A film review by Craig J. Koban December 25, 2019



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.  

Flashforward 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).   

This 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...

...or....does it??? 



Okay, 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.  

Here's 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.  

Yeah, 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?

It's enough to make your head spin like R2-D2. 

Then 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. 

The 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.   

There was no way Disney was never going to make new STAR WARS films in the post-Lucas controlling era.  No chance.  Still, watching THE RISE OF SKYWALKER now - and within an overall framework vacuum as part of the Sequel Trilogy and a culmination of the entire nine film Skywalker family arc - it's impossible to deny that cynical business interests were more at play here as opposed to having a genuinely innovative drive to tell more worthwhile stories in this universe.  Watching STAR WARS has become more a more jaded experience in this new day and age for many, not to mention that this latest trilogy teaches a simple business/filmmaking lesson for the future:  If you're going to invest billions into the greatest pop culture mythology of the last fifty years...then have a blueprint for where you want to go with it.  Reflecting on these last three films makes it become easily observable that Disney had no conceptual gameplan with this trilogy, and one of the biggest takeaways of this new era of STAR WARS is that multiple industry players were brought in to helm these films, but ended up waging creative wars against themselves while making them as opposed to working together to create something that seems like it organically flows meaningfully together.  The STAR WARS sequel trilogy is proof positive of the inherent perils of having too many cooks in the kitchen that don't all work together to achieve a visionary end game.  Like Rey, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER desperately searches for an identity of its own, but instead merely adopts a safe and reassuring one that's already deeply entrenched in our collective subconscious. 

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