The last episode in the Skywalker Saga has arrived in theaters and to celebrate the occasion SWNN will be posting a number of spoiler reviews over the next week. Just like the fan reactions over the last few days, the SWNN staff has ranged from very positive to very negative (and all points in between) in our opinions of the film. So, in order to match that audience reaction we’ll be posting a variety of reviews that cover the entire spectrum of appreciation. So, if you don’t agree with the current take they’ll probably be a review coming that closer matches your opinions in the coming days.
Warning: This review contains detailed spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn’t just a movie. It is the end of the Skywalker Saga. That means that it must simultaneously function as a stand-alone film, the end of the story of the sequel trilogy, and wrap up the story of the six other films that precede this trilogy. This would be hard to juggle for any film, but when you add in the fact that The Rise of Skywalker also attempts to mix in a trilogy’s worth of new plot elements, it is almost impossible to keep all those balls in the air.
The predominant feeling I left the theater with upon first viewing The Rise of Skywalker was that this would have been a great plot for a theoretical 4th trilogy down the line if they hadn’t decided to end the Skywalker Saga here. As a single movie at the end of a trilogy with two established films, it ends up feeling rushed and sloppy.
This is not to say that the movie is bad. There is a temptation whenever a new Star Wars movie comes out to label it either the best or worst ever. This film doesn’t really come close to being either of those things. It is a funny, action packed, blockbuster with some great new characters and quite a few fist pumping moments. Simultaneously it suffers from extensive over plotting, frantically rushed pacing, and a sense that everything that happens in it was designed to check off a box rather than organically move the character’s story forward.
It is a funny coincidence that one of the films central themes focuses on duality. The dyad, philosophically speaking, is the concept of two things in a perpetual struggle to become one. And that is how the movie feels to me. The episode IX that would have naturally flowed after Episode VIII is in such opposition to wrapping up the nine-movie saga that both facets feel constantly at war with another. This leads to a movie that is often thrilling and enjoyable yet messy and hollow.
But let’s get into some of the details…
The Rise of Skywalker kicks off like no other previous Star Wars film. A fast paced montage showing us the highlights of Kylo Ren’s quest for the Sith wayfinder immediately follows the opening crawl. And in a way, this sequence perfectly sets up the rest of the movie. The shots are short, the pacing is relentless, it is often hard to follow exactly what is going on, but there are are some really cool beats of Kylo messing stuff up on Mustafar.
The next sequence follows the same pattern. Rey is training with Leia at the Resistance base. The shots are short, the pacing is relentless, but there are some really cool beats that show Rey fighting a training droid. You’re probably already catching the pattern here.
This is the whole movie in a nutshell. Whereas Star Wars traditionally will often slow down for some Jedi tutelage or character based romantic scenes, breathers like that are few and far between in this film. In order to keep up with the amount of plot crammed into this movie it has no opportunity to ever slow down.
And that plot is a behemoth. We have not one, but two Sith artifacts that need to be found and explained. There’s the already deceased Jedi hunter, new characters to introduce, and of course the return of Palpatine and Rey’s newly retconned lineage. The traditional three act structure that most Star Wars films follow is cast away in favor of a more chapter like series of events leading to the final showdown on Exegol. While the constant march from one planet to the next makes for a thrilling ride, on subsequent viewings it really makes some of the plot and character movement seem forced and without the proper setup to land as well as it could.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the third act turn that reveals that Ben and Rey are a “dyad in the force” and that somehow this makes them a source for the power to reconstruct the Emperor’s destroyed body. The concept isn’t inherently flawed in any way. I actually think it could be an elegant end to the Kylo/Rey dynamic set up in the previous two movies if it was properly set up. It just comes from so far out of left field that I couldn’t do anything but chuckle when it was said out loud by Palpatine. That he has to narrate what is happening in the final moments of the film exposes the weakness in the work that led to it. That explanation sapped the emotional momentum of that scene which could have been avoided if an explanation wasn’t needed. And that is all due to a lack of putting the work in earlier in the film to set it up.
