FILM REVIEW: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
The third trilogy from the super-massive franchise comes to its conclusion with a visually spectacular but frustratingly shallow final film.
- This review will include major plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker -
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is not a bad movie, but it is certainly not a very good one either. The newest addition to George Lucas' fantasy starship sandpit is as breath-taking in its visual effects as it is mind-numbing in its writing and the decision-making for its story-line. While a relentless deployment of cheaply satisfying fan service does go a long way in papering over the plot's narrative cracks, producing an ultimately positive experience for most long-time fans, 'Skywalker' stands out amongst the newest three films as a particularly rushed attempt at providing resolution to a trilogy marred by directorial issues.
From the embers of the hyper-polarising The Last Jedi, Episode IX emerges feeling entirely uncomfortable with where the plot has landed and where its characters need to go. Skywalker tries its hardest to erase or retcon every possible plot point from the last movie as everything this film tries to do seems utterly devoted to the appeasement of negative fan reactions to the previous saga entry. Chris Terrio (writer) and J.J. Abrams' (director/writer) script spends an uncomfortable amount of time trying to join in with the fan backlash that The Last Jedi received and ultimately positions this film as an often disconcertingly smug and arrogant declaration of Abrams' directorial superiority, with Luke Skywalker commenting in disapproval at the decision to throw a lightsaber away and all. Regardless of if you liked, or disliked Episode VIII, the decisions writer/director Rian Johnson made in that film were undeniably surprising - and it is clear that Abrams' second entry in this trilogy wants absolutely nothing to do with that. This is a paint-by-numbers square peg of a movie forcefully shoved into the round hole that Abrams wanted it to go in from the start, and as a result this is a film that you will know exactly where it is going from minute one - albeit finished off with a perplexing romantic conclusion.
With The Last Jedi being actively ignored, the first half an hour of this film becomes forced into a whiplash-inducing supercut of what would appear to be the film that Abrams wanted to precede it. This first act flies by without a second of downtime, edited together with a relentless pace that (though being exciting) offers no time for the audience to process what is happening. Though there is one particularly wonderful transition between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) holding up the fancy sith-macguffin and the scene fading seamlessly into a shot of a starship in space, on the whole these transitions between characters and worlds are messy and erratic. The film feels uneasy with itself if more than fifteen seconds elapse without a catchphrase moment in this first act and chugs us through three of four planets before we really get to understand where we are, or even what the names of those planet were for that matter. This frenzied pacing is thankfully toned down as the film eventually gets over the self-imposed hurdles of establishing a wild and sudden new premise, but from the moment the film begins it is clear that the movie is itself aware of the incredible leap that it has to make between the last film and now. Contrivances are to be expected in a franchise like Star Wars, but the shock of Skywalker's opening crawl announcing: "The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE" cued confusion and irritation in many viewers.
Undoing the incredibly effective surprise killing-off of Emperor Snoke in The Last Jedi, Abrams here reworks the creativity of Rian Johnson's film so as to have the same unimaginatively repeated storyline from Skywalker to Return of the Jedi as he did with The Force Awakens to A New Hope. The reintroduction of Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, through no fault of McDiarmid's excellent performance, is a laughable clutching-at-straws moment from a director that had seemingly very little idea for the story when not relying on the tried-and-tested plot progression of the original trilogy. Return of the Jedi had the big, bad Sideous behind the troubled Darth Vader, so Skywalker must have one *too* behind the genuinely compelling character of Kylo Ren. If it's not Snoke, then Abrams simply must bring back Emperor Palpatine so that he can make his comfortable Star Wars story. Johnson identified in the last film that the engaging antagonist of this trilogy is not found in the (literal) Palpatine-clone of Snoke, but it is Kylo Ren - so he got rid of Snoke altogether. Abrams however clearly did not get the memo, and so in restoring a Snoke/Palpatine to the story Kylo Ren is forced into a narrative cul-de-sac, that while functioning for this story does feel quite massively like a waste of potential for his redemption ac.
Quite the same, the shelving of Kelly Marie Tran's character Rose feels particularly poorly executed, removing her from the film as an act that almost validates the racist and misogynistic abuse she received in the response to The Last Jedi. Instead of providing Rose a more well-written and developed role than she received from Rian Johnson's poor handling of her subplot in Episode VIII, Abrams instead elects to have Rose suffer through an awkward exchange with Finn (John Boyega) that essentially equates to her agreeing to not be in the movie, fading into the background to appear only briefly for the next two hours. Perhaps most irritatingly of all though, the decision to undercut Johnson's hopeful message of "anyone can be a hero" that ran through all of The Last Jedi and particularly through the reveal that Rey (Daisy Ridley) was unrelated to anyone of previous Star Wars-ian significance, is then rebuked by clunky dialogue that boils down to: "no, actually what I meant by that is that you are the granddaughter of the most evil and powerful space wizard that ever lived - *whoops*". Rey is well served in this film, and Ridley does very well to again shoulder the lead role of this film herself, but this link between her and Palpatine does not feel particularly rational a story-making decision.
