Film

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Has an Engaging Core Almost Crushed by the Weight of the Saga

Exiting the cinema with my family, we all agreed that we liked Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. My dad, who saw Star Wars back in 1977; my mum, who saw the films later; my brother, who grew up on the prequels and has been quoting and imitating Darth Sidious for the past week; and myself, who vaguely remembers first watching the VHS of The Empire Strikes Back whilst sitting on my dad’s lap back in roughly 1996. I bring this up, because The Rise of Skywalker tasks itself with bringing the inter-generational saga of the Skywalker clan to a resolute conclusion.

And that it does, but it takes a long, meandering route to get there. Truthfully, before viewing this film and writing this review, I had seen the mixed reception by other critics, and the contention that The Rise of Skywalker hews too closely and safely towards wish fulfilment, which in turn tempered my own expectations. I was pre-emptively formulating references to David Edgar’s How Plays Work, and bringing in his observations that audiences test dramatic plausibility, coherence, and conventionality against their aggregated experiences and own expectations, which can be “fulfilled or broken, but not ignored”. This would have segued into a discussion of how The Rise of Skywalker is now impossibly cast against the expectations of an entire spectrum of fans who have consumed this particular story for over four decades.

Kylo Ren's mended helmet.

This would be bad artistic criticism in that I would prematurely impose my expectations upon the film, rather than assess what the film itself makes me expect from it. Yet obviously Disney and Lucasfilm’s latest hasn’t been created in a vacuum. Audience expectations are a factor in a meta-textual sense, and clearly have influenced story decisions, but having seen the movie and come away satisfied, despite qualms, I don’t think channelling expectations—fulfilled, broken, or ignored—are the root of the issues with The Rise of Skywalker.

If the sequel trilogy is to be remembered for anything, it will be Rey and Kylo’s story. Even within The Rise of Skywalker’s swirling cyclone of endless events, Rey and Kylo are in the calm at the centre of the storm.

The Rise of Skywalker’s fundamental problem is how extraordinarily hectic it is despite not necessarily needing to be so. In the opening minutes, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) descends beneath a monolithic stone Sith temple, while elsewhere, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) evade TIE Fighters in the Millennium Falcon by “lightspeed skipping” between a flurry of star systems and worlds that barely have time to register. These are apt visual metaphors for the film as a whole, and when Rey (Daisy Ridley) later chastises the pair, saying they “can’t do that” because the Millennium Falcon is unable to handle it, one wishes that the creative team had paid more attention to that self-reflexive line. Rapid pacing, density of expositional elements, fetch quests for nonsense “Macguffins”, new location upon new location, new character introductions and their inconsequential arcs, layers of lore re-writing…an engaging core of a film is constantly under threat from being crushed by the behemothic weight of convoluted stuff.

When one thinks about the original Star Wars trilogy—which The Rise of Skywalker takes great pains at times to remind its audience of—one must marvel at how quiet these cinema-changing blockbusters actually are. They have a couple of major action sequences in each film, but so much of the trilogy is taken up by conversation and personalities. Here is where The Rise of Skywalker falters frequently. It’s not hyperbolic to say that Rey, Finn, and Poe are constantly being chased or hounded or hunted by the First Order. They get barely two minutes on every single planet they visit (and there are a lot on them) before the camera forebodingly pans to a Knight of Ren holding a glaive, or an enemy ship looms overhead, and suddenly they’re on the run again. This might be fine, but that endless urgency to move on or escape is detrimental to fostering memorable character dynamics and relationships.

Poe, Rey, and Finn looking on.

This problem is exacerbated by the film intently adding interpersonal conflicts, often out of the blue. It’s frankly jarring seeing Rey reject Finn as a confidante who doesn’t “know” her, or Poe and Finn have disputes, with Finn scathingly responding to Poe’s indignant “I’m not Leia” with something to the effect of, “No, you’re definitely not”. While these characters would be facing crises given The Rise of Skywalker’s narrative and their arcs in this film trilogy having revolved around various levels of both self-doubt and imposter syndrome, there is tonal whiplash when these charismatic actors playing incredibly chummy characters suddenly are on the outs with one another, rather than talking as they have during the past two films. It smacks of the need to give everyone some semblance of an arc with marginal space to do so, and at the expense of actual, cogent character development. In amongst the plot-churning, the trio may be together at last, but they spend most of The Rise of Skywalker emotionally distant, with nary a significant conversation between them.

