Director: JJ Abrams
Writers: JJ Abrams, Chris Terrio
Cast: Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Naomi Ackie, Joonas Suotamo, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Marie Tran, Keri Russell, Ian McDiarmid
Forty-two years. That’s how long it’s been since Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope landed and changed sci-fi cinema, and many people’s lives, forever. And now, the saga has come to an end (supposedly), with its ninth and final (maybe) instalment out in cinemas everywhere. From light-hearted viewers to hardcore Star Wars nuts, The Rise of Skywalker (RoS) has been anticipated by fans all over the world. It’s a lot of pressure for any filmmaker to manage, and after Rian Johnson declined to continue co-writing/directorial duties after The Last Jedi (TLJ), citing a need for downtime between projects (fair play to him), it’s The Force Awakens’ (TFA) co-writer/director JJ Abrams who returns to take on this mammoth task. It would be one thing to scrutinise this film under a mega-fan’s microscope (let’s not go there), but how does the film stand up as the culmination to such a huge franchise? Was it worth forty years of lightsaber duels and some questionable storylines, or do we need yet more closure?
N.B. The following review is SPOILER-FREE for Rise of Skywalker, but not necessarily for The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi.
It’s known far and wide that Emperor Palpatine (McDiarmid) has returned. Both Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Driver) and Rey (Ridley) want to find him, each for their own reasons. Thanks to the work of a secret informant, Rey travels across the galaxy with Finn (Boyega), Poe Dameron (Isaac), Chewbacca (Suotamo), C-3P0 (Daniels) and BB-8, chasing clues as to Palpatine’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Fisher), prepares for the biggest battle of their lives, as it becomes clear just how big the First Order has become. As Rey’s talents in wielding the Force grow stronger, the extent of her power, and the truth about her past, starts to become clear not only to her but to those around her, as well as those who would use her power to destroy.
The Skywalker Saga has been quite up-and-down in critical reception and audience response. The general consensus is that the original trilogy is a big thumbs up, the prequel trilogy was mostly a big thumbs down, and this sequel trilogy has so far been something of a wavering so-so. The inconsistency of the last two has been a sore point, with both Abrams and Johnson apparently having their own differing ideas of what they see to be happening in the Star Wars universe, so in theory having either of the filmmakers back onboard could only be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. The positive side is that Abrams has kept fans mostly happy by pandering to fairly obvious theories surrounding storylines and characters, but the negative side is that in doing such a thing he’s played it too safe. The performances are excellent and the visuals are captivating and exciting, however the story is unoriginal; it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before, particularly within Star Wars, and therefore much of it is predictable. Trying not to annoy hardcore fans has proven to be tough in this trilogy, and it takes a filmmaker of thick skin to do as they see fit, but in this case the fans won out, and one can’t help but think that we’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities to introduce new plots and widen character arcs (Tran’s Rose Tico being a particular character who has severely lost out thanks to vendettas from internet trolls who don’t deserve to call themselves ‘fans’).
Although there is much to be desired in the screenplay, the overall action and character interaction provides enough to be entertained and to, believe it or not, enjoy the movie for what it is. There are some epic battles that at first might not seem quite so, but build into something quite spectacular, and some more intimate low-key battles that are the quintessential good-versus-evil duels to the death. Rey and Kylo/Ben go through all the motions that are to be expected of them, particularly considering what they’ve been through in the previous two films, both separately and jointly. Their connection has always had something of a Romeo-and-Juliet vibe, and that hasn’t gone away in RoS. Some will enjoy that aspect of the Rey/Kylo plot, others will abhor it, but either way the two have arguably quite satisfactory fates. Other characters seem to finish with a few plot holes dotted in their history, but some have huge potential in their futures for spin-offs. The entertainment value of the film is firmly there, it’s just a shame the story doesn’t match up to the same level.
As mentioned, performances overall were very good, and it would take too long to commend them all. Ridley’s Rey has come along very well since TFA, with Rey erring on the side of unlikable in TFA, growing in depth and character in TLJ, and ultimately becoming the one you’ll want to root for in RoS. This growth is reflected in Ridley’s own acting ability, her performances becoming more and more stable and believable until we get a strong and compassionate Rey in RoS. Boyega and Isaac are the new comic duo of the piece, their chemistry lighting up their scenes together. Boyega hasn’t really come as far as Ridley in his performances, with Finn remaining more or less the same he’s always been (not necessarily a bad thing), and Isaac is the same with Poe – both are the old reliables whom we go on the adventure with, whereas Rey gets to be the one we go on the emotional journey with. Driver is a mix of all three, his character hardly changing despite the situations he finds himself in until Kylo/Ben has to face up to everything in this movie. Driver is an exceptional actor, and though this role hasn’t really given him the chance to flex his skills, he still brings out the empathy for Ben from us when needed as well as the disgust for Kylo. Then there’s the cameos. It was cool when guessing which celebrities were stormtroopers in previous movies; not so cool when it’s an obvious who’s-who of famous cameos that can lift you right out of the world Abrams wants us to invest in. Another thing to note is Carrie Fisher’s appearance. Although it was appropriate to include Fisher in this final episode, it was too obvious that her lines were pulled from old recordings and that other characters’ dialogue was written rather clumsily to fit around it. It’s not a terrible thing to do, but the execution, though admirable, was poor overall. It made Leia seem out of character in a lot of situations. We can get onboard with it because, you know, it’s Princess Leia, and she just had to be included and her story completed in some way, but surely there could have been a better way to involve her? It is of course certainly better than not having her at all, though (also quite comforting to still have her daughter, Billie Lourd, included in the film).
The Rise of Skywalker is fun and entertaining on a superficial level, but it needed to be much more than that if it really was supposed to end a saga that stretches back over four decades. It just about works well enough as another instalment, but not the final one. It’s missing the culmination that the MCU so deftly provided with Avengers: Endgame. The Star Wars franchise is a clear example of the need to please everyone but the impossibility of doing so, meaning that what is supposed to feel like closure just doesn’t come across as such. It’s also an example of the effect fans can have on the final product, and how dangerous that can be for creators. It becomes like a ‘too many cooks’ scenario. Yes, it’s a big deal to get such a huge film right for the fans, but it’s a bigger deal that it has an enduring legacy. The right story would have ensured that, but instead we’ll be waiting to see what comes next, whether it be some spin-offs or more extended-universe stories. This won’t be the last time we hear of or see a character bearing the name Skywalker; there are too many more stories to be told and, whether we like it or not, more money to be made.