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Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

DIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams

CAST: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid, Richard E. Grant, Domhnall Gleeson, Keri Russell, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Anthony Daniels

REVIEW:

In my previous reviews, I considered J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens—the first installment of Disney’s continuation of the Star Wars saga after acquiring Lucasfilm from creator George Lucas—to be (despite some valid criticisms about it being more-or-less a reworked variation of A New Hope) a promising launching pad. Alas, that promise was squandered by the follow-up, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which received some praise but proved deeply divisive among fans and which I unfortunately came down on the negative side of, considering it both narratively unwieldy and having the feel of a Star Wars movie by someone who doesn’t like Star Wars and determined to deconstruct and subvert expectations at every turn for its own sake without having anything satisfying to replace them with. And now, with J.J. Abrams retaking the director’s chair—reportedly due to Lucasfilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy deciding to go in a “safer” direction after the mixed response to The Last Jedi—we get Overcorrection: The Movie. In fairness to Abrams, he came back onboard with strikes against him: Johnson undoing some of the groundwork he’d laid in the first place, as well as the offscreen death of Carrie Fisher. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, Abrams has not succeeded in righting the ship enough to end on a strong note. Rise of Skywalker is scattershot and convoluted, filled with extraneous characters, a poorly-focused narrative, and an overly frenetic pace that seldom slows down enough to make much sense of anything (not that there’s much sense to be found).

When we pick up after The Last Jedi, which saw Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) going the way of Yoda in Return of the Jedi and Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) assassinating his master, Emperor wannabe Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), to ascend to leadership of Empire wannabe First Order, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is continuing her Jedi training under the tutelage of Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, appearing here via unused previously filmed footage) while her friends Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) continue leading the battle against the First Order’s encroaching forces. And the real mastermind behind everything has reared his ugly head: the resurrected (more or less) Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who offers Ren a huge super-powered Star Destroyer armada in exchange for bringing him Rey.

In addition to being preoccupied with course correcting after the damage done to the middle chapter of the trilogy, Rise of Skywalker also chooses this late hour to both send us on a convoluted planet-hopping treasure hunt involving vaguely-explained magical artifact mumbo-jumbo like “wayfinders” and Sith daggers that feels like we’ve gone into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows territory, and throw a boatload of new superfluous characters at us. In addition to Rey, Finn, Poe, C-3P0, and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) all piling onto the Millennium Falcon, we’ve also got a crowd of randoms. The previously derided Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is still onhand, but she’s been Jar Jar’ed, with most of what feels like it should have been her screentime and role instead swapped over to new girl Janna (Naomi Ackie). Similarly, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), whose role has grown more thankless with each consecutive outing, has had his screentime divided up with and eventually supplanted by General Pryde (Richard E. Grant). And then there’s the masked Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell, who never shows her face), yet another cute little droid as if that contingent isn’t full enough between R2-D2 and BB8, and random Abrams alumni like Greg Grunberg and Dominic Monaghan wandering around in the background and saying a line here or there (as is Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd). Unlike the sometimes laborious The Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker moves with a whiz-bang pace, rocketing from one planet and elaborate action setpiece to another, but this is not always an asset, as we zip-zap around the galaxy too fast to properly orient ourselves. The movie doesn’t slow down long enough for us to consider things like logic, consistency, or coherence, which might be just as well considering it feels like it wasn’t slapped together with much concern for them in the first place.

The return of Palpatine was a dubious choice that reeks of the kinds of recycling creative teams do, reaching back into franchise history to dredge back up a long dead “big bad” when they’re out of ideas (Palpatine’s return isn’t much of a “spoiler”, considering the movie itself nonchalantly gives it away in the opening text crawl….so much for things like dramatic buildups or surprise reveals). Abrams has claimed that bringing back Palpatine was the plan all along, but when reviewing the previous two installments which did nothing to lay the groundwork, it’s a dubious claim that reeks of PR damage control (in fairness to Abrams, he may have been left in a bit of a bind when Johnson unceremoniously dispatched Supreme Leader Snoke last episode). Equally out of left field is the reveal of Rey’s ancestry (The Force Awakens seemed to imply she was a Skywalker, Johnson subverted this to make her parents “nobodies”, and then Rise of Skywalker loopholes its way into subverting the subversion). An overview of the sequel trilogy bears all the hallmarks of haphazard “making it up as they go along” storytelling with no cohesive overarching narrative umbrella, not helped by different directors (going from Abrams to Johnson and back to Abrams) with their own clashing ideas. The way the Palpatine/Rey/Kylo climactic confrontation is wrapped up has shades of Return of the Jedi (details are different but the most basic gist is similar).

