The dead speak! So begins the opening scrawl of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth episode in this ongoing cosmic space opera, and the final film in the latest trilogy beginning with J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. Abrams is back with Rise of Skywalker, picking up where Rian Johnson’s masterful and boundary-pushing The Last Jedi left off. In my review of Johnson’s film, I wrote, “If J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was an exercise in nostalgia, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is an experiment of expectancy.” To continue in this vein, Abrams’ Rise of Skywalker is a capitulation to the fear of failure. Indeed, Yoda’s past exhortations that “fear is the path to the dark side” and “the greatest teacher, failure is” go unheeded here. Rise of Skywalker plays it safe and stays in its lane; it plays out like fan fiction with a multi-million dollar budget and the stifling expectations of an empire-like media conglomerate. If the dead speak in Rise of Skywalker, they have nothing bold or interesting to say.
Following the events of The Last Jedi, the ongoing war between the First Order and the Resistance builds to a climax as a transmission from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, reprising his classic villainous role) draws Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) ever closer towards a final winner-takes-all battle. Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and those beloved droids, BB-8 and C-3PO (R2-D2 sadly just sits around doing nothing…again) go on a classic quest to find the source of the transmission and stop whatever Palpatine had planned long ago. There are elaborate clues and strange (but not too strange!) alien worlds and spaceship battles and ground battles and tracking devices and alien-filled cantinas and lots of witty banter and…I’m tired. So is the story. There are contrivances and conveniences and deux ex machinas aplenty. But most egregious is how Rise of Skywalker aims to deliberately rescind every brave plot point The Last Jedi accomplished. The Holdo maneuver? A foolish one-time act. Tossing a lightsaber over one’s shoulder? Let’s state it out loud: that’s wrong. Interesting female characters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)? We’ll put them on the sidelines where they belong (a supporting role by the excellent Keri Russell is so underutilized as to be pointless). Rey’s backstory and identity? That wasn’t interesting enough for the fans, apparently, so Abrams and Co. correct that by force (pun intended). It feels like backpedaling at best, boilerplate at worst. Rise of Skywalker is risk-averse.
What elevates the film’s wish fulfillment of fanboy theories are the performances from Driver and Ridley, whose dynamic throughout this most recent trilogy has been one of the films’ greatest strengths. I love their “Forcetime” chats, and their on-screen chemistry is palpable. Driver will likely win an Academy Award for his work in Marriage Story, and he brings similar gravitas and emotion to his role as the existentially tormented Ben Solo. Ridley is also exemplary here, imbuing Rey with both power and grace, confidence and vulnerability. Their conversations and battles stand out because they’re more than just plot beats—these are two emerging adults who have been wrestling with the central questions of identity (who am I? where do I belong? how am I unique? what is my place in the universe?) throughout these stories, and here they are finally making decisions in proactive ways that connote a sense of self-realization and care. It’s less angsty and more affecting. And Driver and Ridley truly commit to this stellar Romeo and Juliet story; the film is stronger for it.
Still, I find myself more disappointed than satisfied with this final installment. The shot compositions are often formulaic or dull, and many of the scenes play out in such darkened locations that any sense of wonder or awe is often lost in the murky gray CGI aesthetic. The film doesn’t trust us enough whenever the stakes feel too intense, instead alleviating any sense of tension by revealing all too quickly that there’s a way of escape. There are brief sparks of humor and random cute aliens to “awww…” over and great losses of life to make us feel like things are dire, but nothing quite like previous episodes to make us laugh or weep. Which is perhaps Rise of Skywalker‘s biggest barrier to overcome: it had to distinguish itself amongst the other Star Wars films while closing the chapter on this Skywalker saga in an emotionally fulfilling way, one which honored all that came before while still offering something novel or surprising. But rather than a spirit of power or love or self-control, what Rise of Skywalker ultimately offers us is a spirit of timidity. I find its lack of faith—in its audience, in its predecessors, in itself—disturbing.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2527338/