A quick look into Episode IX’s production will tell all you need to know about its problems. Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing, the divided fanbase left from The Last Jedi, and original director Colin Trevorrow and the script he’d been writing thrown out in late 2017. Thrown into the deep end with no script, no real idea of an ending for not just this trilogy, but for the entire ‘Skywalker’ saga, no main cast member who this entry was going to be about, and the polarisation after The Last Jedi’s unique approach to a Star Wars story, The Force Awakens director, J.J. Abrams was dealt one of the most challenging hands to deal with.
And here we are. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has Rey (Daisy Ridley), our apprentice-Jedi protagonist, heading off on a new adventure with friends Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), leading to a final battle against the Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the remains of the First Order. The struggling Resistance is ready for the fight, but behind the scenes, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned and the ancient conflict between Jedi and Sith will reach its climax, bringing the Skywalker saga to a definitive end.
I attended the midnight screening of this final entry in the long saga, and even with all my excitement painting a picture of what I think this will be after The Last Jedi totally worked for me as an exciting and challenging push forward, I found myself after it in a strange place. Never in my entire life of loving and growing up with Star Wars have I felt so conflicted by one movie – Star Wars or otherwise. A follow-up a second viewing on the Friday night left me still conflicted, but leaning more towards positivity.
This review is a story of a Star Wars fan who had two completely different reactions walking out of seeing the final Skywalker saga chapter twice, and how I can completely agree with most major criticisms of this film, yet I still feel positively about it nonetheless. Please keep in mind that this review will contain spoilers.
There are certain reveals that occur throughout The Rise of Skywalker that easily could speak to a lack of cohesive vision about this sequel trilogy, or some that seem to directly undermine the twists of The Last Jedi for an attempted cohesion to the wider narrative of nine films. On one hand, it’s unfortunate that one major reveal happens , that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter, without a logical explanation, but I can see why it happened anyway and accept it as such. It’s hard to do, but we can mostly accept Luke and Leia being brother and sister, right?
J.J. Abrams is trying as hard as he possibly can to finalise everything, to tell the final story in the Skywalker saga, and make something meaningful to all the fans, young and old. It’s impossible because this is a 42-year fantasy series where fans have already made whole narratives that must be adhered to or else, so perhaps in that attempt to please everyone they instead ended up pleasing only a few, like some twisted balance. Yet, in Abrams ambition and attempt to make something fun, wonderous, dark, and at times challenging, he succeeds.
The bond felt between Rey, Poe and Finn is what meant the most to me. At first it has all the tensions, in-jokes, and general messiness that comes with friends and family, but as things get heavy, we see how well they all work together and how fantastic it could have been if we had gotten their trio adventure earlier. Abrams feels like by having these three main characters on this adventure together he’s making up for not doing so in The Force Awakens, and through the fantastic performances, which I’ll get on to, we feel the everlasting joy and sadness at having had these three together and that this will be their last time. That hug they share in the final celebration, with Finn having his two best friends and loves in the world by his side, tears in his eyes, while Rey and Poe are holding hands behind Finn’s back, that is an all-time Star Wars moment for me.
After Finn’s attempt at a sacrifice in The Last Jedi, he is questioning whether he has the strength to follow Rey to the very end, or if he should let her go so she could face these challenges on her own. Maybe Finn should have been sacrificed in the last film, even if Boyega does still provide a charismatic and energetic performance that carries genuine emotions so easily, making him an easy to love actor.
Poe continues to grow as a man who is still unsure of how to lead properly. He has learned so much about the importance of not being a hero, and Oscar Isaac presents him as a character who is settling better into a stronger team dynamic, one who will be prepared to fall into the role of Resistance General. Poe’s difficult past is explored here, and it’s because of Isaac’s ability to create an engaging and captivating presence on screen that works, especially thanks to the radiating chemistry he has with Boyega’s Finn.
Lando Calrissian is back and Billy Dee Williams’ charisma and warmth has not aged a day in 36 years. Chewbacca (Joonas Suatomo) has more comedic scenes to play with, more people to hug, and has what is without-a-doubt one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the whole film after General Leia passes away. Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is a welcome addition to the galaxy, giving Finn a new ally to connect with about a shared past as First Order stormtroopers
Richard E. Grant eats up the screen as the more threatening and ruthless First Order General Pryde, while Domnhall Gleeson has some fitting things to do for his rather pathetic character. Keri Russell does well enough behind a mask as new character Zorri Bliss, and Ian McDiarmid returning as Palpatine is still a joy to watch, even if his inclusion causes narrative problems.
The whole subplot of C-3PO’s memories goes nowhere so his character feels almost overused, the underuse of Rose Tico, a main character in The Last Jedi, cannot be forgiven. While Rose has things to do, sure, it’s the offhand way in which she’s jettisoned from the main adventure that is most egregious, but I will never cease to smile at just seeing Kelly Marie Tran do anything.
Mark Hamill is back as Luke Skywalker and, even if his story was finished in the last film, he still fits well into that spiritual mentor role like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda before him. Carrie Fisher’s presence, life, and energy is felt through every moment of The Rise of Skywalker as well. Even if you can easily tell that she isn’t there in her scenes, how the story uses Leia means so much because she is the most important Star Wars character. It hurts that she could never get the massive character arc she was destined to have in this film seeing as Force Awakens was Han’s movie and Last Jedi was Luke’s, but by these fleeting appearances, characters reacting to her passing, characters speaking through her, her own lightsaber being wielded by Rey, and finally joining her brother in the netherworld of the Force, that made me hold my Mum’s hand and put tears in my eyes
The biggest point of praise I can give this film (and indeed the whole of this sequel trilogy) is with the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren, and the performances of these characters by two wonderful actors.
