Review: ‘THE RISE OF SKYWALKER’ Makes it a Bumpy Landing

Very, very spoilery thoughts on…whatever this was.

Again, just to be clear, spoilers ahead.

The well was already poisoned. In what can only be described as a shocking failure by the Disney marketing machine, the run-up to the saga-ending Rise of Skywalker was spent parsing quotes from its principals in which they seemed to slag on Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, a film that has only grown in my estimation since I first saw it. John Boyega called it “a bit iffy” and complained about the characters being separated, indicating he doesn’t remember The Empire Strikes Back; Daisy Ridley described how she cried when Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams was brought back for Episode IX*; Abrams himself talked about “pendulum swings” and rationalized away the vitriolic response to Jedi from a minority of fans, promising that the things that mattered to them would matter again. As someone who loved Johnson’s challenging storytelling, this didn’t bode well.

*Though, to be fair, she could have been talking about being saved from Colin Trevorrow. However you feel about Abrams’s version, you have to think his would have been worse.

And then the reviews hit, and my worst fears seemed confirmed, and I walked into The Rise of Skywalker on Friday night ready to hate it. However, whether I just set my expectations so low the film couldn’t help but meet them, or because it’s Star Wars and I like Star Wars even when it’s bad, I generally enjoyed myself anyway. That doesn’t mean that the film is good, of course — it’s aggressively mediocre, a bigger and louder Solo where there’s a lot of flailing and fetch-questing and gratuitous callbacks. They were so determined not to make “the fans” angry again, Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio (of such illustrious titles as Batman v. Superman and Justice League*) pull out all the stops in delivering more, more, more, new characters, new planets, new doohickeys, new powers, faster and faster, everything you could ever want, two films’ worth of plot in one, pulverizing you into acquiescence and running roughshod over Jedi’s best innovations in the process.

*And Argo, but that’s looking more like the exception that proves the rule.

All in the same scene, just like John Boyega wanted after [checks notes] J.J. Abrams separated them at the end of The Force Awakens

That has to start with Rey, and the reveal that made me moan in disbelief in the theater: That the scavenger girl-turned-Jedi isn’t “no one,” symbolizing the democratization of the Force* and a brave leap forward for a saga so focused on bloodlines, but… Palpatine’s granddaughter. That’s why she’s so powerful, the film whispers to the sexists who derided her as a “Mary Sue.” I’ll be honest, though (I always am, but it seemed important to say here): After the initial angry shock, I cooled down to grim resignation. Daisy Ridley’s committed performance helped; the fact that the entire third act hinged on the choices she made for her herself helped too. And you can’t say that Star Wars hasn’t done this before — but maybe that’s the problem, right there. Abrams had an opportunity to take the franchise further into the New, to “let the past die,” in Kylo Ren’s famous words, and balked. If The Force Awakens cribbed liberally from A New Hope, Rise is this trilogy’s Return of the Jedi in every sense: Convoluted and fan-appeasing, racing headlong into an Emperor/Big Space Battle climax that somehow works despite everything that came before and the film being edited like a strobing rock video on 1.5x speed. Oh, with a bike chase AND Endor to boot (though not the same time).

*No, there’s no Broom Boy, but the film tries to have it both ways by suddenly making Finn force-sensitive. I’m allowing it, but teasing it initially as “Finn has feelings for Rey but he just can’t tell her!” was dumb.

The Last Jedi meta-commentary doesn’t stop there. Kylo Ren’s Kintsugi-style helmet is an unsubtle metaphor for “fixing what Rian Johnson broke.” When Luke (Mark Hamill) appears as a force ghost, catching Rey’s lightsaber out of the air, he practically winks to the camera as he cracks about treating a Jedi’s weapon with respect. Worst of all is the sidelining of Rose; Kelly Marie Tran left social media after an avalanche of abhorrent personal attacks from toxic “fans” who saw her as the avatar for all their gripes with Episode VIII, and here Abrams & Terrio banish her to staring at a screen, her budding romance with Boyega’s Finn completely forgotten. She gets as much to do as Dominic Monaghan, who has nothing to do. So it’s not just that Rise’s makers wanted to make viewers happy again, but that they seemingly aspired to make the worst viewers happy. But hey, Chewie finally gets his medal! They brought back Ian McDiarmid’s Palpy in a way that makes you long for the narrative clarity of midichlorians!* That they’re doing it while backhanding the superior middle film is just the cost of business, right? Cheer for the things you recognize because you recognize them!

*Seriously, it’s nuts. He’s suspended on this weird crane thing for most of the film, surrounded by faceless acolytes and clones of Snoke in tanks, and he wants Kylo to kill Rey but he actually doesn’t, she’s supposed to kill Palpy, but he actually wants to kill them both and absorb their… essence, Dark Crystal-style, so he can be reborn? The f–k?

This scene: Not in the movie!

It’s ultimately an epic failure of nerve. Every time you think Abrams is really going to go for it, that sacrifice or bold choice is undone just a few scenes later. Chewbacca (Joonas Suotomo) seems to die in a transport that Rey accidentally explodes with lightning; this is a big deal for the saga and for Rey herself, and would have lended major dramatic weight to its troublesome third act reveal. But never mind, Chewie’s fine, so we move on.* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) agrees to have his memory wiped so he can recite the Sith language inscriptions on one of the film’s many MacGuffins (which… okay, whatever), and the film milks both pathos and comedy out of it, until R2-D2 makes him all better. Time and again, Rise edges up to the brink of consequence and chickens out. You could say this is what happens when there’s no singular vision or overarching plan. Lucas had one; even throughout the generally terrible prequels, you knew the story he wanted to tell and he stuck to it all the way to the end. What story is Rise telling? I honestly don’t know.

