Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker opens Thursday in extremely wide release; a spoiler-free review follows. Perhaps we’ll reconvene after everyone’s had a chance to see it to dig into the details.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019 | United States | 142 minutes | J. J. Abrams)
Two years ago, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi revealed a deep schism among fans of Star Wars. Some (100% correct) people celebrated it as among the very best of the franchise, with its centering of a “no one” orphan on a path to self-discovery as a welcome and revelatory swipe at a long-dynastic storyline that radically widened the scope of entry for heroism. Plus, it had that electric throne room fight sequence. Others whined about Luke Skywalker turning into a grumpy old grouch drinking silly blue fish milk on his island exile, sided with Oscar Isaac’s flyboy Poe Dameron’s bad behavior, and just couldn’t countenance the mission to the Casino Planet Canto Bight with its look at the Galaxy’s insufferably oblivious one percenters and the sentient beasts forced into racing for their pleasures. The ensuing dialogue, such that it was, drained so much of the fun from Star Wars that the arrival of a new installation comes with both excitement and a looming dread.
And so, with The Rise of Skywaker, J.J. Abrams returns to the trilogy he started with The Force Awakens (which I stand by as a thoroughly enjoyable remix that was exactly the right blend of updated nostalgia and novelty) and to conclude the saga that George Lucas started with A New Hope forty-two long years ago. The result is, I’m tremendously sorry to report, not great.
In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren famously proclaims: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” To that, J.J. Abrams replies, “yeah, no” and The Rise of Skywalker serves a strident rejection of that premise. It’s impossible to deny its many Star Wars-ian pleasures, while also acknowledging that it is deeply unfortunate overcorrection. In what feels like an anxious attempt to give everyone something to like, Abrams leaves us with nothing to truly love.
On the bright side: all of our old friends are back. Really, all of them, and often all in the same places and sharing key storylines this time around. We have bosom buddies Finn and Poe (John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, charming and roguish as ever) skipping around the galaxy in the Millennium Falcon, playing hologram monster chess with Chewbacca, and doing dangerous spy stuff to pick up intel. Rey and Leia (Daisy Ridley, projecting a steely front to cover lingering self-doubt, and cutting room footage from the tragically-departed Carrie Fisher) are on a jungle planet working on Jedi sky yoga and running field training drills with the criminally adorable BB-8. Moody adult teenager Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, bringing an ever-petulant and suppressed sadness) is raging to find out what’s up with a creepy pirate radio transmission and what it means for his nascent Supreme Leadership of the nasty First Order (just the dumbest of names for second-wave pack of Empire wannabes). All of these actors make the most of this material and it’s wonderful to spend time in their company. There’s not nearly enough of R2-D2, but there’s a great deal of C3PO (Anthony Daniels, still chipper after all these years) and some of that golden robot’s scenes are shockingly among the film’s most effective.
I hope it is not considered a spoiler to say that the maniacal forces that, in the previous Episode, hunted the rebels through a slow-motion space chase and into a last stand on a planet of dope crystal foxes is still up to absolutely no good — but at least Domhnall Gleeson’s smarmy villainy as General Hux and newcomer Richard E. Grant’s sycophantic devotion as Allegiant General Pryde provide small delights among the dreary ship of fools. Our heroes, thus, must set off on a convoluted series of quests to make one very final, extremely desperate, truly last stand to stop these evil galaxy conquerors from really conquering the galaxy all over again.
And what a quest it is — I lost count of the number of places that they visit on a hunt for an object that will lead them to an artifact that will guide them to a mysterious planet that will play a significant role in the fate of everyone we know and love. The Plot doesn’t always make sense but grandeur and special effects are turned all the way up to light speed, providing rich territory for environment renderers, creature wizards, costume fabricators, and spaceship designers to show off. This means things like a trip to Space Burning Man, surprising encounters with new aliens (watch out Baby Yoda, there’s a new Babu Frik in town), lots of cameo appearances, a cloyingly cute new droid, some genuinely sparkling new characters (Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie), spectacularly staged space battles, and ever-escalating lightsaber fights in more-and-more dramatic settings. As with past installations in this new trilogy, we also get an expansion of Cool Force Tricks and an continuation of the arch-frenemy dynamic between Rey and Ren, whose chemistry in person and (too often) through ever-upgraded ForceTime conversations and squabbles remains palpable. Everything looks fantastic and when the John Williams score kicks in, it’s easy to get swept up by the adventure.
As someone who’s been watching these movies my whole life, I certainly don’t mind a little fan service and this ride feels great for a while (I am nothing if not a sucker for Star Wars — I even liked Solo!). Quite a lot of The Rise of Skywalker worked for me; too much of it didn’t. Abrams steers toward showing us what’s inside every Mystery Box, preemptively resolving unasked questions, and desperately turning this last film into a buffet meant to satisfy every imaginable nostalgic craving. Eventually, the weight of these narrative choices, a few of which on their own might’ve been charming, collectively give way to a nagging, unignorable sense that the movie doesn’t trust itself or its audience. As the film marches to its end, plotting decisions become ever more outlandish, and I was left longing for a fleeter, more confident, less sparing story.
With all of that said, there’s truly nothing less appealing to me than adults fighting about Star Wars or discouraging others against reveling in the joys of this universe despite its flaws. For my own part, I’m trying to celebrate the good parts (There are plenty! One battle setpiece had me clapping and laughing out loud, other moments left me misty eyed) rather than letting the well-intentioned missteps get me down. I’ll probably give it another shot later this month; these trilogies only end once every couple decades, after all. So go see it (of course you will); I really hope you like it more than I did. ☆☆½