Promising to wrap up 40 years of storytelling, the latest episode is filled with startling revelations, larger than could be imagined space battles, travels to distant planets and beyond, ending with the return of a major villain determined to tip the scales of good versus evil!
Here we are! Some several generations later, after redefining the movie-going experience (not to mention the merchandising of a viable narrative) we’ve reached what the filmmakers are promising is the final, final arc one of the cinemas most long-running franchises. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker carries the epitomes privilege of chronicling itself as “Episode IX” of the story first realized on the screen in writer/director George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope. Released in 1977 to a throng of fans that would sell out multiplexes and line-up for hours just for the opportunity to be transported to a galaxy far, far away.
According to Lucas, the cinematic saga was always meant to focus on the legacy of the Skywalker family. The Original Trilogy centered on the redemption of Darth Vader, whose son, Luke Skywalker (a farm boy turned legendary knight) never gave up on the good in his father, Anakin before becoming the evil Sith Lord Vader. The prequels, released near the start of the new millennium, would narrate the fall of Anakin, from wide-eyed youth through his early years as a hero of a galactic war, and 40 years later, the final trilogy would complete the circle. After having defeated the Empire, a new evil has risen to spread tyranny on a fragile republic, and once again the will of Skywalker is called upon.
Movie fans, especially fans of the established canon, had been convinced the story had been told. Even with the connective franchise supplementary series that surfaced including the animated Clone Wars and eventual Rebels stories, the tale of the heroes at the conclusion of Episode VI Return of the Jedi appeared to have come to its natural conclusion. George Lucas himself had even said that there would be “no” Episodes VII-IX. After Disney acquired Lucasfilm and in effect everything related to Star Wars the fate of the future of the film franchises was tossed asunder. Under the new management of longtime colleague Kathleen Kennedy, Star Wars would return.
So, you’ve been warned! This review will discuss some key moments of the latest addition Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. After the tumultuous critical response of Episode VIII The Last Jedi the ringmaster responsible for re-energizing the “revival” with Episode VII The Force Awakens J. J. Abrams was brought in to practically retcon the entirety of that feature which was helmed by Rian Johnson. When Kennedy brought Johnson in for Episode VIII the filmmaker had looked at the notes provided by Abrams, and he asked if he could vier in a slightly different direction. With Kennedy’s blessing, the result was perhaps the most un-Star Wars movie of the entire series.
Not that there was anything wrong with that. Johnson introduced some very interesting ideas in The Last Jedi: a duplicitous third party that was possibly playing both sides of the fence, supplying weapons to the tyrannical First Order and the fledgling Resistance army battling the good fight. It also tore the new trilogy’s trinity into three separate storylines apart from one another, and the worse of it (by many fan standards) it turned Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) into an aging hermit; a cynic who was once considered the only hope left in the galaxy had run out of it entirely. In his place, the new Jedi apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley) was set adrift on a course of uncertainty.
In this Age of Immediacy, with the internet and social networking dominating the attention spans of the general [buying] audience, especially the rabid fandom that has risen to inherit this franchise, there is something that becomes undoubtedly compromised. One of the benefits of the original trilogy was the natural evolution of the main trio of characters at the center of the narrative that is allowed to evolve. Luke, Leia, and Han are brought together in the first film and share in the adventure, eventually destroying the Empire’s ultimate weapon. In the sequel, the trio all start together but are set on separate paths that ultimately lead them to a dark place.
Cut to Episode IX, the trinity is seen united on screen sharing in an adventure for the first time; in the previous installments Rey, Finn and Poe are fighting their adversaries or are facing their challenge on separate fronts, but all on a trajectory heading in a similar direction. The first half of Episode IX feels the most nostalgic because its reminiscent of the bond that is built by the original heroes and is solidified as legendary by the time Luke, Leia and Lando infiltrate Jabba the Hutt’s palace on Tatooine to rescue the carbon encased Han Solo. They’re a band of heroes — a family — formidable and aware. They are a force to be reckoned with and the audience is happy to see them all together.
