I’m a casual yet longtime Star Wars fan. I’ve seen every Star Wars movie, although it’s only the films that make up the original trilogy that I’ve watched multiple times. Those remain my favorites, in particular Star Wars IV: A New Hope as I can vividly recall standing in line outside the theater for a screening before Star Wars mania had swept the planet.
And here’s a further bit of insight into my view of the Star Wars film franchise. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was just A New Hope with different characters and less energy and enthusiasm. Solo: A Star Wars Story was a disappointing cash grab. I enjoyed Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and applauded Rian Johnson for throwing in twists we didn’t see coming. And Rogue One earned a B+ because it made me believe there’s still artistic life left in this 40+ year-old franchise.
Is Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker a perfect ending to the convoluted, sprawling Skywalker saga? No. Is it entertaining? Absolutely, albeit less so if you’re aware of what is Star Wars canon or if you enter the theater with a preconceived idea of who should “rise” at the film’s conclusion.
J.J. Abrams, director of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, returned to helm this final chapter of the Skywalker story. Although I can’t recall a single lens flare, The Rise of Skywalker feels like a J.J. Abrams production. Once that iconic opening crawl is off the screen, the action is pretty much non-stop for the next 150+ minutes. (Which is about 20 minutes too long.)
The Rise of Skywalker is a galaxy-wide scavenger hunt that truly only the writers fully understand the meaning behind. Who’s where when and why doesn’t make as much difference as making sure the elaborate journey to get from Point A to B to C and so on down through the alphabet is as weird and wild as possible. It’s one mad dash to some far away but easily accessible planet after another, all while Rey (Daisy Ridley) struggles to come to terms with what it means to be a Jedi and what exactly is her relationship with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
There’s an ever-shifting game of cat and mouse going on between Rey and Ren over the course of the film, with the identity of who’s the cat and who’s the mouse fluctuating and fluid. Ultimately both could be considered “cats,” I guess, but let’s not get sidetracked by going down that path.
Star Wars: Episode IX takes a few swipes at Star Wars: Episode VIII, one so incredibly obvious it’s actually shocking the dialogue made the final cut. And as expected, screenwriters Abrams and Chris Terrio (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) attempted to fulfill as many fan fiction fantasies as possible with this chapter while keeping in mind this is a Disney property now and there are certain expectations from being a part of the Mouse House legacy. That said, Abrams did work in a first for a Star Wars film, subtly breaking down a barrier that should have been smashed in a much more obvious manner in The Rise of Skywalker. (Keeping this spoiler-free is a real struggle.)
It’s wonderful, and heartbreaking at the same time, to have Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa via unused footage incorporated into this final Skywalker tale. Leia’s a pivotal part of this finale, as she should be. Other familiar faces (and voices) pop in to help Rey on her journey and to assist Ren in his struggle to understand and perhaps change his fate. Billy Dee Williams’ first appearance on screen as Lando Calrissian earned a hearty round of applause from the press at the screening I attended, and Williams’ performance evokes memories of the good times had when Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher led us on adventures in a galaxy far, far away.
Another old face from the past also checks in for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker: Emperor Palpatine, brought to life once again by Ian McDiarmid. Kylo Ren and his redesigned red-veined Darth Vader mask have nothing on the sheer evilness and intimidation in Palpatine’s glare as portrayed by McDiarmid. Palpatine’s return isn’t as jarring story-wise as might be expected, and it makes sense that he’s the ultimate villain in a film that finishes up the Skywalker saga.
Guiding us through the intergalactic treasure hunt are Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega). Isaac and Boyega have terrific bro chemistry and play so well off each other it’s tragic Abrams and Terrio didn’t manage to shove a few more scenes their way somewhere in the 155-minute running time. The few scenes we are treated to of Poe and Finn hanging out prove this twosome deserved more attention than they received over the course of the trilogy. And when you add Rey to the equation, the threesome clearly capture that difficult-to-achieve family vibe.
But at the heart of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is the relationship between Ridley’s Rey and Driver’s Ren. Their connection – those intense, complex feelings they share – drives The Rise of Skywalker toward what’s guaranteed to be a divisive, controversial conclusion. Ridley and Driver are terrific in portraying Rey and Ren’s evolving relationship in a realistic, compelling manner.
J.J. Abrams could not and will not please everyone with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. There are a few cheats in the storytelling, not everything makes sense, and some relationship choices made by Abrams and Terrio are – to put it gently – unfulfilling. Yet ultimately The Rise of Skywalker rises above the current trilogy’s biggest mistakes and corrects course enough to deliver a surprisingly hopeful and optimistic finish.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Release Date: December 19, 2019
Running Time: 155 minutes