The revelation of Rey’s parentage at first feels like a backpedal and erasure of one of the best parts of The Last Jedi, and while so much of it doesn’t make sense on paper, it is Daisy Ridley’s performance that sells the moment as something beyond some apparent course-correction.
When I first saw it, the twist frustrated me endlessly. How does Palpatine have a son? Doesn’t that make the “Rey is no-one” idea from The Last Jedi useless? Questions flooded my brain with no real answer or logic given by the movie. And while I do think that it’s a glaringly silly idea to drop on us that Palpatine had a son sometime around the Clone Wars, I began to ignore it as something to potentially be explained elsewhere. What mattered more was what this Palpatine twist actually means for Rey, and for me, it still makes her a great character because of how far she has come and the strength she finds through this great conflict in the end. This twist means that she is born from the Sith, and Ben Solo was born from the Jedi, thus the two of them become the balance in the Force, as Anakin Skywalker was prophesised to eventually bring.
This idea puts Rey into a horrible downward spiral, making her think she is inherently evil, that all her work to become a Jedi and honour the teachings of Luke and Leia is for nothing, that she is stronger than what some man tells her. Rey can handle herself, and inside her lives a thousand generations of the Jedi, telling her to rise up and do what so many could not before her. The evolution of Rey’s character across three films, with Ridley’s performances and John Williams’ scores, is something beautiful to reflect on, even if certain reveals might leave a bad taste in the mouths of fans.
The yin to Rey’s yang is Kylo Ren, perhaps the best character from these sequels. Here, his own journey begins with him as the Supreme Leader, cutting down innocents left and right on a path to destroying any threat to his power. Rey and Ren share a connection, and the chemistry and life that illuminates the screen when Ridley and Adam Driver are together brought a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. He gets less screen time than his appearances in either of the previous films, but he is no less important, and with this and other performances in The Report and Marriage Story this year, Driver is proving to be one of the most versatile actors of this century.
Like all the Star Wars films under the Disney banner, The Rise of Skywalker is another impressive technical achievement. More puppets and practical effects are used here than either of the sequel films, including making Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) a puppet instead of a CG character like in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. There’s one practical explosion that I couldn’t help but marvel at the artistry behind it, even if the situation around it, another Death Star laser strapped to a Star Destroyer, was a massive eye-roll.
Dan Mindel’s cinematography has improved since his time on The Force Awakens, implementing stronger colour grading, more flourishes of 70’s techniques like zoom lenses and intricate Spielberg-like shot-structures, and thanks to the CGI, there’s many scenes of visual terror and wonder that are destined to become all-time Star Wars moments. The editing from Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube is a step-down compared to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, with the opening 20 minutes cutting so rapidly to characters and new locations that it’s taken me two viewings to fully comprehend what was going on.
What may be the shining star and irrefutable point of brilliance about The Rise of Skywalker is John Williams’ score. How he evolves Rey’s theme, the “Jedi Steps” piece, bringing back the “Imperial March” and “Emperor’s Theme”, throwing in the traditional end-credits theme for Star Wars n the middle of the climactic action, and creating two new and wonderful themes called “The Rise of Skywalker” and “A New Home”, it’s clear that Williams wrapped up his Star Wars tenure on a high-note. Listening to these new movements will instantly make me cry without question.
If it seems that I’m gushing praise about The Rise of Skywalker, please note that I am still quite mixed on most of the film’s choices and executions.
There’s several leaps in logic that might be explained in extended universe comics or books, with many feeling like egregious oversights in the writing and direction that the filmmakers hoped we might not notice. Narrative problems like how did Zorri Bliss survive Kijimi being destroyed, why couldn’t Chewbacca’s fake-out death last longer and serve a greater purpose, why did C-3PO have to have his memory wiped after sitting on this emotional beat of saying goodbye to his friends only for everything to be fine two scenes later, and the lack of clarity surrounding the MacGuffin-heavy plot in the first half are all major errors that the movie offers little explanation or ease from.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has structural, tonal, and storytelling problems throughout and these could have been fixed with a more cohesive overall narrative surrounding the trilogy, or a longer runtime akin to the flexibility given to Avengers: Endgame, or a tightening of emotional beats in the writing and editing. But, for every major criticism, I can accept them, agree with them, and still find positivity and beauty in this, the last Star Wars we’ll see for a while, because everything in this franchise counts and is valid, as hard as that may be to swallow.
Star Wars is what it is, flaws and all. It’s hard to watch sometimes, even harder to defend at others. What The Rise of Skywalker gave me a film that my family could watch all together, laughing and cheering and smiling at the moments that worked for all of us. It gave me so many moments to openly cry at and feel the emotions I resisted out of active processing during my first viewing. I was holding my Mum’s hand so tight in the last scene because I didn’t want it to all end. It’s been a long and bumpy road, full of mistakes and moments which have made me question my love for this saga.
This is the final chapter in the Skywalker saga, the last Star Wars film we should be getting for a long time. I connected with its message in such a strong and powerful way in the end, I accepted its twists and turns and resolutions as permanent. Rey and Kylo Ren will live on as all-time great Star Wars characters, many of the scenes in this movie will be in my list of favourite moments, surprise appearances made my heart soar, and while it’s a messy ride for the most part that needed more time and clarity, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker means something special to me. It always will.
The Force will be with us. Always.
Director: JJ Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega
Writers: JJ Abrams, Chris Terrio