Movie review: “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019)

“Oh, dear! My first laser fight!”

What does Star Wars mean to you? Is it or has it become an indelible part of your life, and, if so, how long ago/for how long? How far back do your memories go? Did you somehow snag the cardboard IOU placeholder display from Kenner as a kid, promising a quartet of otherwise missing in action action figures that weird but enchanted first Christmas, a time so very long ago (1977), in a galaxy comparatively far, far away? Did you go to sleep each night of your childhood beneath a Return of the Jedi comforter, in a matching bedroom suit? Did you play Episode One Racer for the Nintendo 64 each night until your exasperated parents ordered you to bed? Did you build Lego set after Lego set, or play with the ancient diecast Micro Collection, or spend your weekends haunting Old Republic MMORPG servers? Did you ever argue passionately with some (other) idiot on the internet about midichlorians, or the scourge of creeping Disney-fication, or the enervating fiction that Greedo ever shot first? Do you care? Or did you never quite understand all the fuss, and look over or past it, whether out of distraction, indifference, or perhaps to make a point? Is Star Wars just another blockbuster in a parade of them, or is it the alpha, the omega, and more? Have you felt even a moment of pure elation at the exploits of Skywalker, Solo, Organa, and Vader in a way that movies in general so often promise but rarely deliver? It’s a loaded question with which to begin a review, but one I pose advisedly – one for which there are a plethora of reasonable responses, and one for which your personal answer may be the clearest indicator of your state of mind and receptiveness to external stimuli, here, as the beloved become divisive saga unveils its chaotic final word.

No points for guessing to which camp I belong, by the way. My bedroom set was sweet.

That long-prophesied if rarely imagined end, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, is a button-pushing symphony, a film so brazenly manipulative that I am frankly a little offended, or would be if great rough stretches of it didn’t also work as effective entertainment in the mold demanded by fans of the sort mentioned above – those who instinctively hold their breaths in the pregnant second before the opening titles launch into view behind John Williams’ trumpet fanfare. Disney wants and, indeed, is banking on all that passion, even as it actively seeks to sand down the narrative rough edges and dampen the spirit of giddy contrarianism that turned The Last Jedi into the saga’s ultimate either/or proposition. As intoxicating as it was for approximately half of the Star Wars fan base – the far, far less vocal half, it turns out – to see those well-worn tropes turned on their heads, it was destined to be a one-time deal, an unfortunate byproduct of a Sequel Trilogy blueprint that initially boasted not one architect but three, and, despite its caretakers’ better efforts, has always seemed a little loopy and disconnected as a result. It might have been obvious to everyone that deconstructivist auteur Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Knives Out) would turn Star Wars inside out given the chance, and he is still being raked over the internet coals for the grievous sins of saying Rey was “no one” and delivering unto us Luke Skywalker as tortured hermit rather than the assbeating Jedi cyclone we’d spent thirty years envisioning. Disney’s uncharacteristic miscalculation in favor of art over commerce came at a curious and particularly perilous time for its almighty bottom line – the end. 

Staring into an abyss of its own making, Disney predictably pulled rank, ejecting original director Colin Trevorrow (Godzilla, Jurassic World) from the moving vehicle in favor of All-Star closer J.J. Abrams, whose work on Episode VII: The Force Awakens had already demonstrated sufficient command of both the Sequel Trilogy’s established milieu and brutally efficient mercenary mindset, along with a certain abiding affection for mystical bullshit, that would be helpful in shepherding the enterprise to its conclusion. To call the resulting Rise of Skywalker uneven is to be supremely charitable in this season of giving. What it really is is overstuffed and relentless, and little wonder. Abrams has accepted one of the more daunting, perhaps even foolhardy, directorial assignments in movie history: to not only sew up the unwieldy and increasingly polarizing Sequel Trilogy in a sensible if ideally magical way, but, by extension, to somehow put a bow on the nine-movie “Skywalker Saga” cycle, one sufficient to receive the white-gloved blessings of corporate as well as the gushing, uncynical affection of multiple, disparate generations of Star Wars fans. The Sequel Trilogy has gone, seemingly overnight, from Johnson’s interest in character shading, interpersonal drama, and limber reevaluation of long-standing narrative boundaries to Disney’s maniacal focus on a surprisingly busy, if still not exactly complicated, endgame. And it shows. I’d honestly be hard-pressed to think of a captain or steward more suited than Abrams in terms of leadership, temperament, and proven project management skills in a sci-fi blockbuster context, though that hardly inspires excess optimism given the emotionally loaded enormity of his task.

