Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is upon us, and with it, the end of theatrical Star Wars movies as we know them.
Of course, we’ve been in that situation before. In 1983, with Return of the Jedi, and again in 2005, with Revenge of the Sith, theatrical Star Wars came to an end.
And now it is again, at least for a while. And for its conclusion, it’s offered up a film that is really hard to talk about without looking at it in the context of the series its in, and especially at its predecessor, The Last Jedi.
See, in 2015, we had Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the first new Star Wars movie in years. J.J. Abrams directed the blockbuster, which intentionally set itself apart from the dour and oft-derided prequel trilogy by invoking the spirit of the original films. In doing so he made a movie that was fun and exciting, but was also weirdly derivative, revisiting so many specific plot points that many criticized it as more of a remake than a sequel.
In 2017, Rian Johnson comes along with Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, which did its level best to take the franchise in new directions. Some fresh ideas are introduced, but there’s also a bit of a failure to understand that “subverting expectations” is not the same as “being original”. So alongide the semi-brilliant non-revelation about the identity of Rey’s parents are various other plotlines and mysteries from the previous film which just get summarily tossed away, or deemed irrelevant, which proves unsatisfying.
On top of that, Johnson’s movie takes the popular character Luke Skywalker, whose return was one of this movie’s main selling points, and takes him along a tired “reluctant hero” direction which many fans and the actor himself seemed to not be crazy about.
The movie ended up being successful financially and also a hit with many critics, but inspired intense hatred in many viewers, and so whatever unity there had been amongst the fanbase was lost, seemingly forever.
And so it’s in this context that we get Rise of Skywalker. J.J. Abrams has returned to the director’s chair to craft a film which makes strident efforts to pull back on The Last Jedi’s odder decisions, so that the trilogy could end in a way that doesn’t totally disregard fan expectations, and feels more like a deliberate story that’s been deliberately told, rather than just a series of exciting but random events. Lots of SPOILERS AHEAD!
And this is the movie’s great burden, that it has to conclude what The Force Awakens set up but which The Last Jedi chose to ignore or subvert, while not in turn completely ignoring The Last Jedi. It’s a tough job and it makes for some undeniably awkward storytelling, with some explanations being crammed in oddly, and other reversals feeling like a bit of a harsh swerve. Indeed, the fact the film is being touted as the conclusion of the “Skywalker Saga” is evidence of this, given that the phrase “Skywalker Saga” is not something any of us heard until this movie was being marketed.
Fans of The Last Jedi’s approach will surely be disappointed here, as the movie can be accused of being a bit of the “same old same old” Star Wars storytelling that was exciting then, but is more tired-out now. It’s a criticism I can certainly understand, although I prefer it to the alternative. Indeed, The Last Jedi ended with such a blank slate that I could not even imagine what would come next..there were no major mysteries that still seemed relevant, and the battle between the Resistance and the First Order was so lop-sided that it seemed silly to even talk about.
Meanwhile, for fans of The Force Awakens, this new movie also imperfect. There was no way it could be, since the movie’s “course corrections” are too many to possibly do without some discomfort. In other words, whatever else one thinks, The Rise of Skywalker would surely have been better if Abrams had also directed The Last Jedi, or at least if Last Jedi had been made to be the genuine middle chapter of the same story that started in The Force Awakens.
Maybe then the story’s big revelation, that Emperor Palpatine was somehow still alive, could have actually occurred in an actual movie, rather than in a trailer (or in the first paragraph of the movie’s opening crawl). Maybe then the conclusion of Luke’s character arc could have occurred with him as a living dude instead of a force ghost. Maybe then, Supreme Leader Snoke’s backstory could have been explained more dramatically than in a cutaway shot and a throw-away line. And maybe then, the twist of Rey’s family’s history could have been revealed organically, rather than via awkward cinematic shoehorn.
If you can accept all that, The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be a fun watch. The story has more than a few of Abrams’ signature plot contrivances (including both finding, struggling with, and using that silly dagger) but it breezes us pass these with some great visual set pieces and a number of well directed and emotionally layered action sequences. This trilogy’s cast (Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver) is as good as any of the other Star Wars movies that we’ve had, and the story does us the favor of keeping Rey, Poe and Finn together for much of the story, giving us the first opportunity that we’ve really had to see how all three of these characters interact with each other.
