Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Release Date: December 20, 2019
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega
Growing up in the ‘90s, the original Star Wars trilogy was one of my favorite things. Like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, they were some of the films I watched again and again the most throughout my first decade, and I still remember the palpable excitement of the summer of 1999 when The Phantom Menace arrived. And while enough has been said about the prequel trilogy’s highs and lows, my view on the prequels has always been in opposition to the outright vitriol spewed their way over the years.
They’re imperfect, sure, particularly in terms of the writing and some very poor decisions (like the existence Jar-Jar Binks), but there’s a lot to love about them, from the music, the action, the incredible world-building, and the overarching tragedy at its center about Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the Dark Side. The prequels, as flawed as they are, feel like they carry purpose, charging ahead with forward momentum in a way that really makes the original six-film saga of the original and prequel trilogies satisfying and complete, with 1983’s Return of the Jedi – my favorite Star Wars film, period – serving as the perfect cap to it all, completing the redemption of Anakin Skywalker and setting up Luke as the future of the Jedi.
Like so many people, I was excited when The Force Awakens arrived in 2015, and though it caught its fair share of criticism, I thought it laid a great foundation for new films to leap forward and away from the past that also respected what had come before. This was the chance for a new saga to begin, and that was exciting only four years ago. Then The Last Jedi happened, a film that’s neither great or terrible, in my opinion, but one that felt like it squandered all sorts of opportunities its predecessor set up while quite literally “killing the past” in the process. In particular, I didn’t appreciate how the character of Luke Skywalker was handled, the original trilogy’s beacon of hope reduced to a caustic hermit who ultimately accomplished nothing in rebuilding the Jedi and was killed off.
All this is to say that, going into The Rise of Skywalker, my expectations were pretty low. While I enjoyed the Rogue One and Solo standalone films to different degrees, the actual sequel trilogy never felt like it had a purpose after The Last Jedi, that it was building up to something big in its third and final outing in the way that Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith had. And it’s that issue, that notion that this film had to find a way to wrap up its own trilogy in a satisfying way, that makes it all the more problematic that it’s been marketed instead as the end of the nine-film saga as a whole, because the original saga ended in an immensely satisfying way already in 1983.
For its faults, The Last Jedi at least occasionally tried to do different things, and rather than following through in its wake and just being bold as if there was nothing left to lose, The Rise of Skywalker all too often seems thoroughly afraid to alienate anyone in fear of receiving the same divisive reaction its predecessor has had. As a result, it overcompensates in its efforts to please everyone by relying on fan service to the extreme, sacrificing what could’ve been a unique storytelling opportunity by a last minute attempt to connect all nine films together with the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).
How did he survive his death at the end of Return of the Jedi? Who knows! And screw you for asking that question. Right in the opening crawl, we’re told of Palpatine’s incredulous return out of nowhere, with Kylo Ren/Ben (Adam Driver) coming face to face with the old Sith in his hiding place in the far reaches of the galaxy within the first few minutes. We’re even told that Palpatine has been behind everything we’ve seen in this trilogy, like Supreme Leader Snoke’s influence of Ben, and has amassed a massive fleet of planet-destroying star destroyers as part of a huge revenge plot on the galaxy that he’s labeled the Final Order.
As wonderful as it is to see McDiarmid again, the character’s return doesn’t make sense at all, and sets off a chain of events throughout the film that feel like those involved are throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. His presence also sheds light on Rey’s mysterious past and the truth about her parentage, and the reveal goes against everything we’ve seen in the saga to such a shocking degree that it’s mind-boggling that no one in charge said, “Hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea,” much like a painfully similar left field reveal seen in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Without spoiling the film, the final conflict of the film and Palpatine’s existence in it stands in such stark contrast to this whole endeavor being branded as “The Skywalker Saga,” as it completely undermines what Anakin and Luke Skywalker accomplished in Episode VI to the point of making their selfless acts moot.
Ultimately, the entire plot of the film revolves around stopping Palpatine and saving the galaxy, but… we’ve seen this already. We’ve seen him cackling as he shoots electricity from his fingertips at our hero. We’ve seen our hero at their lowest, the fate of their friends and family hanging in the balance due to the Emperor’s machinations. We’ve seen our hero overcome everything to stop him, while the plucky supporting cast fights his forces on land and by air.
It’s all so familiar for the sake of being familiar rather than an effort to offer up anything fresh of value, and the fact that the film rushes through its beats to get there is unfortunate. For the first time, our sequel leads Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) actually get to adventure together, but the film treats their relationship as if it’s been the trilogy’s strength all along. But Luke, Han, and Leia they aren’t, at no fault of the actors themselves, since this trilogy hasn’t really cared about building up their dynamic until here at the end, yet the film is so busy bouncing them from location to location that it never stops to take a much-needed breath and let these relationships play out beyond their shared quips and action beats.
It often doesn’t even feel as though the film really seems to care about paying off what it does establish anyway; for instance, at one point when the group’s lives are in peril, Finn tells Rey he needs to tell her something important (we’re led to assume, of course, that that is a simple “I love you.”) It becomes a running joke throughout the film that both Rey and Poe want to know what it is that he has to tell her, the film queuing up Finn’s big confession – whatever it may be – for the final act of the film. But nothing ever comes of it. The film never circles back around to it, even when the characters finally have their chance to speak freely, and thus, like so many threads this trilogy has set up only to abandon, there’s no closure.
