This review will be spoiling The Rise of Skywalker, to more freely discuss what makes the movie work and doesn’t.
Going into J.J. Abrams’ second Star Wars feature (and the final film in the Skywalker Saga) The Rise of Skywalker, I was feeling…..reserved.
I thought The Force Awakens was a lot of fun, had an amazing cast, created a great villain in Kylo Ren, a great hero in Rey, got a great performance out of Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, and gave us BB-8; I just wish the story didn’t feel so tied to being a “remake” of A New Hope.
Enter Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which takes that great cast, that great villain, that great hero, adds in a great read and evolution of Luke Skywalker, gets great performances out of both Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, and wraps it all up in a film that feels like an homage to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, backing our characters into corner, after corner, trying to extinguish hope only to spark it with Luke’s last stand. Johnson took the trilogy to the next level.
So why was I reserved? First, Colin Treverow’s involvement started Episode IX off on the wrong foot. I was ecstatic when he left the project (sorry, dude) and was hopeful that Abrams’ return, on the back of what Johnson set up, would force the guy to step up his game in a space where he had to find closure. Then, I didn’t like the title (Rise of Skywalker make sense in the end!), and then the announcement that Palpatine was back. I was getting worried.
As I waited for the opening crawl of The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine was the thing I was most worried about in this movie. Then, the crawl got me excited. Things sounded weird, in a good way, and the camera pans down into a Kylo Ren lightsaber tirade as he rages across the galaxy and ends up in some sort of secret Sith Temple! A slowly being reincarnated Palpatine reveals he was behind all of this! There are Snoke clones in a tank!?!? WTF! I’m loving it.
Then, over the first half of the film, Abrams takes us on a roller coaster ride of fun Star Wars action. New planets, new creatures, great action, great banter, the Carrie Fisher trickery is working, the core three stars (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issac) are just fantastic to watch bounce off one another, throwing in some great Chewy and C-3PO bits as well (has Anthony Daniels been better?). I’m loving it!
I LOVED the force healing intro (if you didn’t watch Baby Yoda do it the night before) and Ridley has never been better. The raid to save Chewy is a blast. Poe flying the Falcon, Hyperspace Skipping! Even when the film punks us with the fake out Chewy death, I bought it. Then we get a great little slow down and meet Zori and Babu Frik (!!!), expanding Poe’s background. A really great lightsaber fight the sets up the Force connection beautifully between Rey and Kylo for the finale. I’m loving it!!!
Then we get on that hangar bay standoff, and the big reveal. “So, you’re a Palpatine…”
I’m rolling with it.
Sure, I wish Abrams would have continued down the path of Rey being no one, but I will take her being a Palpatine over a bloodline Skywalker any day. And all of the Palpatine stuff was so weird in the beginning, and intriguing?, I was up for seeing where this went. And as it went to the ruins of the second Death Star, I’m still loving it. Rey’s vision, a fun lightsaber battle and then things get…confusing.
Leia is dying/healing Kylo? Harrison Ford’s back to have a second chance at redeeming Kylo, and it works? Oh yeah, and the Knights of Ren are there. Standing. Doing nothing. Rey stops by Ahch-To isolate herself (Porgs!), force ghosts can catch things, Luke finally lifts that X-Wing and Leia was trained as a Jedi! She had a lightsaber! She stopped because saw her son’s death! What is happening! For the record, I’d watch the hell out twenty more minutes of these two training together, but this brings me to my biggest bummer with this movie.
It needed Carrie Fisher.
To Abrams’ credit, he did the absolute best with what he had. If you didn’t know she was inserted into this movie with old material you wouldn’t be able to tell, they build a convincing story around the dialogue they have, but you can tell they ultimately have to cut corners. I honestly don’t know what happened in Leia’s death scene. I believe Ben Solo can be saved, but most of that work was put in during his first two films, and comes a bit out of nowhere here. The mirroring of Han Solo’s death scene is a poignant idea, but I’m not sure it works. Was this always the plan, or a work around for the lack of Fisher?
Kylo in general is a bit too much of an enigma here and while I think he has been set up for this eventual turn, the film doesn’t really know what to do with him unless he is communicating with Rey. Once Ben re-emerges, he seems to just be drifting through space to where he needs to be for that big grand finale.
And that finale doesn’t work.
Lip service to a didade in the force is exploited by the emperor, who just steals some life force and shoots some serious force lightning. There is talk of all of the Sith being inside him, all of the Jedi inside Rey, and, I don’t know? There was room for something really interesting here with Palpatine, but the script takes the blandest route possible. Even though he has been behind the scenes through all nine of these movies, it just doesn’t feel like he is a big bad here worth caring about. The book was closed on Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, and while Abrams stirs up a couple of interesting extra pages, they can’t blow it out into something substantial.
I did love the Kylo and Rey connection beats in the finale, but it ultimately leads to nothing as well. They both quickly dispatch their foes and don’t even get to fight together again. What!?! Then, while the whole force healing transference makes sense, none of the moments really hit, or feel earned in this film. The kiss, I see how we got here, but the moment doesn’t quite land. The whole final act just feels a bit inert and a missed opportunity. And, I feel ok. I appreciate that they took a swing, it’s just a shame they didn’t nail it. In the end, it feels like the only film in the franchise that doesn’t feel coherent as a whole, storywise.
Also, what the hell was going on when Ben and Leia disappeared at the same time? Is everyone capable of Force Ghosting?
Then there was that epilogue. It almost works. I love Rey’s lightsaber. I get she wants to see where all this started, but why is BB-8 there? Do we really need the binary sunset, again. It felt forced. Even if I liked the Skywalker naming!
But, nothing felt more forced than the Chewie medal sequence with Maz (who is completely wasted!). What are we doing here? WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE! I literally smacked my forehead. Thankfully, this was the only terrible throwback like this, even if there were a couple near misses along the way.
So where does that leave me? I loved the first half of the film. I love this cast. I love Rey. I love Poe. We didn’t get enough BB-8 (weirdly giving a ton of screentime to D-O). Palpatine almost works. Rey and Kylo almost get there. I just wish Abrams wasn’t trying so hard to connect back to what came before it.
Still, I’m excited to see how it plays out on a second viewing and to see if I can sort out somethings that were quite confusing the first time out. It works as a Star Wars adventure, as a Kylo and Rey evolution (for the most part), but doesn’t quite figure out how to end the saga. It’s not a shame, but it’s a bit of a bummer.