While the jury may yet be out on Abrams’ ultimate success – as a card-carrying fan of, in descending order, the Skywalker Saga, the Sequel Trilogy, and this movie specifically, I can easily foresee another half-dozen viewings necessary to get my mind right – one thing he was surely unable to do was restore balance to this trilogy. In the simple terms of presenting three movies of equal weight and importance to the overarching story, even the rightly maligned Prequel Trilogy has a perceptible edge over our plucky Disney trio, while George Lucas’ sainted original episodes seem ever more like a self-contained miracle with the passage of time. Despite some conspicuous namechecking sprinkled into the dialogue, The Rise of Skywalker largely operates as if the events of The Last Jedi never happened, while compressing more than enough of its own, unrelated plot into two and a quarter hours to pad out an entire limited run series on Disney+. Also in effect is the imperative, unspoken but understood given Skywalker‘s importance to the saga and prominence in the marketplace at large, for Abrams to produce both the generically biggest and most recognizably “Star Wars” movie possible. That means even more battles across more colorful, topographically diverse planets, more new faces with minimal screen time, more cameo appearances from faces (and voices) vaguely familiar, normally obscured, or outlined in conspicuous blue light, more aliens, more droids, more villains, more vehicles in much bigger fleets, more mysterious MacGuffins, more races against time, more hyperspace travel, more hyperbolic denouements, more tearjerking callbacks, more hitherto unexplored aspects of the ever-evolving Force, more heroic attempts at self-sacrifice, more dramatic, last second reprieves, and, to put it plainly, more than enough Easter Eggs to distribute equally amongst the world’s needy children, or a production crew the size of The Rise of Skywalker‘s, whichever number proves larger.

If all that sounds pretty great to you – and I think by this point very few skeptics of the kind described earlier should still be reading – then by all means climb aboard. Just don’t expect a smooth ride. The Sequel Trilogy has long followed the basic outline of Lucas’ originals, meaning echoes of Return of the Jedi are everywhere to be found here. The first disturbance in the Force appears a mere 1.5 seconds into the opening crawl with the surprise reappearance, already spoiled in the pre-release trailers, of Buffy season seven-level big bad Emperor Palpatine, who, apparently feisty following thirty years of self-imposed exile, has taken to taunting an already jumpy galaxy with podcast snippets beamed from his post-death retirement perch on the hidden Sith homeworld of Exegol. Though mostly unexpected, Palpatine’s return, or at his least shadowy involvement in the finale, was widely predicted in online forums and would even then qualify as a solid twist if it wasn’t so self-contained. Imagine the anticipatory buzz that could’ve been stoked with the merest hint of his presence as puppetmaster at the end of The Last Jedi. Oh well? As before, Rip Van Wrinkle sends forth his fearsome emo-ssary (whether furious or tormented, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is the film’s beating heart) to scour the Galaxy for the Jedi prodigy du jour (Daisy Ridley as Rey, she of the missing surname and character motivation) whose destruction and/or allegiance is, once again, the key to his nefarious plans. And what plans they are, as from what appears for all the world to be the bowels of a dead planet arises an impossibly huge fleet of next gen Star Destroyers at The Emperor’s command, primed for total carnage. Definitely. Striking.

Suffice it to say that never before has our plucky band of Resistance fighters had quite so much to resist, and The Rise of Skywalker begins with them running in multiple directions, with a restless, frustrated Rey training at the knee of ohyeahforgotshewasajedi General Leia Organa, and internet comedy team Finn and Poe off in desperate pursuit of their latest last-ditch tactical gambit in what’s become a parade of them. Rian Johnson spent the entirety of The Last Jedi cruelly whittling their company down to a nub, and it soon becomes clear that the rejuvenated Palpatine is keen and terribly capable to finish the job. There’s a frantic, almost random quality to the first hour that the movie never quite sheds, with story notes and architecture more akin to a video game. Our intrepid gang reunites and sets off on a procession of visits to no fewer than four worlds in search of passage to the mysterious Exegol*, where they hope to engage and foil The Emperor before he can mobilize his killer fleet and subjugate the Galaxy. Once these basic mission parameters have been established, the beats that follow are not a little predictable, which is not to say they aren’t also entertaining, or even wildly so, in spots and stretches. The very point is their utility, practically their ubiquity. The Rise of Skywalker is the eleventh Star Wars motion picture, and by this point the franchise’s various requirements and rewards aren’t merely shorthand. They have been absorbed into our collective bloodstream: the stirring music, the fast-paced action, the rush of color, the exotic flora and fauna, the lightsaber battles, the dramatic escapes, the feeling of being behind the lines rebelling against impossible odds, the final thrill of victory…hope that wasn’t a spoiler. Abrams calculates, correctly, that no amount of hoops to jump through will dampen our ultimate landing. 

