Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Review
Forty-two years after the original film changed cinema forever, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker comes along to put a cap on the core nine-film Star Wars saga. Whatever you thought of 2017’s The Last Jedi, that film felt like it was trying to build a new house on old ground. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t build off of that foundation; it all but tears it down, instead choosing to blast off from where The Force Awakens left off. This film uses the same old blueprint as The Force Awakens: a combination of weaponized nostalgia and fan service. The Rise of Skywalker uses these elements far more than The Last Jedi did, and probably more than The Force Awakens. However, unlike with The Force Awakens, the rush that came from revisiting this universe has diminished in the last four years; it’s only natural seeing as a new Star Wars film has released every year since 2015. Instead, this film feels smothered by nostalgia and fan service. Following the firing of Colin Trevorrow from this film, J.J. Abrams was called in to “rescue” this film. And in light of negative fan response to The Last Jedi, this film is attempting to appease a seemingly fractured fanbase and end this trilogy and saga as satisfyingly as possible for as many people as possible. Instead, it ends up having no voice of its own.
The first line in the opening crawl of the final Star Wars film is “The dead speak!”. This sets the tone for a film that relies on audience knowledge of dead characters to appreciate it. In this case, “the dead” refers to Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). In a breathless prologue, Palpatine is revealed to have survived his supposed death at the end of Return of the Jedi, and he’s planning to restore both the Empire and the Sith. He’s been hiding out in an ancient temple on a distant planet in uncharted space, waiting for his heir to ascend the throne and resurrect the Sith into the “Final Order.” Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) goes in search of Palpatine, a threat to the power Ren wields as Supreme Leader of the First Order. Upon finding him, Ren instead seemingly joins Palpatine, who tells him to find and kill Rey (Daisy Ridley). There’s an awful lot of people looking for other people in The Rise of Skywalker.
Rey is completing her Jedi training with the Resistance, under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and others are there, too. However, the Resistance is on its back foot; their numbers, resources, and hopes are dwindling, and the news that Palpatine has returned with a fleet of ships powerful enough to destroy planets is crushing whatever spark of rebellion they have left. Rey and the gang need to find a Sith Wayfinder so that they can find out where Palpatine is hiding and save the galaxy from complete annihilation.
The second act of this movie is its most effective. After a first act that drags on due to people explaining who they are and what they need to do, the middle of The Rise of Skywalker picks up with a chase scene that echoes the speeder bike scene from Return of the Jedi. There’s an interesting subplot revolving around Poe’s past and a friend of his named Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and a breathtaking, water-soaked lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo. This second act isn’t weighed down by the course-correcting that bogs down the first act. Unfortunately, the third act is smothered by a need to please as many fans as possible. It’s during this second third, where The Rise of Skywalker can just be a fun sci-fi adventure, that it truly succeeds.
To be fair, the craft on display in The Rise of Skywalker is in top form. Abrams knows how to construct a huge blockbuster like this one, and there are several fantastic set-pieces. He’s also a solid director when it comes to pulling performances from actors, and gets the best one out of Daisy Ridley that she has delivered in this series. She’s the heart of this film, alongside Driver, and both of them give fantastic performances with what they’re given. There are multiple sequences, character beats, and moments that work in The Rise of Skywalker; they’re just surrounded by so much unnecessary noise.
Here’s the thing about The Rise of Skywalker: I would have much rather learned about Poe’s background with Zorii Bliss, or seen Finn and Poe running undercover missions for the Resistance, than watch the movie we actually got. If you get chills from perfectly placed notes of John Williams’ scores (Williams’ score is another highlight of this film) when placed over a location from a previous film that you never thought you’d see again, then this film has just enough of those moments to satisfy you. If you like being surprised or seeing a film take risks, you’ll find The Rise of Skywalker horribly lacking. It’s unfortunate that this film plays it so safe, especially since it follows in the steps of The Last Jedi. This is probably the exact reason for its safeness; given fan reactions, The Last Jedi apparently had too much of both risk-taking and surprise. I wanted to see Poe’s and Zorii’s story because it was one that had the potential to surprise me. Instead, The Rise of Skywalker is so focus-grouped and workshopped that it’s easy to digest but ultimately unfulfilling and unmemorable.
There’s a line that’s repeated multiple times in The Rise of Skywalker: “If this mission fails, it was all for nothing. What we’ve done. All this time.” It’s hard not to see that line as the guiding mantra for the production of this film. This film feels like a desperate attempt to pick up the pieces from the fallout of The Last Jedi and make enraged fans happy. Instead, the movie ends up criticizing itself. This is best exemplified in Kylo Ren rebuilding his old mask. Many fans thought that Rian Johnson took their childhood and shattered it beyond recognition. And here’s Abrams, picking up the pieces and putting them back together. Unfortunately, as Rey tells Kylo, you can see the cracks.