The film has never heard of 'show don't tell' and absolutely nothing is left to the audience's ability to figure things out for themselves. Domhall Gleeson shouts "I'm the spy!", Rey announces with magical omniscience that Chewbacca "must have been on a different transport" and the announcement of the bad guy army calling themselves the "final order" feels as lazy a dip into the narrative nazi-well as possible. The film features some inexplicably poor choices in its dialogue that at times rivals even that of the prequel films' "I don't like sand" and to add to the criticism of Skywalker's writing, the whole thing seems uninformed on exactly how to manage stakes in a story. Every star destroyer magicked up from the oceans of Sith planet "Exegol" has a big gun this time capable of blowing up an Alderaan all by itself, but this doesn't make an audience care more about the storyline. We know that the heroes will win in this film, but what could be provoking is the smaller-scale loss of characters that we have grown to care for. Excluding Princess Leia and Kylo Ren, pretty much everyone manages to get through this film unscathed. That would be fine, par for the course in fact, but the level of annoyingly constructed fake-outs in this film's handling of major characters just begins to point to the movie's total inability to do something narratively fresh.
Chewbacca gets 'killed' about halfway through the film as a direct result of Rey not being able to control her connections to Palpatine and to the Dark Side of the Force, which would have been an incredibly interesting direction for the film to go down. It was then met with a particularly brief period of poorly delivered mourning from the central characters before the reveal that Chewie was fine and any sense of narrative weight was entirely undone. You cannot establish a character's faults in the film like this without having the strength to follow through and this just ends up feeling as utterly hollow and cheap as a pointless jump scare in a horror flick. This is repeated in the film with Anthony Daniels as C-3PO (who actually benefits from some quite superbly written dialogue in this film) agreeing to wipe his memory and effectively kill himself off as a means of helping the characters find what they're looking for. This is a moment of real power, and a nice oppurtunity for C-3PO to actually become a key player in the plot for once with a real sacrifice. R2-D2 then later restores his memory almost completely, so never mind about that great sacrifice I suppose. It's seen again with Kylo Ren being killed by Rey in their lightsaber battle on the wreckage of the Death Star (somehow surviving Return of the Jedi). Both times the film allows the audience to be shocked by an exciting moment of narrative progression - but then as soon as it becomes time for the film to have to begin dealing with the weighty consequences of such an event it discards the significance by having R2-D2 restore C-3PO's memory and Rey force-heal Kylo Ren back to life.
On a more positive note Skywalker is hands down one of the most spectacular visual films of the year, with Dan Mindel's cinematography being unrelentingly gorgeous for the entire 2 hour and 22 minute run time. Action is clear, colours are bright and the whole thing screams blockbuster budget. John William's score too is expectedly magical and the individual performances from the cast are all worthy of praise, even if a little jarring behind the film's often awkward dialogue. Early conversations revolving around both Rey and Poe do feel a tad in-cohesive, but McDiarmid, Boyega and particularly Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are all great to see. The film deals very well with the death of the legendary Carrie Fisher, reusing some excess footage to have her feature in this movie, and the reprisals of Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo retrospectively feel very well done.
This will not be a disappointing film for those who have found their expectations for this franchise sullied in the existence of *six* bad-to-alright film entries, but very little from this plot screams out as satisfying for fans of the franchise. This is no-where near prequels-level bad, and ignoring some highly questionable pacing in its early moments the film stands well enough as a fun use of your time, but with the return of Emperor Palpatine The Rise of Skywalker comes ever so close to committing the worst sin this trilogy could have managed - actively disassembling the original trilogy and the satisfying conclusion of Return of the Jedi and Darth Vader's final redemptive sacrifice. If Palpatine is just to come back after the wonderful ending that Return of the Jedi managed, I just hope that when rewatching the original trilogy the sense of conclusion is not affected by the knowledge that it might have all been in vain.
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is a beautifully shot, phenomenally composed, bewilderingly dialogued, poorly paced and perplexingly directed mess of a trilogy conclusion, but heavy-handed fan-service will be enough to carry long-term fans over the line into an enjoyable Star Wars experience.
- 5.5 -
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England. Subscribe to our mailing list below to be alerted every time a post is published on the site.