This review contains mild spoilers, most of which were evident in promotional materials.
The opening crawl of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” begins with an exclamation point. “The dead speak!” it announces, referring to Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the malevolent gramps who was presumed dead until this movie’s trailers implied otherwise. That punctuation is a bit of a spoiler, or at least a tease for what will follow. You see, everything that happens in the ensuing 141 minutes also contains an exclamation point. Themes get triple-underlined, jargon gets shouted, lasers get blasted. Characters all but turn to the camera and declare, “This is ‘Star Wars!’”
Which is to say that “The Rise of Skywalker,” the series’ ninth official episode and supposed final depiction of the titular hero who started it all, is not an exercise in subtlety, nuance nor surprise. For those who appreciated the meditative polish that director Rian Johnson brought to “The Last Jedi,” this feels like a disappointing corrective: overstuffed and uninspired. Returning to the cockpit after sitting the last one out, “Force Awakens” maestro J.J. Abrams is hellbent on giving fans exactly what they expect and little more. There are amusements along the way, sure, but we’re left with a soggy exercise in predictability.
You have to feel a smidge of sympathy for Abrams. He stepped in after Lucasfilm ― the Disney subsidiary that George Lucas sold off in 2012 ― sidelined yet another director, this time Colin Trevorrow of “Jurassic World” fame. Abrams is essentially a journeyman here, deemed reliable enough to get the job done without veering far from the core “Star Wars” ethos. And he has to do so at a time of maximum divisiveness, both among the saga’s enthusiasts and within the world at large. “The Last Jedi” sparked an exhausting wave of discourse on both sides of the aisle (plus a bunch of racism and sexism), which the unmemorable standalone films “Rogue One” and “Solo” did little to soften. Abrams swooped in to pick up those pieces and satisfy anyone who’s expressed strong opinions along the way, which seems like just about everyone. I wouldn’t want the job.
But Abrams did, for some reason. As competent a director as he may be, it’s hard not to feel like “The Rise of Skywalker” constitutes a balloon getting popped. The excitement that accompanied “The Force Awakens” in 2015 has been dented by the sudden interminability of this franchise, as well as just about every other franchise like it. Abrams can’t quite capture the same verve, partly because “Skywalker” is so devoted to the “wars” aspect of “Star Wars” that it leaves little time for anything else.
After that informative exclamation point, the players get in formation. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), desperate to maintain his supreme-leader status after the death of Snoke (Andy Serkis), does not appreciate Palpatine’s micromanagement, which is facilitated by a cumbersome life-support machine. Palpatine wants Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo to reign over the Dark Side together, which introduces more mythology about the latter’s mysterious heritage. Naturally, Rey has other plans, namely being as Force literate as possible so she can join her buddies in conquering the baddies. The hotshot pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), meanwhile, would rather she stop training and start fighting.
Within about a dozen minutes, the movie makes clear that it is not interested in challenging fans’ expectations. Some griped that “The Last Jedi” sent characters on too many disparate missions, robbing them of shared screen time. “The Rise of Skywalker” doesn’t dare repeat that transgression. Every hero — reformed stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), wise alien Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), earnest mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and just about any droid, Wookiee and critter you’ve ever loved — is gathered in one spot, as if attending, perhaps, a well-costumed “Star Wars” convention or something. Long story short, they need to defend against threats of attack from Kylo Ren and his army. The final skirmish looms.
Seeing General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, awkwardly engineered into the movie via unused “Force Awakens” footage) and the rest of the old guard meet the story’s newest torchbearers was part of what made Abrams’s previous effort satisfying. Here, it’s labored. Abrams is so preoccupied with plot mechanics that even a scene in which the ever-talky C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) bids somber farewell to his comrades feels concocted to hit cheap nostalgia notes — a moment of GIF-ready manipulation rather than genuine emotion. Really, “Skywalker” can be summed up as a series of vignettes in which one faction chases the other to a different planet, interspersed with bouts of canned sentiment.
“Today we make our last stand for the galaxy,” Poe declares before the culminating battle, a line that’s as cheesy as it is phony: Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy has already hinted that we might see these characters in future movies.
Of course, it wouldn’t be “Star Wars” if “The Rise of Skywalker” weren’t a feat of impressive imagery. (Abrams rehired much of his “Force Awakens” crew, including production designer Rick Carter and cinematographer Dan Mindel, neither of whom worked on “The Last Jedi.” No wonder the trilogy feels erratic.) Indeed, the ominous grays in Palpatine’s palace and the cataclysmic hurricane that amplifies Rey and Kylo’s big duel are wondrous to behold, complemented by the John Williams score that most harks back to his work in Lucas’ 1977 original. Sadly, nothing comes close to Snoke’s crimson lair or the eerie red dust floating through the salt planet Crait in “Last Jedi.”
Looking pretty can be a trap for a movie like this anyway. It hides flaws and dupes diehards into thinking that what’s unfolding is more electrifying than it actually is. If Driver weren’t delivering a bravura performance even when Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio (“Argo”) bludgeon us with heavy-handed themes, there might not be much else to discuss. Driver is, and always has been, this trilogy’s MVP. The whole idea of Kylo Ren has been stressed since the moment we met him: He’s a confused, patricidal Jedi apostate who still has glimmers of goodness buried in him, just as Rey might have a touch of the Dark Side in her. Heroism devolving to villainy — and vice versa — is hardly a fresh concept for “Star Wars,” but Driver humanized Kylo beyond his obvious shading. His soft voice projects an ease that contradicts Kylo’s frequent temper tantrums, and his eyes always seem to be searching for something, either within himself or among those around him — a quality that’s as scary as it is forlorn because it promises volatility.
Driver is given much to do in “The Rise of Skywalker.” His scenes with Ridley are the movie’s best, at least until the duo’s final seconds together, when their connection turns cringey. Before that, they taunt each other and prod at complex ideas about political allegiance. Each has a traumatic past that comes to light through their bond, and even when Abrams and Terrio hand Driver thudding dialogue, he remains fully committed. It can be hard to deliver a dynamic performance in a film that’s so computerized, but this is further proof that Driver is one of his generation’s finest actors.
If only everything surrounding Driver matched his caliber. Many of the supporting players, namely Tran and Billie Lourd, are underserved. Billy Dee Williams returns to redeem Lando Calrissian, and other familiar faces pop up to shift characters’ motivations so the plot keeps chugging. But if “The Last Jedi” was about how hard it can be to unite in times of tribulation, “The Rise of Skywalker” provides pat notions about solidarity that are further weakened by its frenzied cadence. Domhnall Gleeson, as the bratty scoundrel General Hux, may be the only person besides Driver and Ridley who is given something interesting to do. (It’s nice to see the underrated Richard E. Grant join Palpatine’s gang, though.)
Such is the reality of franchise filmmaking today. In all likelihood, no “Star Wars” movie will ever again feel like the event that “The Force Awakens” or even “The Last Jedi” was, no matter what future box-office receipts look like. Creatively speaking, blockbuster culture has cratered in the mere four years since “Force” opened, becoming a lose-lose situation. Hard-core fans are too riotous, and lukewarm fans too jaded. What the frustratingly safe “Rise of Skywalker” shows is that we can achieve diversity in the representational sense but not in terms of actual storytelling.
“The Last Jedi” pushed the franchise forward, and this pulls it back, as if to reject Johnson’s progressive, philosophical lens. What a disappointing way to say some sort of goodbye: with a lot of loud bangs and utterly no wit.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opens in theaters Dec. 20.
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