Author: Mark Bautista
Because I’m torn between my two identities as a movie reviewer and a Star Wars fan, this is one of the hardest reviews for me to write. As a fan, there’s nothing more I’d like to say than, “The Rise of Skywalker was great! It was the most spectacular time you’ll have in the cinema this year”, but the movie critic in me has to abide by some kind of journalistic integrity: this is hardly a perfect movie.
I’ll admit, there’s a lot of pressure riding on writer-director J.J. Abrams for this final installment of “the Skywalker Saga,” Disney’s new marketing designation for the main nine films in the franchise. How do you put a bow on the most iconic movie series of all time, and do it in a way that satisfies the billions of fans around the globe? Based on the latest 2.5 hours I’ve spent in the movie theater, Abrams still hasn’t answered that question. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t for lack of trying; there is so much to appreciate about Episode IX.
The chemistry between the Sequel Trilogy’s protagonists Rey, Finn, and Poe (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac) is kicked up to a perfect notch in IX; their bond is sold incredibly well by these three actors, playing off of banter and scenes of emotionality.
Further, the portrayal of Rey in IX is perhaps the most compelling it’s ever been. Screenwriters Abrams and Chris Terrio imbue Rey with more of a personality and the opportunity to portray her as a character with internal conflict, rather than a 2-D person who merely reacts to the action around her. And, perhaps this is due to her becoming a better actor since Episode VII, Ridley embodies Rey with a formidable presence this time around, selling her character’s frustrated struggle with her familial heritage and her sense of belonging in the universe with a poignancy we haven’t really seen before.
From a technical standpoint, the space creature makeup and puppetry is at its most impressive; there’s a curious six-inch-tall alien named Babu Frik who steals every scene he’s in. And Director of Photography Dan Mindel returns with his signature dynamic cinematography, as colorful and stylistically smooth as ever. A chase scene on the desert planet Pasaana is captured with fast-moving precision. It’s fun to watch, with sand clouds forming at the spot of missed lasers, and Stormtroopers flying around with newly-outfitted jetpacks (“They fly now!” screams an incredulous Finn).
But herein lies my biggest issue with The Rise of Skywalker, that much of it seems obligatory, rather than requisite to the story. So much of IX moves at a breakneck pace, with action scene after action scene after action scene that it mostly ends up being all that it is, a spectacle of space explosions and sword fights. The relatively simple mission, to locate the Sith planet of Exegol, becomes convoluted because the film keeps getting side-tracked with the protagonists needing to find this map, to get to this dagger, to get to this planet, and so on and so on.
Like I said, the desert chase scene is fun to watch, but mostly in the moment. Did it really add anything to the story at large? Not really, but then, there isn’t a ton of story the film wants to tell. As the final film in a trilogy and the finale of a saga, that’s pretty disappointing. It seems content to play the Greatest Hits of Star Wars iconography, rather than explore new narrative territory.
The return of iconic character Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is a great example of this; he was just plopped into the film, the appearance engineered to elicit squeals of joy from long-time fans. As a long-time fan myself, I would have loved to see him appear again had it made sense to the story. Yet, the movie includes him without much explanation or justification to his presence, so this type of fan-service takes me out of the film, rather than immerses me in the story.
The same is true of the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Despite his death at the end of Episode VI, he’s somehow alive again and pulling the strings of the events of IX. (This is not a spoiler, given that his return is featured prominently in trailers and TV spots). His resurrection is brushed off with a cursory reasoning of “dark side powers,” and this is the film’s biggest weakness. Episode IX is the epitome of telling instead of showing. Palpatine’s return is not explained at all, making his reappearance that much more baffling. What has he been doing the past thirty years since his supposed death? Why did he choose now to return? None of this is answered, at least satisfactorily. Why is he included in this film? I can only speculate, but perhaps because his presence in the writers’ added a full-circle quality to the whole thing? I honestly don’t know.
Furthermore, the compelling character stuff is also a victim of this telling, not showing, writing. For example, there’s a subplot where General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Rey seemed to have formed a mentor-student relationship, but because Fisher unfortunately passed before the shooting of IX, footage of Fisher from VII was repurposed for this film. This repurposed footage is integrated awkwardly, with the film’s script obviously retrofitted around it, so Rey and Leia’s relationship isn’t as well-defined as it could be (which makes one wonder why the subplot was included at all).
There’s a scene in this film where the Millennium Falcon is said to have crash-landed on a strange planet. The filmmakers do not show this crash, but have the characters say it happened. Wouldn’t it have been more gratifying to see in what way this ship crashed, or the events that led up to its rough landing, other than a quick, cursory line telegraphing the event? Yes, it would have been, but the writers decided not to. All of Rise of Skywalker’s most important moments are like this.
You might argue that Star Wars is at its core a bunch of space explosions with thin archetype characters. You know, kiddie stuff. But there was a certain method that the previous films had (yes, even the Prequels), where you could track the evolution of the characters and their individual stories. There was a natural arc to everything, and at some times, seemed obvious. Many creative decisions in this film seem out of left field, in what I assume are hasty attempts to wrap up the saga. Some fans might say, “I had a blast with the space explosions.” I say, “It might have been fun, but you deserve better.”
Mark Bautista | Peanut Butter Enthusiast | KXSU Arts Reporter