Release Date: 12/20/19
Director: J.J. Abrams
Music: John Williams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Ian McDiarmid, Joonas Suotamo, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Naomi Ackie, Billy Dee Williams, cameos by Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Kelly Marie Tran, Lupita Nyong'o, Billie Lourd, Warwick Davis, John Williams, Keri Russell, Denis Lawson
The Skywalker Saga comes to a close as a resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) assembles a fleet of planet-killing Star Destroyers, aptly named "The Final Order." The remnants of The Resistance are hiding out on a jungle planet with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), while Rey (Daisy Ridley) devotes herself to Jedi training, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) try to uncover a First Order spy, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) allies himself with Palpatine to hunt down Rey. Rey finally learns the awful truth of her lineage and struggles against the pull of the dark side of The Force, while recklessly and single-handedly taking the battle to Palpatine himself. Kylo Ren has his own demons to battle, but ultimately manages to achieve redemption through love and sacrifice.
Not unexpectedly, the film follows the "Return Of The Jedi" (1983) formula and the resolution is just as tepid. It's a cinematic hot mess that nearly chokes to death on fan service and obscure references, but it helps rinse away the bad memories of "The Last Jedi" (2017) and the disappointment of "Solo" (2018). In fact, it attempts to completely gloss over the events of "The Last Jedi," and while I really appreciated the dismissal of the maligned Holdo Maneuver as a freak anomaly, just hearing it mentioned made me wince. Unfortunately, sweeping all of that under the rug turned Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) into little more than a footnote, and her character disappears into the background with little to do. Granted, I wasn't fond of her at all in "The Last Jedi," but I felt like she got a bad rap and I would have liked to see her relationship with Finn explored a little more. Kylo Ren also gets his helmet back, although it looks a tad silly.
It's good to have J.J. Abrams back at the helm, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I found it a bit emotionally flat and it suffers from quite a few regrettably awful moments. I won't defend those moments, but at least they didn't ruin the movie and the entire cinematic universe like they did in "The Last Jedi." The transgressions made by "The Last Jedi" were unforgiveable and made me angry, whereas "The Rise Of Skywalker" just left me confused and full of questions. The biggest offender of logic is the vulnerability of the Final Order's fleet. Much like the ridiculous physics that allowed The Resistance to attack Starkiller Base in "The Force Awakens" (2015), Palpatine's entire fleet is trapped on Exegol due to a single ground-based navigation beacon? That's an extremely difficult plot point to sell and support. It's also an exercise in excess. A thousand Star Destroyers is way too many. Even a hundred in one location seems absurd, and each of those probably has a crew of at least a thousand people, which makes the annihilation of the armada a bloodbath of astronomical proportions. The Resistance suffered heavy losses as well, but those are completely ignored in favor of celebrating the ones who made it back. Maybe I'm just getting too jaded and sentimental in my old age, but I felt like there should have been more mourning and grief over the high price of victory.
On the plus side, the film looks fantastic and stays true to the classic "Star Wars" motifs, unlike the drastic and questionable artistic detours taken by "The Last Jedi." The film really plays up the nostalgia angle and lots of classic ship designs are revisited. Kylo Ren's modified TIE Interceptor is wonderful and the Millennium Falcon's round dish is back. A-Wing, B-Wing, X-Wing, and Y-Wing fighters all join the battle, along with countless other recognizable ships. John Williams (who even has a cameo in the film) provides an emotionally resonating score that deftly incorporates the evocative themes from the original trilogy to good effect. However, nostalgia can be a tricky beast to manage, and the number of references is overwhelming to the point of parody. It takes multiple viewings to pick up the more obscure references, and I'm sure I missed quite a few. The level of fan service felt more like corporate pandering than reverence, and that bothered me.
