The Rise of Skywalker Ends Star Wars On High and Low Notes (Movie Review)

The final installment of the Star Wars sequel trilogy and (supposedly) the Skywalker Saga comes to an end with fun surprises, spectacular emotional payoffs, and quite a bit of silly retconning in The Rise of Skywalker. Is the latest trip to a galaxy far, far away compromised because of backlash by a small but vocal minority who despised The Last Jedi? Was the full vision of Episode IX cut short the moment Carrie Fisher sadly passed away? Did Disney ever really have a plan? Or maybe it was, as Han says in The Force Awakens, “all of it.” [Note: This review is based on my first viewing. Anyone who knows what a big Star Wars fan I am knows more trips to the theater will inevitably happen. So, as a kind of disclaimer, there was a lot to consider here. Now, let The Rise of Skywalker commence!]

Set a year after the events of Episode VIII left the Resistance barely holding on to hope, after the passing of Luke Skywalker, Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training with General Leia (Fisher). News of the return of Emperor Palpatine to the mortal realm sparks a call to action for the Resistance. If Palpatine is indeed back, he must be confronted sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, newly anointed Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) must decide if he can share the Sith spotlight with a crazy old dude, whom he has no allegiance.

The opening sentence in The Rise of Skywalker’s crawl is “THE DEAD SPEAK!” Like Revenge of the Sith‘s, “WAR!” the use of exclamation points informs us the stakes cannot be higher. It makes sense, of course, as it’s the third (or ninth) film. By the end of the film’s brisk 142 minutes, Star Wars, as we know it, is done.  So, by all means, bring on the drama and excitement!

Disney’s re-launch of the Star Wars brand on December 15th, 2015, joined films from that year such as Creed, Jurassic World, and Mad Max: Fury Road as what’s now called legacy sequels. Essentially, the continuation of big IPs with new actors, along with the living legends of the franchise in strong supporting roles (2018’s Halloween and the recent Terminator: Dark Fate also qualify). The use of Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill in the previous Star Wars features was a success. Ford, reprising his role as Han Solo, brought this critic to tears, while Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker deepened my thoughts on the Force in ways I never imagined (it turns out everything I thought I knew about the Force was wrong in the best possible way). The idea of seeing Carrie Fisher as the anchor for the third film filled me with great anticipation.

Tragically, Fisher passed away after The Last Jedi wrapped filming in 2017, but director J.J. Abrams was able to use previously unused scenes from The Force Awakens. I was wary, but the good news is these scenes work pretty seamlessly. As expected, the majority of these moments are with Rey and Leia together. That they don’t feel as inspired or witty as the moments with Ford and Hamill did, well, we’ll just have to chalk it up to the filmmakers not being able to do more than make the best of what had been shot already. Regardless, Fisher is a delight to see one last time.

As for the rest of the film, the big question I had going into this was how would producer Kathleen Kennedy and her crew deal with Rey’s parents? In The Last Jedi, Kylo told Rey she came from filthy junkers; nobodies. As a result, that started a rift in the Force for fans. I loved the idea of Rey, our main hero for this series, not having special Skywalker blood. The message being that someone can have value and not come from royal blood as it were. Others disagreed, saying that if this series was about the Skywalkers, then she needs to be related to Anakin and Luke.

The good news is the way screenwriters Abrams and Chris Terrio handle this (for the most part) doesn’t retcon The Last Jedi (too much). As Obi-Wan would say, “From a certain point of view,” things remain as they were. I’m sure this will be argued for as long as we have Star Wars is in pop culture, so I’ll leave it at that.

Regardless, every scene between Rey and Kylo is terrific. The “Force Skyping” that was introduced in The Last Jedi is back. I dug it. In fact, with respect to Rian Johnson, I think Abrams upped the game here, as the staging of these scenes is tense and wonderfully creative. Overall, the clashing of those red and blue lightsabers never wanes. Whether in Kylo’s sterile white chamber or the amongst the crashing waves on the remains of the Death Star from Episode VI, every smack or force pull is palpable. Ridley and Driver remain the two beating hearts of this trilogy. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The rest of the cast is delightful too. Oscar Isaac and John Boyega continue their excellent chemistry from The Force Awakens that unfortunately wasn’t utilized much in The Last Jedi. One of the big gets touted by Disney was how The Rise of Skywalker would have Rey, Poe, Finn, C-3PO, BB-8, and Chewie hanging out together. A lot. While I do miss Lawrence Kasdan’s tight and witty Howard Hawks-like dialogue, which worked like gangbusters in Episode VII, the cast is just so darn charming it’s easy to forgive a few clunky lines and situations.

Story-wise, the bulk of Episode IX is the crew going from planet to planet in search of a device that will give the location to a fabled Sith homeworld. To be honest, as good as Abrams is with his cast, I’ve never been convinced he does much with the mysticism of the Force, and that goes double for the Dark Side. Save for the unforgettable moment when Rey used the Force to get Luke’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens, I think Abrams’ ideas can feel a tad like fan-fiction. So, while the crew searching for this Sith planet is fun anytime they stop to investigate what exactly is so “Sith” about it (like a dagger that looks like a prop from a theme park), things can feel a little silly.

Speaking of… I have no idea if bringing back Palpatine was a Hail Mary to get fans excited or if it was the plan all along, but the use of the Emperor is half-baked. Ian McDiarmid is still aces as the senator-turned power-mad tyrannical dictator of space, but the script doesn’t have much for him to do. He may still want unlimited power, but he’s really more a MacGuffin plotwise. There are no new layers to his personality. He’s simply the goal everyone is searching for, and in turn, we get to explore what that means for Rey and Kylo. That’s great, but there’s no opera scene level greatness like in Episode III to witness.

Billy Dee Williams is the other major original trilogy actor to return. At 82 years of age, his smile still works every time. His has little more than an extended cameo, but I liked what I saw. A new actor popping up is Abrams’ regular, Felicity herself, Keri Russell, who plays a masked former “friend” of Poe’s. On the other side of things, and most disappointing of all, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose is barely in it. Thanks for that, fanboys.

Star Wars has been a part of my life for forty-two years. The cynic in me says this isn’t the last time I’ll see these characters or this world on the big screen. Looking back on this trilogy, I am thoroughly impressed at how relevant, vital, and emotionally engaging the paths of Rey and Kylo have been. Closure to such an enormous enterprise could have been much worse. Upon first viewing, I’d place this third for the sequel trilogy or overall on par with Attack of the Clones and Return of the Jedi, but it’s Star Wars, man. The Force is still strong with this one when it counts.




2 Responses to “The Rise of Skywalker Ends Star Wars On High and Low Notes (Movie Review)”

  1. Brian White

    Was this a perfect film for me? NO! Was this an exciting entry into the Star Wars universe for me? Hell yes! Without going into any details this checked off all my wanted to see boxes. I got out of it exactly what I came from. I agree with your sentiments on the Emperor and could expand there, but won’t due to spoilers. There is some lazy, lazy writing, but all is forgotten as this one’s a wild frenzy at times and I love the pacing. The planet hoping also reminds me of my beloved Rogue One. And at the end I got the EXACT SHOT I wanted and I LOVE the conclusion too. Very satisfying for me.

  2. Brian White

    P.S….the Leia scenes as you indicated were brilliantly inserted. I do have a question, which I’ll bring up in the chat line once everyone has seen this.