Starring: Daisy Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), John Boyega (Detroit), Oscar Isaac (Inside Lleywn Davis), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Domnhall Gleeson (About Time), Kelly Marie Tran (Sorry for Your Loss), Naomi Ackie (Lady Macbeth), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Mark Hamill (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Billy Dee Williams (Batman), Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally), Ian McDiarmid (Return of the Jedi)
Director: JJ Abrams (Star Trek)
Writers: JJ Abrams & Chris Terrio (Argo)
Runtime: 2 hours 21 minutes
Release Date: 19th December (UK), 20th December (US)
So for the third time in history, Star Wars comes to an end but not really. We already know there are more movies and TV shows in the works, but The Rise of Skywalker draws a line in the sand and ends what we now call The Skywalker Saga. It’s been a long and rocky road to this finish line filled with production troubles and a divided fanbase that has kept everyone wracked with one question: how do you end Star Wars? Well, The Rise of Skywalker certainly is a way of doing it, though I’m hard pressed to say it’s the best way.
Evident right from how the first paragraph of the opening title crawl drops a huge story-shattering plot point with no build-up, the biggest problem ailing The Rise of Skywalker is pacing. After the deliberate and contemplative The Last Jedi, the ninth instalment constantly feels like it’s trying to make up for lost time and hurries itself at nearly every moment. The film is jam-packed with exposition as our heroes dash from one locale to the next, engaging in an action set piece and a bewildering plot twist at every stop on the journey. Whilst the wit and heart JJ Abrams established in The Force Awakens is still present, there are barely any moments of downtime to appreciate the world or ruminate on our character’s trajectory. What moments of character introspection there are do land, and certain moments may have some long-time fans shedding a tear, but nothing gets a chance to sit still.
As for the story itself, well…I didn’t think they could make a more divisive Star Wars movie than The Last Jedi, but Abrams and co have done it. There’s a lot of smaller plot beats that do really work, particularly those that expand on the trilogy’s themes of defying destiny and withstanding overwhelming odds, but many of the core ideas the film is built around are shaky and best and outright preposterous at worst. It’s hard to deny the passion and devotion Abrams has poured into the film, but ultimately his unbridled fandom is the film’s downfall, as at every turn it takes the easy way out and answers what remaining questions it can with obvious, disappointing answers (oh, and plenty of unanswered questions remain). They certainly do mine plenty of pathos and closure out of these moments, and some of them very much enhance the themes and ideas George Lucas himself established for the franchise, but at their core some of these ideas would not feel out of place in a fan fiction. Whilst I do compliment Abrams for avoiding just recreating Return of the Jedi with a different coat of paint, and the difficulty of ending a franchise this storied and beloved must have been intense, everything wrong with The Rise of Skywalker can be traced back to the screenplay. The film itself is as professionally presented and sculpted as any of the post-Lucas entries, but more now than ever has the lack of planning on Lucasfilm’s part bitten them in the backside. In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to entrust ending one of cinema’s hugest franchises to the guy who co-wrote Batman v Superman?
As a result of the rushed pacing, one of the biggest casualties is how the series’ talented cast gets little time to celebrate their accomplishments and enjoy their characters for one last time. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver remain the central focus of the film’s story as Rey and Kylo Ren respectively, and their characters are the only ones given much development. Ridley is tasked with playing a much more nuanced Rey, with her optimism in the previous instalments replaced with anxiety and determination, resulting in a trilogy-wide arc that feels conclusive if a little lopsided. Driver too is challenged with the conflict inside Kylo, and his performance ranges from unbridled anger to scared silence; he really knows how to get across a lot with just some subtle facial expressions. Even as their connected storyline pays off in a slightly obvious and tawdry fashion, they perform it with so much gusto that it hits more often than it doesn’t. In stark contrast and despite being present for as much of the film’s story as Rey and Kylo, nowhere near as much care is paid to John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. Whilst the pair do give it their all and retain their infectious chemistry, they have no discernable arcs other than reaffirming what they already learnt about heroism and sacrifice in The Last Jedi; it’s like how Return of Jedi spent so much time bringing Han Solo back only to do nothing with him all over again.
Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata has more screen time than she did last time around but somehow has even less to do, Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux gets a moment to shine before unceremoniously exiting, and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is absolutely done dirty by being sidelined until the third act and given little to do but spout exposition. Even the new characters feel like after-thoughts that could have easily been merged with existing players; Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde practically just slots into Hux’s role, whilst Naomi Ackie’s Jannah could have been Rose with a few rewrites. General Leia’s role is handled as gracefully as they can with the limited footage remaining of the late Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams is a tad superfluous as the returning Lando Calrissian but he’s clearly having fun with the role, and Mark Hamill brings back a little of that old trilogy charm as Luke Skywalker one last time. However, the main returning attraction is absolutely Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine. Though his inclusion in the story will certainly prove divisive, having McDiarmid back in full-on Revenge of the Sith “unlimited power!” force is a devious delight. Oh, and C-3PO actually gets something to do and Anthony Daniels is as blissfully whimsical as ever and everything he says in the movie made me happy, so that’s a solid positive.
On a technical level, The Rise of Skywalker is as beautifully executed as all of Lucasfilm’s recent entries. The return to the original trilogy’s aesthetic with a modern twist is still in full force, and the number of new worlds and creatures on display continues to astonish. The film is a visual delight with striking cinematography and imaginative production design, bolstered by a still-seamless blend of practical and visual effects. John Williams delivers his swan song as composer of the series, beautifully weaving in themes from across all three trilogies into the score whilst still surprising us with new compositions; the theme for the Knights of Ren is especially menacing. However, the topic of pacing continues to be a running theme through this critique, and the film’s erratic editing is another big culprit. The film’s first act is especially muddled and disarming, with the series’ signature wipe transitions ramped up as we swiftly cut from location to location. The editing luckily finds a better rhythm by the halfway point, but it remains an issue throughout, and it all screams of a production that either shot way too much footage or not enough.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is like being in a one-sided relationship: it keeps doing things that make you want to leave whilst doing just enough to make you stay, and at every point you’re willing to forgive and move on it slights you again. It tries to be everything to every kind of Star Wars fan, hurriedly wrapping up the saga in a convenient bow, but it instead often comes off as trite and sycophantic. As opposed to the prequels, which generally had solid intentions but simply executed them poorly, this is a film riddled with bad ideas that they’ve somehow executed with heart and effort. It’s far from being lazy or boring or even unimaginative; the final product is far too humungous and gaudy to be any of those things. For better and worse, it is absolutely a Star Wars film as made by a Star Wars fan, and as clumsily and perplexingly as it chooses to end the series…it does accomplish those goals.
There’s an adage frequently repeated by characters in this film along the lines of, “If we don’t do this now, everything we have worked for will have been for nothing.” That couldn’t be a more apt metaphor for what happened to this movie. It is the most baffling and disappointing end to a trilogy since The Matrix Revolutions and, whilst it doesn’t negate the quality and accomplishments of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, it will leave a bittersweet taste in the mouths of many fans. I do not hate The Rise of Skywalker. I am not demanding that we get a do-over. I do not condone sending abuse in the direction of JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy or anyone else in the cast and crew. It’s merely a subpar entry in a franchise that has already had several subpar entries. Nothing more, nothing less. As frustrated and saddened I am by how it’s all ended up, it does not change how much this franchise means to me and to cinema in general, with all and the ups and downs it has been through over four decades of storytelling. Congrats on making it to the finish line, Star Wars. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m glad you’re still here.
FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10