The Saga Ends
Not long after the events of The Last Jedi, whispers spread that the long deceased Emperor Palpatine [Ian McDiarmid] has returned. In an effort to consolidate his power and crush all opposition, Kylo Ren [Driver], now Supreme Leader of the First Order, uses an ancient navigational device to locate Exegol – the hidden home-world of the Sith. Meanwhile, the now tiny remaining force of the Resistance continue to strike back against this rise of evil where possible but the odds seem insurmountable. Uniting for one final mission, Rey [Ridley] is joined by Finn [Boyega] and Poe [Isaac] to track the location of a mighty First Order armada and in the process, discover Rey’s true identity and destiny.
If you haven’t already guessed, this review is going to delve heavily and unabashedly into spoiler territory, so please be warned that this entire write-up is an analysis to be read post viewing.
Now that we are at its end, it is evident that the entire sequel trilogy has effectively emulated the formula and structure of the original trilogy and for that reason, this film was always sort of doomed to fail because Return Of The Jedi is a pretty bad movie. I have fond memories viewing it as a child and some of the visuals and score work standout as some of the finest in the entire series but that doesn’t alter the fact that it is a structurally dry slog. Similarly, The Rise Of Skywalker follows the same pre-trodden path with its own speeder bike chase, rescue mission and final ground and aerial assault watched over by the central hero who battles an evil Emperor in a clash of wills leading to a final redemption of the central antagonist, etc.
One thing it does have that ROTJ didn’t is an extremely rushed pace. Where Jedi was languid and bisected, TROS is hurried and strained with character arcs. It also, most likely for the nature of its finale, pushes more of a comedic tone than its two predecessors (but for the most part, I found it amusing) which The Last Jedi was unforgettably lambasted for. And yet for a two and a half hour movie, so much is clearly on the cutting room floor, with scenes missing and connecting shots sacrificed with the goal to make this behemoth palatable. In the process, what we end up with is something quite overwhelming and excessively indulgent, feeling somehow sickly and bland at the same time.
But these things were always somewhat inevitable due to the nature of escalation. Not only does this film have to be bigger than the last two Star Wars films, it has to be bigger than everything that came before it and the plan to accomplish this was to seemingly be everything to everyone. There are quests for Indiana Jones style McGuffins, an X-Men power-stand-off with outstretched hands, Lord Of The Rings death fake-outs and ex machinas and an endless myriad of Star Wars cameos, references and callbacks throughout.
In my review for The Force Awakens, I had high praise for JJ Abrams. I still maintain that by jump-starting the franchise, Abrams was a spectacular choice to helm this opening chapter. Over time my opinion of TFA has shifted ever so slightly but after rave reviews and one of the highest box office performances of all time, giving rise to the rebirth of a previously toxic intellectual property, Abrams felt like the right choice to return and finish what he started. However, as Abrams proved with his other return sequel (Star Trek Into Darkness) he may be perfect for setting up threads but not to continue or conclude them. Throughout this movie there is plenty of spectacle but no impact, very heavy-handed storytelling and lots of little niggling nuances that seem present solely to serve an algorithmically timed action sequence (hyper-jumping Falcon that is somehow followed by TIE fighters as one throwaway example).
But this is not a question of capability, it is one of suitability. Once Rian Johnson pushed the trilogy forward – for better or worse – the Episode IX director had a choice to double-down or regress and Abrams does seemingly both and neither at the same time. As a quick and simple example, Johnson established that Ren and Rey are linked and can communicate across vast distances through a powerful force user. It was a bold new ability that not everyone got along with, nevertheless it was innovative and interesting. But the way in which Abrams presents it often felt jarring. At times it is shot with expert skill and very cleverly, on Ren’s ship over Kijimi for example, or it fails to establish to the audience what is real and what is a vision, such is the case during the lightsaber duel on the ruins of the Death Star wherein it’s not immediately clear if Kylo is actually there or not.
From the moment Darth Vader’s true identity as Anakin Skywalker was revealed in The Empire Strikes Back, this franchise became heavily mired with the concept of legacy and destiny. With the arrival of the prequels, that was all it was about and the nature of progeny and neatly connected characters meant it devolved into a tale of specials and grandfathers, those who are part of a secret bloodline and those who are background fodder. Subsequently, this galaxy far far away now very much resembles a small British town in a soap opera where everyone knows everyone and they’re all somehow related. And while the newly introduced characters of the sequels at first seemed fresh and disconnected, they too fell to the mighty bloodline story.
To rush through this a little, I still feel Kylo and his redemption arc are the most interesting thing at work in these movies. I also felt that there were more questions raised about Finn than answered – was it ever established what he “never got to tell Rey?” – and the work done with the unused footage/CGI hybrid Leia was both tasteful and fitting. In one of the film’s strongest points, the sheer chemistry and comedic interactions at work have been consistently pleasing in all three features and here they are one of the film’s strongest points as well as a welcome treat. However, in my opinion, two characters were dealt incredibly short-shrift: Rose and Poe.
