As soon as the embargo was lifted on reviews of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, the first one off the mark, by Scott Mendelson in Forbes, called it “the worst Star Wars movie ever…a bad movie and a miserable finale.” It was far from the only negative review. But despair not, young Jedi: Rise of Skywalker is, overall, more fun than not. To expect much more from it than propulsive entertainment laced with nostalgia is to succumb to the inherently unrewarding tendency to ascribe greater mythological weight to the entire Star Wars saga than its creation warrants.
How well you will like this final installment in the Skywalker family chronicles will depend on several variables: how old you were when you first experienced a Star Wars movie; how deeply immersed you are in all the “expanded universe” spinoff lore; how you felt about the liberties taken by Rian Johnson in 2017’s Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. While warmly received by critics and most audiences, that previous episode was extremely polarizing within hardcore fandom. True believers in such “canon” concepts as the importance of DNA (and midichlorians in the bloodstream) to a character’s becoming a Jedi adept went postal at the suggestion that Rey’s parents were nobodies. They rebelled vehemently at the notion that a disillusioned Luke might go into retirement and renounce his destiny to save the galaxy from the Dark Side of the Force. Perhaps above all, the extremists hated the prominent role played by a new (Asian and female) character named Rose Tico. They railed about the series becoming “too PC,” and the worst of them directed rape and death threats against actress Kelly Marie Tran via social media. The outcry, which still hasn’t entirely died down, rightfully earned Star Wars the reputation of having the most toxic fandom of any F/SF property, at least on its lunatic fringe.
Me, I liked Rose’s character, even if she did spend most of her screentime on a fruitless side quest. And I found Tran a breath of fresh air. (I also really, really loved the democratization of Force-sensitivity that Johnson brought to the table.) So, for this reviewer, the most objectionable aspect of Rise of Skywalker is the minimization of Rose’s role in the story, down to almost nothing. It feels like a sop thrown to the haters, if not a tacit endorsement of their racism and sexism.
That’s far from the only way in which director J. J. Abrams walks back Johnson’s audacious contributions to the Star Wars universe, without resorting to egregious retconning. As arguably befits the final chapter in a franchise, Rise delivers shameless nonstop fanservice, to the point where I was laughing and shaking my head in disbelief at one moment and tearily sentimental the next. The facts that John Williams returned to write his final Star Wars score, and that I am ever putty in Williams’ hands, undoubtedly had much to do with the way this movie worked for me emotionally, in spite of how obviously manipulative it is. I wasn’t even one of those invested in “putting things back in order” post-Johnson, after all.
But those who wanted that reset, will get it – mostly. They get lots of other things from their wish lists as well. Answers to some lingering plot questions? Check. Reiterations of iconic quotes? Check. Force ghosts and other appearances of beloved dead people (including recycled cutting-room-floor footage of Carrie Fisher as Leia)? Check. Cameos, even significant contributions from characters we haven’t seen in ages (notably Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian)? Check over and over again. Visits to locales appearing in previous episodes? Check and double-check (although a new desert planet, Pasaana, has been added to serve as home to a cultural festival clearly meant to evoke Burning Man, only with aliens). If boxes checked off make you happy as a fan, you’re going to love Rise with little reservation. Hell, even the Ewoks put in a fleeting appearance.
There’s nothing immensely original or ultimately surprising in the screenplay that J. J. Abrams wrote with Chris Terrio, but it does manage to capture a semblance of the cheekiness of the byplay among the lead characters that we cherish from the original trilogy (of the prequels, the less said, the better). Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren both shine brightly as the twinned Light and Dark polarities of the Force, each conflicted enough to give their attraction/rivalry some teeth. The expansion of Rey’s role from elite fighter to empath/healer is a nice touch, and Kylo’s redemption arc back to Ben Solo, while utterly expected (wait till you see his Snape pose in this one), is handled quite convincingly. John Boyega once again doesn’t get enough to do as Finn, and Oscar Isaac once again is vaguely irritating as Poe, whose gift from the Force still seems not to transcend being able to fly spacecraft very well. Why Leia has been grooming him as a general is one mystery I’ve given up understanding, but maybe that’s just a byproduct of my general lack of appreciation for Isaac as a performer.
Several appealing new female characters are introduced, including Jannah (Naomi Ackie), leader of a company of Final Order conscripts who mutinied; Zorri (Keri Russell), a streetwise former partner-in-crime of Poe; and Babu Frik, a diminutive alien engineer whose giggly gibberish is voiced by Shirley Henderson. Also new on the scene is a charmingly idiotic little droid with a cone-shaped head that resembles a reading lamp, D-O, voiced by Abrams himself.
Oddly, perhaps the most affecting moment in the story comes when our old, gold drama-queen friend C-3PO volunteers to have his brain circuits wiped in order to extract a crucial clue that his programming protocols won’t permit him to translate. It’s but one of many instances in this story of personal sacrifices undertaken for the greater good. Unfortunately, in a Galaxy Far Far Away where the dead sometimes don’t stay dead, such sacrifices lose much of their punch.
But that’s a quibble. With a Star Wars movie, one may quibble all day long about where they went astray. Or one may sit back and enjoy the ride, which is spectacularly shot and excitingly paced and pushes all the right buttons that we’ve been wearing for so many years. My advice: Dial down your intellectual expectations and just go for the fun and the farewells.