MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Rise of Skywalker’ wraps sequel trilogy well but falls short as ‘Star Wars’ saga closer
Editor’s note: This review is spoiler-free and does not reveal any major plot details.
Much like its protagonist Rey, “The Rise of Skywalker” has nearly impossible expectations to live up to. As Disney’s marketing campaign has repeated again and again, this movie is not only the end of the sequel trilogy, but the entire Skywalker saga that now spans nine movies. “Episode IX” succeeds as a fairly satisfying conclusion to the former. As a finale to the entire series, however, it falls short.
In fact, it feels much more like a follow-up to director and co-writer J.J. Abrams’ first “Star Wars” entry, “The Force Awakens,” practically skipping over the events of “The Last Jedi,” the controversial sequel helmed by Rian Johnson that attempted to break up the formula established by the other films, resulting in a fervently split fan base. Despite what Abrams has said in recent interviews, it’s clear that Johnson’s vision of where these characters should go next greatly differed from Abrams’ basic outline, so instead of working those ideas into something new and taking even further risks with fans, “The Rise of Skywalker” plays it safe in ways that take the impact out of its big “revelations” and confirm a lot of those “fan theories” that entertainment media can’t seem to stop talking about. The amount of backtracking they have to do to accomplish this makes it feel rushed, like there’s still another chapter coming even though, supposedly, this is the end of the story for these characters.
That said, much like “The Force Awakens,” this movie is entertaining as hell and fun to watch, so those who don’t overanalyze every little thing will enjoy the fast-paced ride. Unlike “Awakens,” it actually moves a little too fast in some parts, making the editing feel choppy as the main characters of Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Kylo Ren hop from planet to planet and cram in all the exposition they can between quips that sometimes get lost in the action and other times just aren’t as funny and memorable as “Star Wars” lines typically are. The world-building and quiet moments get lost in the shuffle, which is a shame because it’s a beautiful film that benefits from some impressive special effects that ground even some of the most fantastical parts in reality. With huge ocean waves crashing against the ruins of the old Empire, Rey and Kylo’s lightsaber battle that was shown in the previews is stunning, particularly compared to the terrible green screen effects of “Revenge of the Sith’s” climactic battle.
The editors and writers did get something very right, however – the scenes with General Leia Organa are great, as short as they are. With her untimely passing, Carrie Fisher never filmed anything behind “The Last Jedi,” so Abrams only had leftover footage from “Awakens” to work with here, changing the backgrounds and the context but not Fisher’s acting. It’s very clever how they worked these scenes and her lines into a different story; the amount of love and respect shown for Fisher and the beloved princess should not be overlooked here. Billy Dee Williams returning as Lando Calrissian was also a welcome addition, providing just enough scenes to make his presence feel like more than the quick cameo it actually was. Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO gets a bit more to do here than in the previous sequels, though the running gag about him being annoying was more annoying than anything he actually said or did.
His friends – Rey, Finn, and Poe – stick together for the most of the film, which is great because the chemistry these actors have together translates into the characters well. The thing they lack when compared to the original trio of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia is true character development. Each one has an arc in the original trilogy that benefits from this three-act structure, whereas the new characters change a bit in predictable ways throughout but lack the same growth by the end of the story, softening the overall impact. By the end, Poe and Finn (Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, respectively) are better at being the heroes they were meant to be, but something seems to be missing when they play out their final scenes. Daisy Ridley is a fine actress, but watching Rey go from lonely scavenger to Jedi Master just doesn’t resonate the way Luke’s story did because it never feels like she has an authentic personality that extends beyond a generic hero leaping from one well-trodden plot point to the next, as the scripts dictate. She has the most to do in “Rise of Skywalker,” yet Adam Driver as the conflicted Sith Kylo Ren steals the show again. His struggle and conclusion feels much more earned, so while it’s predictable, Driver executes it well.
As “Awakens” echoed “A New Hope,” “Rise of Skywalker” repeats many of the beats of “Return of the Jedi,” so how you feel about “Jedi” will likely determine how you feel about “Skywalker,” unless you’re one of those people that believes Disney ruined the franchise forever or Rian Johnson’s decisions are any worse than the many missteps of the prequels. If so and you’re determined to hate every “Star Wars” story the House of Mouse has produced, this one won’t change your mind. If you’re willing to accept that nothing will ever top the historical, cultural, or emotional significance of the original trilogy, though, you’ll find that there’s fun to be had here and in all the Disney entries, flawed as they are. And if you can’t at least find some joy in the many fan service and new Force power moments sprinkled throughout the two-hour and 22-minute runtime of “Rise of Skywalker,” you should question whether or not you can feel any joy at all this holiday season. Even the fallen emperor Palpatine found something to laugh and smile about here – are you really in worse shape than that guy?
If Disney keeps its promise and moves on from trying to rehash the original characters and films, there will be plenty more “Star Wars” stories to enjoy. As “The Mandalorian” television show on the Disney+ streaming service indicates, this galaxy has so much more to offer as long as Disney takes its time and puts the right people in charge. Eager to capitalize on its $4 billion purchase from original creator George Lucas, they rushed into a new “Star Wars” trilogy with no set plan or ending in mind (even if Abrams claims otherwise), and it shows in this disjointed sequel trilogy. Lucas himself couldn’t please all fans with new movies back in 1999, so let’s give the company who produced the continuously well-crafted “Mandalorian” another chance. They did give us Baby Yoda, after all.