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STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019) review

December 29, 2019

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written by: J. J. Abrams and Chris Terrio
produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams and Michelle Rejwan
directed by: J. J. Abrams
rated: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action)
runtime: 142 min.
U.S. release date: December 20, 2019

 

I left “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” torn, which is not exactly how I thought I would exit what is supposedly the last entry in the Skywalker saga. As a longtime fan, someone who without a doubt had his enthusiasm for film ignited with “A New Hope”, I tried to remain optimistic that director J.J. Abrams would close it all out with a satisfactory conclusion. But, this is the guy who admittedly considers endings “tough” and fans of ABC’s “Lost”, which he co-created will attest that the writer/director isn’t opposed to leaving questions unanswered. The result is the biggest Star Wars movie to date, which would sound like a good thing to 7-year-old me, but when bigger or most trumps cohesive and satisfying storytelling, that’s rarely ever a good sign no matter where your fandom lies.

Abrams gave us 2015’s lucrative “The Force Awakens“, the entertaining seventh episode which kicked off this new trilogy and reinvigorated the franchise with the spirit and feel of the original trilogy, so it’s obvious why producer Kathleen Kennedy asked him to return. He’s a safe choice after the last sequel, Rian Johnson’s critically lauded “The Last Jedi” from 2017, which was a bold and creative albeit controversial and much maligned entry, not to mention a supposed financial letdown. Disney/Lucasfilm are clearly hoping going back to “a sure thing” will satiate the internet (which apparently has more influence than a Jedi Master) and its persnickety demands and desires. Unfortunately, that’s no way to stick the landing on a beloved franchise but, to be honest, no one envied the pressure and difficult task given to Abrams.

The movie begins with the traditional opening crawl that leads with “The dead speak!”, referring to the sudden resurgence of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and the threat he poses to the universe and the rag-tag group of Resistance fighters. Most Star Wars fans already knew that Palpatine was back – it was dramatically revealed at last April’s Star Wars Celebration in Chicago (along with the title and first trailer) – but including his name in the opening crawl seems like a missed opportunity. There’s very little surprise, coming across as a cut-to-the-chase reveal. The crawl also mentions seemingly important events that have transpired off-screen, in order to supposedly catch us up to speed. Instead of providing an idea of how much time has passed since “The Last Jedi” (it’s a year – thanks, Wikipedia), the crawl is written more like an overstuffed prologue, a foreboding predictor of what the actual screenplay will offer.

 

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From there we witness Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) plowing through a group of alien creatures who guard what we’ll learn is a Sith Wayfinder, an ancient device that will supposedly reveal the location of Exegol, the planet somewhere in the “Unknown Regions” where Palpatine has been laying low all this time. Learning there remains a powerful Sith Lord, the power-mad leader of the First Order is determined to take Palpatine out, but when the cunning master of the Dark Side offers Kylo a massive armada of planet-destroying Star Destroyers (that he’s supposedly been creating for decades – it’s the first of many revelations that lead to questions), which will lead to a Final Order that will rule the universe, a cautious agreement is made. Palpatine’s only request: find and kill Rey.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been busy continuing her Jedi training under the tutelage of General Leia (Carrie Fisher), while still remaining clouded regarding the mysteries of her heritage. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and BB-8 return from a hyperspace-skipping adventure on the Millennium Falcon, in which they acquired some vital information from an ally that will help them locate Palpatine. With the Resistance still low in numbers (and seemingly resources), it’s unclear how they plan to confront (let alone defeat) Palpatine once they find him, but this is just one of so many questions this episode elicits.

The rest of the movie finds Rey and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, the only actor to play the same character in all nine episodes of the Skywalker saga) joining their friends on a planet-hopping search for one MacGuffin after another. They travel to a desert planet (there’s so many), this one’s named Pasaana (where we’re briefly introduced to the Aki-Aki species, who are in the middle of their own Burning Man event – that occurs every 42 years, we’re “told”), where they encounter Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) – who’s supposedly done rebelling, yet is hiding in plain site at this festival, pointing our friends in the direction of the location of a hidden treasure in the form of a Sith dagger.

