I've tried to stay spoiler-free as much as possible, but please understand that details have found their way into this article...you've been warned!
There’s simply no way to start this discussion with any of the normal preamble or witty introductions you might find in a film review. This is no ordinary film, these are not ordinary times, and Star Wars has never been an ordinary franchise.
So, when you sit down to write your thoughts on the latest entry in the Star Wars filmography, which also happens to be the end of the Skywalker Saga, well, it’s complicated.
But why? It’s still Star Wars, right? That thing we all love and adore and have spent the better part of the last four decades tearing each other’s eyeballs out over?
The truth is, much like J.J. Abrams second go at directing a Star Wars film, as much as we want to pretend everything is honky dory, we can’t ignore the white noise. And because of that, this film, had a mountain of an objective ahead of it and probably never really stood a chance at being perfect. It’s just not possible. But I also believe that Mr. Abrams understands that perfectly well and did the best he could do given the circumstances.
As I suggested in the sub-title, this film is trying to be two things at once, both commerce and art, both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. But does it succeed at either?
I mean, the concept behind The Rise of Skywalker is daunting on its own but throw in the added responsibility of having to wrap up 42 years of Star Wars, well, now you’ve got a powder keg on your hands. But they just couldn’t help themselves, that forbidden fruit was just too tempting, so they threw in an overtly-complicated new plot, brought in new characters, and all the while servicing three generations of fans who on the best of days, only agree that Baby Yoda is adorable.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is a sometimes fun, sometimes emotional, mostly thrilling adventure that spends too much time telling you what the movie is about, and not enough time letting the events happen. By the time the film settles, somewhere in the second act, the short run time becomes an issue. That may sound weird for a 2 hour and 21-minute film, but this is a three-hour plot, squeezed into a shorter run-time for some unexplained reason.
We all the know the backstory, so there’s no need to go into that, but Abrams does check (and in some cases uncheck) a lot of boxes. This is especially true of the sequel era main players, who are together for most of the film and take center stage. Rey, Finn, and Poe spend more time together in this film than the previous two combined and that previous lack of time together is evident. Especially Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) who never seem to really click, even when they’re not supposed to be “clicking”. Aside from Finn’s never-ending infatuation, Poe’s brooding, and Rey’s secrets, this core trio (plus Chewbacca, BB-8, and C-3PO) is the backdrop for some incredible moments, it’s just rarely because of them.
And this film is indeed wall-to-wall “moments” From the opening crawl, we are thrust into this point in the timeline and don’t ever once come up for air. It’s never explicitly stated (not that I can remember), but time has passed since the Battle of Crait and the Resistance, while having grown, is still outmatched compared to the First Order. Themselves having gone through a bit of a face lift with Supreme Leader KYLO REN now running things. He’s still searching for Rey when he comes across a way finder than leads him to an old and ancient evil. Worth noting and probably not a surprise, but Adam Driver is again excellent in and out of the mask and is this trilogy's MVP.
Again, the opening crawl really lays it out for you and if you’ve seen any of the marketing then it won’t come as a surprise, or spoiler, that Emperor Palpatine is back, and he’s pissed! Why exactly he’s back and what his plan is I won’t say but it’s somewhat convoluted and requires a fair bit of exposition in the first act to have it figured out by the second.
Naturally, Ren and Palpatine are seemingly a match made in Sith heaven but like all good Master/Apprentice relationships, the Rule of Two is never too far behind and there’s tension almost from the beginning. But they hatch a plan, or rather the Emperor gets Kylo on board with his, and things go from there.
Palpatine’s inclusion is fun with Ian McDiarmid still able to bring life to the character, even when he unretires the famous cackle, it never feels out of place. His performance is understated and not at all ham-fisted or histrionic like in past efforts.
As for the Resistance, Leia is keeping what little hope they have alive best she can, but victories are small, few, and far between. We see her filling the role of “master” to Rey who is busy training, reading the Jedi texts, and honing her burgeoning Force powers. Rey is incredibly powerful now and can-do things we’ve never seen her do before. But everyday is a struggle as she’s plagued by nightmarish visions of her lineage and her connections to Kylo Ren. I’m also afraid the Mary Sue folks will take a bit of an issue with some of these facts, but let’s hope cooler heads prevail.
Like past films, her and Kylo/Ben are having a shared experience and are the only ones in the galaxy who fully understand that. Others may try, but ultimately, it’s her path, and hers alone. But that doesn’t stop the others from inserting themselves into her journey, and whether she understands it or not, it’ll take a team effort to win the day.
They learn early on about Palpatine’s existence and that he’s been hiding out in the Unknown Regions, planning his comeback. So, finding him and stopping him before it’s too late becomes the mission, all the while avoiding Kylo Ren and the Knights of Ren who are hot on their heels. Speaking of, the finally revealed Knights of Ren make their long-awaited debut and it's mostly underwhelming as they don’t get a lot to do other than walk around and pose ominously.
