Movie Review: Space Opera – Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Directed by J. J. Abrams
Written by J. J. Abrams and Chris Terrio
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega
I once refused to date a man because he was in his forties and cited Star Wars as his favorite movie. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Star Wars. In fact, I quite enjoyed the four most recent films in the franchise: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and the two non-saga films sandwiched in between them, Rogue One and Solo. But even the charming original 1977 film which started the whole phenomenon had its limits for me. At 16, I preferred the adult interactions of Annie Hall and Julia over the pure entertainment of Star Wars. Even when they’re well done, as these films generally are, any emotional impact they can muster up is usually limited to the realm of comic book melodrama. And seriously, what does a man who likely napped and farted through Roma and First Reformed (if he saw them at all) have to offer me?
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is the long-awaited final chapter of the 43-year-old outer space saga and while it’s not without its charms, it left me somewhat cold. After angry internet fans hurled their over-the-top rancor at Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson, Skywalker director J. J. Abrams seems to have back pedaled to appease angry fans. That means no more anti-Jedi talk from now dead hero Luke (Mark Hamill), a limited appearance by Kelly Marie Tran, as Rose Tico, a character that seemed to inspire more social media vitriol than any character in the series since Jar Jar Binks and for no apparent reason other than the fact that she’s Asian, and an easing up of the dark vibe of the previous film. In a series of somewhat contradictory quotes, Abrams has denied any back pedaling and has proclaimed great respect for Johnson’s film, giving reasonable explanations for each of these changes, but he’s also talked about not wanting fans to be unhappy, a clear reference to Jedi and a clear suggestion that Johnson’s film failed to do that. That’s a shame because Johnson’s film resonated more deeply than any of the previous films, including the stand alone Rogue One, arguably the first adult Star Wars movie.
Like all the films in the series, the film is overlong by about 30 minutes, though I don’t remember ever being so ready for a Star Wars movie to end. (According to one of the film’s stars, Abrams shot a large amount of footage that never made it to the film, thank god). The plot, while simple, still manages somehow to seem convoluted. It mostly involves the search for something called a wayfinder, a device designed to locate the mysterious planet Exegol where Rey must face her destiny. There are no iconic action sequences like The Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth ice battle, or the stunning conflict on the red salt planet from Jedi. The action sequences in Skywalker, as in much of the series, sort of blend together in one long jumble so that when the film’s admittedly spectacular climactic sequence, featuring scores of imperial cruisers, finally arrives, the feeling is not so much one of awe, but of spaceship fatigue. While there are impressive visuals like a light sabre battle atop the half sunken remains of a wrecked Death Star and the crashing of said cruisers, as is often the case with contemporary action films, many of the movie’s sequences are stretched out beyond their welcome.
Of the new series’ three leads, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (the ubiquitous Oscar Isaac) only Rey manages to connect. Despite their intriguing backstories, I’ve never found Finn and Poe particularly interesting, largely because they spend most of their screen time flying around and shooting things and little time relating to other people. In Skywalker, we get to see them in a non-action sequence just sort of hanging out (Isaac, out of uniform, even smiles). It’s a nice moment, but I’m not sure what they were doing for most of the film’s first half wherein the connection/conflict between Rey and Ren takes center stage. Rey is the hero here, Finn and Poe mere accessories, man candy if you will (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Hamill’s Luke, the late Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo make brief appearances, as does Billy Dee Williams in an extended cameo as Lando Calrissian that’s perfunctory at best. But their appearances help bring about a sense of completion for the saga. Likewise, a post climax sequence gives a brief tip of the hat to races and characters from the original films.
Ridley’s performance is especially strong, effectively conveying Rey’s insecurities and fear of being won over to the dark side, a perfect counterpoint to Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who fears he doesn’t quite measure up to the role of Supreme Leader. Driver, who made such a strong impression in The Force Awakens, is less effective in the finale. His wimpy, indecisive Kylo Ren is the most complex of all the series’ villains, but his desire to convert Rey to the dark side is as unconvincing as his predictable conversion in the end. Driver is a capable actor but his attempts at nuance fall flat. Maybe he’s too good an actor and Ren too complex a character for a series whose villains are typically comic book caricatures of evil. In that vein, the film resurrects the babbling lunatic Emperor Palpatine from the first trilogy, a great idea in that it neatly ties the nine films in the series together, but a reminder of how ridiculous these films can be.
To be fair, Abram’s film, is squarely in keeping with the spirit of the original series. The good guy’s win, the bad guys lose. And Jedi, being the middle film of the trilogy, was naturally going to be darker, just as The Empire Strikes Back tinted the sweet nature of A New Hope. But Skywalker suffers from over familiarity, a criticism that could justifiably be leveled against the Abram’s directed Force, but that film worked because of its glowing nostalgia for the old films, the thrill (and shock) of seeing the original heroes again, notably the wonderful Ford, and because, as the first Star Wars film in a decade, it was a welcome return to the playful spirit of the original films, a welcome panacea after the debacle of the widely despised prequal trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker, for all its efforts, lacks both the sense of joy of Force and the angsty vibe that made Jedi so fascinating. What we get is something in the middle that, rather than being the best of both worlds, is both joyless and trivial.
What Abrams has done, once the sand has settled, is create a safe entertainment, unlikely to offend lifelong fans, but equally unlikely to inspire anyone to want more. It’s disappointing, but perhaps a fitting denouement for a series that set the bar for modern action films, but rarely offered anything resembling real humanity. Hardcore fans, like my middle-aged non-date, will naturally dismiss this and other similar reviews and accuse me and other reviewers of being a movie snob. That’s fine. Let them fret endlessly from the computer in their mother’s basement, over the minutia of the saga’s massive, but inconsequential, mythology. I’ll be hanging out with the adults.