J.J. aims to please, but the maclunkey is strong with this one.
Let me start by saying that my favorite element from any of the Star Wars movies that make up what these days is called the “Sequel Trilogy” is a throwaway moment in The Force Awakens where Rey, the heroine of this new saga, mixes some powder into a bowl of water and it turns into a little soufflé. That, for me, was the highlight of everything that Disney has manufactured since acquiring the keys to the Star Wars kingdom: a tiny, unobtrusive piece of world building that caught me by surprise.
In our current age of cinema, where you can see special effects as grand as those of Star Wars in any cough drop ad, we need surprises and clever storytelling more than ever. So when I tell you that The Rise of Skywalker, the third and final installment of this powerhouse trilogy, dumps six different boxes of sugar cereal into one mixing bowl, pours on the Yoo-hoo and hands you a spoon, you might be surprised to learn that I still liked quite a lot about it.
As this last installment of the so-called “Skywalker Saga” prepares to drop, the question on everyone’s mind is whether writer-director J.J. Abrams (who helmed the trilogy’s fan-pleasing opening bid, The Force Awakens) can stick the landing and restore the fans’ faith in a story that the divisive and frustrating second installment, The Last Jedi (written and directed by Rian Johnson), brought crashing to earth like the Hindenburg.
To “stick the landing”, however, when the franchise has already fallen off the balance beam, was an impossible task. The best J.J. could hope to do was help Star Wars walk off the floor with its dignity intact. Instead, Abrams (along with co-writer Chris Terrio) has doubled down on winning over the judges, and sends the saga off with a dizzying breakdance routine. The Rise of Skywalker is ridiculous, overstuffed and dazzling, with something to please and displease everyone.
Right out of the gate the film throws all caution to the wind. The evil Emperor (last seen being blown to Kingdom Come when the second Death Star exploded in Return of the Jedi) is back, more or less intact, in an unapologetic swallow-it-or-else conceit. Having announced his return to the entire galaxy, the Emperor soon offers the conflicted leader of the evil First Order, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) a fleet of secretly constructed, planet-smashing Star Destroyers to help him complete his conquest of the Galaxy. All he wants in return is that Kylo destroys Rey (Daisy Ridley), the last of the Jedi. (Or does he?)
Rey, meanwhile, has continued her Jedi training under General Leia (Carrie Fisher, of course). Rey is hotter shit than ever, but remains agonized over her status as a lonely orphan with no last name.
Naturally, brash pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and stormtrooper-turned-good Finn (John Boyega) are also back, playing well off each other comedically, but otherwise having no stories of their own. Both characters are handed new demi-love interests to give them something to do on screen besides shoot guns and move levers, but we can’t help but be reminded that one of the biggest flaws of this new trilogy is that its three heroic leads never formed a convincing friendship. It took three movies just for them to have any screen time together.
Brushed aside almost entirely is Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), Finn’s romantic partner introduced in The Last Jedi. It’s the first of many “fuck you”s delivered by Abrams to Rian Johnson, transforming this movie into a hilarious grudge match between the two directors. Whether it is Kylo Ren literally reconstructing the helmet he smashed to pieces in the last film, or Luke Skywalker’s ghost wagging a finger at Rey for disrespecting the lightsaber he once chucked over his shoulder, J.J. sets a new standard for fan service that goes well beyond this film’s tiresome nods to nostalgia, a move that could be called “metapandering”.
Also gone is any coherent logic governing what our heroes and villains are actually fighting over. With the earlier Star Wars movies the stakes were clear: the Empire ruled the galaxy, the Rebels wanted to overthrow them. I have absolutely no idea who is running what in this last chapter of the epic. When we last saw the Resistance, they were down to a dozen fighters and a single ship. Now they are back to full strength, no explanation given. How has the First Order failed to consolidate their victory when they are essentially unopposed? How has the Emperor, whose defeat in the original trilogy was total, managed to build a secret fleet with the strength of a thousand Death Stars? And if the Emperor always was, as he informs Kylo, the true leader of the First Order, why has he built an entirely separate army in parallel to them?
