Review – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Ian McDiarmid, Carrie Fisher, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Domnhall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Mark Hammill
Twenty-nineteen was a big year for pop culture climaxes. In April, Avengers: Endgame drew Marvel’s 22 film ‘Infinity Saga,’ if not the the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, to a close. May saw the culmination of Game of Thrones’ eight season run. Popular consensus suggests that one stuck the landing better than the other. Neither, however, carried quite the same level of pressure as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and, we are told, final film in the central series which we are apparently now calling ‘the Skywalker Saga.’ Since its debut in 1977, Star Wars has in many ways defined contemporary blockbuster filmmaking as both a narrative and a franchise. Unfortunately, while a perfectly adequate piece of blockbuster filmmaking, watching The Rise of Skywalker confirms what has been suggested by the previous two instalments: that this has been a trilogy without a clear, overarching plan.
A mysterious message has been beamed around the galaxy which suggests that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), long assumed dead, is very much alive and has been assembling a fleet and army the size of which the galaxy has never seen, the Final Order. Having completed her Jedi training, Rey (Daisy Ridley) sets out with Fin (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to find a Sith wayfinder, a device which will allow them to locate Exogol, home to the Emperor’s hidden base. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, (Adam Driver) now Supreme Leader of the First Order, is similarly interested in defeating the Emperor, seeing him as a threat to his power rather than an ally.
With The Rise of Skywalker, J.J. Abrams was faced with a very difficult task. Beyond the fundamental challenge of trying to come up with a satisfying resolution to arguably the most beloved franchise in film history, he was also faced with the fact that the previous instalment, The Last Jedi, had taken the series in a different direction, making narrative decisions which had to be reckoned with. The toxicity of some audience responses to that film had turned Star Wars into somewhat of an ideological battleground. There was also the death of Carrie Fisher, whose General Leia was clearly being set up to be a significant part of this final instalment, before production had begun. With all that in mind, that The Rise of Skywalker manages to be a largely coherent and relatively entertaining two hours should be commended. But ‘largely coherent and relatively entertaining’ is not quite the euphoric experience Star Wars fans would be hoping for.
The frustration of The Rise of Skywalker is that it doesn’t feel like a culmination. You don’t get the sense that everything from the last the last two films, let alone the six before them, has been building towards this. Rather, it feels like a last minute franchise course correction. Even putting to one side the more toxic reactions, there is no denying that The Last Jedi was a divisive film. Writer-director Rian Johnson made a concerted effort to push the mythology forward and expand the Star Wars universe. In suggesting that Rey’s parents were not of any significance, the Force became something that was available to anyone, not just the property of particular families. As such, it went from being a story about preordained destiny to one about determining ones own fate. Rather than continuing down Johnson’s path or taking the opportunity to further expand the mythology, The Rise of Skywalker feels like a systematic dismantling of The Last Jedi. Narratively, thematically and tonally, the film reverts back to what we saw in The Force Awakens, choosing to either ignore (Kelly Marie Tran says hi) or undo (we are back to asking about Rey’s parents) what Johnson had put in place.
The nostalgic tone which served an important function in The Force Awakens, reminding those fans who felt burnt by the prequel trilogy why they loved Star Wars, feels like unnecessary fan service here. Yes, it is fun to see Ian McDiarmid and Billy Dee Williams reviving their characters and repeating well known lines, but this series has progressed beyond the point where these kinds of resurrections are needed. Three films in, we are now invested in the stories of Rey, Fin and Poe. One of the joys of the film, thanks to the MacGuffin search they are sent on, is that for the first time in the new trilogy our trio of heroes actually get to share substantial screen time together.
While different character relationships have been played with across the new trilogy, the one which has been most consistent and the most intriguing is that between Rey and Kylo Ren. From their introduction the idea was seeded that these two shared a connection. Both young, both strong with the force and both separated from familial support structures, they are in a sense the light and dark side of the same coin. That each has the potential to become the other is central to their attraction. Rey still sees good in Kylo Ren and is determined to help him find that. Kylo Ren envisages Rey and himself ruling the galaxy side by side. Their relationship is the one notable progression from The Last Jedi which has not been backtracked and, particularly given the limitations on Leia’s involvement in the narrative, it falls to Ridley and Driver to provide the emotional heart of the film.
With some striking visuals, well executed battle scenes and a more comfortable balance of drama and humour than the previous two instalments, The Rise of Skywalker is a perfectly satisfying blockbuster. To say this franchise is ending with a whimper rather than a bang would be an exaggeration, but for a saga which has spanned 42 years, has been a cornerstone of popular culture and has been incredibly important to so many people, you want a finale to make you feel something, and The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t have that weight.
Review by Duncan McLean
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