The characters are wonderful and the acting is very good for the most part. Daisy Ridley's performance is brilliant and she continues to exceed expectations and impress me. Not only does she deliver a physically demanding performance, but she perfectly imbues Rey with a volatile combination of seething rage and delicate grace. She's extremely emotive and does an excellent job of projecting the internal struggles that are tearing her apart. Finn is taken much more seriously this time around and John Boyega does a good job with the evolution of his character. Poe is much more of an annoying jerk this time, but Oscar Isaac captures his arrogant swagger well. Adam Driver's performance is inconsistent and all over the place, but I suspect that's due to the fractured and unstable nature of Kylo Ren's character. I found some of his mannerisms inappropriate, but I blame the director for that. It was nice to see Billy Dee Williams return as Lando Calrissian, but his performance seemed flat and strained, as if he were physically struggling with it. He's 82 years old, after all. Carrie Fisher's contribution to the film is a mixed bag. It's amazing that they were able to construct Leia's entire performance out of outtakes from "The Force Awakens" and blend them with new footage, but it's not quite seamless. It feels like her scenes were written around her, so they have an unnatural rhythm and flow. But it mostly works, and it's a nice send-off for the character. The only performance that didn't work for me was Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, who was reduced to a being a comedic foil. Hux's betrayal is laughably awful, and arguably the most cringe-worthy moment in the film. Thankfully, a dignified and sinister Richard E. Grant makes up for this when General Pryde takes over.
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!
"The Rise Of Skywalker" does a lot a things right and does a respectable job of honoring and protecting the "Star Wars" legacy, but because I'm a huge "Star Wars" nerd, here are a few more things to nitpick: Stormtroopers on snowmobiles. Seriously, levitating speeders have existed since the very first film and the Empire even has their own line of speeder bikes, so why do the troops on Pasaana ride such primitive and restrictive vehicles? Flying Stormtroopers. Okay, jet packs aren't new to the "Star Wars" universe, but they seemed silly and unnecessary to me. Hard-wired data transfer. Seriously? When the Millennium Falcon retrieves sensitive intel, they download it into R2-D2 via a cable lowered through an access hatch. Wow. I realize this was done solely for dramatic tension, but couldn't they have stored it on something else and just tossed it down the hatch to save time? Even in "Rogue One" (2016) they delivered the Death Star plans to Leia on a disc. The whole "forbidden language of the Sith" plot device was ridiculous, and wiping out C-3PO's memory to recover forbidden data was just another unnecessary instance of the emotional bait-and-switch mechanics that are overused throughout the film. Also, the riddle of the Sith dagger was insultingly absurd. Palpatine's ramblings became increasingly tiresome and nonsensical, which ultimately undermined his potency. Keri Russell's Zorii Bliss is probably the most intriguing character in the film, but all we get to see is her eyes. She didn't even remove her helmet after the battle of Exegol, which I found infuriating. On the other hand, I found D-O to be an unnecessary and annoying character who added nothing to the story. Posthumous Force powers. Have we seen this before? I'm not sure, but seeing Luke Skywalker's ghost interacting with physical items like lightsabers and starfighters caused me a certain amount of discomfort. And then there's the telepathic transference of matter. "The Last Jedi" established a telepathic link between Rey and Ren, but being able to share physical items across space-time seems a little too Freddy Krueger to me, and ultimately unnecessary to the plot. Light speed skipping is an intriguing idea, but it comes dangerously close to violating established rules about hyperspace travel. Fortunately, Rey admonishes Poe for such a dangerous stunt, which makes it easier to swallow. And what is a Star Destroyer doing threatening Cloud City? And finally, did they have to include ewoks and porgs? Ugh.
As I said before, despite all of my nitpicking, I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and seeing Rey in action was utterly delightful (although in one scene her legs looked unnaturally orange, which was very distracting). While this ends the Skywalker story arc and brings 42 years of "Star Wars" to an end, I didn't get the feeling that I was saying good-bye. Rey is a gifted young woman with a bright future ahead of her, and with her newly crafted lightsaber she is finally free to choose her own path, unencumbered by the ghosts of the past. Luke reminds us that there is more to family than blood, and Rey has a good and strong family to rely on. Rey's soul is pure and her possibilities are vast, and I hope to see her again in the future. But if not, I'm satisfied with the peace she has found, even if it's only for the moment.