Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
So JJ Abrams takes on the monumental task of satisfyingly completing a trilogy he failed to ensure had firm foundations in the first place, while ignoring whichever elements his divisive predecessor introduced that didn’t take his fancy. The result is as unwieldy as you might expect, with Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio trying to please too many masters, juggle too many elements, introduce too many characters while paying off too many other characters, and underline Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as the end of a nine-episode saga. At least they’ve managed that last bit, unless there are some unaccounted-for illegitimate offspring somewhere. After all, when we discover Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), of all people, has got ’em… Mercifully, we were spared an explanation – and further still, a flashback – of just how he fathered that son.
I was actually on board with Episode IX, for the most part, for a portion of its running time, pretty much until the conclusion of the Endor moon sequence. Sure, there are some serious plot issues, not least the McGuffin required to set the story in motion… Luke (Mark Hamill) made notes on a Sith artefact he then presumably gave up on, just like his friends, which turns out to be a Sith dagger that’s very easy to find, but our heroes need to translate the dagger, which gives directions to a device that gives directions to the Emperor. Yeah, okay… maybe not so much. Oh, and Lando (Billy Dee Williams) was helping Luke back when he was looking for the artefact, which means he was presumably bumming around on Passanna for a decade or so. Just waiting to be given a sliver of plot.
I mean, it’s not pretty, however you look at it, raising a whole raft of questions about whys and wherefores in the scheme of things that neither writer can probably answer. But there’s a big but: Abrams the director handles the majority of these plot progressions, transgressions, interactions and altercations with characteristic aplomb. The opening acts display verve and energy and all-importantly, the main cast members are allowed to relate to each other in a manner that reminds you they do have chemistry, even if the characters themselves are less than honed. The dynamic between John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Daisy Ridley, and the latter with Adam Driver, evidences that at least Abrams’ casting instincts were solid in the first place.
Poe particularly benefits from these sections; it’s the first time Isaac has really had a chance to breathe in the role, firstly suffering the indignity of being a character who was hastily not killed off, and then retconned as a petulant hothead. Admittedly, his spice smuggler roots now place a big sign round his neck saying “this trilogy’s Han”, as if that were needed, but for a while here, it’s actually fun to spend time with Poe. During the course of which, he has a flirtatious encounter with Keri Russell’s masked old acquaintance Zorri Bliss, a more successful Abrams masked lady than Captain Phasma, but one gets the impression she’s really there for JJ to announce, “No Poe’s not gay actually, take no notice of anything Isaac says” (don’t worry, though, JJ offers a final victory fig leaf of a celebrating lesbian couple).
Unfortunately, during the latter stages of The Rise of Skywalker, Poe suffers the fate of every character who doesn’t have a lightsabre, becoming a spectator to a busy, busy, busy gargantuan special effects bonanza that renders them functional and inert, spewing banal lines in pursuit of explosive results. There’s also the issue that Poe as a leader, after horsing around in the first half, is an odd fit. But then, to be fair, the Rebellion/the Resistance have always operated a rather slipshod attitude to rising through the ranks, making Han and Lando generals for doing bugger all strategic we know about, and now granting Finn the same honour.
Jannah: He said you would come. He said you were the last hope.
Finn has also never made good as a character, despite having the background with the most potential. That ex-Stormtrooper aspect is revisited via his not-quite-love-interest Jannah (Naomie Ackie) – not quite, but enough to make clear he has nothing whatsoever going on with Poe. Unfortunately, Finn and Jannah are required to grapple with this personal history in the most leaden, unenlightening, lip-service way (“Hey, I was a Stormtrooper too! Isn’t that cool/not?”).
Abrams clearly wasn’t enamoured by Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) but has side-lined her in favour of a new female Finn friend almost as unimpressive and inconsequential. And just as Rose was at the centre of one of The Last Jedi’s weakest of weak threads (setting the animals free on Canto Blight), so JJ has the bright idea of positioning animals at the centre of one of Rise’s most risible scenes: riding orbaks into battle across a Star Destroyer. Finn only really seems convincing when he’s with Poe or Rey, so is fairly irrelevant once they’re split up (he does however, claim to feel the Force when it comes to intuiting where the First Order have relocated their transmitter signal; it’s not all about Skywalkers and Palpatines, you know).
