Milo Farragher-Hanks reviews the latest edition to the Star Wars franchise
“Fear is the path to the dark side” – so Yoda warned Star Wars fans twenty years ago in The Phantom Menace. While anyone can be forgiven for wanting to scrub George Lucas’ first prequel from their mind, the current custodians of the franchise should have remembered those words. For The Rise Of Skywalker, the ninth and (for now) final instalment of the ‘Skywalker Saga’ is a film hobbled by fear.
Directed by JJ Abrams (returning to the directors chair after reviving the series with The Force Awakens) and co-written by Abrams and Chris Terrio, the film seems terrified of letting the series fans down, and so torpedoes its own narrative in service of delivering the safest, most fan-pleasing version of itself. If Rian Johnson’s previous instalment The Last Jedi was to Star Wars as Casino Royale is to James Bond (a smart, stylish entry grounded in classical storytelling principles, with a self-critical eye cast on the series’ own tropes), then The Rise Of Skywalker is the equivalent of Spectre – anaemic, convoluted, and obsessed with rehashing past glories.
The customary crawl informs us that, decades after his apparent death in Return Of The Jedi, the wicked Emperor Palpatine (St Andrews alumni Iain MacDiarmid) has returned, his voice heard throughout the galaxy. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), now the leader of the First Order, tracks the resurrected Sith Lord to his lair (a shadowy abode with traces of German Expressionism, Hammer Horror and eventually Eyes Wide Shut) on a remote, shadowy planet. There, Palpatine gives the conflicted young would-be evil-doer a mission; kill his Jedi adversary Rey (Daisy Ridley), and in exchange Palpatine will provide him with a fleet of all-powerful Star Destroyers.
Rey herself, meanwhile, is continuing her Jedi training under the auspices of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, digitally resurrected using deleted footage from The Force Awakens). Upon hearing of Palpatine’s plan, Rey sets off alongside Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) in search of…well, in search of a lot of things, in a scavenger-hunt plot which will somehow lead them to the Emperor.
From the off, The Rise Of Skywalker exists in a state of perpetual motion. The film moves from one MacGuffin to the next, one location to the next, in an unceasing hurricane of incident. The dialogue is dominated by dry exposition that sounds like a video game walkthrough read aloud, occasionally punctuated by sub-Marvel quipping and clumsy attempts at sentiment. The film never rests in one place – there’s always a new development, a new complication, a new place to go and a new goal to achieve. There’s little time for any moment to breathe or any narrative turn to sink in – or even simply for characters to talk to each other.
Two promising new characters are hastily introduced – Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), a miscreant with a connection to Poe’s past, and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a Resistance ally who finds common cause with Finn (both are former Stormtroopers) – only to become essentially irrelevant just as quickly, because the film is unwilling to slow down and do the work of establishing them. The near-total sidelining of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a radically vulnerable character who reintroduced a certain emotional openness to the saga in the previous instalment, tells you much of what you need to know about The Rise Of Skywalker – a film wherein characterisation chokes to death on a gluttonous excess of plot. The film seems desperate to avoid its audience getting bored or having to feel bad or uncertain for any length of time. Abrams and Terrio treat the audience like children who need to constantly be distracted by shiny things lest they lose interest.
In form as well as content, Abrams mistakes incident for drama and movement for excitement. Some of he and director of photography Dan Mindel’s shots have a pleasing sense of scale, but largely the frames are too busy and too brief to achieve any compositional beauty. Whereas prior Star Wars films have had action scenes where the choreography, photography, and editing achieved operatic grandeur or even lyricism – think of the shadowy, visceral final showdown of The Empire Strikes Back or the stunningly colourful, dancelike throne room scene in The Last Jedi – here most of the major set-pieces are rapidly edited melanges of tight close-ups. There’s no physicality, no grace, no suspense – just a lot of weightless explosions and formless noise. The only original visual idea here is a shameless steal from Mad Max: Fury Road, executed with none of that film’s painterly visual brio or tactile sense of impact.
The film’s aversion to risk and excessive need to please eventually suffocate its narrative. Abrams and Terrio resort to the kind of absurd convolutions associated with the most hare-brained fan theories in order to walk back The Last Jedi’s subversions of series conventions, in the process making the narrative near-nonsensical and far less interesting. Rey, in particular, loses almost all her interior nuance in service of bringing the story in line with the original trilogy. Even more bizarrely, the film repeatedly insists on undermining its own drama. Early on, a shocking development which sets a key character on an unexpected and poignant trajectory is undone mere minutes later; another unexpected twist rife with potential for unexpected character beats and comedy is effectively nullified almost immediately.
The film wrings the reappearance of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian for all the applause its worth, but then gives him nothing compelling to do – no arc, no chemistry with the new cast members. Nothing is really able to mean anything in The Rise Of Skywalker, which feels less like a film than a series of gestures toward the legacy of Star Wars – a series of scenes and moments designed to hit the pleasure centres of nostalgic fans’ brains in the easiest ways possible, strung together by a barely-there narrative framework. The climax contains a shot which ought to play as incredibly moving and triumphant, but instead feels so obligatory and unearned that no emotion registers. The film’s approach does a disservice not only to The Last Jedi’s bold left-turns but to the work that The Force Awakens did in establishing new characters and dynamics. Here, they all become sacrificial lambs on the altar of nostalgia.
There are still moments of pleasure dotted throughout. Adam Driver continues to be perhaps the most nuanced performer the series has ever seen. The climax gives him some moments of delightfully, under-played physical comedy, while a close-up on his pained face at the end of a poignant interaction with a returning favourite is the film’s most moving image. The cast are all charming when allowed to do something other than exposit – Isaac, in particular, gets to bring some of the exasperated edginess he elevated to a fine art in Inside Llewyn Davies as Poe struggles to become a team player.
It’s a pleasure to once again hear MacDiarmid tearing into his dialogue with diabolical relish and gravel-voiced gravitas, even if he’s saddled with selling some shockingly half-baked plotting. C3PO also gets his best material of the new trilogy here, in some excellent comedic beats. The sets and props have a pleasing tactility to them, making the world feel tangible, while one scene showcasing an alien festival on a desert planet (yes, another one) revisits one of the oft-neglected pleasures of Lucas’ original – a world revealed not through exposition but through colours, textures, and striking design.
Sadly, there’s far too little in this vein. The Rise Of Skywalker fails as a stand-alone film thanks to its frenetic pace and garbled, overstuffed plot, and fails as a finale to a nine-film epic by prioritising franchise nostalgia over compelling storytelling. It is not the worst Star Wars film ever – The Phantom Menace remains uncontested for that position – but it might be the most artistically lazy, cynical, and worst of all the most fearful. The first Star Wars film made a generation want to make films; the last just made me want to watch a better one.