J.J.’s answer is: “Shut up and strap in!” With the thread of the narrative hopelessly lost, J.J. has gone full gonzo. The Rise of Skywalker moves at a breakneck pace, leaving no room for anything to breathe as our heroes race from planet to planet recovering Sith artifacts that will lead the Resistance to the location of the Emperor, while also giving Rey and Kylo opportunities galore to indulge their fraught sexual tension through real and telepathic lightsaber combat.
Rey’s abandonment issues and Kylo Ren’s self-doubt remain the emotional core of the film, but the potential for those arcs to truly blossom is hobbled by the course corrections Abrams has made to ease the fans’ sour stomachs. The addition of the Emperor as the new supervillain prevents Kylo from coming into his own and learning the lessons he’d have been taught after finally obtaining absolute power. And the needless shoehorning of a secret lineage into Rey’s story arrives too late to carry any emotional weight in these final hours. Here is where Abrams should simply have, as Kylo Ren once suggested, “let the past die”, and stuck with Rian Johnson’s surprise reveal that Rey had no connection to any of the heroes (or villains) of Star Wars’ past. Forced to forge her own way forward, Rey could have become the new legend that future generations were proud to have descended from. Instead, it’s just another handjob for the fans.
There is no faulting the production values of the film, however, or J.J.’s ability to stage a scene. Much of the movie is epic in scale, but also rushed. Skywalker would have benefited from having half as many locales so that our heroes could be allowed to live in them for a while. For example, When Rey and friends must brave a treacherous sea on Endor to reach the wreckage of the Death Star, what might have been a thrilling boat excursion (maybe with some sea monsters thrown in) becomes nothing more than a short trip from point A to point B. This also deprives new friend Jannah (Naomi Ackie), introduced only moments earlier, of a chance to flesh out her tacked-on character.
To be sure, In-between the exhausting action are some truly delightful and funny moments. Ridley, Boyega and Isaac, though they fail to cohere as a triad, nonetheless deliver great performances punctuated by some excellently-timed gags. Adam Driver feels a bit underutilized, but this is more because he has no one to talk to besides Rey, and then only to say things he has already told her before.
I was not won over by the resurrection of the Emperor as our new villain, which many have been looking forward to. Actor Ian McDiarmid is on screen too little to really get his ham on (he is also no longer wearing his disfiguring make-up), and J.J. tries to compensate for the Emperor’s parachuting in at the last moment by dumping a trilogy’s worth of importance into a comically overwrought final confrontation. His entire presence in this film is a Hail Mary pass that fails to connect.
Likewise, when Abrams isn’t settling scores with Johnson, he is needlessly blue-balling the audience. The Knights of Ren, teased for two movies as a kind of dark Jedi order, walk by the camera in a few dimly lit scenes, say nothing and do nothing awesome at all. Zorii Bliss (Abrams alum Keri Russell), whose costume suggested an ass-kicking female Boba Fett, turns out to be a bigger nothing burger than Captain Phasma. And Billy Dee Williams returns momentarily as Lando Calrissian just to check a box.
On the other hand, the departure of Carrie Fisher’s Leia is handled sensitively. (Fisher, who died before filming began, was incorporated using unused footage.) And there is an expanded role for Chewbacca that ends with probably the most tasteful piece of fan service ever pulled off.
The movie is sensational gobbledygook that gives the Star Wars faithful everything they ever wanted in half the time it would take to make it click. It is burdened by both fear of the new and fear of its own audience, and taken as a whole, this three-part story seems to reflect the angst of its heroes, feeling wayward and unsure of itself.
In the end, however, J.J. does bring Star Wars full circle, which is to say, the saga lands right back at square one, with a character looking to the horizon, wondering when the future will really begin.
Jason Yungbluth has a midichlorian count of 22, which is pretty good for a guy who ate paint chips as a child. Visit his website and your journey to the dark side will be complete!
Previously: The Prestige