Finn suffers the most in this regard. His friendship spurned by Rey in her moment of panic and pressure, he spends most of the film following her too far behind, resorting to yelling her name in fear that yet another thing might kill her. Charitably, this demonstrates dedication as a true friend, keeping a watchful eye on Rey while still being accommodating and not taking her outbursts harshly. But it’s such a minor role where Boyega has little to do except weirdly ethereally promulgate his belief in Rey and faith in the Force. Naomi Ackie’s Jannah eventually appears presenting an intriguing prospect that could anchor Finn’s personal journey and healing, but by then it’s too late, so it’s left unmoored. He’s even stuck in romantic limbo, persistently restraining himself from saying anything to Rey, and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) egregiously declines to join him and the others on their adventure, citing analytical work she needs to conduct. Along with Rose, Finn’s romances are unceremoniously shoved aside, and with that, Finn is left largely untethered before the climax lets him assume some sort of pertinence.

Zorii Bliss talks to Poe

Poe fares mildly better. Despite manufactured bickering with Finn in between their banter, the burden his promotion amongst the ranks of The Resistance brings is a worthwhile story thread; the subplot soars with him whenever he flies. We also learn a modicum more about him during a brief stop on Kijimi (though not brief enough), where he flirts a bit with an old acquaintance, Zorii Bliss. I swear this isn’t only because I love The Americans, but sticking Keri Russell in a helmet and then giving her a bit part is atrocious. Honestly, though, there’s a litany of characters and talented actors—new and old—squandered in this film. I spotted Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer with maybe thirty seconds of screen-time. Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux is downgraded, but then so is Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde. Worse still, the exiguous nature of their roles is amplified by the seeming triviality of their contributions in the scheme of things. Okay, that’s not fair, they aren’t worthless additions to the film, because invariably they are attached to some expositional element or object that moves the plot along. At least Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) aren’t too short-shrifted and Chewie even gets a properly sentimental moment. Overwhelmingly though, The Rise of Skywalker could have done with consolidating story beats and characters so that the time spent with them feels valuable.

This even extends to the damn droids. R2-D2 is sidelined yet again, but C3-PO reprises his role as regular comic relief in a film with little room for it. He has a short subplot that appears important, but it’s rendered pointless quickly and leaves him doing something akin to Spanish Buzz from Toy Story 3. The entertaining BB-8 is on the fringes, but we spend precious minutes with new droid D-O (indulgently voiced by director J.J. Abrams) before it implausibly delivers a vital piece of information that retroactively makes certain struggles by our heroes irrelevant. There is so much to cover that apportioning a chunk of time to the extraneous affairs of droids is a waste.

So how the Force did everyone in my family end up liking The Rise of Skywalker? Simply put, Rey and Kylo Ren née Ben Solo. If the sequel trilogy is to be remembered for anything, it will be Rey and Kylo’s story. Even within The Rise of Skywalker’s swirling cyclone of endless events, Rey and Kylo are in the calm at the centre of the storm. When it’s just them, the film slows down to let the atmosphere sink in, and the characters breathe (quite literally sometimes). The Rise of Skywalker utilizes their established Force connection to keep them in emotional proximity, while also giving way to individually pensive scenes. Adam Driver is as brilliant as ever in conveying the raw turmoil of Kylo Ren, and much like Rey, Daisy Ridley’s acting prowess has rapidly and markedly increased over the last four years, and she centres The Rise of Skywalker with a wonderful performance that covers a tricky, shifting array of feelings. Together or apart, the duo achieves sensitive, nuanced portrayals, and thankfully the film captures them in full, without rushing. This is where The Rise of Skywalker is at its most fascinating and palpable.

That the film pares itself back around Rey is important, because it allows her empathy to bubble over. As one of her defining traits, beginning with The Force Awakens, Rey’s compassion is particularly important in the face of the obstacles presented and internal quandaries, including fearing her own capabilities and a continuing identity crisis. To further ground her is the warmth of General Leia, played by the late, much-missed Carrie Fisher. Leia is immediately established as Rey’s capable Jedi Master, and any misgivings about her superseding Rey on-screen should be laid to rest with some retroactive re-contextualizing of events (not new for Star Wars) later on.

General Leia Hugs Rey

As with everything else in The Rise of Skywalker, Leia’s best moments come whenever they concern Rey or Kylo, and her story is thankfully tied most directly to them. The choice opens Rey to nurturing affection that the character sincerely needs during the course of The Rise of Skywalker, lest she breaks from revelations in isolation. Leia has magnanimity and love for her adrift son as well, with her influence far-flung and felt by Kylo. In this way, The Rise of Skywalker manages to create an eminently touching conclusion for our favourite former princess, while still furthering and embellishing the significance of her role on this new group of characters.

