Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (United States, 2019)

December 18, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Poster

Back in 1983, burned-out after completing the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas opined that he might be done. 22 years later, with the release of Revenge of the Sith (and after being pilloried by “fans” about the prequels), he said the saga was over. But, as a brand, Star Wars was always too big not to continue, so Disney paid Lucas $4B for the rights to his Galaxy Far, Far Away and proceeded to strip-mine it. The so-called “sequel trilogy,” a once-mythological likely-never-to-be-made affair, has turned into a sad swansong for a series once universally beloved and now greeted in some fan quarters with shrugs. Taken together, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker are representative of what happens when money – not a creative impulse – becomes paramount in franchise-building. Rather than extend and expand a universe, these movies have diminished it.

To be fair to J.J. Abrams, he came to The Rise of Skywalker with two strikes against him. Not only had no coherent umbrella storyline been put in place for the series but one of his stars had died and the main villain had been killed off. The resulting narrative constructed by Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio is a cross between a Return of the Jedi remake and something they assembled as they went along. The movie consists of a bunch of random events and, if you pause long enough to consider things like plot and motivation (something you’re not supposed to do), it becomes evident that most of the movie doesn’t make any sense. Add to that an anti-climactic ending, scattershot editing, and too many extraneous characters and the last Star Wars movie is the most bloated and least satisfying of all the main-line adventures.

With the death of Supreme Leader Snoke leaving a void at the pinnacle of the Bad Guy hierarchy, Abrams reached back into Star Wars lore and resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who (it must be admitted) is looking a bit worse for wear after being thrown down a shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi. (How he survived is not explained, although there is some mention of clones.) It should be noted that this version of Palpatine is a cackling, lunatic, maniacal version not the shrewd, evil, plotting one we saw in the prequels. Palpatine is also cheapened without Vader – the James Earl Jones vocal cameo simply isn’t enough to satisfy fans of heavy breathing.

Palpatine has selected Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to be his successor. To aid in this goal, he has built a whole fleet of overpowered Star Destroyers (each with Death Star planet-killing technology). He offers them to Ren in exchange for a favor – that he kills the Last Jedi trainee, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Meanwhile, Luke’s apprentice, having lost her master (Mark Hamill), is now learning the Jedi ropes from General Leia (Carrie Fisher), who appears in a number of awkwardly edited outtakes from the previous movies. (She speaks in non sequiturs.) Eventually, Rey decides that she has to track down Palpatine so she leaves the Resistance base in the company of her best buddies: Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and BB-8. Along the way, they are joined by veteran Empire-fighter Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who appears as a convenient deus ex machina. As if they’re playing a video game, the characters find items that allow them to progress to one level after another. It goes without saying that everything is pointed in the direction of a Boss Battle with Palpatine.

The Rise of Skywalker feels like something that was slapped together without much concern for logic, consistency, or coherence. Even more than in The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, the side quests have little or no bearing on the final result. As in Return of the Jedi, the scenes with the Emperor are the most compelling but, without the father/son dynamic provided by Vader/Luke, the intensity is dialed back. And, while there was an element of surprise to how the struggle ended in Return of the Jedi, it’s straightforward and disappointingly predictable in The Rise of Skywalker. When it’s all over, there’s a sense of soul-sucking disappointment: That’s it???

The movie isn’t without its strengths and its defenders will latch onto these. There are some welcome cameos, one of which is designed to bring a tear to the eye. The visual Easter eggs, although minor, can provoke smiles. In bringing back some old faces and places, Abrams displays the same understanding of the power of nostalgia that he previously expressed in The Force Awakens. The special effects are first-rate, even if their editing can be headache-inducing. And, although this is by no means John Williams’ top work, it serves as a Best Hits album, which is all Star Wars fans really want.

As has been the case throughout the series, Daisy Ridley shines as Rey. This is her finest hour and best performance and it makes it more than a little sad that the character wasn’t better served by the three screenplays in which she appeared. Adam Driver hits his stride in this one as Ren, although the portrayal for which the actor will be remembered this year is Marriage Story. The expected, obligatory lightsaber fight between these two (c’mon, that’s not really a spoiler) is among the best the series has to offer. Put it alongside the Anakin/Obi-Wan battle toward the end of Revenge of the Sith.

It’s too bad that the Star Wars saga has saved the worst for last. Considering the overall trajectory of the series over the years, perhaps a sense of diminishing returns was inevitable. One can lament that the filmmakers didn’t come up with a better overall battle plan for the prequels before starting filming or that George Lucas wasn’t involved but it’s fair to wonder whether those things would have made any different considering the crushing weight of expectations. Episodes VII, VIII, and IX chose not to expand Star Wars but to provide fan service. The films’ questionable success in fulfilling that mandate is the reason why so many long-term aficionados have soured on the Disney trilogy.

For better or worse, The Skywalker Saga is over and I can’t help but feel a little melancholy not only about the bluntness of that statement but the manner in which it came to an end. At least the movie’s epilogue is note-perfect, but that’s one of too few things that The Rise of Skywalker gets right.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (United States, 2019)

Run Time: 2:21
U.S. Release Date: 2019-12-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sci-fi Violence)
Genre: Science Fiction/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1