This is one of the biggest ongoing problems of the movie. The Rise of Skywalker moves so quickly from event to event that nothing is ever properly set up or even retroactively put into context. Star Wars is, by its nature, a silly story. It’s all laser swords and space magic, but the beauty of the franchise has been in selling these silly things through great story mechanics and character motivations that make the silly seem epic and dramatic. Those moments don’t really exist in this film which in the end leaves the events that occur feeling more shallow than the scope of the movie would lead you to believe.
Moments like Finn risking his life for the cause, Poe’s hopelessness in the final battle, and Kylo’s turn to Ben end up feeling rushed due to the need to move on to the next plot point so that none of them feel as important as they should. Ben’s death in particular got audible chuckling from the audience due to its abruptness at both of my screenings. We recognize what the movie is trying to achieve because we know the characters and what the language of cinema wants us to recognize, but we don’t feel them as much as we should because the film makes no effort to sell them. It just checks the box and moves on.
This is not to say that the movie is without its merits. Pretty much every one of the new characters that is introduced is a winner. My only gripe is that in a rush to introduce these new folks, existing characters like Rose, Maz, Connix, and Snap are relegated to the exposition lab Resistance Base where they serve no function but to tell the audience what is going on. But in a vacuum all of the new characters sell what they are designed to sell. I just think that with a few more revisions and some streamlining, these characters could have been thematically woven into the story, giving their actions more usefulness and weight.
In typical Abrams fashion the movie looks great. The action set pieces are memorable and exciting. And, the movie is very funny when it needs to be, but doesn’t try to be when it shouldn’t. Similarly excelling at what they do well, John Williams caps off his Star Wars career with a real highlight, as this is easily the best score of the sequel trilogy. The new Rise of Skywalker theme is a beautiful piece that builds off the intro from Rey’s theme and turns it into something that feels very new and fresh within the franchise’s existing themes.
The acting in the movie is also very solid. Driver and Ridley predictably continue to be great in these roles. Particular kudos have to go out to Driver here for making a memorable turn as Ben Solo without any dialogue outside of a perfectly timed “Ow” in the last act of the movie. Oscar Isaac and John Boyega unfortunately are reduced to more of a sidekick role in this film, but continue to show their great chemistry and comedic timing even if the roles this time out have less meat to them than in the previous film.
There is one other big congratulations I’d like to give to this movie. This one goes to the trio of Abrams, Terrio, and especially Anthony Daniels. Since Return of the Jedi, C-3PO has been used either for extremely forced comic relief or kept to the sidelines. No one has seemed quite able to find the proper balance for the character between his inherent annoying qualities and as surrogate for audience apprehension at what he heroes are facing. This was quite simply C-3PO’s best story since Empire and is one place the combination of performance, script, and directing nailed it. It was very nice to C-3PO at the heart of the story again without him becoming an awkward distraction.
In the end, this film had a kernel of a great story that feels like it should have gone through a few more drafts before it was released to the public. The old Faulkner quote and perpetual writer’s mantra seems incredibly appropriate here: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” The film had so many things it wanted to do that it could have easily been three hours long. But instead of excising a portion of the story that might excite fans but serves little purpose (the entire Endor excursion could easily be lifted with the Rey/Kylo battle coming on Kijimi and Rey getting the wayfinder from him there), it feels like they edited out the first and last two seconds of every shot and removed any scenes that might have acted to expose character motivation or growth.
Instead what you end up with is a movie that is wall to wall action and advancing plot, with very little substance underneath to glue it together. That leaves a very fun, but very superficial popcorn flick. This is not a bad thing necessarily. But I expect more out of Star Wars, which has always looked to elevate the genre above it’s Buck Rogers origins.
Superficiality does not make a bad movie. But, it doesn’t make a great movie either. This is a movie plain a simple. A fun time at the theater that gives the thrills of a blockbuster but none of the depth that sets Star Wars apart form its many imitators. It struggled under the weight of it’s many responsibilities, but maybe that is a good thing in the long run. The Skywalker Saga is now over, which means future Star Wars is free to move forward without the restrictions and expectations of this trilogy of trilogies. I look forward to what new Star Wars stories will bring now that Palpatine and the Skywalkers are finally at rest.