This mission takes our heroes to new planets, where we meet new people, and uncover many new truths. This journey serves as the mechanism by which Abrams not only propels forward the narrative thread of this Episode but begins to circle and slash the many loose ends he’s promised to tie up.
For the most part, he’s very successful in doing that and depending on your opinion of The Last Jedi, you’ll enjoy J.J.’s brand of retconning and nostalgia driven narrative approach. Save the Prequels, which are unfortunately ignored, he does a good job of emotionally coming to terms with many of the “legends” of Star Wars and their last hoorah’s.
Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Lando Calrissian all have moments where they get to shine bright, especially Threepio, who gets the most time. As for the twins, Luke and Leia, they don’t play as big a role as many will like, but they make their presence felt, nonetheless. And, after all the press given to Carrie Fisher’s return to Leia postmortem, how does it go? Pretty good actually. The problem all along was going to be two-fold, would she speak, and how would she die.
The first problem was solved by only having her say a few words, no, our General doesn’t say a lot this time around. The second is a little more complicated and will probably be a point of discussion. Her death is not as climatic as she deserved but I think they did the best they could with the hand they were dealt. It’s not the choice I would have made, but it’s clear they were determined to have her die onscreen, so it is what it is.
One aspect of this film where they did score well with me was the new characters that were introduced. Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), Jannah (Naomi Ackie), and General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) were great additions to the cast and one can’t help but wish they had come along sooner. Not simply disposable bit parts, they each bring some levity to their roles and play important parts of the story. Aside from rushed introductions, this is very much an “already in progress” film, it’s good stuff from them.
I can’t go into the most important parts of the film without spoiling anything, so I won’t even bother trying, besides, the big question, is it a satisfying conclusion, is more interesting. The answer to that isn’t as simple as a yes or no unfortunately. By the film’s very nature, we are asked to believe certain beliefs about Abram’s version of events, some that erase and retcon the events of past films.
What we know about the Jedi and Sith, or what we thought we knew about these mystical beings, gets slightly upended again, undoing some of what Rian Johnson led us to believe in his film. Which side of the fence you fall on will most likely have been predetermined, meaning, there’s nothing in this that will change your mind. You’ll agree or you won’t, but it is the way now, and, as far as these specific characters are concerned, it’s no longer a physical universe versus philosophical discussion.
The answer is somewhere in the middle probably, and while that may seem like a cop-out, your experience with this film will be entirely esoteric. You’ll get out of it, what you personally bring with you. Most people will find this a satisfying conclusion to 40+ years of Star Wars storytelling, and some won’t. Some will love the OT nods and homage; some will ask where’s the prequel love. Some will find the running time adequate, and others will want it to be more.
Even the ending, the very ending, will leave some with questions, not answers, and that’s not a horrible position to be in from the company’s standpoint. Sure, the film version of the Skywalkers may have come to an end, but these new characters will certainly live on somehow, someway. Books, comic books, novels, Disney+, Lucasfilm has other avenues to continue the adventures of Rey, Finn, and Poe. It just won’t be on the big screen.
And with a crowded field and equally busied agenda, there’s a lot that gets brushed aside or completely dismissed in some cases. Poor Rose (Kellly Marie Tran) is completely back benched here and I sincerely hope “that” side of social media doesn’t use it to further their agenda. And don’t get me started on the wasted potential of Maz Kanata.
So, am I satisfied? Is it a satisfying conclusion to a life’s pursuit? I’m reminded of the scene from “Philadelphia” of all things, where Denzel Washington’s character gives that speech about the difference between caviar and a bologna sandwich…
“Oh, congratulations! That must've been a very...satisfactory experience.”
Yes, the comparisons to The Last Jedi (caviar) and The Force Awakens (bologna) are present, even here.
This is a big Star Wars film, with the score to match by the way, that kind of plays it safe in the end despite the prickly first act. You’ll see a lot coming before it happens and there is a clear focus on fan service and pandering, especially with certain aspects of the fandom. I won’t dare speak their names here!
As a fan of The Last Jedi, this film is a step-backwards for me personally. But I also believe there’s more to like than not here, and that’s why I also believe it will end up being compared more to The Force Awakens and its prudent approach. It’s not challenging our perceptions of anything really, just asking us to enjoy the Star Wars theme park ride one last time. And that's another issue, the franchise's overlords pulling the strings here, but we'll save that for a later discussion.
So, in the end, simply enjoying it for what it is rather what it's not, is probably a good safe place to be after the dust settles, but don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
Wish I could say more, but, you know, spoilers.
Until next time…MTFBWY.
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