*Again: The f–k? “He must have been on a different transport?” That’s the best they could do?

Like Awakens, Rise was constantly being re-written on the fly, but because endings are much harder than beginnings (and historically not Abrams’s strong suit), you can see every one of the seams. This is best exemplified by the Leia scenes; to be fair to Abrams, the passing of the great Carrie Fisher left him with one hand behind his back, and CGI-ing her like they did in Rogue One certainly would have been ghoulish.* So all they could really do was repurpose unused footage from Episode VII and fit new scenes around it, like the Whose Line is it Anyway? game where the performers keep pulling pre-written dialogue out of their pockets and shoehorning it in. It was widely reported that Rise was supposed to be “Leia’s movie,” like Awakens and Jedi were Han’s and Luke’s respectively, so I don’t envy the corner Abrams was in, but it’s an awkward mess any way you look at it. Starting the opening crawl with “The Dead speak!” seems, perhaps, in poor taste.

*Though that doesn’t stop them from doing young versions of the Skywalker sibs for a weird flashback about how Leia’s had a lightsaber of her own all along! That she spent the time after Return of the Jedi training doesn’t bother me; that it was clearly only invented so Rey could ForceDrop that lightsaber to Ben at the climax does.

But like I said about 800 words ago, I weirdly liked the movie anyway. It was similar to my experience watching the Hobbit trilogy: “This is not great, but I love spending time in this world, so I’m going to find things to enjoy.” And there are things to enjoy! Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss nearly walks off with the movie, despite never removing her helmet;* if Kathleen Kennedy and Bob Iger take anything from the response to the film, it should be to get her and her tiny tinker buddy Babu Frik (Shirley Henderson) their own Disney+ show. I loved the twist that the First Order’s mole was the sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, playing at 11 as always), not because he wanted the Resistance to win, but because he just wanted Kylo Ren to lose. There are a few tremendous visual sequences, chief among them the lightsaber battle on the ocean. Lando (Billy Dee Williams) is still cool. Naomi Ackie’s Jannah and Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde are a welcome presence. John Williams pulls from all 42 years of compositions for his operatic score, though the only new theme that jumped out at me was something for the Knights of Ren, which was criminally underused because the Knights themselves were underused.

*The Zorii/Poe (Oscar Isaac) stuff is fun, though I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t walk away from a war if Keri Russell asked them to. We also learn that Poe was a “spice runner,” which means all three of the main heroic trio are of ignoble origins, a nice touch, though it also kept making me wish I was watching Isaac in next year’s Dune.

One of many, many, many fights

Much of the film’s success, such as it is, can be attributed to Rey and Kylo Ren, and the soulful performances from Ridley and Driver. They have consistently been the best thing about each of these films, and though I constantly questioned what I was watching, I never stopped believing in them. As inhabited by Driver, Ben Solo is the saga’s most fascinating character. Every line reading is surprising,* but here it was a simple gesture that made everything click for me: in the Sith temple at Exegol, right before he’s about to wipe out the Knights, he gives a little What can you do? shrug. You could see Han Solo in that moment, clear as day. When he brings Rey back to life and they kiss — yes, I’m a Reylo shipper, sue me — he smiles for literally the first time in the entire series, and it about broke me. (BUT HE DIDN’T NEED TO DIE. Rey could have been granted that happiness, instead of another lonely desert sunset. The f–k?) For her part, Ridley’s steely-eyed strength and sincerity grants us a way into her mind throughout even the most controversial story turns, and her wirework (sorry, I meant Jedi leapin’) is damned impressive, too. If her and Driver’s “dyad” has been the trilogy’s beating heart, we also owe Abrams’s uncanny casting instincts no small credit for that. Through that lens, how can it be all bad?

*Curiously, Driver had almost no dialogue after the (very poignant!) scene with Harrison Ford. I almost wonder if he hated what was written for him and knew he only needed his unique physicality. If so, he was right. Rey gets inspiration from generations of Jedi (including Qui-Gon, Ahsoka, and Hayden Christensen!) and rips off Tony Stark’s kiss-off line while Ben has to climb up a cliff alone, save her, then die. Cruel.

Normally, I might say something like “You’ll get out of Rise of Skywalker what you bring to it,” but I myself have proven that that isn’t true. It is simultaneously a thrilling culmination and a crushing disappointment; its choices are often either nonsensical or cowardly, aiming only for pleasure, never inspiration. For me, it hit the mark just enough times that I don’t think it deserves hate. Maybe it does. But I’d rather choose to save what I love. Besides, no matter what anyone says, there will always be another.

Oh fine, here are my rankings:

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. The Last Jedi
  3. A New Hope
  4. Rogue One
  5. Return of the Jedi
  6. The Force Awakens
  7. Revenge of the Sith
  8. The Rise of Skywalker
  9. Solo
  10. The Phantom Menace
  11. Attack of the Clones

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