The biggest retconning comes with Rey, now revealed as a Palpatine and not just a nobody at all (take that, Johnson!) Conceptually, the destined-to-be-a-Sith-becoming-a-Jedi is quite satisfying, and if Daisy Ridley seems incapable of closing her mouth, she otherwise carries the weight of the revelation with sterling resolve (that said, I’d have rather liked to see a fully-fledged Sith Rey, per her vision).
The problems here are more ones that plague the increasingly indeterminate capacities of Force adepts, which after a certain point become too limitless. The scene where Rey thinks she may have killed Chewie while she and Ren vie for control of a First Order transport is, on one level, in the range of levitating an X-wing (which gets a revisit later). But if she can do that, why not just levitate across the sea to the Death Star ruins rather than use a skimmer, or float up the interior towers rather than Tom Cruise it?
I’m sure others can explain this through concentration and spiritual exertion draining the Force user, but, these powers just seem arbitrary at times. Palpatine, with the combined might of all the Sith, can very nearly do for the entire Resistance fleet with a shower of Force lightning, but then finds it no match for Rey’s lightsabres. Early on, the Force-healing of wounds is shown to be feasible so as to justify Ben bringing Rey back to life in similar fashion at the climax. Only in this case, as per Luke fashioning a facsimile of himself, it takes too much out of him. I did like the reuse of Johnson’s device of communication between Kylo and Rey, and the teleporting of the lightsabre to him, but generally, the more expansive Force capabilities become, the less coherent and intriguing they are.
Rey: I’m starting to think it isn’t possible to hear the voices of the Jedi who came before me.
Is the conclusion to Rey’s arc satisfying? Well, it’s a very nice and evocative final imitation-Lucas shot on Tatooine. That’s typical of Abrams’ surface dressing; the all-important confrontation with Palpatine has none of the substance and manipulative power it did in Return of the Jedi.
Part of the problem with that is that the Palpatine’s plan appears to change with each new development: he does or doesn’t want Rey to find him; does or doesn’t want her killed; does or doesn’t want her to kill him; and then, it seems, really does want to suck the Force juices out of Rey and Ren. Given the cloning element of the prequel trilogy, bringing back the Emperor may be lazy, but it isn’t unprecedented, and seeing several Snoke clones in glass tanks in his lair is all we really need to explain that uninspired villain. But Palpatine’s motivation and interest or otherwise in Rey is wretchedly underdeveloped, and so is left virtually meaningless.
There’s a knock-on for Kylo/Ben in all this too. The early back and forth between Kylo and Rey is good stuff, taking the baton from Johnson and developing the characters’ antagonism/connection effectively. And Ben finally seeing the light thanks to his own vision of Han, replaying their The Force Awakens dialogue, brings his arc full circle and passes muster, at least for me. But the payoff really doesn’t.
Driver gets to show off some nifty moves (and deliver a couple of amusing lines) when he goes to Rey’s aid and takes out his own knights, but it’s the least interesting of solutions – as in the most traditional and expected – to have him die (and so be cancel-cultured?) How much more intriguing to leave him standing, facing a life where he has to atone for his mistakes through consistent, concerted and sustained action? That wasn’t going to happen over and above Abrams and Terrio’s iconographic decisions – the title, Rey taking the Skywalker name – alas, which had to lead the way.
While I’ve said that, in the main, I enjoyed the first half of The Rise of Skywalker, the caveat is that the Leia sequences are a complete bust. Has JJ Abrams never seen Trail of the Pink Panther? Or worse, was that his inspiration? The attempts to integrate snippets of extant Leia dialogue and thoughtful looks are at best off-putting, at worse come across like a laughably bad YouTube mashup, with whichever character it is sharing the scene asked to carry the dialogue/exposition before cutting to Leia doing not very much at all. The back of her stand-in’s head gets substantially more screen time. If Abrams and Terrio think this scant method is a tribute to Carrie Fisher and Leia, and that it gives a sense that Leia has been training Rey, and then that she “dramatically” uses the Force to intervene with Ben (a scene that makes little sense anyway, as he was only reluctantly fighting Rey), they’re nuts.
