THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: Space Saga’s Conclusion Feels Forced

My Verdict |★★★☆☆

“You’ll pay the price for your lack of vision!” When Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) screamed those words at Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) back in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, he couldn’t know how prophetic they would be in 2019. The Rise of Skywalker suffers the consequences from Disney Studio’s lack of vision, organisation or risk when they acquired the Star Wars franchise in 2013. Despite the clear enthusiasm and energy of its cast so much of J.J Abram’s resolution of George Lucas’ saga feels forced.

Readers Warning: While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, discretion is advised.

When Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) hears the phantom voice of the old Emperor echoing across the stars, he’s forced to reckon with the greatest evil the galaxy has ever faced. Promised a powerful fleet that could wipe out the last of the Resistance, Ren is tasked with destroying his light-side rival Rey (Daisy Ridley) to ascend the throne. Struggling under General Leia’s tutelage (Carrie Fisher) to become a fully-fledged Jedi Knight, Rey must undertake one last journey to confront the dark warriors and the even darker secrets concerning her past. Joined by her friends and allies, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewie (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and veteran general Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), this galaxy-wide quest will lead to the final showdown between good and evil.

It’s late in the day for Disney Studios to show some faith in the new crop of actors and allow them to take the helm, but it is rewarded here. When Ridley, Boyega and Isaac crowd the Falcon’s cockpit and go off on their own rip-roaring space adventure, The Rise of Skywalker has some charm, even some excitement. The trio (with Chewie, the droids and no questions asked) have sparky screen chemistry and it’s a missed opportunity that it wasn’t allowed to develop in those previous instalments. Daniels’ anxious Threepio finally gets a role beyond scene-dressing- reminding us of the blissfully un-self-conscious busy-body from that original trilogy.

With the heavy-lifting of villainy being done by the reliably insidious McDiarmid (whose evil purring taunts and maniacal cackle always gives me delightful goose-bumps) and Richard E. Grant’s cold General Pryde (an entirely welcome replacement for Domhnall Gleeson’s pathetic Hux), Driver is allowed to bring out a satisfying, sympathetic performance in his conflicted acolyte. It’s one of the few arcs involving the new characters that has actually been quite compelling in this sequel trilogy. The repurposed footage of Fisher is utilised well enough to make her final outing complete. Billy Dee’s presence (all crackled laugh, beguiling smile and dusted-off caped costume) is the last poignant touch that brings our old heroes’ journey to a necessary end.

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While still blossoming with tactile special effects and a variety of gloriously designed alien creatures, overall the locales, new characters and set-pieces are derivative, uninspired, underdeveloped or just over the top.

Yet the plot is unwieldy and burdened with ‘shoe-horned in’ convenience. Blatant fan-service and recycled ideas are shamelessly utilised to cover for the weaker, messier moments in Abrams and Chris Terrio’s screenplay (it doesn’t help that both writers are trying to resolve the disjuncture between the preceding episodes). Abrams desperately wants this trilogy to be a coherent whole, trying to create the impression that there’s some forethought to it all, but fails dramatically. In doing so, the director ignores The Last Jedi as much as possible. No doubt the hysterical backlash to that uneven instalment will give him enough license from the fanbase to accept these retcons, revisions and the cowardly relegation of Kelly Marie Tran.

From its frenetic opening Abrams paces Rise of Skywalker at unstable light-speed ‘skipping’. The film never pauses long enough so that you can let the exposition or revelations sink in. Consider the implausible plot details too much and they start to fall apart. That’s even if a development is left to stand. Resurrections, returns and reversals occur so often in Episode IX that there’s little jeopardy. It also makes this instalment dull and repetitive (if you thought the Anakin-Obi-Wan duel of Revenge of the Sith was indulgence, watch how Rey and Ren’s final, final, final fight plays out over several locations), often structured around finding one space ‘MacGuffin’ after another. The vaguely romantic shenanigans for various coupling characters are just nauseating. Bizarrely, every pair are unwilling to commit. While still bursting with tactile special effects and a variety of gloriously designed alien creatures, overall the locales, new characters, set pieces are derivative and uninspired. Doesn’t matter how much you throw this all this ‘real’, physical stuff at the screen it doesn’t make up for an empty, soulless universe.

However operatic Abrams tries to make the scope of the final battle or the overarching theme resonate throughout the film (that Star Wars has always been about the identity and family you choose), it never genuinely connects at an emotional level. Instead, much like a Jedi mind-trick, Abrams forces upon us what he wants us feel despite the writing, acting or action falling short. Unfortunately, John Williams’ score is often a weapon of choice. The symphonies never feel as fresh or involving as they did back in The Last Jedi or even Lucas’ prequel trilogy. The familiar leitmotifs are just nostalgic call-backs that feel unearned or compensate for story and characters we’ve been given scant reason to care about. Instead of feeling uplifted, entranced or reflective, I was often perplexed, unmoved or bored.

And so, Star Wars winks out for another unknown amount of time (despite the advertising, we know this isn’t the end of the franchise). Our only hope is that now the Skywalker saga is concluded, any future vision for this galaxy far, far away might be braver, bolder or (at least the very least) planned out ahead of time.