Review: Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker – A safe but sorry conclusion to the saga

STAR WARS is a funny old beast, isn’t it? 43 years have passed since George Lucas’ original swept the globe and changed everything, and the ensuing franchise has enjoyed an astonishing degree of pop-culture longevity, to the point where Star Wars merchandise, memorabilia and memes are omnipresent and inescapable. It’s easy to mythologise Star Wars, given the seismic influence it’s commanded in those years, but it seems redundant when we consider how the franchise reconstituted the campfire storytelling that came to form the bedrock of mythology itself. At this point, Star Wars, commodified and commercialised as it has undoubtedly become, is an institution more than a franchise, demanding fierce debate on all sides of the cultural spectrum.

Perhaps the fiercest of these debates revolves around the eighth ‘Episode’, The Last Jedi. A beautiful and ambitious film, it was nevertheless accused of assassinating the character of Luke Skywalker and discarding the “mystery box” narrative questions posed by its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens. Despite the film being an unquestionable success on a fiscal level, the polemic surrounding The Last Jedi began to overwhelm its positive critical reception. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, however, the film concluded in such a manner that it wasn’t immediately clear where its sequel would pick up.

Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker sees J. J. Abrams return to the director’s chair following Colin Trevorrow’s departure over “creative differences”. We’ll probably never know the specifics, but Abrams was certainly the safe choice; his filmography to this point has been almost exclusively predicated on repackaging familiar imagery with modern trappings, and what better way to remedy the divisiveness of The Last Jedi with stuff that you, the presumed fan, will recognise and clap at?

There’s a lot of stuff in The Rise of Skywalker. Stuff happens at such lightning speed that it stuns the audience into nodding acceptance. The film’s narrative is so cluttered with stuff that it’s difficult at times to discern how fundamentally simple it actually is: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned, without explanation, from the abyss, and it’s up to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and co. to send him back before a new age of imperial oppression enshrouds the galaxy far, far away.

As mentioned, Abrams is a master at reconfiguring nostalgia, and this film is the crystallisation of that ethos. It’s frankly surprising that the frame isn’t rose-tinted, so intent is it on recapturing former glories. Not just within the franchise, either: the wild goose chase that encompasses the first half of the 140-minute run-time bears closer resemblance to the frantic globe-trotting (or world-hopping) of that other great LucasFilm property, Indiana Jones. MacGuffins are found, lost, recovered and discarded in the span of ten minutes. Characters are introduced and abandoned within the same length of time, and some returning faces – most egregiously Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) – don’t even get that. (We’ll leave it to others to look at the optics for that particular decision.)

Despite these grievances, there’s a real drive and propulsion behind the film. This is most clearly evidenced by the engaging interplay between Rey and her two companions, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac); their sizzling chemistry together is the main reason the film doesn’t fall apart beneath the weight of its narrative conveniences. The strongest aspect of the trilogy – the strange relationship between Rey and Sith warrior Kylo Ren (the eternally brilliant Adam Driver) – is also retained, their dialogues and lightsabre duels bearing much of the emotional lode that the film so desperately needs.

Not that The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t try to tug – or, more accurately, desperately yank – on the audience’s heartstrings; it is, after all, the conclusion to the entire saga. (Stop laughing.) Nostalgia is a powerful tool and it is evoked throughout with mixed results, but none more are more diminished than the return of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Leia (a post-humous Carrie Fisher). Lando appears strictly because fans recognise him from the original trilogy, accomplishing nothing throughout the film beyond reminding you that, yes, indeed, this is Lando Calrissian. Boy howdy, please be excited.

Leia’s appearances are a little more complicated. She was clearly going to have a much larger role to play had Fisher still been alive, to the point where it was probably more advisable to have nixed the character’s involvement entirely. The decision to use cut footage from The Force Awakens is not as ghoulish as the uncanny CG likeness of Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but it nonetheless distracts from scenes that may have been better served filling in the narrative’s various gaping holes.

While the script is utilitarian to a fault for much of the runtime, the film is shot beautifully with a sensible mix of both practical and CG effects. The action scenes are crisp and fluid, the camera effortlessly moving through star destroyer corridors and dense thickets alike, and the snappy editing keeps the film moving at a rollicking pace, albeit at the expense of character moments and interesting narrative twists. There’s nothing inherently wrong with predictability, but the plot chooses the safest direction possible at every juncture, and no option is safer than the belated return of Emperor Palpatine.

As joyous as it is to see McDiarmid camp it up one last time, it’s a deeply cynical move. We’ll ignore that Palpatine’s resurrection negates the emotional climax of Return of the Jedi, but we shan’t ignore the sublime laziness of choosing to resurrect the most iconic villain in cinematic history over presenting something different. At best, it’s scraping the bottom of the barrel in the name of fan-service; at worst, it’s a tacit admission that the current creatives have run out of ideas. While The Rise of Skywalker has a lot going for it, that is the fundamental problem: We have seen all of this before and it’s getting a little tired, especially after the shameless pandering of Solo and especially Rogue One.

There is a scene in The Last Jedi where a distraught Kylo Ren, humiliated by his failure to capture Rey, destroys the helmet he had donned to emulate Darth Vader. This moment explicitly communicates to the audience that Ren is no longer a Vader surrogate, as he had been in The Force Awakens; he is his own man, with his own motivations, his own character arc, etc. In The Rise of Skywalker, there is a scene where Kylo Ren solders the helmet back together. Let that speak for itself.

The ultimate irony is that The Rise of Skywalker is already proving to be as divisive as The Last Jedi. The mediocre critical response and enthusiastic fan response is the inverse of Episode VIII’s, and it’s because both films, like the Jedi and the Sith, are ideologically opposed. “Kill the past if you have to,” said Episode VIII. “Revel in the past at all cost,” said Episode IX. Boy, does it revel. The result is a well-acted, exceptionally well-made film that cannibalises itself in the pursuit of appeasing fan desires, washing away its own identity in the process. Safe, but sorry.

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