WARNING: While this review is kept free of any significant plot details, there is some discussion about certain aspects of the film that some may consider minor spoilers. If you want to watch this movie completely fresh, then rather turn back now.
It took all of five seconds into Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker before I uttered my first “Wait, what?” as writer/director JJ Abrams just casually dropped a narrative bomb so unexpected that it would make Rian Johnson beam with pride. Johnson, of course, being the auteur behind The Last Jedi, the preceding middle chapter in this latest Star Wars trilogy and undoubtedly the most divisive entry in the entire 43-year old franchise. In The Last Jedi Johnson (in)famously pulled the rug out from under a few million collective feet as his plot consistently upended expectations and blew apart fan theories like Death Stars. With the bombastically surprising way Abrams kicks off The Rise of Skywalker, you would expect a direct continuation of that subversive streak. You would mostly be wrong.
What Abrams has instead done is essentially make a sequel to The Force Awakens, his own 2015 genesis of this modern-day Disney-run Star Wars era. Both in terms of narrative and aesthetics, it’s clear that this is the same filmmaker, wrapping up the same ideas he first conceived four years ago. And there is a wrap-up. Getting answers to all the mysteries and puzzles fans have obsessed over for years now – not an assured thing given Abrams’ frustrating “mystery box” past – was high on my priority list for this film, and here Abrams and co-screenwriter Chris Terrio delivered fully. Disney has insisted at every opportunity that this is the culmination of the entire Skywalker saga that was first begun by George Lucas in 1977 and the House of Mouse wasn’t lying.
The Rise of Skywalker is a rousing, statuesque effort, its scale fitting to its momentous stature. As orphaned-junkrat-turned-Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley), hearty ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the rest of the remnants of the Resistance try desperately to find a way out from under the bootheel of the First Order once again, titanic events that bellow “FINALE!” at the top of their metaphorical voices are set into motion. There are dramatic lightsaber battles on waves-battered wrecks, swarming space dogfights of epic proportions, bold new locations and characters (more on those later) to seize the imagination, and Force powers the magnitude of which the franchise has never before seen on-screen (Oh and the sci-fi equivalent of the Achy Breaky Heart line dance). With Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) aka the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa having fully embraced the Dark Side and ascended to the role of Supreme Leader of the First Order, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) having sacrificed his life, and a certain cackling Emperor seemingly back from the dead, the stakes have never been higher.
The problem is that while a lot of The Rise of Skywalker’s 2h15-ish runtime consists of events of the inspiring, fist-pumping ilk that first made us fall in love with Star Wars to begin with, others left me befuddled at their clunkiness. There are arcs and plot threads here that feel like they most definitely are the grandiose payoffs for ideas first germinated in The Force Awakens (things I wish I could talk about in detail as they actually explain some inconsistencies in that film), but it’s excruciatingly obvious in hindsight that these ideas needed the further nurturing that should have happened in The Last Jedi.
I’ve made no bones about the fact that I was in favour of Johnson’s completely maverick character plotting in that film. I felt that some of his choices – as unpopular as they may have been with certain fans – left Star Wars in an exciting, creatively potent position where anything could happen. Now, in retrospect after the decisions that Abrams makes here, The Last Jedi just seems out of place, a fevered dream sequence right in the middle of the trilogy’s biggest story. Do some deeper digging and squinting into the light just right, and you can see some threads tie it all together cohesively, but they’re so ethereal that most are going to miss it.
But it’s not just that possible relegation of The Last Jedi that’s the issue though. Several of those big rah-rah finale moments that Abrams would have you applaud for rapturously definitely deserve that adulation – there’s a palpable satisfying finality to them that had me grinning. And then other “big” moments just… appear out of nowhere. Character arcs and story points we never even knew existed spring forth out of the ether fully-formed, appearing and resolving all within a single scene, devoid of all the dramatic heft they should have. And in the case of the film’s final act, Abrams and co make some really silly decisions, just ticking off entries on fan wish lists even if they make very little sense narratively. “May the Force be with you”? More like “May the forced plot points be with you”.
We can’t really fault the actors bringing those moments to life though. And I mean that literally in the case of Carrie Fisher who tragically passed away before she could film her scenes as Leia for this movie. Abrams got around that by digitally splicing in unused footage of her from the previous movies to still give the much-beloved Leia a resolution, but the stilted dialogue as her co-stars have to talk around her pre-recorded lines and the over-abundance of close-up shots so as to hide that she isn’t really interacting with anybody gets a bit obvious. That’s a minor quibble though, especially considering what the filmmakers had to work with.
And when it comes to the rest of the cast, fans will be happy to know that the trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe finally spend huge swathes of the film together and the chemistry between Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac is every bit as palpable as you would hope it to be. Ridley, along with Driver, has to do most of the dramatic lifting again and they both do it very well, but it’s Isaac who really shines, especially when in scenes with gold-helmeted newcomer Zori Bliss (Keri Russell).
She’s one of two new major additions to the cast, with the other being Resistance ally Jannah (Naomi Ackie). Both newcomers tick all those hard-to-define boxes that make a memorable Star Wars character, seemingly stepping right off the script page complete with an intriguing past and a hook for us wanting to know more purely through their great character design and screen presence. I wish we could have spent more time with them, but I guess that was the whole intention.
One of the reasons why we have to cut short our time with these new faces is because The Rise of Skywalker seriously moves, hopping between bursts of hyperspace velocity frequently. There are appreciably moments of quieter character contemplation and even heartbreaking sorrow, but the action – and wit – barrels along for the most part. Hell, even C-3PO gets a couple of great zingers here. There’s nothing in Abrams’ repertoire that can match the eye-searingly beautiful visuals of The Last Jedi though, but this is still one very good-looking film and the filmmaker makes sure it’s always exciting with thrillingly designed action beats. An early hyperspace chase sequence and a later battle on top of a star destroyer deserve to be seen on the biggest and best screen possible.
As great as the spectacle may be, wrapping up over four decades of Star Wars was always going to be a herculean task that would probably never please everybody. And thanks to Abrams choosing to both appease fans and attempt big creative moves despite the disparity between those two goals, that’s exactly what’s happened. Barring all the high-sheen polish sci-fi blockbuster entertainment that this film brings to the table, there are going to be some of you that will be gravely disappointed in what Abrams has done here, while others will love it unequivocally. I’m finding myself somewhere closer to the centre of that spectrum. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t rise all the way to the top for me.
Last Updated: December 19, 2019