Fans, as a rule don’t really know what they want – only what they don’t. A lot of Star Wars fans didn’t want things to go the way they did in THE LAST JEDI, so JJ Abrams seems primarily concerned with course-correction in his return to the Star Wars universe.
Emperor Palpatine (Iain McDiarmid) has returned, the forces of the heroic Resistance and the evil First Order are forming up for the decisive final battle and Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) face their entwined destinies…
We open with Palpatine alive again, for some reason and Kylo Ren searching for him, for some reason and all the good guys doing something else, for some reason. There’s no escaping the fact that the first 45 minutes or so of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER are a bit of a mess. It feels like playing catch-up to the events another in-between film that doesn’t exist. There’s no room for characters to breathe or take stock – exposition is garbled and everyone’s zipping so quickly from one location to the next even the lightspeed computer is bewildered.
One by one all the bold and unexpected plot and character choices that Rian Johnson made are walked back – sometimes unnecessarily so – until we’re left with a somewhat cynical factory-tooled crowd-“pleaser”. Whatever your opinion on The Last Jedi, surely you can’t think reverting to the safety of repetition and recognisable tropes makes for a more interesting movie? Not everything in a story has to be connected or explained – doing so is…unnatural.
The cast are trying their best with sub-par material, with Ridley and Driver committing admirably to a script that tanks their previous character development. Elsewhere, Oscar Isaac as the wonderfully flippant Poe Dameron remains a highlight along with a returning Billy Dee Williams as Lando, and even Anthony Daniels somehow manages to be nuanced as C3-PO. McDiarmid clearly still relishes being the ultimate evil-just-because bastard and owns his every scene, no matter how hokey they make the resurrected Emperor’s dark powers.
The late great Carrie Fisher’s appearance is of course handled deeply respectfully, repurposing and re-contextualising preexisting footage and completing Leia’s story in a satisfying way.
Leia’s presence aside, Abrams tries to pull on his audience’s heartstrings with (no spoilers here) maybe three big things that happen in the story, two of which are undone by the end. There are still very few lasting consequences in Abrams’ storytelling. There are callbacks aplenty, some of which work, which really connect, and others which are more laboured and feel more like pandering.
What never feels laboured or pandering is John Williams’ always-superb orchestration. He knocks it out of the park for a ninth time, composing new and distinctive themes for characters and key moments and dipping into his previous Wars scores to heighten plot and character echoes.
It’s a gorgeous-looking film beyond doubt, with Force abilities rendered on a scale never seen before, action taking place a wide range of colourful intergalactic environments, endearingly low-fi practical creature effects and more spaceships than your brain can comprehend. Unfortunately, if you’d be unable to count the number of spaceships on screen if you paused the movie, you probably have too many spaceships on screen to actually mean anything.
Not everything is ditched wholesale, in fact Abrams builds interestingly on TLJ’s “force bridging” concept from the off, and he still loves playing with what you can and can’t (but mostly the former because it’s s space fantasy so who cares) do with lightspeed travel. If only more in this was new and interesting and less concerned with overanalysis.
Has it really been 42 years of adventures in this galaxy? We’ve has highs lows, and in-betweens, but the Star Wars movies have always been memorable and made a profound connection with their fanbase. The Rise of Skywalker is aiming to please, but all-too-often gets carried away with itself. Fanservice and clear affection for what has come before is one thing, I just wish they made more of an effort to do something completely new rather than retreading past glories and “righting” perceived wrongs. Flaws often add colour to film, and the presentation of this is too flawless, too precision-engineered to mean anything much. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. SSP