Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega
You could feel it coming; a disturbance in the force. Gradually, as the press junkets for The Rise of Skywalker began, different members of the cast started speaking fondly of how Abrams’ return felt so welcome. Abrams himself joined the fray. You could sense the urge to erase The Last Jedi rising.
While that film may rank as the most divisive in the Star Wars franchise, at least two things about it are inarguable. 1) it looks divine; Rian Johnson painted the screen with personal, poetic imagery and 2) it took risks. So many that some overly vocal flanks of The Fandom (let’s call them The Final Order) made their entitled shrieks plain to hear: “No surprises, please, we’re quite happy being served the diet we’re used to, thank you”. Or words to that effect…
Well, dinner is served. The Rise of Skywalker rockets out the gate and never lets up. Abrams is doing his damnedest here to delete as much of The Last Jedi as he can. That means sidelining contentious newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), doing an about-face on the question of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parentage, even reassembling a certain mask that had been convincingly smashed to pieces. He can’t ignore The Last Jedi completely – there’s basic continuity to maintain – but The Rise of Skywalker feels very much like a new second and third chapter (or 8th and 9th – whatever), so crammed is it with material.
With cutting at a rate almost as punishing as seen in the abominable Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams ploughs into his bulging tome of a script, one that bears many fingerprints as a cursory look at the credits will tell you. This means a lot of questing, a lot of planet-hopping, a lot of cameos and call-backs wedged in wherever they’ll fit. The result is a bloated, puffy, downright exhausting film.
There’s almost certainly a lot of handsome looking material here, if only we were allowed a moment’s rest to digest or appreciate it. Instead, Abrams burns our eyes. Going at full-pelt like this also negates a lot of dramatic tension. Obstacles are set up and immediately conquered – simply because there isn’t time for stalling. The upshot is that a lot of these moments feel unearned or arbitrary. Busyness for the sake of it. Cliff-noting even. It’s like reading a condensed novel (remember those!?) in many ways.
“The dead speak!” exclaims the opening crawl, referring to the re-emergence of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), but he is certainly not alone. Sure, death has rarely been the end of things in Star Wars, but thanks to the sheer number of miraculous escapes and spontaneous resurrections featured here, there’s little reason to believe anyone is actually at threat. There’s no permanence, just endless squabbling.
Luckily for Abrams, his cast are bedded in now. Ridley does much of the heavy-lifting for the film, with Rey following Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) down his prior path of wrestling with the draw of the Dark Side. Over three films now she’s earned her place as a fine lead for the franchise. Rey’s frequent opponent, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), impresses even more. It’s a shame, then, that Abrams hands them such hot garbage to battle through. The about-turn on Rey’s parentage feels hollow and poorly served (her revealed backstory is given split seconds). Ren fares better, by degrees, but there are still deeply contentious moments here. Abrams aims to heal the rift in the fanbase. He may have driven a greater wedge into it.
The motley crew riff well on one another. Stans for Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) will get plenty of mileage from their escapades together. Abrams dresses Dameron up as a roguish Indiana Jones-type, but Isaac relishes playing the character at a more sensitive, metrosexual pitch. C3PO (Anthony Daniels) gets possibly the most material to run with that he’s been afforded across the franchise so far, and provides much of the comic relief. Chewie is Chewie, y’know.
But if you’re not wielding a lightsaber, you’re a second-class citizen around here. And as The Rise of Skywalker adds even more* new characters to the mix, the space for genuine development and spotlight grows narrower and narrower. And then there’s the old guard to contend with. Everyone’s gotta get their one last hurrah. However, its easy to concede that Carrie Fisher’s final scenes as Leia work well enough, bittersweet as they are.
If there’s a running theme for our heroes within Abrams’ constant acceleration, its a lesson about trust. It feels as though everyone is holding something back, either through programming or emotional insecurity. But its trust behind the camera that feels like its taken the biggest knock. The Rise of Skywalker is fine. It’s a decent enough closing chapter. But it feels like a committee product that’s trying its hardest not to piss anyone off as much as last time. Instead of running with what Rian Johnson added to the franchise, Abrams seems to have scurried for safety. It feels… cowardly. As though the bullies in the schoolyard have won this one.
Or maybe its just a sign of our increasingly Disneyfied times. Like Avengers: Endgame before it, this is a significant capper to a franchise that wants to be all things to all people. A peacemaker. A spectacle. A faithful disciple of the tried and tested. If you expected nothing less, this movie will do you well. Plenty of everything. But it feels like that’s all that matters. Giving you stuff. Not what it means.
*sticking a former hobbit in here is, if nothing else, supremely distracting.