In Episode iX when Poe, Finn, and Rey follow the trail of the film’s MacGuffin — a “Wayfinder” a mystic device that will lead them straight to their force-sensitive quarry — the chemistry among them is evident, but it’s fair to understand that they hardly have known one another. These three young people that have faced crisis after crisis since embarking on freeing the galaxy from evil and teamed up with the Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) but haven’t the band of the original film’s paragons. It’s deficient, to say the least especially when the audience must have an investment in their journey.
As the adventure begins, the trio learns they must travel to a new planet in search of a prize. It’s a running gag through the scene. Finn (John Boyega) and Rey are caught completely unaware of Poe’s shady affairs before becoming an able fighter pilot in the Resistance, and Poe (Oscar Isaacs) is not comfortable with the intimate shorthand between Finn and Rey, or the possibility that they may be keeping secrets from him. It’s an interestingly different dynamic, and would have probably worked well in a “middle act” of a trilogy, but “Rise” is the conclusion of the story. This is the end of the line for our heroes and they are coming to the final moments of their journey together.
It’s a thrill to see them working together especially when they are forced to confront the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his gang of thugs (that’s how I’ll describe) The Knights of Ren. Kylo reveals to Rey that she has a greater purpose to fulfill, and Rey isn’t prepared to listen until she unpredictably unleashes a new power that proves deadly. There is a very familiar enemy among them, one that may hold the key to Rey’s past — it would seem that the power-hungry Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is still pulling the strings in the balance of the force, and it’s no surprise that he’s set his claws into Rey and Ren.
Return, Revenge, Rise, Rehash?
There is a nostalgic thrill and wonder in the return to Lucas’ galaxy. It hardly feels like we’ve left, especially given how there have been expanded escapades to this universe throughout its 40-year history, whether we’re discussing the prequels, animated adventures or the newly minted Original Series that are surfacing on Disney+. With every visit, the mythology has had an opportunity to grow and fire our imaginations. With the advent of the prequels, Lucas was able to complete (and in some cases begin) the journey of many of his original characters. Where these sequels have failed is in validating that the story wasn’t already come full circle.
Obviously, with Disney’s purchase of the Lucasfilm franchise, it needed to come out of the ballpark swinging, and the powers that be believed that the best way to capitalize on Star Wars was to give the fandom a continuation of the Skywalker legacy. If that was the case, then perhaps a little more time and care should have been devoted to bringing that idea to life, in much the same way that the other big Disney franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, had shown great restraint in elaborating on its shared universe of Marvel superheroes in its decade of box office dominance. It feels especially with The Rise of Skywalker that the filmmakers [Kennedy, Abrams] just hit on the “beats”.
The tactic was extremely beneficial to audiences coming into The Force Awakens easing them back into a cinematic universe that they hadn’t been to in over 3 decades, but it was hardly necessary and oft time predictably executed. By the time that Kennedy recruited Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi that director appeared determined to upset the apple cart at whatever the cost, but with even less care for consequence. The divergent tactic of that installment threw everyone for a loop, and when Abrams was brought back into the fold, clearly in an effort to clean up the mess, it may have been a lot more sense to have put the pieces back together much slowly and not with due haste.
Star Wars | Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker feels like it was rushed, pieced together and not methodically thought out. Narratively there are many very interesting points, that had Abrams and his team focused on not tying up could have instead set in motion the next generation of characters that we’ve hardly gotten the time to know. Instead, the feature digs into “what has worked before” and played to those key points, checking off the boxes as we went. If George Lucas proved anything with his original saga and prequels, it’s that sometimes the unpredictable is far more interesting especially when it’s given to the telling from a certain point of view.
Rise is a rollercoaster — the kind that you’ve been on before and doesn’t recognize immediately, but when you realize that it’s just been refurbished and slightly retooled to freshen it up — it’s too late! You’ve committed and been exhilarated as if for the first time! You can recall what made the journey fun the first time and again you succumb to the nostalgia.
Star Wars | Episode IX | The Rise of Skywalker starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs and John Boyega directed by JJ Abrams is in theaters now.