Movie Review - Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
By Matthew Huntley
January 14, 2020
We’ve reached the end of yet another “Star Wars” trilogy (there will be more in the future I’m sure), and I wish I could say “The Rise of Skywalker” ends this latest sequence of “Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” “Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” and now “Episode IX” on a high note, but the truth of the matter is it merely ends things on a note, and a rather soft, predictable and underwhelming one at that. The movie isn’t likely to disappoint the most ardent “SW” fans, since it arguably gives them everything they’ve come to know and love about this universe, and even I’m not so much disillusioned as much as apathetic because, frankly, I’m not all that surprised by the film’s mediocre effect.
Why? Because the signs were there with “The Last Jedi,” and to a lesser degree, “The Force Awakens.” Both suggested this latest “SW” series wasn’t going to go too far outside the comfort zone established by the classic original, neither with regard to its interweaving storylines or its multifold characters. And so, when “Skywalker” finally answers all our burning questions about who everybody really is, whether they survive or perish, and whether the Resistance will once again manage to defeat the Empire, it’s all just par for the course. Sure, the movie held my attention and it kept me curious throughout, but I can’t honestly say I was ever excited or immersed by it.
Watching “The Rise of Skywalker,” it dawned on me that my subdued reaction to it stemmed in large part from the movie seeming like it was in a rush, as if the filmmakers felt they were on a time limit and had to sprint through the story. Director J.J. Abrams and editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube have either forgotten or were just unaware that what makes the original “SW” trilogy (or any highly visual film) special and enduring is its fascination with itself. It revels in its own beauty and imagination and cheerily asks us to join in the celebration, from the opening scene of “A New Hope” when the camera holds on Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer as it slowly hovers across space, to more grounded, intimate moments, such as when Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie stumble around in a trash compactor. These scenes set a slow, patient tone and allowed us to gain us a real sense of the breadth, magnitude and details of this galaxy that exists so “far, far away.”
The new films, especially “Skywalker,” don’t give us as much time to appreciate the details, which is a shame because there are plenty to speak of (these films have always been visually exquisite), and when it comes to “Star Wars,” it’s the nooks and crannies of the frame that give the series its magic and allure. By looking at and absorbing the images, we automatically become engaged by the story’s mystery and tension, as well as the characters’ emotions. Unfortunately, “Skywalker” zips along so hastily and cuts so incessantly that we can barely reflect on the ramifications of what’s happening.
Then again, there’s really not that much happening in the first place, or rather, not anything we haven’t seen before in different form. “Skywalker” exhibits the same problems as “The Last Jedi” in that it retreads old storylines with new characters, whose personalities, struggles and journeys too closely mirror those of characters in the past, and they aren’t as interesting this time around. I wish I could say the film’s tepid effect arises from something more complicated than it simply recycling previously executed material, but the film doesn’t want to be complicated on any level it. It just wants to please fans at a fast pace.
Consider a scene near the beginning, when the evil Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) reveals to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), his new protégé, that he’s been secretly building a fleet of Star Destroyers as a means to abolish the New Republic once and for al. This unveiling is presented in a wide shot as the camera tilts up toward an ashen, murky sky on the planet Exegol, where the Emperor, who apparently cloned himself before Darth Vader killed him at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” has been hiding and broadcasting a signal to Ren.
You’d think such a scene, which introduces the once thought-to-be-dead Emperor into this trilogy for the first time, would be given more weight and the filmmakers would allow us more time to register the significance of what’s transpiring. But this isn’t the case, and perhaps the expeditious storytelling isn’t the result of the filmmakers feeling like they’re in a hurry but rather they’re knowing they haven’t given themselves much to work with in terms of new material. Maybe they figured, if “Star Wars” has been down this road before, why take it slow and drag things out?
And so, “The Rise of Skywalker” settles on being a rapid, unremarkable “Star Wars” movie, one that goes through the motions and checks off all boxes that make it a “Star Wars” movie. The filmmakers don’t seem concerned with crafting anything deeper, bolder or offbeat. They present this concluding chapter swiftly and passively, which makes it feel hollow.
The biggest mystery and intrigue surrounding “The Rise of Skywalker,” then, is why Abrams and Chris Terrio’s screenplay would take such a perfunctory approach to the mythology. Did not the enormous success of “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” give the filmmakers a blank check and the creative freedom to take the saga in a newer, audacious direction, and enough time to write more sophisticated dialogue than “Kill the girl! End the Jedi. And become what your grandfather, Vader, could not.” and “If this mission fails, it’s all been for nothing.”?
Lines such as these essentially summarize the film’s hackneyed plot, which is once again comprised of two storylines running in parallel that inevitably converge in a typical, space-battle climax. You know the drill: the first storyline is the more personal, character-driven one, in which the protagonist struggles with his or her place in the world and wrestles with the idea of either remaining good or succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force. In this case, it’s the last Jedi-in-training, Rey (Daisy Ridley), whose true identity is something neither she nor we are privy to yet. She’s sought after by Ren, son of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the current supreme leader of the First Order (the latest incarnation of the Empire). Just as Darth Vader tempted Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ren tries to coerce Rey into combining their abilities to control the Force and rule the galaxy in tandem.
Meanwhile, as Rey fights and trains under the tutelage of now-General Leia, she weaves in and out of the other token storyline, which once again revolves around the secondary characters, led by Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca, C-3PO, and droids R2-D2 and BB-8, embarking on a mission to locate the Emperor and take down his armada.
These are the same old stories, which, as I mentioned, is more or less what I expected from “Skywalker,” but what makes the film nonetheless disappointing is that its makers seem aware of its rote presentation but don’t really care. They seem okay with having made what feels like a subpar, basic “Star Wars” movie, cut from the same cloth as its brethren, which doesn’t stop to take breaths and allow the audience to enjoy its technical beauty or contemplate the turmoil of its characters. The last chapter of this trilogy feels tantamount to eating something just to put food in your stomach but not actually savoring the taste of it.
What’s more is that some of the plot details, particularly those associated with the history and fate of the characters, such as who Rey’s parents are and what happened to them, feel desultory and underdeveloped. We leave the theater with a new set of unanswered questions, which is fine (like I said, there will likely be another trilogy to come along and answer them), but we still feel offended by the lackadaisical and open-ended resolutions the movie offers us for the time being.
To be clear, there are some nice touches here and there, such as Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) making an appearance and joining the fight, and learning more about Dameron’s past, particularly his rocky relationship with his old spice-runner partner Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), which generates some good humor.
But overall, if these last three episodes basically repeat a narrative we’ve already experienced with “Star Wars,” what’s really been the point of them, other the obvious financial reasons? I ask this sincerely because the filmmakers are working with material that’s so beloved and such a staple of popular culture that their priority shouldn’t have been to merely appease fans by giving us what we know but to really challenge us and create something novel and innovative. And it wouldn’t have just been for our sakes, but for theirs. Think about it: if you were handed the keys to the “Star Wars” vehicle, wouldn’t you want to forge a new path with it instead of retreading an old one? As a filmmaker and storyteller, wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to try something different, even if it failed?
Many will argue “The Rise of Skywalker” accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to say it faithfully lives up to the “Star War” name. That’s true, but the problem is this isn’t enough, and it means ours seeing it gets relegated to sitting in a theater for two and a half hours just to say we saw it and not because the film renders a scintillating experience. The point of any sequel is to continue the story, but this latest trilogy merely repeats it, and unfortunately I’m at a loss for how I’m better off for having seen it.