Pursued by First Order stormtroopers (some of whom can now fly), the gang make their way to Kijimi, a snowy planet home to one of Poe’s former flames, smuggler Zorii Bliss (a masked Keri Russell), in order get an inscription on the dagger translated which will hopefully reveal more about Palpatine. The information revealed brings them to Kef Bir, one of the moons of Endor, where they meet former stormtrooper and Resistance supporter, Jannah (Naomi Ackie) who leads them to the remnants of the second Death Star (I know, it looked quite obliterated at the end of “Return of the Jedi” to me too) where Rey finds another Sith Wayfinder (always two there are?) and is confronted by Kylo Ren, who asks for her alliance once again, this time to defeat Palpatine.

NOTE: the “Sith Wayfinder” is a most ridiculous name. It was called a holocron in the “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” animated series, but I guess Abrams and Terrio felt that would be too confusing for “moviegoers”. I liken it to the Cosmic Cube being called a Teserect in the MCU. Who knows why? Maybe the writers thought those names were too geeky – um, too late for that line of thinking.

 

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I won’t touch on certain plot revelations and surprise appearances that occur along the way, but I will say that the movie isn’t without its share of disappointments, most of which are due to the inclusion of familiar beats, safe developments and strange choices that hiccup the story’s flow with question marks. That’s not to say I didn’t like “The Rise of Skywalker”, since any opportunity to return to this universe and all it can offer is welcome. I just didn’t like it as much as I had hoped I would.

Of course, the production values and sound design are as solid as you’d expect any Star Wars movie to be, but the way in which the story unfolds is a frustrating head scratcher, as is why certain decisions are made. The screenplay by Abrams and Chris Terrio (who co-wrote both “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League”) can’t help but to conjure certain callbacks from the original trilogy, in a safe and obvious manner. While there was some of that in “The Last Jedi”, they were subtle and at least doing something different. That movie also did something ballsy, which is to kill off the main villain, while still leaving the contentious struggle between the light and dark side of the Force on the board, as seen in the characters portrayed by Ridley and Driver.

Say what you will about who’s been your favorite characters (legacy or new) in this trilogy, but the most fascinating characters have without a doubt been Rey and Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo) and how they’ve been wrestling with their pasts and identities. In all three movies, the more time spent with these two characters, the more we pull in a little closer. That’s definitely the case with this movie, where both Ridley and Driver deliver absorbing performances. Both actors have communicated the internal confusion and frustration, while offering up something different to the franchise. This sequel made me realize just how much chemistry Ridley has with everyone she interacts with, bringing a wide-eyed, open-hearted sincerity to every interaction she has. Driver has given probably the most emotional portrayal of someone on the Dark Side than anyone else we’ve seen in all the other movies. Driver has done an exemplary job of conveying the clash between Kylo Ren and Ben Solo, which comes to an inevitable head in this movie. I may not always have liked what the writers have given Driver or done with his character, but he is nevertheless always interesting to watch.

Much of the climatic battle between Rey, Kylo Ren and Palpatine in “The Rise of Skywalker”, strongly resembles the showdown between Luke, Darth Vader and Palpatine in “The Return of the Jedi”. Add to that a predominately breakneck pace throughout, which tries to pack so much into an over two-hour runtime, and “The Rise of Skywalker” is a mostly overwhelming affair that chooses to ignore or course-correct certain aspects (sorry Rose Tico fans) of the last movie with very few payoffs. Sure, there were a few callbacks in “The Last Jedi”, but not nearly as many as there are here and that’s unfortunate. Much of what was going on in Johnson’s episode was different and new for the Star Wars universe (much of which was met by fan vitriol), whereas this feels like Abrams is working around that movie and instead making a sequel to “The Force Awakens” instead.

