Review–Approaching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker from many angles

Review by C.J. Bunce

With the much anticipated ninth episode Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker here at last, writer/director J.J. Abrams has succeeded again at managing a major film franchise challenge and making the best of it.  With Star Trek in 2009, he took a waning property and shot new life into it, but came up short four years later when he tried again and delivered Star Trek Into Darkness, heavily milking the nostalgia of the fan base with its retread of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.  In 2015 Abrams was handed the keys to the other big space franchise, where he revitalized a left-for-dead movie saga and delivered Star Wars: The Force Awakens, notable for the introduction of Daisy Ridley’s curious and mysterious desert scavenger Rey, arguably one of the most fleshed out characters in the entire franchise with this final installment.  Fortunately Abrams’s return to Star Wars will likely net better results for its fanbase with a movie that rises to become the best in the final trilogy, or at least as good as his The Force Awakens.  Is this still George Lucas’s Star Wars?  No, but that just shows the power and unique status of the original trilogy–even Lucas couldn’t capture the magic again with his prequels.  The Rise of Skywalker is the kind of movie that could be judged on its merits as a J.J. Abrams movie and separately as a Star Wars sequel.  Whether you as a viewer like this installment or not will depend on your own expectations.

Abrams may be at his best, with his unique style, lens flares and all, when he gives fans what they want.  Abram’s success this holiday season is a bit of a salvage effort, bringing Rey back as the focal hero/heroine of the story, incorporating some of the saga’s best “Jedi being Jedi” sequences, and tapping into the nostalgia for the 1977 original in bite-sized bits instead of leaning on it like he did so unapologetically with Star Trek Into Darkness.  If only Abrams had made all three Star Wars films, this third chapter could have been much tighter, and the whole trilogy would likely be better received by most of the fanbase.  As a viewer if you don’t (or can’t) just sit back and enjoy the cameo performances, throwbacks, and Easter eggs, you’ll get the feeling that using two directors instead of one over the three films is the crux of any problems in The Rise of Skywalker.  Upon its release, the previous installment The Last Jedi felt like it belonged to an entirely different story than The Force Awakens.  Plot threads created by Abrams were summarily abandoned.  Key characters were eliminated without explanation.  New plot threads came from out of nowhere.  In short, the director-flipping was the big mistake from a storytelling perspective.  Abrams has the extensive portfolio behind him to demonstrate he would have been the right choice to direct all three films.  So this time Abrams had a greater task than ever before, because he was stuck making major course corrections, all to get this tale back on track, re-focused again on Rey.  The necessary patchwork aside, The Rise of Skywalker will go down as one of Abrams’ best works.

Will Star Wars, or more specifically, the Skywalker saga with this three-part conclusion, endure the test of time?  If audiences continue to believe in its value as entertainment, there is no reason why studios can’t keep going back to this material repeatedly–think Shakespeare’s plays, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dickens’s Ebenezer ScroogeRecall how even more recent stories like the Terminator, Predator, and Halloween (and Star Trek) film series have continued to make sequels and wholesale reboots, disregarding a film that doesn’t do as well and continuing like it was never made.  There’s no reason that can’t happen someday with Star Wars.  So those fans who still want to see the Expanded Universe on the big screen–the complexities and triumphs of both Timothy Zahn’s sequel trilogy and Dark Horse Comics’ many stories like Dark Empire that did so much more with heroes Luke and Leia–just wait.  Someday the right new visionary will step in and make it happen, but fans will need to accept new actors as their heroes, just like we saw with the latest Star Trek trilogy.

Want to dig in further?  Spoilers follow.

With a densely packed script by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams, The Rise of Skywalker makes a strong effort to incorporate more mythic, legendary components consistent with George Lucas’s original vision.  That’s seen clearly in the incorporation of the Taoist idea that the spirits of your forbearers are watching over you and become part of you, as Rey experiences in a scene pulling in voices to motivate her from a litany of characters from the films and animated stories.  Some of these are surprising and will be difficult to discern until the Blu-ray arrives, but they include the original actor voices behind Jedi Knights Luminara Unduli, Adi Gallia, and Ahsoka Tano from Clone Wars and Kanan Jarrus from Rebels joining Qui-Gonn and Mace Windu from the prequels, and Obi-Wan (both actors), Anakin (only Hayden Christensen), and Luke.  (If you watched last year’s series Wu Assassins, you’ll find several story element parallels in The Rise of Skywalker reflecting this Chinese influence).

