Rise of Skywalker Goes Over to the Darkside of the Force
I’m not sure bringing 40 years of fandom to a final conclusion in one motion picture is possible, so it’s not a surprise that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker buckles a little under the pressure of attempting to do just that. What is a shock is how absurdly plotted, risibly ill-advised and lazily trivial far too much of returning director J.J. Abrams’ and Chris Terrio’s (Argo) obnoxious screenplay ends up being. What they have delivered is fan service of the worst kind, pandering to its audience instead of challenging them, delivering a video-game-like spectacle that’s as emotionally empty as it is dispiritingly lifeless.
You have no idea how difficult that was to write. Like many of my generation, the original Star Wars opened my eyes to an expansive cinematic world overflowing with possibility. George Lucas’ 1977 classic led me to films like Rio Bravo, The Hidden Fortress and The Great Escape. It helped me discover authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Philip K. Dick. Star Wars made me feel like it was okay that, deep down, I knew I was different than many of my friends, that who I wanted to be and what I wanted out of life might be outside of the expected societal norms. It is likely the most important motion picture I have ever seen as far as my personal life is concerned, and as such it, along with the all of the original trilogy (1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, 1983’s Return of the Jedi), holds a special place in my heart that will never be replaced.
Nothing has changed much over the decades. While I find the prequels (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith) to be varying degrees of problematic I still think there is plenty to like about all three of them. They dared to test the audience and do the unexpected, and even if not all of Lucas’ ideas had merit each film is still filled with astonishing moments that made me smile in childlike glee when I first sat down to watch them.
As for Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens and writer/director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, both interstellar adventures took the story of Jedis and The Force into uncharted territory while also introducing new characters worthy of my emotional attachment. They had energy, heart and chutzpah, and even if they sometimes engendered reactions of the worst possible type from angry little (mostly male, mostly Caucasian) nobodies who didn’t feel their (mostly male, mostly Caucasian) needs were being catered to, I was still excited to discover what was going to happen in this supposedly final chapter of the Skywalker saga all the same.
For all the scenes that sent my heart soaring, for the few rousing sequences I wanted to stand up and cheer, The Rise of Skywalker squanders all four decades of my affection for the material and does it almost right out of the gate. Picking up some time after the events of The Last Jedi, Abrams and Terrio engage in frenetic plotting that feels more suitable for a Star Wars video game than it does for the ninth chapter in one of the most popular ongoing stories of the past half-century. The first hour is a monstrous mishmash of expository nonsense that demolishes most of what transpired in the previous motion picture and makes many of the more intriguing ideas initially explored in The Force Awakens equally inconsequential. It’s all chaos and fan service and precious little else, the level of nostalgia-pandering Abrams engages in borderline inexcusable.
The basic plot concerns the rise of a new evil in a hidden corner of the universe, the long-dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) seemingly restored to life via the collective power of his loyal Sith followers. After taking leadership of the First Order, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) goes in search of the defeated Empire leader, uncertain whether he wants to destroy Palpatine for good or allow the Sith Lord to assist him in his quest to rule the universe.
Meanwhile, Resistance fighters Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) have learned both of a spy hidden amongst the highest ranks of the First Order as well as of Palpatine’s resurrection. Even though General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) worries she’s rushing too quickly into danger, current Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) believes they must find the former Emperor and stop whatever plans he might be plotting before they have time to blossom into reality. Rey is also beginning to wonder if her connection to Kylo Ren might be too much for her to overcome, hoping that her connection to The Force might allow some insight as to what the correct course of action is so the Resistance can survive and the First Order defeated once and for all.
There’s a lot more, but going into any of it in detail could be construed as a spoiler so I’m going to avoid saying anything more. Not that it matters. Abrams and Terrio don’t seem to care about their story. They seem more excited about hitting Really! Big! Moments! that they’re fairly certain the audience is going to cheer for than they are doing anything substantive or character-driven. All of the new cast members are introduced with zero fanfare and given precious little to stand out from the crowd other than to look interesting and/or do something cool. Returnees like General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) or Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) are blank-faced bystanders and I imagine the only reason they’re still part of the story is because they were left alive at the end of The Last Jedi.
But the biggest misstep is that Abrams appears content to play it safe and refuses to challenge the audience in any way whatsoever. His film panders, refuting or trivializing what happened in the past two stories at practically every opportunity. He seems to feel content to bring back the likes of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian or make a pointlessly big deal out of Rey’s parentage in lieu of trying to bring things to a culmination in a manner that might have been more expressively long-lasting or noteworthy. It’s frankly depressing, and I’m not sure there’s anything more I need to add.
As harsh as all this sounds I will say that Kylo Ren’s story arc is handled reasonably well, Driver’s astutely multifaceted performance one of the film’s strongest and most mesmeric attributes. Fisher, who tragically past long before filming started, is brought back utilizing a collection of deleted scenes from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the care, respect and love paid to her and her timeless character uncontestably divine. There are all handful of additional little moments that die-hard fans of the series won’t be able to stop themselves from tearing up over (if even only a little bit), and it must be said that while I find Palpatine’s resurrection obnoxiously silly gosh darn it all if McDiarmid’s portrayal of this malignantly venomous villain is as magnificent as ever. The actor knows how to send chills up my spine like virtually no one else, and even if I wish the character wasn’t here his appearances still manage to be insidiously effective all the same.
Maybe I’ll not feel so sad after I give The Rise of Skywalker a second look. Maybe its more obvious qualities (including what is reported the great John Williams’ final score, which is every bit as marvelous as I ever could have hoped it was going to be) will break me out of my funk and make me see this newest Star Wars in a different light. Until then, the unhappiness I feel right now, in this moment, isn’t going to dissipate anytime soon, and for a series filled with the highest highs (and a small handful of the lowest lows) this is the first time I feel like The Force is no longer with the franchise and the Darkside of corporate cookie-cutter greed has proven to be victorious.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)