In fairness, there are various effective, even affecting moments and no shortage of Easter Eggs and fan service. In addition to the questionably necessary return of Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams makes a welcome appearance (though he serves twice as a convenient deus ex machina). There’s also another surprise cameo I won’t spoil which may produce some wet eyes. We see the ruins of the Second Death Star, including the throne room and the Emperor’s old swiveling chair, and briefly glimpse Cloud City and Endor (complete with Ewoks, and even a cameo by Warwick Davis’ Wicket). Nien Nunb (Lando’s co-pilot in the climactic battle in Return of the Jedi, who previously reappeared in The Force Awakens) is still around. We return to Tattooine, where we see a Jawa sandcrawler and the old Lars homestead; the sight of the latter in particular tugs on the nostalgic heartstrings, as does a brief shot of a digitally de-aged Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. Denis Lawson, who played Rebel Alliance fighter pilot Wedge Antilles in all three installments of the original trilogy, shows up in the climactic battle (incidentally, Lawson is fellow Star Wars alum Ewan McGregor’s uncle). We once again see Darth Vader’s burned-out mask, and James Earl Jones makes a fleeting vocal cameo. And for those trying to pick out the voices of SPOILER WARNING all the Jedi in the climax, they include not only the movies’ Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Alec Guinness (through archive recordings), but even characters from the tie-in animated Clone Wars and Rebels series including Freddie Prinze Jr.’s Kannan Jarrus and Ashley Eckstein’s Ahsoka Tano. Visual effects are first-rate, there’s some visually interesting new creatures and worlds, and a fun canyon chase involving Stormtroopers with jetpacks (“they fly now?” one character complains), and the last episode’s Force-Skype sessions between Rey and Kylo are taken up a notch, with the two having lightsaber duels from technically different locations (this is used to neat effect a couple of times).

As in both previous installments, the most compelling relationship onscreen is the Yin and Yang, ambiguous and conflicted dynamic between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, with the former facing fears of turning to the Dark Side (though not much is done with this despite one too-brief duel between Rey and a Dark Side reflection of herself) and the latter feeling more intimidating and menacing than he’s been before (though it admittedly helps that he gets his mask back). Unfortunately, Rey and Kylo/Ben are the only characters we really care about, and we lose interest when they’re not the central focus. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are capable of charismatic presences elsewhere, but here they’re reduced to tagging along feeling like superfluous and too often annoying sidekicks (they do too much of that obviously scripted “comic relief” bickering). The series has never really made us care about Finn or Poe, which makes the moments where we’re supposed to come off as unearned. In the original trilogy, the acting among the main trio of Hamill/Ford/Fisher wasn’t especially accomplished, but the chemistry and camaraderie among them was evident from the get-go and firmly entrenched them as the series’ “Big Three”. With all due respect to the actors here, who are capable in their own rights, these characters aren’t up to the same level and their friendships feel shallow and at times unearned. This trilogy fumbled the ball achieving the same effect with Rey/Finn/Poe, partly because Luke/Han/Leia had A New Hope to firmly establish them as the main trio, meaning we still believed in their friendship even when Luke was separated from Han/Leia for much of Empire Strikes Back. In fairness, The Force Awakens established some bond between Rey/Finn (which The Last Jedi did nothing with by separating them for virtually the whole movie), but Poe spent five minutes with Finn in The Force Awakens and next to no time at all with Rey in either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, leaving it feel unearned here when the movie tries to throw them into being a Luke/Han/Leia-esque trio. Poe and Finn feel like extra baggage tagging along behind Rey, not integral characters in their own right. Additionally, C-3P0 and Chewbacca feel like they’re only still here because, well, because they’re C-3P0 and Chewbacca, and C-3P0 in particular has gone from being amusing to feeling annoying and past his expiration date; his shtick has gotten old. The Millennium Falcon is a little too crowded here. Ian McDiarmid, once again buried under makeup and looking more decrepit and ghoulish than ever (though one could argue he looks pretty good for getting thrown down a shaft in an exploding space station the last time we saw him), gnashes his teeth and does a little cackling and snarls dialogue that sometimes sounds an awful lot like old footage from Return of the Jedi (he busts out some of his go-tos along the lines of “give in to your hate”/”strike me down”, etc.). Mark Hamill, now in glowy Force Ghost mode, makes a walk-on appearance (and, if we’re being honest, seems bored, perhaps as depressed as we are about how he’s been handled in this sequel trilogy), and the filmmakers cobbled together enough unused footage from the last movie to have Carrie Fisher show up without it being too glaringly obvious that they were working around an actor’s death. The result is a little awkward, but I’ll credit the filmmakers for probably doing the best they could under difficult and unforeseeable circumstances. Domhnall Gleeson, whose role has gotten more thankless with each installment, goes out with a whimper. His replacement Richard E. Grant fits the mold of an Imperial officer so naturally (he’s got “Space Nazi” written all over him) that it’s disappointing how superfluous his role feels. Rounding out the “superfluous randoms” contingent are, in approximate order from most to least screentime/significance, a masked Keri Russell, Naomi Ackie, Kelly Marie Tran, and Dominic Monaghan (Russell and Ackie get something to do, though their roles feel extraneous, while Tran and Monaghan hang around in the background and say a couple lines here and there).

With the conclusion of the sequel trilogy (and the end of the “Skywalker Saga”), one is left not only feeling a little melancholy about all being said and done but also the underwhelming fashion marred by haphazard writing with which it was done. Star Wars fans deserved a more cohesive sequel trilogy with an overarching battle plan, not this narrative sloppiness and slapping the climax to an entire franchise together with little regard for cohesion or consistency. If Star Wars is going to go on (and it inevitably will to some extent), at this point it looks more likely to be in the form of smaller-scale, stand-alone spinoffs like the well-received Mandalorian series than with more big tentpole “episodes”. Perhaps that’s just as well.

* * 1/2

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