Rose, the best new character from The Last Jedi played by Kelly Marie Tran, is completely side-lined here. More than that, she feels like a pale imitation, a lacklustre reimagining of someone who risked her life to save Finn from a suicide mission, at the potential expense of the entire future of the rebellion/resistance, only to witness him do the exact same thing but suppressing intervention without clear reason. The stakes are the same but she acts differently. Speaking of which, we need to talk about Poe’s character reset. At the end of the last film, Poe is humbled, he is reminded of his station and earns the respect of everyone around him as someone to be followed because he knows when to strike and when to fall back but at a terrible price. Leia even gives the literal handover with “what are you looking at me for? Follow him.” Yet throughout this movie he’s back again with a distinct lack of plans and vision. And the most frustrating part of his final moments is the script rushing in to reward him for his failure. To clarify, The Last Jedi puts out a sombre and rather bleak reality that in their final moment of need, the Resistance’s call was sent out and reinforcements simply didn’t come. So when the final onslaught of The Rise Of Skywalker turns out to be exactly the same thing, I was curious where the script would end up. More specifically, I didn’t want to be proved right in my prediction – but I was. There’s nothing wrong with the universe rallying to a central cause, if anything it’s an oft-occurring element of real life wars that art and mythology have drawn on for hundreds of years, but doing the same thing twice and getting a different result needs to have some sort of justifiable impetus; as far as I can tell, the only change here is Lando showed up.
This film has also cemented Sheev Palpatine as the most ridiculous character in the Star Wars canon. Whether positive or negative, events proceed according to plan or as foretold or foreseen and none of it ever really works; like a bungling magician dropping his deck of cards and saying “I meant to do that.” The Sith, the Empire, what is the point of any of it? What is the objective? For the sheer wealth of expositing and monologuing, we never learn what motivates or drives him other than the eradication of the Jedi (who have proven to be pretty ineffective and far from formidable adversaries) or even how he’s back from the dead in the first place. I’m not talking about a twenty minute flashback but a few sentences would have been nice. Then we have the muddled convolution of what the Sith are. Nine Skywalker saga movies and I still can’t tell you what the Emperor is. We have so many analogies to explain the force (some really good ones) but nothing about the nonsense of the opposition’s master string-puller. As the film hurtles toward its final scenes, Palpatine instructs Rey to strike him down and allow the Sith to live through him in her. While Rey manages to resist, she stands to face the Emperor with the last of her energy and wipes him out. Which one could describe as striking him down but there’s no fallout. As with Poe’s dilemma, the audience witnesses characters presented with inescapable odds only for them to be overcome by doing the same thing one last time but with some added conviction. Which means this entire story ended with that age-old classic, “the magic was inside you all along.” Additionally, before moving on, I will note that “And I am all the Jedi” came off as a rather uncomfortable rehash of “and I am Iron Man” from Avengers: Endgame. But I digress.
I thought both Rogue One and Solo, for all the ways they succeeded, gave too much in the way of fan service but this film chokes its audience with familiarity and insists some big stupid reveal is what the masses must want. Subsequently, this is what you get – nay, what you deserve – when you are consumed by nostalgia. This is the curse of fan-service, delivered. Personally, giving Chewbacca the medal was the last straw. Rather than presenting someone with an Oscar for their achievements, deciding to hand them someone else’s doesn’t hold the same weight and is a slap in the face frankly. But all of this stems from decades of hardcore Star Wars fans watching the first film over-and-over and absorbing every minutiae, which gives rise to feeble justifications like the exhaust port on the Death Star being an intentional weakness or Jango Fett banging his head on the door to Slave One. These concessions don’t drive the story forward, they pat the head of those who have spoken out the loudest and giving those people credence is the worst thing any 21st century blockbuster can do.
But the truth is, despite all this pent up frustration and venom, there are a great many positives at work. Some of the visuals are incredibly impressive and atmospheric, the performances are passionate and engaging, the sound, music and production design are all as stunningly breathtaking as ever and the filmmaking craft at work is undeniable. The Rise Of Skywalker is still – functionally, technically and in full hindsight – much better than the prequels if only for the energy involved in its construction but at best it feels like one of the weaker MCU films that has squandered some truly great storytelling potential for a calculated, unambitious denouement. Much like the ending of Game Of Thrones, if you establish a pending big final reveal, when you come to that inevitable concrete conclusion, adding it to inescapable canon devoid of uncertainty, it becomes a binding agent that some will relish while others will wholly reject. For me, I felt a lot of this movie was rote and surprisingly unimaginative and pandering… for others that will be more than enough.
In a word, this conclusion is fine. Neither poor enough to warrant lasting vitriol nor accomplished enough to garner praise, it’s just fine. And with all the world-building, setups and high-quality talent involved “fine” truly is one of the worst things for a Star Wars film to be.
20th December 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
In the very first frame of this movie, the opening crawl starts with three foreshadowing words: “The dead speak!” This is a dumb sentence. If you handed a script to a studio with this as the opener, you would be laughed out of the room. It’s hokey, it’s farcical and it confirmed this film’s intent to me. As stated in my review for The Last Jedi, I despise force ghosts; I find the whole thing massively underdeveloped and lacking. But even they are not ghost Han Solo. And he wasn’t even a ghost. Kylo Ren interacting with the manifestation of a memory of his dead father was painful. Of all the ways to push Ren over the edge and have him transition from dark to light, a cringe-inducing interaction full of low-blow platitudes and callbacks was not the way to go about it. And the icing on the cake? “I know.” Get in the fucking bin.
Daisy Ridley shoulders a lot of the burden with this movie; arguably with the whole trilogy. But despite the maddening nonsense of her being the granddaughter of Palpatine, facing constant visions (including one of herself as a Sith which was clearly generated solely for marketing purposes) that would look like nonsense to an onlooker and some absolutely dire dialogue, she comes out the other side in tact and that takes an acute level of charisma and talent.
“People keep telling me they know me. I feel no one does”
In A Few Words:
“An overly predictable and lacklustre crossing of the finishing line for the Skywalker story”