 

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If there was a plan all along to bring back Palpatine as a major threat, then some kind of underlying hint within the last two movies would’ve helped, but it’s clear there never really was a mapped out trajectory for this trilogy. Palpatine was such an important and powerful presence in the other two trilogies, it feels like a Hail Mary to re-introduce him here as a Default Villain without any gradual build-up. This makes most of Palpatine’s conversation with Kylo Ren at the start of the movie feel like exposition that quickly explains away Snoke (the villain of the last two movies) and what he’s been doing all this time…except that only brings us more questions. I had thought it would be great to see McDiarmid return to his iconic role, but not in this capacity. He and we deserve better.

It’s not just the overall storyline that feels problematic and repetitious, there are cringeworthy lines of dialogue that either state the obvious or drop a major development out the sky and then we cut to the next scene as if Abrams and Terrio can sense us rolling our eyes. Oscar Isaac’s Poe has a line within the first fifteen minutes of the movie where he utters, “Palpatine’s been pulling the strings all along!”, surrounded by fellow Resistance fighters, which is essentially what Palpatine just finished telling Kylo Ren in there previous scene. Is he saying this out loud to convince himself or do Abrams and Terrio just want to make sure we’re following along? There’s also much talk about “staying together” when our heroes commit to joining Rey on her quest, with a repeated emphasis from the characters either reiterating that they’re together or commenting out loud that they are together. Again, who is this for exactly? If it’s for the fans who complained that these characters had their own separate adventures in the last move, I guess they forgot that that’s what happened in the most lauded episode, “The Empire Strikes Back“.

However, “The Rise of Skywalker” is far from a total disappointment. The best moments aren’t found in space battles, speeder chases or lightsaber duels, but rather in character moments, something that can be said for the previous episodes as well. There are also legitimate emotional moments sprinkled throughout, three in particular that had me tearing up, all of which involved Chewbacca. The scenes where they incorporated deleted footage of Carrie Fisher from “The Force Awakens” definitely got me a bit choked up, mostly because she was my sister’s favorite character and she too died suddenly during this trilogy. Seeing some other legacy characters show up was handled nicely as well, one I won’t mention specifically since it is a surprise. It was assumed that Luke would return as a Force Ghost and his chat here with Rey was as rewarding as it was needed. Lando having a brief chat with a concerned Poe was fitting and appropriate. These are character moments that serve to remind us why the series has resonated with fans for so long.

 

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The title of the movie is touched on with an exclamation point in the movie’s very last scene. It’ll be received with a heavy sigh for some, for better or worse.  I see it as a fitting moment, both for a specific character and for how this movie is set on tying everything together.

There’s already been a handful of articles about “The Rise of Skywalker” referring to interviews where someone involved in the movie, usually Abrams, is “explaining” something about the movie. Typically those articles have “Abrams explains” in the headline…stay away from those.

If a movie needs to be explained then it’s not wholly successful. It can be entertaining, fun, include great performances, but when we find the writers or directors break down what transpired on the big screen or why a character said or did something, that’s never a good sign. It’s one thing to challenge a viewer, make them wrestle a bit with what they’ve seen, but these explanations come across as desperate backpedaling to appease viewers questions. Granted, some questions are understandable, but at the same time, I don’t need anything to be explained to me since it should’ve been understandable in the movie.

On that note, there should be no need to have to read a novel, a comic or play a video game to understand something that doesn’t make sense in a movie or is hinted at unsuccessfully. A movie should stand on it’s own, without tie-ins smoothing anything out.

“The Rise of Skywalker” is indeed the kitchen sink of the Skywalker saga and a leaky one at that. There’s undoubtedly an expectation that the final movie in a nine episode saga will have certain payoffs and for some, this has that. For me, the abundance of frustrating decisions and mounting questions overwhelm a wholly satisfying viewing experience.

 

RATING: **1/2

 

 

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