Near the climax of The Rise of Skywalker – J.J. Abrams’s attempt not just to wrap up this most recent Star Wars trilogy but the entire nine-film saga – a character asks how the Empire was defeated by a scrappy group of rebels when the odds were so stacked against them. “We had each other,” the character replies. “That’s how we won.”
This pretty much sums up everything that works about The Rise of Skywalker. It’s narratively unwieldy and sometimes appears it could be titled Star Wars; Hey, Where’d Rey Go?, but it cares about its characters enough to do them justice. Even when the script is struggling to tie it all together in a thematically satisfying package, the film’s character beats make it all worthwhile.
I’m not going to get much into plot. This is a spoiler-lite review. A spoiler-filled discussion will drop later this weekend after everyone’s had more time to see the film. Suffice to say, Rise of Skywalker centers around various characters going on various quests to retrieve various maguffins, meeting faces both new and familiar. Really though, the film’s core centers on the battle for both Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) and Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) souls whether their destinies rest on the light side or dark side of the force.
I hate to discuss RoS by bringing up Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. I know if you utter that film’s name, slugs slither out from under their respective rocks with their perpetually-cooling hot takes. Believe me, I’ve heard them all. I get it. No further input required. However, my major issues with RoS really come back to the feeling that the film caved to fanboy complaints and undid everything that made TLJ interesting. Cards on the table, I love The Last Jedi. I love the narrative risks it takes and its willingness to subvert everything we’d come to expect from a Star Wars movie. The Rise of Skywalker plays like the franchise’s autoimmune disorder, attempting to repair something that was functioning perfectly fine and in no need of an immune response.
The Last Jedi implied that it wasn’t bloodlines or family names that mattered. Anyone could wield the force, and it was myths and stories that allow both the Jedi legend and hope to thrive. The Rise of Skywalker decides that actually those bloodlines are pretty critical, and it likes its Jedi mysticism and hokum far more than I do. It has a populist message, but it undercuts it by making its world feel more hermetically sealed.
It’s disheartening to see a concluding chapter seem so risk averse, so unwilling to do anything more that follow a pre-established blueprint and insert tab A into slot B. It’s solid and competently made and completely fine, but it’s screenplay and plot machinations, written by Abrams and Chris Terrio, feels as though they were conceived to reassure every whiney, entitled fanboy that this was still their Star Wars, and it wouldn’t upset them by trying anything daring ever again. I understand Star Wars began as a scrappy, goofy space opera, even it’s iconic opening of “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” tells you it’s hearkening back to a simpler time. It’s meant to be fun, not profound.
Complaining that Rise of Skywalker is simply entertaining is kind of like complaining that my hamburger doesn’t taste like filet mignon. That was never what it set out to do, and it’s unfair of me to expect otherwise. However, now that I’ve seen how much more the franchise can do, seeing it return to its humbler goals feels a bit disheartening. J.J. Abrams is a solid director who has a fan’s enthusiasm for this universe. I’m certain he loves being allowed to play in a franchise he’s clearly enjoyed since childhood, but he doesn’t use the opportunity to stretch his wings as much as he should. I know narrative familiarity was a criticism that dogged his previous franchise installment, The Force Awakens.
However, that film felt more playful and giddier than The Rise of Skywlker, which frequently runs the risk of collapsing under the weight of all the plot strands it’s attempting to juggle. Narratively, he’s crafted a film that feels unnecessarily convoluted, considering it really boils down to a Manichean struggle of good vs. evil.
On the other hand, after trying to deal with everything that doesn’t work, I have to admit I like the film. As I said, it’s fun, solid entertainment, and there are worse sins for a film to commit than simply being entertaining. Fan service is hardly an unforgivable crime. After all, it wasn’t that long ago all Star Wars offered its fans were the truly abysmal Prequels, so criticizing this film for being just fun feels a bit ungrateful.
It looks absolutely beautiful and it hits the ground running, leaping from one action sequence to the next, including a gloriously thrilling lightsaber battle fought against a backdrop of crashing waves that feels instantly iconic. It’s easy to write off how good Disney’s blockbusters look, because they always seem to succeed in that regard, but it takes skill and craft that deserves praise.
In addition, the central storyline of Rey and Kylo, struggling to come to terms with who they really are still emotionally resonates. Both Driver and Ridley are terrific, squeezing ever amount of pathos out of their respective dilemmas. Adam Driver has made Kylo Ren everyone’s favorite emo boyfriend, and he makes Kylo’s conflicted nature feel pitiably tragic. Ridley does the same, embuing Rey with an inner strength and resiliency that makes her a character worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Luke Skywalker.
Whatever the film’s narrative shortcomings, it still works, because they make their characters so easy to care about. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac end up taking a backseat to Ridley and Driver, but they both have a likable, appealing chemistry with Ridley. Isaac’s surly, perpetually frustrated Poe scores most of the film’s best lines and he remains an effortlessly charismatic screen presence. Boyega’s Finn remains an endearing character, and his arc from fleeing stormtrooper to committed rebel has been a satisfying emotional journey across this new trilogy.
I’d also like to give Richard E. Grant an honorable mention, as he seems to having a great time sneering every line of dialogue he’s given.
I don’t want to be too hard on J.J. Abrams. He was saddled with bookending a trilogy that now features a middle part that felt more like a conclusion that a middle chapter. The untimely death of Carrie Fisher also left a hole in the narrative he clearly struggled to fill. She’s still there, thanks to cut scenes from Force Awakens, but it’s not a seamless blending. Many of her scenes feel like they’ve been shoehorned into a narrative that doesn’t really need them, but to have left her character out entirely would have felt disrespectful to Fisher’s legacy. Abrams keeps Princess Leia’s character as present as he can, and it’s heartwarming to see her again.
In the end, Abrams seems to have a better feel for characters than he does narrative. I care about the film’s characters, which means I both recognize the film’s issues but also allow myself to emotionally engage with the film.
I’ve been having an interior debate between intellectual me and emotional me since I saw the film. In the end, intellectual me was forced to surrender the steering wheel to emotional me, who just wanted to laugh and jump and feel a tug at my heartstrings with every nostalgic echo. It never achieves greatness, but it’s entertaining enough for me to continue to have faith in the force.