Directed by #JJAbrams
Film review by Nathanial Eker
Not unlike Ben Solo’s struggle between the light and dark, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker lies in conflict. On the one (mechanical) hand, it’s dreadfully paced, exposits more jargon than all three prequels combined, and has a rushed vibe that lurks unpleasantly like a Rancor in Jabba’s death pit. However, much of the tightly packed 141 minutes is unashamedly exciting, offering a story that is far from perfect, but is, in many ways, closer to the swashbuckling silliness of the original trilogy than Rian Johnson’s vision of its predecessor.
Following the events of that film and the death of Luke Skywalker, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been training as the resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), rebuilds itself. Meanwhile, Leia’s son, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has dominated the galaxy with the might of the fanatical First Order. However, when an old threat, Supreme Chancellor turned Emperor Palpatine, returns from the dead, a galaxy far, far away braces for a generation defining battle.
The return of Palpatine raised more than a few scorched Vader eyebrows when it was revealed. Since then, it’s become abundantly clear that his inclusion was indeed a last-minute hail Mary plea for fan good will. Never has there been a greater Hollywood lie than the notion that his return was planned from the sequel trilogy’s genesis. This lie is indicative of the film’s wider problems, almost all of which stem from a lack of natural cohesion with The Last Jedi. The notion that such an all-encompassing franchise had no clear game plan is as baffling as the decision to make Greedo shoot first. This is not the fault of either J.J Abrams or Rian Johnson, but rather the upper echelons of the Disney production hierarchy, who think not of the fans, but of their own greed. As we know, greed leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, and suffering … well, you know the rest.
Despite this, Abrams amazingly manages to deliver both a mostly coherent (if contrived) narrative and an action packed space opera. The return of Ian McDiarmid in his most iconic role allows that famous force lightning to melt any cynicism away, as he brings an electric energy to finally craft a compelling threat, no matter how silly his role may seem. Using the various tie-in comics as well as an imaginative head canon, you can loosely craft a narrative where his reappearance makes sense, though to say it’s a stretch is an understatement. Other inclusions, such as the return of the previously side-lined Knights of Ren will likely please Last Jedi haters, though they disappointingly amount to little more than slightly adept Stormtroopers.
As an Abrams film, it’s unsurprising that The Rise of Skywalker is visually stunning. The use of practical effects in favour of CGI monstrosities in particular can’t be praised enough. The presence of every real creature, no matter how insignificant, give the film lightyears of personality; a pint sized droid mechanic with a big attitude is a wonderfully charismatic highlight. It’s these small details that give the film that ‘JJ’ stamp of quality, keeping it unmistakably in line with the less flashy aesthetic of The Force Awakens. The action set pieces also offer some of the greatest battles of the entire saga, with the detailed sets of the original trilogy and impressive choreography of the prequels finally coming together to create truly exceptional fight sequences. Examples are plentiful, but the clash of frenemies ‘Reylo’ on a rough sea creates the most exciting fight since the Praetorian Guard slaughter.
The Rise of Skywalker’s greatest strength lies in the dynamic between our core cast, who finally start to match the camaraderie of the classic trio. For the first time in the sequel trilogy, Rey, Finn, and Poe feel like friends, as Abrams allows them copious screen time as a group; a masterful improvement on the disparate previous two entries. The choice to time-jump allows for natural narrative development, a desperately needed breath of fresh air after Johnson’s painful mistake to pick up from the end credits of episode seven.
In a surprise to nobody, John Williams’ score remains a highlight, as it has during even the darkest times; The Phantom Menace may be a dreary slog of trade federations and taxation blockades but Duel of the Fates remains an exceptional piece of music. This time Williams’ chooses to focus on expanding established leitmotifs, a fitting move for the climax of a nine film saga. Most used is the light and bubbly Rey’s Theme. This is blended nicely with a variety of different pieces, most predominantly Kylo Ren’s Theme, demonstrating their connection (one of the few enduring elements introduced in The Last Jedi). If there’s one criticism of the score, it’s that the force clearly isn’t strong with the prequel trilogy. Despite the promise of a soundtrack that encompasses ‘music from every generation of the saga’, absolute bangers like Across the Stars, Battle of Heroes, and even the aforementioned Duel of the Fates are disappointingly excluded.
The issue of how to incorporate the late Carrie Fisher’s General Leia was always going to be tricky. While some may lament the film’s hasty use of archive footage, the decision to tie her to the narrative arc of another character is a smart one that crafts a fittingly respectful end for the greatest Disney princess. Also welcome is the return of Billy Dee Williams as the sauciest man in the galaxy; Lando Calrissian. Though Williams’ part is comparatively small, seeing his charming smile on screen again is enough to send anyone’s medichlorian count through the roof. Manipulative and pandering to nostalgic man babies? Perhaps. But Star Wars has always been a franchise built on repurposing the old, whether that be western iconography or samurai sword play; recycling the iconography of the original films is no different.
On its own merits, The Rise of Skywalker is a mess. A mess filled with brilliant, fan pandering moments that’ll make you squeal like a six year old watching Empire Strikes Back in your Star Wars pyjamas. Its structure is more scattered than the post-Order 66 Jedi and its pace is quicker than a Tatooine podrace. However, there’s something so delightfully charming about how frantic and unashamedly fan service heavy it is. It is by far a weaker trilogy cap than Return of the Jedi and even the (grossly underrated) Revenge of the Sith. However, the final film in the Skywalker saga achieves the seemingly impossible; it makes the sequel trilogy fun again. After the divisive and unwarranted hate festered by The Last Jedi, Abrams’ conclusion admirably aims to cater to all, creating the best interpretations of Rey, Finn, and Poe, whilst allowing force veterans to exit with a respectful grace. It’s by no means the quintessential Star Wars, but against enormous odds, Abrams creates a film that captures the spirit of the original trilogy. The force is fun with this one.