Our heroes prepare for one final adventure in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Director: JJ Abrams
Cast: Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Richard E. Grant (Allegiant General Pryde), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Keri Russell (Zorii Bliss), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbecca), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico)
When Disney took over the control of the Star Wars franchise, they had in mind an epic continuation of George Lucas’ space opera that would take in everything from more tales from the renamed “Skywalker saga” to standalone entries like Rogue One and Solo. Well, we are almost seven years into this journey now, and the series has delivered some hits but also the first flop Star Wars film (Solo) and the most divisive entry for the fandom ever in The Last Jedi. So where does Rise of Skywalker fall in its plans to cap the third (and they claim final, but let’s see…) trilogy?
Set a year after The Last Jedi, the Resistance has rebuilt itself under the leadership of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who has also been training Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the Jedi arts. Imagine their horror when a message from the not-so-late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) rings out across the Galaxy, threatening revenge. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has been searching for Palpatine and forms a deal – Palpatine will make him emperor of the galaxy, if Ren will kill Rey. Meanwhile Rey heads out into the galaxy with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) in a race against time to find the location of Palpatine and his armada, before the late Emperor can launch a deadly attack.
JJ Abrams’ return to the franchise is also a return to the fun-focused, action-packed, fast-paced explosion of entertainment and thrills that he offered with the excellent (and still best film in this new trilogy) The Force Awakens. It will excite you, entertain you, and offers some terrific work from many of its players, not least Daisy Ridley (who has grown and grown with each film as an actress confident in carrying a huge franchise) as Rey and Adam Driver as a morally conflicted Kylo Ren. JJ Abrams gently handles the death of Carrie Fisher, skilfully using off-cuts and deleted scenes from past Star Wars films to retroactively create a series of scenes using what dialogue they had from the actress to give her arc some sort of resolution.
It’s one of many things the film gets right here, along with its electric pace and sense of excitement, that never lets up and takes you on such a gripping thrill ride that you hardly notice that most of the film makes very little if any sense (so little sense, I didn’t really understand whether the baddies were the First Order, the old Empire or the Final Order or whatever they were meant to be). It’s a top-to-bottom piece of entertainment, designed to thrill the initiate and the casual fan and give all that you might want to the superfan.
In fact you could say it’s more or less a course correction from the deeply unpopular (with certain elements of the fandom, although its box office success was huge) The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker lacks all the iconoclastic “forget the past” attitudes of Rian Johnson’s film. In fact it goes out of its way to ignore as much as possible everything that happened in that film – to the extent that, apart from the growing bond between Rey and Ren and the initial training of Rey, you could more or less skip over it if you wished when viewing the trilogy. I’m not sure how I feel about this – or the fact that the franchise feels it has effectively side-stepped by-far-and-away the most interesting and different film it has produced in favour of a safe-return to familiar stories.
It does mean that Rise of Skywalker is a far less brave film than Johnson’s – and one that avoids doing anything new as well. Many elements from The Last Jedi are disregarded, and all the plot hooks that film are ignored are firmly, and hurridly, reinstated. It means that Rise of Skywalker rushes from revelation to revelation, from plot point to plot point, hardly stopping to draw breath, so eager it is to give the fans what it feels they want. It’s probably a testament to fan power – but also to the savviness of film producers, working out the vast majority of people will come and see any Star Wars film, but the hardened fans will only support a film that matches their agenda.
So it reckons the fans wanted to see answers to questions raised in Force Awakens, lots and lots of cameos and call backs, and plenty of action and space battles. So Rise of Skywalker is a film almost exclusively made up of these things. While there are flaws in this approach, it does mean that this film is a joyfully fun piece of excitement, with lots of great set pieces and some terrific gags among the screenplay. JJ Abrams is a wonderfully confident director of this sort of action, and while the film often feels like it never takes a second to really explain any of its plot dynamics, he is also able to create a narrative that is much more fun and exciting than The Last Jedi, for all its faults of pacing, narrative and characterisation.
What this film does the most is hammer home the bizarre fact that Disney set about making a franchise of three films – guaranteed three films! – with no coherent thought at all about how all these three films would work together either in terms of tone or plot. Now that all three are assembled there is no sense of them having any particular themes, or that they connect together to form an overarching story. The conclusions reached in this film are only faintly threaded in Force Awakens and all but contradicted in The Last Jedi. It’s this lack of planning that underwhelms the film – fun as it is, these are more like three loosely linked films rather than ones that progress one to the other, or feel connected to the original three films.
It’s of course made worse by the ignoring of The Last Jedi – Rose Tico, a character that film spent a lot of time building and establishing gets less than three minutes of screen time – and a re-focusing of the film on the “family of three” in Rey, Poe and Finn that mirrors the first film. This relationship is now far warmer and closer than we ever saw developing in Last Jedi (a film they never appeared in together until the final seconds) – and also laced with an odd, almost queer-baiting sexual tension, where they seem at times like a borderline thruple. (The film offers a cop out on LGBTQ people in Star Wars by having two background characters kiss at one point, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, cut in China.)
It’s part of a general lack of imagination in the film as a whole, which leans often on bringing back people from the previous trilogy and even sidelines the villains of the rest of the trilogy to shoe-horn back in Palpatine (a reintroduction that is barely explained – like much of the film – and also rather undermines the ending of Return of the Jedi) as the big-bad, and which again doubles down on many of the tropes of the first trilogy. JJ Abrams often mistakes bigger for better – and this film is big, with races against time, fleets beyond imagining, planet destroying tech that can be put into a single star destroyer, Sith powers that can stretch over thousands of miles etc. etc. He takes the same approach with the film, throwing so much of the old trilogy in that it becomes more of a surprise that stuff is missing rather than appearing (I was shocked Yoda wasn’t in this one).
But it’s what the film is going for, offering something safe and recognisable, something that is a thrill ride like you remember rather than the different path the trilogy seemed to be heading towards. There is nothing wrong with that of course at all, but it feels like a missed opportunity. For all its faults, The Last Jedi tried to do something new. This doubles down on the things it knows fans will love, and offers all the entertainment it suspects the casual viewer wants. And maybe that’s enough.