Leia’s only the prime example of how the picture fails to service the old gang – aside from Han, ironically, as you’d have sworn that was a terrible idea. Because Abrams did nothing with the idea in The Force Awakens, Leia’s Force-sensitivity here and in The Last Jedi only ever feels broke-backed, that it’s being retrospectively imposed on a character who simply hasn’t been planned or played that way.
This is underlined in the risible sequence – and hugely disappointing, as it would have been much deserved to see Hamill offered something to get his teeth into other than as a glorified exposition machine – in which Luke explains some nonsense about how Leia, when she finished her training with him, put aside her lightsabre for one who was to come. It’s the movie’s biggest groan of all its big groans – and there are a lot when it comes to explaining all the plot elements they’ve crudely brought in, in an attempt to salvage a sinking ship – compounded by a ropey flashback showing younger Luke and Leia training (which makes sense, just don’t insert it retroactively). At least, I assume she’s supposed to be Leia. I guess the lack of resemblance means JJ stuck to his promise that there’d be no CGI Leia in the movie.
Lando’s also entirely irrelevant. And poor Billy Dee Williams barely seems to know what scene he’s in (which is fair enough, to be fair, as Lando’s involvement is almost as disjointed as Leia’s). There are various moments for C-3PO and Chewie (both getting fake-out deaths), while R2 has to make way for BB-8 and new droid D-0 (“I-I-I have a squeaky wheel” is the kind of line made for a children’s toy).
Dominic Monaghan is barely in the movie, but manages to be just as irritating as he was in Lost in that brief time; the Resistance bit parts generally are marked out by how annoyingly perfunctory and reactive they are. Yes, Wicket (Warwick Davis) cameos and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) rather pointlessly returns. We see Wedge (Denis Lawson) for all of two seconds. Greg Grunberg is this movie’s Porkins, but doesn’t get killed (or maybe I had zoned out at that moment).
Faring better is the First Order. Richard E Grant is great fun as Allegiant General Pryde, and I love that Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) turns out to be the mole, his entirely believable motivation being that he’s jealous of Kylo and doesn’t want him to come out on top (Pryde seeing immediately through Hux’s attempt to deflect suspicion is also very funny). Pryde is as at sea as the Resistance, though, when it comes to the third act Star Destroyers assault.
If there’s one thing Johnson had right (and I’m not as down on The Last Jedi as many are, even if it has some serious flaws), it was avoiding this kind of unchecked, all-consuming but entirely uninvolving affray. The worst of it is, Abrams and Terrio clearly don’t care for it either, as the various stages of the battle stutter and creak monumentally, collapsing in on themselves through a lack of clear purpose and a complete absence of individual character goals to pull the audience along.
The finale is an evident mirror of Return of the Jedi, juxtaposing the personal confrontation with the space battle, but it’s far too bloated and fragmented to sustain any rhythm, pace or escalation (and the earlier reminder of the Emperor’s throne room from that instalment serves only to invite unflattering comparisons).
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn’t a complete disaster, but it makes a meal of turning the majority of the solid ideas – as in those ideas that are worthwhile, rather than the many that are not – at its disposal into a coherent narrative. The consequence is that the areas that are broadly successful – Rey and Kylo – are for the most part consistent with the entire trilogy. Likewise, Abrams pulls of a succession of first-rate set pieces during the first ninety minutes, despite the handicap of his chosen plot.
Pretty much everything else, as per the rest of the trilogy, is much less proficient. Yet again – one might assume contemptuously if it we didn’t know it was ineptitude – it fumbles the old hands. I don’t think the movie needed this degree of bloat to account for the trilogy’s, or even three trilogies’, loose ends; focussing in on and clarifying the Emperor plot and dispensing with much of the attendant junk would have helped matters considerably. The Rise of Skywalker is frequently an ungainly mess, so it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to call it a fitting end to the trilogy on that basis; it hasn’t so much dropped a ball as failed to run with one that had been aimlessly kicked about for two previous pictures.