Still, The Rise of Skywalker’s reverence for the dearly-beloved Carrie Fisher does impede the editing and storytelling occasionally: in an already-frenetic movie, cross-cutting between the main action and General Leia is mildly disorientating rather than clarifying, and sometimes unnecessarily subjects the audience to scenes clumsily written around whatever unused material Lucasfilm evidently had in its archives. For the most part, however, the film does remarkable justice to Leia’s story through a combination of existing footage, a bit of digital trickery, and good old-fashioned over the shoulder shots. If Luke’s seclusion in The Last Jedi angered some people as a seeming dereliction of duty, Leia is fully entrenched as one of the greatest self-sacrificing public servants in the galaxy, with her philosophy, ethos, wisdom, and humour invoked and espoused often by other characters. It can be a little much at times, but given the force of personality that Leia was and that Fisher imbued her with, as well as her impact as a character in the saga and in real life for legions of fans, one can easily forgive the over-indulgence.

If Leia’s soul radiates throughout The Rise of Skywalker, neatly elevating Rey and Kylo’s decisions and character development, Darth Sidious’ shadow almost robs the pair of agency in their futures. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid all marketing or Ian Mcdiarmid’s on-stage appearance at Star Wars Celebration, well, Sheev Palpatine is back! “The dead speak!” as the initial line of the opening crawl exclaims. And indeed he speaks a lot, his guttural voiceover permeating scenes that his withered body cannot feature in.

Rey and Kylo Ren in the destroyed Death Star in Star Wars

Sheev’s dominating reappearance betrays a certain creative poverty that, whilst making The Rise of Skywalker a relatively stirring and fitting climax to the Skywalker saga, coats the sequel trilogy’s most complex relationship in exogenous machinations superfluous to Rey and Kylo’s personal conflicts. The Rise of Skywalker is very unwilling to simply accept their respective self-discovery and independence found in The Last Jedi, desperately contorting their pasts to fit this film’s grand mythos-making. That harried attempt at inter-film reconciliation does bring about some engrossing evolution for both characters in isolation, but it welds the two once again to the diktat of destiny that occasionally undermines their decisions. And we all could have done without Kylo telling Rey, “I’m going to find you and turn you to the dark side,” even if Adam Driver delivers it with gravitas.

Director J.J Abrams’ visual direction is once again his stronger suit compared to his writing (he shares writing credits with Argo scriptwriter Chris Terrio and story credits with three others) and The Rise of Skywalker features rather beautiful imagery at times. Furthermore, his shot composition is much less a pastiche of other films unlike in The Force Awakens, where he was adhering to an original trilogy’s template stylistically. It lends The Rise of Skywalker a vibrancy that helps mitigate the overtly revived elements Abrams is using this time around from feeling like a total retread. John Williams’ score also reconstitutes and re-orchestrates his compositions such that the leitmotifs feel fresh. At first listening, it’s hard to tell how much of the score was new, but suffice to say his existing themes—timeless as they are—are revitalized and woven in with care.

However we get there, The Rise of Skywalker’s final scene is an effective coda for the nine films that make up the Skywalker saga, decisively bringing it to a close, but capturing a hopefulness for the future of the galaxy and whatever stories come next. It really is a moment that exudes the heritage of this series, but is still free and boundless in possibility. And in that sense, it is perfect. 

When the credits rolled, one of the teenagers sitting behind my family proclaimed loudly to his mates, “Nothing made any f*cking sense!” I disagree with this assessment. A lot of things do make sense and are intelligible, though it is true that this film is going to fuel debate for years amongst fans over its treatment of the past and creating new precedents in canon, both in relation to characters’ histories, as well the religious elements of the Jedi, Sith, and the Force itself. But what else is new? We’ll all live with these changes as we have before.

Regardless of the audience’s response, Star Wars has a secure future. It’s so ingrained in pop culture and the collective societal consciousness, that these films are less treated as films, but rather for their component parts that make the Star Wars franchise part of our memory. At its worst, that granularity is simply a marketing tool; at its best, foundational elements that spur people to interpret and imagine as if these films were legends. So despite J.J. Abrams and company not being quite up to the challenge of inventing a true cinematic spectacle, one can admire the attempt to have a resounding, unifying conclusion for a forty-two-year-old tale.

Poe, Chewbacca, and Lando in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

But perhaps he and Lucasfilm went about this the wrong way. In trying to appeal to everyone’s intransigent views on Star Wars, they might just have forgotten what appealed to audiences in the first place. Star Wars may have endured because of worlds and ships and the Jedi and the Sith, but it’s the characters that initially inspired people to join the journeys of Luke, Leia, and Han to their conclusions. Star Wars is no character study, but people latched onto the protagonists and wanted to understand them. The proof is there, with Rey and Kylo, full of substance, surrounded by a vortex of messy stuff. They are consequently some of Star Wars’ best creations. If The Rise of Skywalker had debrided itself of the thick saga slough that chokes so many of its characters, I’d probably be saying the same of Finn or Poe or Rose. As it stands, these are characters who end the sequel trilogy with dwindled potential. I liked The Rise of Skywalker, but in terms of character arcs, I look to future stories for new hope.

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