film that I liked, but found it to be a creatively
lethargic Xerox copy of Lucas' 1977 franchise introductory chapter.
Then came pinch hitter Rian Johnson for 2017's THE
LAST JEDI, which radically altered the DNA of STAR WARS cannon
much to the great chagrin of many series diehards (myself included).
all builds up, of course, to the ninth and - I'll believe it when I see it
- final episode on this 42-year-old family saga.
As was the case with the previous STAR WARS films, I always find it
painfully hard to divorce myself apart from my childhood enthusiasm as a
lifelong fan of the series and my more detached critical eye that I now
have to watch them through. After
leaving the cinema post-screening - and allowing this new sequel to
marinate in my mind for a few days - I'm left with a basic impression: THE
RISE OF SKYWALKER is a handsomely produced epic with reliably lavish
looking visual dynamism, not to mention that it contains fleeting moments
of intriguing power largely thanks to its thanklessly good performances,
but it's a shallowly and weakly constructed and middling at best swan song
for this sequel trilogy and saga as a whole.
What's so lamentably glaring this go around is that Abrams and
company have made a good looking STAR WARS film that also has a startling
lack of conceptual imagination within its messy and convoluted script;
it's a real double edge sword...or should I say lightsaber?
The wonderful Daisy Ridley (one of this trilogy's few redeeming qualities) returns as Jedi Knight in training Rey, who - in the last film - lost her Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, looking more like an intergalactic Jesus here than ever before in the franchise) - after he made the ultimate sacrifice to save the First Order defying Resistance. Now being trained by General Leia (a resurrected Carrie Fisher, more on that in a bit), Rey has become more powerful than ever in her quest to find out the real origins of her family while trying to find a way to turn the new Supreme Leader of the First Order, Kylo "Ben Solo" Ren (Adam Driver, the other redeeming quality of this trilogy), back to the light side of the Force. Ren, on the other hand, has other grand ideas now with his newfound ascendancy to power in the First Order, like going on a scavenger hunt for an ancient Sith artifact, a GPS like device that will take him to the hiding place of the man that's been pulling the strings the whole time since THE PHANTOM MENACE, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, the whole franchise's best actor), who reveals to Ren his grand end game to finally wipe out the last vestiges of the Resistance and rule the galaxy. His plan also involves the destruction of the last Jedi in Rey...
let me start with the positives. THE
RISE OF SKYWALKER is a tour de force of action and whiz bang imagery (even
though Abram's direction at times is too editorially chaotic and lacking
in the poised clarity that he showed in THE FORCE AWAKENS).
It has become perfunctory to say how good the visual effects are in
these films (nothing will come close to re-capturing the awe-inspiring how'd
they do that aura of Lucas' original efforts, which led to an industry
revolution in state of the art movie making technology), but THE RISE OF
SKYWALKER is as well made on a level of production values as any film in
this storied franchise. I
also appreciated how Abrams and his team thought more outside of the box
in terms of letting their imaginations run wilder when it comes to
planetary design (I loved one snow covered city that seems carved into
vast mountains on one planet), but we also see yet another new
desert world, which is somewhat eye rolling.
I think that the STAR WARS films as a whole have done all that they
can with this overused environmental motif. Regardless, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER looks sensational.
Some of the old and new character beats here also work fairly well. The sequences of General Leia sharing more screen time with Rey - offering her insights into the Force and galactic battle to come - are nicely rendered, albeit a bit dramatically off (Abrams re-purposed old deleted footage of the late Fischer from the previous films and digitally inserted her into new scenes and dialogue exchanges here...sometimes smoothly, sometimes distractingly). Welcoming is how the film brings Rey back into a team trio dynamic with exiled Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and hotshot Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Issac), which gives the film some much needed pep (and sometimes comic relief). Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) are given much more to do this time, with the latter being an integral part of the hero's journey towards finding the Sith wayfinder. Obviously, we get some new characters thrown into the mix, like Keri Russell appearing in a brief, but notable role of a former flame of Poe's in the helmeted Zori Bliss, as well as Naomie Ackie showing up late as a new Resistance ally that has a history - like Finn - with the enemy.
the thing, though: It becomes very abundantly clear within the first
highly awkwardly assembled act of this film that Abrams is simply
overstuffing this sequel with too many characters, too many planets, too
much space traveling, and too many scattershot and ill defined subplots
for its own good. It's
fitting that the film opens with the Millennium Falcon violently light
speed skipping across the universe without any road map or coordinates,
seeing as that mirrors Abram's schizophrenic storytelling here. Too much of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER suffers from attention
deficit disorder and simply can't stop, calm, down, take a deep breath,
and immerse us in the important particulars of the story.
