Dir: JJ Abrams. Starring: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie. Cert 12A, 142 mins
How do you follow up a film that tore the internet to shreds several times over? And then how do you, on top of that, shoulder the responsibility of stamping a definitive conclusion on a franchise that’s been 42 years in the making? Director JJ Abrams, like the hero of an ancient prophecy, was destined to make both enemies and allies with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. There will be arguments. And there will be arguments about the arguments. There will be obsessive deconstructions and overinterpretations of each frame and intake of breath. This may end up being the only film we ever hear about again, until the Earth burns up and consumes us all.
But, at the end of the day, this is still a Star Wars film in its very bones, muscle, and sinew. Whatever controversy Abrams might have brewed up with his artistic choices, he still captures magnificently the soul of this series: that unwavering hope that the powerless can win, despite the odds. There is beauty and kindness to be found in even the darkest hours, while heroism and self-sacrifice is something each and everyone is capable of.
The Rise of Skywalker is a packed film that barely gives its audience time to settle before diving into the big stuff. Describing any single thread of the actual plot is a potential minefield for spoilers, but it’s obvious we’ve come down to the final showdown. Between the Resistance and the First Order, everyone’s in a panic. Rey (Daisy Ridley), the last of the Jedi, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), now Supreme Leader, are still as self-conflicted as ever. Inevitably, we’ve come for answers – and Abrams, who co-wrote the script with Chris Terrio, certainly delivers them.
No matter how things turned out, it was unavoidable that either those who loved or those who loathed The Last Jedi would find themselves disappointed. I am in the former camp. Many of the decisions in this film frustrate me. It hangs several of its predecessor’s core philosophies out to dry and, most unforgivable of all, it sidelines Rose Tico (so warmly played by Kelly Marie Tran) in a way that seems pointedly cruel considering how viciously treated the actor was in certain corners of the web. In many respects, it feels like a betrayal of what came before.
The Last Jedi was graceful in its artistry and in its outlook. But The Rise of Skywalker is gleefully chaotic, which brings its own pleasures. To borrow an analogy from another part of the Star Wars universe, it’s a little like Baby Yoda – waddling about, prodding and poking every single thing in sight with a sheepish grin on its face. Its emotions are outsized, its twists and turns issued with operatic intensity. Revelations start to stack up to the point it takes on an air of high camp – a reminder that this is a space opera where two people kissed and then found out they were related, after all. Heroes dash about on missions that evoke the thrills of old-fashioned serials. There is egregious fan service (Palpatine’s presence never feels particularly welcome or necessary), but also moments that feel tender and human.
The character treated with the most reverence, unsurprisingly, is Carrie Fisher’s Leia. The actor died in late 2016, before filming had begun on The Rise of Skywalker, though Abrams found a way to work in outtakes and deleted scenes from The Force Awakens so that the character’s story could still reach some kind of closure. But the film does more than just that, paying poignant tribute to Leia’s legacy both on and off the screen.
In fact, despite all the fanfare and the drama, The Rise of Skywalker is still thematically rich. It also feels grounded in its world. Cinematographer Dan Mindel, who also worked on the first film in the trilogy, seems to have taken a few tips from The Last Jedi’s flair for atmospheric, borderline surreal imagery – like the hungry, red glow of Kylo’s lightsaber set against a palette of stormy blues. While some of the newcomers are unexpected scene-stealers (including the Shirley Henderson-voiced and small-statured Babu Frik), the film belongs mostly to Ridley and Driver – who swing seamlessly between seething rage and timid vulnerability. We may have reached the final hours of the Skywalker saga (or so Lucasfilm has said), but the franchise remains as vibrant, heartfelt, ludicrous, and adventurous as its ever been. It’ll be hard to say goodbye.
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