Dec 202019
two reels

All the galaxy knows that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned and has a huge fleet at a secret Sith base which he plans to use to conquer the universe. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), with help from Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) hunt down information on the location of that base so they can stop him. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also wants to stop him as there can be only one supreme leader, and his plans involve Rey. Leia Organa is also around…just because, and Rose occasionally pops her head in

Ah, what the hell, let’s just restart the trilogy. That’s what the poorly titled The Rise of the Skywalker does. The last two movies matter for character, but for story, not at all. We start with new villains, a new threat, a new big bad, and a new quest. We meet new allies, and are given new histories. By “new” I mean re-purposed, but they’re not the ones from the last two films. So we start all over, jump around with multiple climaxes till we reach the grand finale. Yes, it isn’t just a new start, but an entire new trilogy in one flick.

Actually, it plays like a serial. Star Wars was based on ‘30s & ‘40s serials and no Star Wars film has ever been closer to that source. For a good portion of the runtime, its three friends off on adventures. This is also when the film works best. It’s fun and exciting and quite mindless, with some great banter between Poe and Finn. Poe gets the award for most improved as his digs and sarcasm are pure gold. And of course there’s lots of running, fighting, things blowing up, and general action mayhem. But it’s just adventure serial fun. The Last Jedi tried to be more. The Rise of Skywalker puts in real effort to be less.

Where is does rise is in the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. Whatever heart and depth the film has is with them. Their interactions, no matter the form, resonate. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley have fantastic chemistry together, more than in the previous two films.

Of course this is J.J. Abrams, the man whose main skill as a director is “borrowing” from other directors, and he plies that craft with enthusiasm. As should be a surprise to no one, he starts with a copy of Return of the Jedi as all the new trilogy films have copied the original trilogy ones. But of the three new films, this one resembles its foundation the least—though it is still noticeable. No J.J. isn’t making a remake or a re-imagining. He’s got more swiping to do. He (clearly with the support of Disney) just grabs everything he can from the older films. I’d call it fan service, but is it still fan service if everything is fan service? There are multiple characters who exist in the film only because they existed in earlier films. We have captures like we did before. We have escapes like we did before. We visit planets because we visited them before. J.J. seems scared to death to do something new. This makes the ending disappointing, though it should be expected. In 1977, or 1983, or even 1999 I might have been more excited, but I’ve seen it too many times, and the entire last third of the film is so blatant about everything happening because that’s what happened before. Apparently, Star Wars is always the same.

Funny, I felt it was quite different in 1977.

J.J. also does his best to ignore The Last Jedi. He undoes several important points from that film, and shifts characters’ personalities. Rose is also sidelined, even though she could have easily replaced several of the new characters in scenes. He may have done this in response to fan-boi whining, or just because that wasn’t his story. It doesn’t matter why, though it is annoying. However it is less annoying than it might be if The Rise of Skywalker was a weightier film.

Another problem was forced upon him. The death of Carrie Fisher left a hole, and it is noticeable. Since all of her shots were leftovers from the last two films, for her scenes the script couldn’t be what was best for story or character, but whatever could stitch together the frames they had. The result is underwhelming.

For two-thirds of the way, they had me. Oh, I’d seen it all before but it was fast and fun and engaging, and I can excuse a good deal of pandering. But the last third, particularly the scenes without Rey and Kylo were a bridge too far. Taken piece by piece The Rise of Skywalker is a better film than Rogue One, which was a mess for a full half. But you’ve got to stick the landing.

If my review sounds dire, remember this is a Star Wars film and I’m grading on a curve. It looks great. Not The Last Jedi great, but The Force Awakens great, and that’s a high mark. The music is thrilling. The CGI is stunning. The sound is awe inspiring. And unlike the first six films in the series, the acting isn’t a detriment. It’s cheap, lowest common denominator fun. Who doesn’t like cotton candy?