The Emperor is alive and wants to resume control of the galaxy by manipulating Kylo Ren, the villainous supreme commander of the first order. Rey and her friends must find and destroy the emperor. However this reunion may not be what it seems.
I spent the first half hour of Rise of Skywalker waiting for it to slow down. We spring from moment to moment so rapidly that it’s difficult to become emotionally invested in any of the action. Quiet moments are hard to come by in this action epic. There’s not much to say about performances as the actors often feel a secondary concern. If The Last Jedi was a movie that favoured dialogue and respite with action sequences that sometimes felt perfunctory, this is quite the reverse. Character interactions feel like concessions.
The film walks back several narrative decisions made in prior films and ignores some character arcs. Rey’s parentage is suddenly significant again and in fact becomes almost her sole motivation. If Finn learned that suicidal acts of heroism are not as valuable as small sustainable acts of compassion or is Poe learned that sometimes it’s good to show restraint and listen to others then neither is demonstrated by their actions in this film. It’s hard to say what anyone learns during the course of this film, though the principle of taking comfort in not being alone in your beliefs is certainly important.
It’s unfortunate that the film can’t be said to be about Rey and Kylo Ren and the ideological battle between them. The screenwriters are unable to capture the chemistry and magic that made their relationship so thrilling in The Last Jedi or even The Force Awakens. Consequently the film is primarily spent detailing the specifics of a treasure hunt across the galaxy, that sees them travel to different locations and experience mild obstacles. The filmmakers seem reluctant to divide the narrative between different strands until the final battle. The result is a little dull.
This is JJ Abrams directing so whilst it may lack heft and deliver few surprises it is an effectively made action adventure. The gun fights and lightsaber duels are well choreographed and filmed. It is a shame that the action is so frequently robbed of consequence. The film proves toothless in terms of actual stakes. Even minor characters are given logic bending escapes from certain death. Rey and Ren face off in duels three times throughout the film’s runtime, which makes their final confrontation feel unremarkable. The space battles are difficult to execute as there is such a risk of making the ships seem completely weightless. There are a handful of shots where they effectively communicate that these are real vehicles with people inside, but far more often it’s just a mess of colours.
The aesthetic of the film is beautiful. Finally the sequel trilogy steps away from the familiar landscapes of the original trilogy and we experience windswept grasslands, an ominous sith world and seedy underworlds. We don’t spend all that much time in these locations, but there are some beautiful sets. In particular the scene set within a festival featured all the puppets and practical effects you’d expect from a true star wars film. Similarly the realisation of the ghoulish emperor is fantastic in the most literal sense. The disconcerting use of light helps to make him one of the most engaging presences in the film.
Carrie Fisher’s tragic death posed a challenge to the filmmakers. There’s no truly sensitive way to handle the death of a cast member. Nolan made no reference to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight Rises. The Hunger Games had Phillip Seymour Hoffman write a letter. Ridley Scott digitally recreated Oliver Reed to a fair amount of effect. The technique employed by Abrams and Co. is to reuse footage from earlier films. The effect is reminiscent of the episode of The Simpsons where film editors try to replace a missing Milhouse. The conversation awkwardly steers towards Fisher’s prerecorded responses. She never truly feels present. Her final moments in The Last Jedi were all the closure we needed to this character. Perhaps she could have just written a letter.
Speaking of largely absent cast members, Kelly Tran’s Rose is relegated to a supporting role with only a handful of lines. Perhaps this is the producers moving a controversial figure to the background or perhaps Tran requested the reduced screen time herself after her disgusting treatment on social media following The Last Jedi. In either case, this feels like an unfortunate concession to the forces of hatred. Some terrible people will be delighted.
Perhaps those raging fanboys were actually right. Perhaps Rian Johnson actually did ruin Star Wars. Perhaps without his bold character driven epic, this would somewhat by-the-numbers conclusion would feel much more satisfying. It does after all feature wonderful special effects, light drama and a few compelling moments. I just kept waiting for the magic to seize me and one or two sequences did cause a stirring. However it is clear that creatively the saga has returned to it’s slumber. Is it foolish to hold out for a new hope?