*Speaking of video game behavior, is it just me, or has much of the combined plot of the Sequel Trilogy seemed overly concerned with locating hidden planets? Well, in the two movies that matter, at any rate…

If The Rise of Skywalker‘s minor problems are myriad, then so are its small pleasures, many of which are attributable to confident performances from mainstays and guests alike, plus some welcome human touches that supersede corporate edict. There is, of course, also the standard episode’s quota of genuine “Wow” visuals, though probably no more than that. Every speaking role is underwritten with the possible exception of the villains, and so we survive on established relationships. Most intriguing is the evolving – in ways by all indications unprecedented – Force bond between Rey and Kylo Ren, which allows them to share the same by turns ominous and sexually tense conversations face-to-face without occupying the same physical space. As much as the character of Kylo Ren has been easy to poke fun at, Driver does a disproportionate amount of Skywalker‘s heavy lifting, and it tends to suffer whenever he is away. Ridley also turns in her best performance so far, even if on the surface it largely consists of scene after scene of Rey staring into the middle distance while crying a single tear. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) spend the movie sniping and undercutting one another like brothers – over command of the Resistance, over proximity to Rey, or sometimes just for the hell of it – until spontaneously deciding to bury the plastic hatchet and fully invest their trust. Elsewhere, Keri Russell plays the hell out of a freedom-fighting former flame of Poe’s**, saying more with eye contact, body language, and terse dialogue than any CGI alien with a team of over-caffeinated animators probably could’ve. The Sequel Trilogy continues its fun tradition of granting a spotlight role to a different holdover from the original movies, though, surprisingly, not to Billy Dee Williams, who nevertheless has a grand time reviving Lando Calrissian for a prominent bit part, but, rather, to the great, too often unsung Anthony Daniels, whose iconic C-3PO had largely been window dressing otherwise, one of the Sequel Trilogy’s unkindest cuts up to now. 

**Whenever Disney begins releasing standalone “Star Wars” movies again, the surest way to imply that both the Sequel and Prequel Trilogies deserve rough parity with the Original would be to prominently feature their time periods and backdrops in new properties. Two ideas I’d pay money for: an Inside Baseball look at how the First Order emerged from the ashes of the Empire, since it was sort of just dropped on our heads fully-formed in “The Force Awakens”, and the backstory of these two hellion roughnecks back when they were in love, or at least official cahoots. Russell and Isaac are major league actors who generate palpable chemistry in their three minutes of “Skywalker” screen time. I’d love to see what they’d do given some space. Have Larry Kasdan come out of retirement yet again to write it. Sparks would fly, literally and figuratively. 

Which leads us to the Bantha in the room, since Carrie Fisher is top-billed here despite having passed away in 2016. This uncomfortable fact, though probably the best among several untenable options for the story and the production, guarantees Skywalker a place of somber distinction in the suddenly growing pantheon of “What If?” trilogy closers alongside The Dark Knight Rises (Suggestion: Maybe avoid including the word “Rise” in these titles going forward?). Unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker, for whom legend suggests Christopher Nolan planned extensively before hastily rewriting the movie from scratch around his absence, Abrams presses ahead with the General, albeit, one assumes, in a greatly reduced role. This would already be heartbreaking if for no other reason than as a poignant, unnecessary reminder of Fisher’s loss, but the decision to use a combination of body doubles and completed outtakes from The Force Awakens, while slick technically and fairly reverential to a beloved cornerstone character, severely limits her use to a movie that, by all indications, was always going to put her front and center. Everyone has to step up in her wake – especially the odd lead triumvirate of Driver, Ridley, and Ian McDiarmid as a bloated, creatively disfigured Emperor not quite ready for his closeup – and some logic and information gaps in the script are inevitably left un- or underfilled. Still, as last hurrahs go, Princess turned General Leia’s is consequential and dignified, the best fans probably could’ve hoped for given the circumstances. If The Rise of Skywalker isn’t quite as successful as her on the whole, well, Star Wars operates under its own set of outsized expectations, dictated by the simultaneously most adoring and demanding fans on the planet. Episode VII over-indulged in nostalgia while Episode VIII gleefully colored outside the lines, removing any semblance of balance from the Force and handing J.J. Abrams a potential no-win situation of a finale. To his credit, Abrams accepted the challenge and did his best by it. The cracks definitely show and the seams aren’t close to straight, but the consummate craftsman still somehow holds the series together. One day in the near future, perhaps we’ll watch the Sequel Trilogy with more appreciation than we might currently hold, and, for all its faults and equivocations, I think that will be because of The Rise of Skywalker

Because of who we are, and what Star Wars is, the underlying affection will be there already.

“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019) 2.5/4 stars

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