REVIEW: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [2019]

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 142 minutes
    Release Date: December 20th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Lucasfilm / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
    Director(s): J.J. Abrams
    Writer(s): Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams / Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow and Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams /George Lucas (characters)

Some things are stronger than blood.


The return of Star Wars was always going to include a third trilogy because George Lucas had talked about his Skywalker saga being nine films way back in the 1980s. And since he eventually got chapters one through three on the big screen himself, it was guaranteed that Disney’s plans entailed pumping out chapters seven through nine. So why didn’t they game plan that arc? This isn’t like the Marvel Cinematic Universe where tenuous connections over ten films allow for multiple cooks to be in the kitchen. These are conversely three intrinsically bonded pieces of a single whole. That the trajectory taken was so haphazard and reactive therefore baffles me. Producer Kathleen Kennedy always seemed as though she was playing catch-up rather than dictating the play with purpose.

Bringing on Lawrence Kasden to re-skin A New Hope and place the result under the capable guidance of J.J. Abrams was a keenly observed move to conjure excitement. The Force Awakens did exactly that too: it awakened a long dormant audience while igniting its growth to expand further. That baseline meant Kennedy could branch out to an artist like Rian Johnson and let him steward an imaginative and complex follow-up from page to screen. Was this smart? It was if The Last Jedi‘s goal was to cut a new path forward. Maybe she even wanted that to be the goal at first. Somewhere along the line, however, original chapter nine director Colin Trevorrow was fired, Johnson was moved onto an original trilogy, and Abrams was coaxed on back.

Going backwards ultimately forces an outside perspective to presume that a course correction from inventive possibilities to derivative inevitabilities became the party line. Artistry was defeated. Over-arching themes pushed to the forefront of the action would once more be hidden in the shadows if mentioned again at all. A goal to do the world justice was usurped by one that sought to assuage the demands of a toxically vocal minority wanting what they wrongly believed was their “right” to have. So instead of building upon Johnson’s attention shift from Skywalker royalty to the “force” being something anyone who’s pure at heart can possess no matter where they come from, The Rise of Skywalker proves a thinly veiled retcon that actively works against itself to satisfy an ungrateful horde.

I have no problem with bringing Emperor Palpatine back for a circuitously mirrored ending. Just know that’s what you want from the beginning. Tease his return. Mention him somewhere. Don’t hire someone to take things in another direction only to decide familiarity was the better route. This isn’t speculation on my part either. The marketing plan itself is evidence enough. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is on the poster and his cackle is heard at the end of the trailer. For a series (and director in Abrams) so vehemently against plot leaks of any kind, this blatant flaunting of a “dead” character as sanctioned spoiler reveals it was all a scramble. They needed him in our face to remember his existence since they forgot the two previous films.

Our expectation and anticipation of his revival should have been born from the work itself—not advertisements. What a cheap and manipulative way to place Palpatine in the front of our mind for months in a bid to distract us from realizing he wasn’t already there. It’s inexcusable because it was avoidable if only Kennedy and company fleshed out all three films at once. Similar to the current iteration of James Bond lazily using Spectre as a way to introduce a villain so powerful that he was actually pulling the strings from day one, injecting Palpatine at the eleventh hour here is disingenuous at best. He’s suddenly the target of both Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) to kill for power and peace respectively.

Fine. Whatever. I’ll go along for the ride to discover an unmapped territory where he’s been hiding. I’ll enjoy the hunt for clues Rey undertakes alongside Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) even if Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio are taunting Last Jedi fans by siding with its haters en route to sidelining Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and ham-fistedly making a character declare how they should “go together” more than once. Why? Because it’s fun if you can stomach ignoring those obvious potshots at Johnson’s choices. It’s suspenseful watching Ren chase Rey to tell her new truths via lightsaber battles if you can stomach ignoring how what he knows is a direct subversion of everything Johnson taught us. It’s Star Wars again. Low stakes and easy answers.

And that would have been enough if not for Johnson teasing what could be instead. To have a taste of unpredictability only to go back to arch stereotypes of good versus evil is nothing short of disappointing. The bad writing doesn’t help (a character tells a dead character that they are only a memory in a way that makes me think the writers didn’t have faith we’d differentiate hallucination from “force ghost” despite one looking human and the other being blue and translucent). Nor does the inclusion of “Rule of Two” talk that speaks towards something for which the actual rule doesn’t apply. Abrams and company is sloppily pulling strings to reach their safe conclusion of sacrifice, faith, and convenience. It admittedly works regardless of whether it resonates.

In my opinion it doesn’t come close to the latter because it creates a whole new set of imperatives that rely upon those of its predecessors in the most superficial of ways. Kylo Ren would have the most interesting trajectory if he wasn’t constantly playing second fiddle to Rey and ultimately having his internal struggle subsidized by his mother’s (Carrie Fisher) “force projection” of her love. Rey can’t earn any interest because the script strips it from her with the revelation of a destiny she was bred to combat rather than having her remain a woman torn between two worlds equally and without intent. So the job of carrying us through lies with Finn and Poe—two dudes accepting that they’re stronger together than egotistically wielding control alone.

Domhnall Gleeson‘s General Hux is finally given purpose above ironic comic relief too late. Richard E. Grant joins the fray with a one-note sternness as General Pryde that’s more homage to Peter Cushing‘s Grand Moff Tarkin than anything substantial on its own. Lupita Nyong’o‘s Maz Kanata lacks all the spunk she once possessed; newcomer Naomi Ackie‘s Jannah strives to carry on Johnson’s idea of seemingly insignificant people doing significant things despite lacking the political import of those kids in Canto Bight; and Anthony Daniels‘ C-3PO conversely finds himself with the most he’s had to do since the prequels and steals many a scene for it. Billy Dee Williams‘ Lando is a welcome sight and Keri Russell‘s Zorii an effective addition to be a foil to Poe.

What does it all add up to? An ending. Does it satisfy the simplistic desires of those craving more of the same? You bet. Does it satisfy our appetite for adventure? More or less. Does it satisfy the potential of what this trilogy could have been? No. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s enough for success. I’m personally just glad it’s over since this three-part endeavor has added very little to the franchise besides a wider scope in toy sale demographics. Hopefully artists can now make their marks unbeholden to legacy so subsequent entries can live or die on their own merits. I’d rather watch something succeed or fail on its ambition alone than another chapter that sporadically inspires on its way to being completely forgettable.


photography:
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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