Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Review

There’s no way to end the Skywalker Saga and make all the fans happy – and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker certainly isn’t going to make all the fans happy. Those who loved The Last Jedi will surely be peeved by the jettisoning of what that divisive eighth installment introduced, while those irked by The Force Awakens’ nostalgia-bait will likely be irritated by Episode IX’s recycling of familiar beats and plentiful fan service. The Rise of Skywalker labors incredibly hard to check all the boxes and fulfill its narrative obligations to the preceding entries, so much so that you can practically hear the gears of the creative machinery groaning under the strain like the Millennium Falcon trying to make the jump to hyperspace. It ultimately makes the film a clunky and convoluted conclusion to this beloved saga, entertaining and endearing as it may be.

The movie has lots of heart and energy and some very beautiful imagery of vivid new worlds throughout, particularly that watery lightsaber duel between Rey and Kylo Ren glimpsed in trailers. But The Rise of Skywalker’s overall execution is as erratic as it is enthusiastic, with a story full of plot holes large enough to fly a Star Destroyer through. It lacks nerve, relying instead on nostalgic fan service to try to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the masses, falling back on the most blatant but successful tool of all — Big Emotions — to score its most crowd-pleasing points.

There are emotional payoffs to this trilogy’s most debated subplots, some more effective than others. Big questions are answered and other matters are definitively settled. There are bittersweet callbacks to the prior films designed to bring a tear to many a fan’s eye, rousing battles on land and in the sky that get the adrenaline pumping, and enough humor to generate more than a few guffaws. Yet the movie also uses its epic scale and breathless speed in the hopes that you’ll just move along, move along, without dwelling on the details of its convoluted storytelling and awkward ret-conning.

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The first half is exposition-heavy and laden with multiple MacGuffins – a prolonged clue hunt before the film finds surer footing. The story only gains traction once it settles into the main physical and spiritual battle between Rey (Daisy Ridley in her most confident appearance in the trilogy) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, giving a very effective less-is-more performance). They are the only characters who truly matter here outside of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in her final screen appearance, but more on that later) and the returning Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, still chewing scenery after all these years). Several new characters are cool-looking but ultimately don’t really have much impact on the events of the film, but that leaves room for legacy players C-3P0 (a poignant Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and Lando Calrissian (a slower but still smooth Billy Dee Williams) to ably serve their plot functions with heart and humor.

While John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe act as the film’s heroic men of action (Poe, in particular, gets his most screen time and Isaac his best moments to shine yet in the trilogy), the pair basically replay the same ideas in every scene, just in different locations. That’s not the fault of the actors, but the story, which strains to establish Rey, Finn, and Poe as a close-knit trio on par with Luke, Han, and Leia when the reality is the characters have spent more time apart before this than together. Thus, much of the development of their relationship has happened off-screen between the end of The Last Jedi and the beginning of this film, so the stakes between them here aren’t especially well-earned.

This being Star Wars, that story is about the fight to find light in the darkness and to maintain hope against seemingly impossible odds. In that sense, The Rise of Skywalker lovingly showcases the fairytale essence and widespread appeal that made the Skywalker saga the stuff of sci-fi legend. But it’s also painfully obvious that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams, Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy, and the other powers-that-be didn’t really have a fully formed plan for this trilogy before committing The Force Awakens to film (and they can’t fall back solely on the tragic death of Carrie Fisher for the woes that bedevil this installment). Clearly, Abrams and Last Jedi director Rian Johnson had very different ideas about the direction and meaning of this trilogy, and The Rise of Skywalker suffers for that. Its overall messaging is muddled, and the lack of a unified vision in getting these final three episodes from Points A to C is obvious.

For all its many flaws, and somewhat by necessity, at least George Lucas’ prequel trilogy had a clear idea of what it wanted to be and where it was going (and I’m conceding that as someone who didn’t much like them). This new trilogy just seemed to make things up as it went along – and while that was certainly true of the original trilogy to some extent, there’s a reason it’s generally considered wise to have an endgame in mind. To that end, The Rise of Skywalker chooses to marginalize and sideline characters and themes The Last Jedi established in order to pivot to its new destination, choices that will surely be viewed as a vital course correction by some and fearful pandering by others.

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The Rise of Skywalker runs the gamut, with sequences ranging from scary to saccharine, from very cool to very corny. It’s just a whole lot of movie packed into a two-hour and 22-minute runtime (10 minutes shorter than The Last Jedi) but more doesn’t always mean better. The final act comes perilously close to playing like the finale of a lesser superhero movie or YA fantasy adaptation due to its reliance on overwhelming visual effects that do their best to drown out the more ham-fisted moments. The creative choices made in Act Three – the most clumsily executed section of the film – will undoubtedly prove divisive and the subject of hot debate for years to come. Nostalgia and poignancy ultimately help the film cross the finish line but not without a lot of rough spots along the way.

Finally, while there had been much speculation about how The Rise of Skywalker would handle the inclusion of Leia given Fisher’s death in 2016, the movie manages to make the best of a bad situation. Keen observers will likely deduce where Fisher’s rejiggered takes originated from but – as with Brandon Lee in The Crow and Oliver Reed in Gladiator, two actors who died during filming those respective movies – Fisher’s scenes work as well as was likely possible under the tragic circumstances. Leia’s arc requires a suspension of disbelief since it’s well known to fans that Fisher didn’t film any new footage for this final film, but for general audiences unaware of the solution Abrams came up with here, Leia’s subplot should prove more effective than distracting.

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