Billy Dee Williams
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
The final chapter in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Rise Of Skywalker sees J.J. Abrams back on directing duties since The Force Awakens as the story of new characters Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren draws to a close in typically epic fashion.
With the mixed reaction second chapter The Last Jedi prompted back in 2017, there seemed to be a conscious effort by Disney to regroup somewhat, especially after the disappointing reception of Solo: A Star Wars Story the following year. The Rise Of Skywalker had to be either universally beloved or, at the very least, satisfying as an ending to most Star Wars fans to make this regrouping worthwhile. From its opening text crawl, this sequel already appears to make a conscious jump past The Last Jedi and back onto more familiar territory with the reintroduction of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Rey's plot focusing even more on her origins.
"The dead speak!", we are told, moments before Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) travels solo to The Emperor's lair, an old-school mad scientist lab complete with half-finished Supreme Leader Snoke clones in water tanks (lol), screaming lightning (I'm not kidding) and big magnifying glasses everywhere (still not kidding). Palpatine is every bit as over-the-top as you'd expect and the overall tone here is reminiscient of old horror B-movies, which certainly could have been apt seeing as the likes of horror giants Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were once a big part of this franchise. Unfortunately, the Palpatine scenes are where all this begins and ends, and all that remains is the nagging feeling that these tonal shifts and this apparently random reviving of Emperor Palpatine might not actually work.
"Somehow the Emperor's back!", Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) exclaims at one point in the movie, with the word "somehow" doing a heck of a lot of heavy lifting here. And this is a good way to understand what's... off about this movie: somehow most of The Last Jedi isn't so important now, somehow Rose isn't a main character anymore, somehow Lando Calrissian's back and he has the entire world on speed-dial, somehow Force healing is a big thing all of a sudden, somehow The Emperor is ALL the Siths, somehow Rey has mastered every power by running in the woods, and so on.
Not that the film never explains anything but there is a lot it, indeed, doesn't explain and, in fact, the overall pacing of this instalment feels extremely rushed and J.J. Abrams' erratic, perhaps more Star Trek-friendly, direction is mostly to blame for this.
Fortunately, after a frankly clunky first act, we are given a solid second act that's genuinely entertaining and should keep the attention of even the grumpiest Star Wars fan. Rey wrestles with the good and the bad within her as Kylo Ren closes in, C3P0 (Anthony Daniels doing great work, as usual) becomes key to the Resistance's success, Poe reveals his darker past and there are some fun action sequences along the way. Fair homage is paid to the late Carrie Fisher and there are some enjoyable enough, if gimmicky cameos here and there. Sadly, brand new characters like Richard E. Grant's Allegiant General Pryde and Naomi Ackie's Jannah aren't given much to work with and the likes of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Maz (Lupita Nyong'o) are criminally cast aside, as if there was never any plan for them.
The softening of The Last Jedi's bolder ideas hurts this movie which, too often, feels like a cowardly retreat into safer territory, actual drama be damned. There are elements explored here that do work, admittedly: the closing of Kylo Ren's character arc is mostly effective and it's rewarding to see Ben Solo being himself, even for a brief moment, while Poe and Finn collaborating as the new leaders of the Resistance makes sense. There are also some good ideas in there like Rey potentially killing Chewbacca by mistake or C3P0 tragically losing his memory to save his friends' lives but the film refuses to actually go there and undoes all this within minutes, perhaps for fear of offending a single die-hard fan who might tweet negatively about all of this or for fear of instilling real emotions into the movie.
Truthfully, this feels like a film based on an older script that was reworked much later on with lots of unclear ideas thrown in and shadows of better prior ideas still visible, but only just. The writing as a whole, by the way, is rather weak especially when it comes to the dialog, but we've seen this many times before in the Star Wars franchise so it's almost to be expected at this point. Though it's never all that welcome.
This is a fast-paced movie that does everything you'd expect in a Star Wars film, Ewoks even pop up briefly, but it doesn't so much feel like the end of an epic trilogy as it does the final breath of a rebooted franchise that was not carefully worked-out from the beginning and can't wait to end once and for all. Some of it is fan-service, some of it is almost stream of consciousness, none of it feels quite right but, at the very least, it's never dull.
Missed opportunity, this was.