I also find it double ironic that Abrams - well known for his
predilection towards mystery box storytelling - has his characters
searching for actual mystery boxes; it doesn't get more on
the nose than that.
This leads to some of the more glaring issues with the genuine lack of a vision for THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: Abrams, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, and Disney take such a regressively apologetic approach to this new film by trying to ignore as much as they can from THE LAST JEDI. This film wastes an unhealthy amount of its running time bypassing - and in some instances mocking - what Rian Johnson attempted and set up beforehand, all but rendering that sequel kind of null and void. There's a sluggish checkbox approach that Abrams uses here, trying to cram in as many elements as he thinks fans want in these film without ever really trying to have them all coalesce together to form a meaningful plot. You want Lando Carlissian back...check. You want Emperor Palpatine back...check. You want more laser sword fights and space dog battles...check. You don't want the moody and stern Luke Skywalker from the last film gone and replaced by a warm, smiling, and inviting Jedi Master here...check. You don't want Rose...check. That one in particular is one of the more shameful pieces of fan servicing. Abrams wants to have his cake and eat it too in terms of fully embracing ethnic/gender diversity in his films (which he does modestly achieve) while appeasing fan complaints of what's come before, but fans were not kind to Kelly Marie Tran's Resistance fighter in THE LAST JEDI, so he mournfully delegates her to the sidelines in an absolutely nothing role as opposed to positively developing her character for the better.
I call Bantha poodoo.
Fan servicing is not totally a bad thing in movies, but there's something illogically patronizing to the levels Abrams embraces here. Take, for instance, the very odd inclusion of the Emperor here. This legendary STAR WARS baddie began with great Machiavellian intrigue as a twisted and manipulative politician in the prequels and revealed himself to be an all-powerful Sith that destroyed young Anakin Skywalker's life by luring him to the Dark Side. Seeing Ian McDiarmid back as Palpatine offers momentary excitement, to be sure, but the character's appearance here makes very little sense, mostly because the film does such a lousy job of explaining how the hell he survived being thrown down a Death Star shaft and being blown to nothingness in RETURN OF THE JEDI. In THE RISE OF SKYWALKER he's disagreeably reduced to a zombified/cult-like monster that's essentially a video game end battle boss that the heroes need to kill. Plus, when one lets their nerd juices flow and scrutinizes things, doesn't his inclusion here all but nullify the whole six film arc of the last two trilogies...that being, for those requiring a refresher, the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker by his son to defeat and eradicate the Emperor to bring balance to the Force? Doesn't THE RISE OF SKYWALKER all but eradicate that character's sacrifices now?
enough to make your head spin like R2-D2.
again, the rest of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER plays really, really fast
and loose with established core mythology, oftentimes when the Force is
concerned. I'm smart enough
to know that these films are pure fantasy.
Space wizards don't exist. Still,
the STAR WARS films should consistently adhere to the universe rules and
lore set up by Lucas. There
are times when Rey is capable of God-like Force powered feats that would
make Yoda blush, only to be followed up with other moments when she can
barely hold her own in a lightsaber fight.
The problem with having a hero with apex-levels of invulnerability
is that it all but neuters any palpable levels of tension in the story; I
never once felt concerned about Rey or her friends.
Abrams does sheepishly engage in multiple sequences of cheap bait
and switch in making audiences feel that the end has come for some in this
saga, only quickly to course correct.
The emotional stakes have rarely felt as low in a STAR WARS film as
they do here.
more I sat uncomfortably in my seat while watching THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
the more retroactive appreciation I had for what Rian Johnson was trying
to accomplish with THE LAST JEDI, which makes Abrams' unwavering attempts
to apologize for it feel all the more condescending.
Johnson, to be fair, employed many gutsy creative gambles with his
film that challenged fans of this series, some of which worked, some of
which obviously did not. But
he wasn't opting for the safest and most pedestrian approach of what's on
display in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. To
use a baseball metaphor, Johnson stepped up to the plate and swung for
audaciously creative homeruns, only to muster a solid two base hit.
Abrams and his team here don't even make any attempts to swing the
bat at pitches. One element
that did stick with me as a thematic concept in THE LAST JEDI was
Johnson's notion that, deep down, it doesn't matter who you are, where you
came from, or what your lineage is...you can be a nothing from nowhere and
become a galactic hero. That's
a great message. Unfortunately,
Abrams completely obliterates such endlessly compelling conceits, and
builds towards a final image and dialogue exchange that does one character
a huge disservice here.