Depending on your mood, you could grab onto a cameo and just have fun with it–if you try to ignore your critical eye and the Abrams idiosyncrasies and repair work.  The idiosyncrasies will be familiar to Abrams enthusiasts, repeated themes found in his movies, like Changing Rules Late in the Game, which he often tries to cover with Late-Breaking Explanations (like the idea of a ground assault on the hull of a Star Destroyer, and without space suits; or flying stormtroopers covered with the throwaway comedy line “they fly now?”).  Abrams also follows the Go Big or Go Home school of thought (just because you can fit a thousand Star Destroyers in one frame doesn’t mean you should, but he does it anyway).  The rules of the Force are expanded to prove Abrams really meant General Organa’s “anything is possible” advice to Rey (if you thought Rian Johnson expanded Force powers beyond what we knew from the first six films in The Last Jedi, hold onto your seat).  But if you know about Abrams’s quirks, they can actually be a fun part of watching his movies.

The repair work is a different issue, and will likely be parsed out and analyzed by fans forever.  Just for an example, what was the point of Luke being in the second movie with what we learn of his change in views as a Force ghost in The Rise of Skywalker?  Was any part of The Last Jedi necessary after seeing where we arrived in The Rise of Skywalker?  Some viewers may come to the conclusion they can skip The Last Jedi altogether and not miss much, and one can envision a fan-made edit that pulls in only the necessary bits from that film to include alongside Abrams’ two movies to make one complete, more cohesive adventure.  Also, it’s no secret that the movie trailers and posters made clear, in advance, that Ian McDiarmid was returning as Emperor Palpatine (the character killed by Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker in his single moment of redemption in Return of the Jedi).  So if no secret, why stop there?  The greatest missed opportunity is that title–it should have had the more powerful and apt title, Star Wars: The Rise of Palpatine.  That title would reflect the resurrection of the Emperor without giving anything away, and would give the final scene of the film greater impact.  More importantly, it would have given nothing away as to the primary mystery of the trilogy: Who were Rey’s parents?  So what was the purpose of Supreme Leader Snoke?  Doesn’t it seem more likely that Abrams created Snoke as a façade for the Emperor, but killing him off in The Last Jedi meant he had to backtrack?  Every fan will leave the theater with their own versions of thoughts like this.  With a story so part of entertainment worldwide, it’s unavoidable, and might not be a bad thing.  Discussing what you like and what you don’t about art is part of the process, right?

Many things in The Rise of Skywalker definitely worked.  Rick Carter, Kevin Jenkins, and Paul Inglis’s production design and art direction and sets were fantastic, even Oscar worthy.  Michael Kaplan’s costume designs were spot on this time.  The movie looked like Star Wars, pulling aesthetics from across all ten previous films, animated series, and even books and comics.  Without question, Daisy Ridley carried the movie with her subtlety and intensity.  We finally got to see Rey as a Jedi, using the Force, doing all those things we never got to see Obi-Wan or Anakin or Luke do.  Anchoring the story with a hero’s quest for magic totems was a smart move.  It’s reliable as a classic fantasy MacGuffin (used extensively recently in the Harry Potter stories).  And the nostalgia, even if hokey at times, worked.  Cameos were excellently spliced in, especially with John Williams early in the film.  The story and action were handled quick and lively–something Abrams has been known for since Lost, and it worked well here.  In fact the movie felt more like Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story and Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story than the other two films.  Less angst, more rollicking fun.  That said, was the emotional rollercoaster necessary?  So many deaths and fake-outs and resurrections seemed to remove all of the stakes for the audience well before the last death scene.

The risk of taking on something big like Star Wars is you can’t please everyone, and the audience for Star Wars is the biggest internationally of any franchise, and it’s going to always be the hardest to please.  For now, call it a solid J.J. Abrams film, or the best of the final trilogy or at least equal to The Force Awakens, or on par or better than the prequels.  It’s fun, and if not perfect Star Wars it’s still enjoyable Star Wars entertainment.  Adjust expectations accordingly.  Even with flaws, look around: It’s still the best space fantasy film of 2019.  Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters now.

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