Decisions like that only highlight the fact that over the course of three films, we’ve barely come to know these characters. Poor Finn, who started off with so much promise after abandoning the First Order of his own volition in The Force Awakens, is reduced to a lovesick puppy dog here, constantly chasing after Rey. At times, he exhibits clear sensitivity to the Force, and it's even hinted that he's become a legend in his own right in the eyes of former First Order troopers like newcomer Jannah (Naomi Ackie), yet the film goes nowhere with it. This time around, Poe’s Han Solo-esque scoundrel past comes to the fore a bit more through the arrival of Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), but again, it’s too little too late. Of the three, Rey continues to get the most material to work with, but the character – who actually benefited from the revelation that her parents were no one – is really kicked in the shins by the backtracking of that reveal.
And then we come to my favorite of the sequel trilogy’s characters, Kylo Ren, whose wannabe Darth Vader attitude has been a highlight of these films, giving the talented Adam Driver the chance to play such a conflicted antagonist who really came into his own by the end of The Last Jedi, which saw him doubling down on his decision to be a villain. Episode IX sees the character continuing to pursue Rey in order to turn her to the Dark Side and claim the Final Order together, still struggling with his call to the light, and the end of his arc here was punctuated with a moment between he and Rey that had my entire audience laughing and groaning, which is not the intended effect. While there’s a certain section of the fanbase who will certainly eat the moment up, it’s completely tone deaf from a storytelling standpoint, and brings the character’s journey through this trilogy to a deflating whimper rather than a truly satisfying bang, especially when coupled with the added fact that Ben and Leia – his own mother – haven’t shared a single scene together through these movies.
On the upside, at least characters from the original films – barring Palpatine – are treated mostly well. Carrie Fisher’s death is handled with surprising grace, the film repurposing cut footage from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to give her a role here, while a pair of fallen heroes each make brief returns to remind us how much this trilogy would’ve benefitted by keeping them alive. Chewbacca gets a handful of great moments, including one in particular where the Wookie succumbs to the reality of all he’s lost that truly is heartbreaking, and C-3PO is finally put back into action and has some of the film’s funniest lines, though his pairing with R2-D2, who is barely in the film, is sorely missed. And, of course, Billy Dee Williams’ return as Lando carries with it all the warm and fuzzies one would expect, and I’m glad they found a place for him in this trilogy even if I’ll forever be sore that not once did we ever get to see all of the originals together again at any point in any of these films.
It’s that kind of missed opportunity that defines The Rise of Skywalker and, in fact, this trilogy as a whole now. In Episode IX’s case, it wants to be a love letter to the fans, but it misses the point of what a love letter should be, particularly when it seems that J.J. Abrams and his team have some sort of strange disdain for the prequel trilogy, which is just as important a part of this whole saga to many who grew up with it as the original trilogy. There’s a moment near the end of the film where Rey attempts to connect with Jedi past, a scene that could’ve been on par with the immensely crowd-pleasing portals sequence in Avengers: Endgame – you know the one – had the film embraced what films past have set up, from Qui-Gon Jinn discovering the secrets of becoming a Force Ghost to The Last Jedi’s demonstration that Force Ghosts can physically interact with the world around them.
Through this scene, there are a number of cameos, but they’re simply voices only, something that’s frustrating simply because – here at “the end” – it could’ve paid off a lot. Consider, for instance, just how much Ben has been influenced by Darth Vader, his grandfather, whose voice we’re told has been Palpatine all along, something one would think would have a profound effect on Ben upon discovery. But as we saw in Return of the Jedi, Anakin Skywalker can very much become a Force Ghost, which only raises the question of why he wouldn’t show up to speak with his grandson and guide him towards the light once in a while if Palpatine’s been manipulating his grandson for years. Rey’s communion scene could’ve offered up an answer to that mystery, but it doesn’t, the mishandling of fan service having the unintended side effect of rendering the last true remaining Skywalker’s story inert.
All this is to say that fan service has to be earned. Again, using Endgame as an example, that film is loaded with moments designed to pay off character arcs, relationships, and plot threads, but it works because – after twenty-plus films – that franchise took the time to get there and understood why each fan service moment mattered for the story it was telling. Episode IX decided to forgo going anywhere unique in the wake of Episode VII and VIII for the sake of having its cake and eating it too, only no one realized the cake hadn’t even been put in the oven yet. Something like the communion scene is fan service thrown in without understanding how fan service should work; in this case, since it was decided to saddle this film with the burden of wrapping up a whole saga, it should’ve been designed to help bring both Rey and Ben’s arcs to a close, particularly the latter’s, and it simply doesn’t.
Unfortunately, what’s done is done, and – for better or worse – the film is out there and the saga is, for now at least, over. At the very least, I’ll miss John Williams’ work on these films, and was delighted when the maestro himself had a blink-or-miss-it cameo. And it’s not as though the film was terrible from beginning to end. A sequence in which the characters visit the desert planet Kijimi and walk through what is essentially Burning Man in space was a highlight of the film for me, one of the few times, albeit a brief one, when the film slowed things down to do some actual world-building, with Rey herself getting to interact with people of the universe that aren’t on one side of the Resistance/First Order or Jedi/Sith conflict. There really is stuff to enjoy here, and the cast is great even if the material they’re given to work with just simply doesn’t give them enough to dig their heels into, but it’s all buried amidst some truly superficial writing and misguided story decisions.
By the time the credits rolled, I felt just as hollow as I did after Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom last year, as though I’d just experienced an unpolished first draft of something put on screen more akin to fan fiction than a genuine Star Wars film. Unlike every Star Wars film past, I have no desire to revisit this film anytime soon, which is something I thought I’d never say or feel about something that’s been such an enjoyable part of my entire life. This could’ve been so much more, and hopefully if Disney and Lucasfilm decide to walk back on this being the end and pump out Episodes X through XII in ten or twenty years, they can take these characters somewhere new rather than find another way to exploit the past and find a way to bring Palpatine back from being one hundred percent dead. Again.
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