After the divided reaction to The Last Jedi, the box office troubles of Solo and the surprise departure of director Colin Trevorrow, JJ Abrams had a nearly impossible task when taking over the reins of Star Wars Episode IX.
Somehow he had to cap off the entire “Skywalker saga” of Star Wars movies, resolve the new trilogy, address the big revelations of The Last Jedi and – probably crucially to LucasFilm – somehow come up with a response to the vociferous hatred a minority of fans had towards Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII.
Oh, and somewhere in there he also had to make a good movie. Is it any surprise that he couldn’t quite pull it off?
Yes, The Rise of Skywalker has its moments. As a coda to Star Wars it includes some sweet nods to the franchise’s past, some genuinely great cameos and plenty of eye-catching elements. It pays off the storyline of Daisy Ridley’s young Jedi Rey, Adam Driver’s troubled Kylo Ren and even manages to include the late Carrie Fisher in a significant (if slightly awkward) role.
But it’s also a messy smorgasbord of a film that barely pauses to flesh out its plot, characters or mythos, carelessly introducing new elements seemingly at a whim. And following on from the challenging themes of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker sometimes seems to backtrack on, rewrite or quietly sideline crucial elements from that film in what could be seen as a misguided attempt to regain the trust of hypothetical “fans” who may not exist anyway.
Certainly, there’s a lot to digest here. From the off, Episode IX bombards the audience with information, new missions, locations and characters, then almost as quickly discards them to move onto the next thing like a child tearing through their toy box.
Our heroes have to locate a spy, then find a dagger, then solve a code, then find the dagger again, then find a certain character, then follow that character… the list goes on, and with little time to breathe the whole story ends up feeling cramped and rushed, doggedly dragging itself across the finish line.
It’s so keen to speed ahead that some key plot points – the return of The Emperor! – are actually introduced in the film’s opening crawl as having already happened, making what should be a terrifying and momentous comeback feel everyday, unimportant and a bit underwhelming. Oh, the Emperor’s back? Cool, makes sense, let’s get on with it.
New characters like Keri Russell’s Zorri Bliss, Naomi Ackie’s Jannah and Richard E Grant’s Allegiant General Pryde are fun but barely have a chance to be introduced in the ongoing blitz of fetch quests and exposition, while old favourites like Billy Dee Williams’s Lando feel tacked on, never quite making an impact.
The late Carrie Fisher also has a much-publicised return, of course, constructed from old scenes shot from The Force Awakens following her tragic death in late 2016 to give Leia a storyline in this final film. It’s fair to say that the effect of her return (while technically impressive) doesn’t always work perfectly, with her lines and performance not quite gelling with those around her, but it feels appropriate to have Fisher playing such a crucial (if small) role in the film.
Less appropriate? The sidelining and exclusion of Kelly Marie Tran’s Resistance fighter Rose Tico, who is summarily demoted from her crucial role in The Last Jedi to become little more than a glorified cameo, getting about as much screen time and plot relevance as Heroes star Greg Grunberg (who plays X-Wing pilot “Snap” Wexley) and Lost’s Dominic Monaghan, who doesn’t even get named onscreen.
One would hope this writing choice wasn’t triggered by a largely sexist and racist troll backlash to Rose that forced Tran off social media in 2018, but for whatever reason it seems bizarre, like introducing Lando in Empire Strikes Back only to have him just wave from the sidelines and shout ‘Good luck guys!’ to Luke and Leia during Return of the Jedi.
Is this what the fans actually wanted? Who knows? And once you start looking for it, a tendency towards attempted fan service runs deep within this movie. As with Abrams’ The Force Awakens (but unlike The Last Jedi with it’s “let the past die” refrain) Episode IX is a paean to nostalgia, stuffed with the kind of musical Easter Eggs, surprise cameos and visual callbacks that we’ve come to expect and enjoy from these movies.
Just as Episode VII aped A New Hope, IX riffs on Return of the Jedi, down to a final crucial clash with the Emperor and a brief sightseeing visit to the second Death Star. But it’s far bulkier and more unwieldy than Jedi, and compared to the 1983 film’s upbeat ending the conclusion here feels a little bland, more of a shrug than an air-punch and not nearly as inspiring as you might have anticipated.
And then there’s those Last Jedi revisions. While I won’t give anything away here for fear of spoilers, it’s fair to warn you that some of the ideas introduced by Johnson’s movie are fairly firmly walked back to where Abrams left them at the end of The Force Awakens, which may satisfy that film’s critics.
For my money, though, whether you agree or don’t agree with what happened in Episode IX, Lucasfilm should have stuck to its convictions. Imagine if in Episode VI, Vader had revealed he was just lying about being Luke’s father, and it was someone else entirely – The Rise of Skywalker feels a little like that, with new revelations about certain characters feeling more like lame, retconned fan theories than earned, convincing storytelling.
There are other issues to pick up on as well. The dogfights and space battles in this film? Forgettable, especially compared to what we saw in The Last Jedi or Rogue One. The lightsaber duels? Beyond one force-linked mental battle, not particularly impressive.
Instead, the action highlights come from one extended blaster battle between Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and The First Order, a Force-based clash between Rey and Kylo and some of Rey’s training montages.
But overall there’s a lot to like here too, and despite some of what I’ve said above, in the end I wasn’t completely turned off by this film. Really, the saving grace of this whole movie is that it contains some great performances (Driver especially) and, possibly thanks to the sheer nostalgic power of the Star Wars franchise, just about manages to stick the landing in its sweet, emotional final scenes.
Some of the new characters and creatures were genuinely beguiling (Babu Frik the droid chop-shopper was a personal highlight), the visuals were sometimes astonishing and the level of invention on display was truly impressive – visual and practical effects Oscar nominations should be incoming.
The trouble is that there’s just so much going on in this film, so many attempts to make everything work perfectly for absolutely everybody, that it might end up not fully satisfying anyone. For me, it felt a little like the recut Justice League movie released by Warner Bros after the poor response to director Zack Snyder’s earlier Batman vs Superman – a desperate attempt to backtrack on challenging creative choices that just ends up feeling more anodyne even if it’s less divisive.
If this truly was the last chapter in Star Wars, it’d be a slightly disappointing winding up of the saga. As it is, it seems likely that interesting and challenging Star Wars movies could one day return to the multiplexes, perhaps more easily now that the main movies have been tackled and the pressure has lessened.
For now, though, it’s time to say goodbye to the Skywalkers and the story we’ve all been following for the past four decades, and it’s not quite the going away party we might have looked for.
Still, don’t look on the Dark Side, think of the positives! At least Jar Jar didn’t turn up for one last hurrah…
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 19th December