Rounding out the holy trinity of 2019’s grand finales to beloved franchises, STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER never ascends to the lofty heights of Avengers: Endgame, but nor does it fall quite so far as Game of Thrones Season 8. With the tonal whiplash between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi leaving a disjointed collection of narrative shards to piece together, the story here feels overstuffed and convoluted, as it struggles to get over the finish line. Still, the strong chemistry between the main cast, incredible action set pieces, and homages to previous films offset the worst of the plotting issues, resulting in a stunning, if underwhelming, end to the Skywalker saga, and a loving tribute to its ongoing legacy.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way real quick, (the film sure does): Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is alive, and he’s broadcasting across the galaxy, threatening revenge. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is, of course, not thrilled about there being any threats to his power, so he sets out to find the Emperor, and end him for good. Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) receive a tip from a First Order spy, telling them how to find the map to the hidden planet that Palpatine is hiding on. Needing some heavy backup, they enlist Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is continuing her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher), and jet off on an interstellar treasure hunt, all while the First Order and the villainous Knights of Ren pursue them relentlessly.
That’s a lot of plot for one film. In trying to connect the Emperor’s return to the current story in the opening minutes (instead of across the whole trilogy), THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is on the back foot from the get go. Things only get clunkier when the MacGuffin-heavy plot really gets underway, with the “go here, friendly banter, get this thing, then go there” structure feeling incredibly formulaic, and the frantic pacing issues leaving the moments that don’t feel contrived with nowhere to land. All the pieces of plot being piled on top of one another is a real shame, because buried in the heap are plenty of fun, adventurous moments that really shine, showing the full potential of the sequel trilogy, had it been executed properly.
Ridley and Driver’s performances reinforce their complicated bond, delivering some of the most affecting scenes in the entire trilogy.
After being separated for most of the first two films, Rey, Finn and Poe are finally all together for a good chunk of the adventure here, and it really saves the day when the plot gets clunky. While nowhere near the easy chemistry that crackled between Luke, Leia and Han, there’s a welcome sense of shared history – mostly between Finn and Rey/Poe separately, as the latter pair haven’t had much chance to develop a rapport – that lends some extra weight to the more emotional moments. Much stronger and more confident is the uneasy connection between Rey and Kylo. One of the few things taken from The Last Jedi and expanded upon, the entwined destiny of the duo is taken to its natural conclusion, in both characters’ most comprehensive arc yet. Ridley and Driver take full advantage of this, using the strength of their performances to reinforce their complicated bond, and deliver some of the most affecting scenes in the entire trilogy.
Joining the main trio in their adventures are several new characters, including Jannah (Naomi Ackie), Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) and Babu Frik (Shirley Henderson). While each are interesting additions to the story – Frik especially is delightful and hilarious – they are mostly lost in the crowd, forgoing the chance to develop properly. Established faces such as Lando (an older but still smooth as silk Billy Dee Williams) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) are also victims of the frantic plot, with neither being used to anywhere near their full potential. Even stalwarts like Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels at his comedic best) are mostly sidelined, and when they are involved in key emotional scenes, the potential for pathos is undercut by a couple of narrative fake-outs, leaving the characters feeling robbed of their big moments.
As lazy as it really should feel, the Emperor’s return is initially a glorious thing. John William’s merciless, imposing theme, the flashing lightning, Ian McDiarmid at the top of his sinister game – there’s a giddy sense of foreboding seeing such a revered villain rising for revenge, and his presence does tie this new trilogy into the rest of the Skywalker saga better than anything else has managed to. That being said, the triumphant return is hampered somewhat by some truly bizarre creative choices. Firstly, Palpatine’s message of revenge was released exclusively in Fortnite, and omitted from the film entirely. Then, once the story gets going and the old guy is shown, blind, rotting and hooked up to machinery, his survival is waved away with a quick callback to the prequels, leaving a myriad of mysteries about his survival and his legions of hooded followers left without anything close to satisfactory answers.
A much more welcome return also represents the film’s most difficult and unavoidable challenge. After the tragic death of Carrie Fisher in 2016, deleted scenes from The Force Awakens were used to digitally implant Leia in the final film, wrapping up her story in a way that honours both character and actress as they deserve. While the powers that be have undoubtedly done their best in an impossible situation, the affected scenes (which see Fisher saying something vaguely generic, and whichever actors are in the scene with her doing dialogue gymnastics to match it) mostly feel forced and awkward, and end up being more distracting than rewarding. Though this definitely dampens the emotional impact of seeing Leia onscreen for one last time, some moments are still salvaged, with her brief but powerful interaction with Kylo being a particularly devastating highlight.
Several big moments in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER feel like they are apologising for The Last Jedi’s more controversial choices.
While the implanting of Leia doesn’t work as smoothly as it maybe could have, the rest of the film is such a beauty that it’s hard to even notice. The connection between Rey and Kylo makes for some visually unique action sequences, and their duel on the Death Star wreckage as towering waves crash around them is not only an astounding spectacle, but also a great echo of Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lava river showdown in Revenge of the Sith. Elsewhere, the Emperor’s return, while clumsily executed, brings some great aesthetics of its own. The Sith world of Exegol is full of dark and moody atmosphere, with the colossal statues, crackling lightning and legions of ships rising from the ocean all making for some fantastic visuals. Finally, there’s John Williams’ swansong Star Wars score, a deeply layered and complex series of tracks, full of connections to his previous saga work, with standouts like The Rise of Skywalker and Anthem of Evil pulsating with a tangible sense of hope and fury.
Musical cues and visual echos are actually the least of the callbacks here, as the film is crammed to bursting with easter eggs, references and homages to all nine episodes. Some of it works really well, such as Dennis Lawson’s cameo as Wedge Antilles, while things like Chewie being awarded the medal he was denied at the end of A New Hope err more into ham-fisted crowd-pleasing territory. For the most part, the film manages to stick to the former, with the overall vibe being an adoring love letter to the Skywalker Saga. That being said, several big moments in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER – such as Snoke’s origin and Rey’s parentage – just feel they are apologising for The Last Jedi’s more controversial choices. This wilful disconnect from the previous film only strengthens the tonal disparity between them, widening the issues of thematic continuity, and making the new trilogy less of a cohesive whole than even the prequels.
Though it has more undesirable elements than an alley behind the Mos Eisley cantina, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is still an extremely enjoyable adventure, full of epic action, gorgeous visuals, and a whole lot of love for the saga as a whole. Barring some noticeable stolen bits from Disney’s other major franchise-ender this year (the arrival of Lando with the resistance ships and Rey’s “I am all the Jedi” moment are just scene-for-scene ripoffs of Avengers: Endgame), the film manages to be both a pretty satisfactory finale to the sequel trilogy, and an affectionate send off for the epic nonology. It may not be as strong with the force as it could have been, but given the backlash to The Last Jedi, and the lack of overall vision, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER makes the most out of a bad situation, and delivers a safe, but entertaining conclusion to the Skywalker saga.
Verdict: 3.5/5 Paddles