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

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

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Premise: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) returns from the grave along with a fleet of warships. He offers to support Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) so long as Kylo kills Rey (Daisy Ridley). The remaining Resistance fighters search for the location of the new Imperial fleet.

What Works: The Rise of Skywalker has an enormous job to do. This movie not only completes the trilogy that began with 2015’s The Force Awakens but it also ties together the larger saga that spans two trilogies. As such, Rise of Skywalker takes its characters to locations from the classic Star Wars movies and taps the themes that have run through the eight episodic films. Some of the callbacks are pure nostalgia but others are rewarding and it is admirable how the filmmakers attempt to weave everything together. As in The Last Jedi, the best parts of Rise of Skywalker are between Kylo Ren and Rey. These two Force-sensitive characters have a complex relationship and the resolution of their story is the most satisfying part of this movie. However, Rise of Skywalker does better by Finn and Poe (John Boyega and Oscar Isaac) and the other Resistance fighters than The Last Jedi. Their story, flawed as it may be, puts the characters in situations in which they fight alongside each other and take risks for one another and that makes them heroic. The new movie also concludes Leia’s story in a way that is emotionally resonant. Actress Carrie Fisher died before production began on Rise of Skywalker and unused footage from the previous movies is repurposed here. The footage works—it’s not obvious that this was intended for another movie—and Leia is given a fitting send off. Rise of Skywalker is made with J.J. Abrams’ characteristically kinetic filmmaking style. The moviemakers are on a mission to give the audience a show and the movie recaptures the fun and adventure of The Force Awakens. The movie rushes breathlessly from one set piece to the next and it is entertaining. 

What Doesn’t: Palpatine’s return reveals desperation on the part of the filmmakers. The Last Jedi divided the fan base with Episode VIII’s detractors claiming the sequel betrayed something essential to Star Wars. Everything about Rise of Skywalker feels like an attempt to appease those fans and it does so not by giving them something new and better (which Last Jedi attempted) but by falling back on Star Wars’ greatest hits. Rise of Skywalker does not follow the lead of The Last Jedi and in fact it undoes many of that movie’s best and boldest creative decisions. Rose Tico is shoved into a narrative corner and The Last Jedi’s revelations are contorted to fit the new film’s premise. The plot of Rise of Skywalker makes no sense. Some of its problems are basic logistics. Palpatine reappears after thirty years. What has he been doing all that time? He has a fleet of Star Destroyers crewed by thousands of people. Where did they come from? Palpatine tells Kylo Ren to kill Rey but he has other plans for her in the climax. This story is a mess that follows the logic of a video game. The characters are on a quest for a series of McGuffins but where they are going and why are rarely clear. Some of the recalls and retcons undermine the continuity of the series. In particular, Palpatine’s existence undercuts the triumph and sacrifice of Return of the Jedi’s climax. That’s another problem with this film especially as a final chapter. Because Rise of Skywalker rejects the lead of The Last Jedi, its story doesn’t resolve long simmering conflicts nor does it require any sacrifices and so it is not as satisfying of a sendoff to the series as Return of the Jedi. And the underwhelming conclusion of Rise of Skywalker reveals the ultimate problem of the Star Wars sequel trilogy: it was always superfluous.

Bottom Line: The Rise of Skywalker is entertaining as the kind of nostalgic and kinetic filmmaking that J.J. Abrams does well. The movie will keep viewers engaged just by the sheer spectacle of it all and longtime Star Wars fans ought to enjoy the callbacks. But the story is contorted into an illogical mess in a cowardly effort to appease the fans.

Episode: #783 (January 5, 2020)