The movie gives Rey a solid story arc, and does a much better job of handling Poe Dameron than Last Jedi did (where he looked like an incompetent and dangerous idiot). Finn has got some good moments but we don’t go into his backstory as much as would have been nice (though really, that’s something that the middle film in the trilogy should have done, rather than all that ridiculous stuff about the Canto Bight casino).
Maybe some of the most interesting parts of this latest film are the ones that deal with Rey’s complicated relationship with Kylo Ren (which are also perhaps The Last Jedi’s best contribution to the overall story). Their little “Force Skype” sessions are used to great effect, including an interesting escalation to how linked they can be. There’s a bit of a romantic connection that begins to build between Kylo and Rey that isn’t completely believable, but one does imagine things could have gone there if they had another movie’s worth of interaction to develop it. Since the filmmaker’s didn’t have time for that, I guess they did what they could.
And of course, the Rey / Kylo interaction ultimately leads to the redemption of Ben Solo, which is one of the bigger turnarounds that The Rise of Skywalker pulls on what was established in The Last Jedi (where Kylo had every opportunity for redemption but turned it firmly down). I was glad to see it, even if it is reminiscent of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. It’s a gratifying story to see play out, and includes a nifty and emotionally justified cameo by Harrison Ford. Another nice touch is that when Ben Solo finally comes into himself, there are some interesting aspects of his dad’s personality that start to shine through, making him a pretty cool guy.
Harrison Ford isn’t the movie’s only fan-servicey cameo. There are also appearances by Ewoks, Cloud City, Wedge Antilles, Uncle Owen’s moisture farm, Admiral Ackbar’s son, Nein Numb, Chewbacca getting a medal, and the voices of Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, Mace Windu, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and a bunch more.
Rose Tico is back as well, in a role that’s not a cameo but is severely reduced from her part in The Last Jedi. Some call that criminal, I call that a relief, though Rose is actually more likeable and compelling here than she was in the whole of her larger part in the previous movie.
Billy Dee Williams is back too, as Lando Calrissian. Lando’s role is actually kind of minimal in the movie, but maybe that was unavoidable in a film that was already so crowded. At least his return didn’t involve him being a jaded variation of what he used to be, who then dies.
And the Emperor is back too, once again played by Ian McDiarmid, making him one of the few actors to play the same character in all three trilogies. He’s suitably creepy and menacing, though as stated above his appearance would have been far more effective with more appropriate build-up. He’s apparently been pulling the strings behind everything, which apparently includes building a hundreds of fully crewed Star Destroyers in complete secret to both the First Order or the Resistance. Reasons are given for this in the movie, but of course it’s utterly unbelievable However, it gets us where this story needs to go, and for the most part, that’s the bar this movie is setting.
The Rise of Skywalker also does a decent job finding a fitting tribute and exit for Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa. The actress of course passed away several years ago, leaving a bit of a gap in the nostalgic focus the recent movies have been giving to the original cast. Fortunately, some unused footage from the previous films was able to be repurposed to give Leia a small but significant role in the film, and a moving conclusion. Indeed, the story manages to develop Leia more than either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi did. It’s not perfect, but pretty impressive considering what the filmmakers (presumably) were working with.
The bottom line here is that Rise of Skywalker does not have the joie de vivre of The Force Awakens, and it doesn’t have the visual grandeur of The Last Jedi. It also does not have the narrative stupidity of The Last Jedi. It’s a film designed so that as many people as possible could leave the theatre saying to themselves something like, “Yeah, that was okay, I guess.” That describes me–I am, for the most part, a fan of The Force Awakens, so what I was hoping for was a decent movie which was fun to watch and pull something together out of the ash-heap of The Last Jedi and give the whole Star Wars thing a conclusion I could at least smile at and enjoy. For the most part, even with the movie’s contrivances, that’s what I got. And as a bonus, The Rise of Skywalker also helped to solidify in my mind some of The Last Jedi‘s best parts, giving me an overall happier feeling about the whole trilogy than I thought I ever would.