STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the kind of thing that happens when a singular voice creates a revolutionary trilogy that changes movies forever and becomes a cultural phenomenon beloved by generations and then years later makes a trilogy of prequels to said movies that are also a cultural phenomenon and also change movies forever in a different way but are disdained by many and after a while he gets so sick of fuckin hearing about it that he sells off his entire life’s work for nearly five billion dollars and gives most of it to charity while a giant entertainment conglomerate treats his creation as an all-consuming brand centered around a third trilogy that ends the saga but is made by three different directors with no plan for where the fuck it’s going and the first guy does a good workmanlike job, then the second knocks it out of the park with a soulful and distinct followup that severely pisses off a small faction of people we only know about because of the internet and then the third guy gets fired so the first guy has to come back and figure out how the fuck to conclude a story he designed for some other poor sucker to have to deal with and also find an ending to the larger cultural phenomenon he’s been mimicking and for some reason he feels the need to alienate the people who like the movies by pandering to the people who didn’t.
So, you know, if you haven’t seen it yet, you surely can picture that type of movie, but also you shouldn’t read this review because it’s ALL SPOILERS and also you won’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.
With that in mind, here is the first SPOILER thing we need to address: how is Palpatine out there fucking? I’m trying to do the math here of when he would’ve had to conceive Rey’s dad. According to my calculations it’s about four years after the founding of the Empire. So imagine him on top of you when he’s four years older than this:
Well, it’s space I guess. Somebody would be into that. But he’s gotta be using some abilities-some-would-consider-unnatural to keep the pipes working.
I’m one of the people who loved THE LAST JEDI’s (it turns out inaccurate) revelation that Rey was “nobody,” not descended from some previously established Star Warrior. That was so much more dramatic, interesting and meaningful than what we all expected, and it’s weird that very-nice-seeming writer/director J.J. Abrams (with co-writer Chris Terrio, whose reputation based only on ARGO is a total mystery to me, but what do I know) decided to hit control-Z on the depth it added to his story. He’s not stupid – he knows that for many of us it expanded on Lucas’s theme. It said that not only can a slave or a farmboy become a legendary hero, but they can do it without being a chosen one, or a descendent of royalty. They could just have some random drunks as their parents and still be the greatest.
They gave us that and now they’re saying Nah just kidding, only if you have the most powerful Force user ever as a grandpa. Only if your grandpa was the mentor of your enemy’s grandpa. That’s how it works. Do I have to explain midichlorians to you? Don’t test me, I’ll fucking do it.
I was able to roll with the punches of this silly “You’re a Palpatine” revelation. I don’t like it as much, but it doesn’t erase everything. In a way this is still a message of democratization. Instead of “anybody can be a Jedi” it’s saying anybody can be a storyteller. Every last one of us regular chumps saw THE FORCE AWAKENS and said “she’s either a Skywalker, a Kenobi or a Palpatine,” and the official ender of the saga couldn’t come up with anything good either. Even after it was handed to him on a platter, he didn’t know he could just keep it. He’s as bad as us!
I’m neutral on the idea of bringing back Palpatine. Since I don’t think he’s even mentioned in the previous two it feels kind of forced (get it, the Force) to resurrect him and say he was behind everything all along. On the other hand he was the main villain or shadowy danger in the six actual George Lucas Star Warses, so it makes sense to involve him in the officially licensed ending of that story. And I love that they call him a “phantom Emperor” in the crawl. That’s a higher rank than Phantom Menace.
Since they did decide to bring him back I like that they really committed to it, didn’t waste any time pretending it was a surprise. The opening crawl is about his return, and there’s only one line of dialogue speculating about how it happened: magic, cloning, Sith shit, etc. In this (and only this) aspect we’re gifted a CRAWL-like storytelling efficiency. Much like “Where did Snoke come from?,” I don’t think it’s a question that matters. (Although the revelation that the Emperor “made” Snoke brings up more questions.)
It starts like a runaway train – one that’s constantly giving you information. So, a runaway train with frequent announcements over the intercom. STAR WARS was known for setting an exciting new pace, but this is the only one of the nine that seems like it’s being chased by a bear. The first half especially feels rushed, hectic, bizarrely overstuffed, in serious need of a longer cut or a massive rewrite. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt a star war was less of a story than just a harried sprint through a list of places to go, objects to obtain and foes to encounter, glued together by paragraphs of exposition. Exactly like a video game, or in the outlawvern.com parlance, like 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS. It’s a modern feel, but it’s not the feel of the previous Disney Star Warses, even the one by the same director. That one had plenty of time to breathe.
This maddening, coked out rhythm makes RISE OF SKYWALKER the sloppiest and hardest to follow Star War ever, but at least it has a certain goofy I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-this-shit kick to it. One of the early scenes reintroduces us to Chewie, Finn and Poe on the Millennium Falcon and it seems like old times until it casually reveals a giant cartoon slugman named Claude that Finn just walks by and addresses for like two seconds and then there’s another cartoon alien who pokes his head in and Finn says it’s good to see him like he’s an old pal and like two scenes later he’s been decapitated by Kylo Ren and no one mentions him again. For a while it kinda reminded me of VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS the way it’s just people flying around casually talking to goofball alien dudes and robots as if we know who they are and they spit out a bunch of jargon and pull levers and get on ships and snap at each other wittily and get chased and fall off things and go to a parade and then they’re all wearing hoodies including the robot when they have to sneak onto a planet to find a scary underworld figure named Babu Frik who turns out to be a huggable kitten sized muppet that could’ve been left over from LABYRINTH.
One of the many fast-forward-paced sequences is a speeder chase on a desert planet, during which all of us across the globe psychically glanced and nodded at each other in recognition that J.J. Abrams also loves MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. But it’s not so easy, is it J.J., to make a perfect movie full of heart-pumping action set pieces that are flawlessly executed visually and completely fueled by story, theme and character? This ain’t that.
It’s fun though, and I was particularly impressed by the crashing jetpack stormtroopers. If they weren’t actual stunt people crashing and flopping and bouncing on sand they sure did fool me.
(Stunt coordinator: former Angelina Jolie stunt double Eunice Huthart. Fight coordinator: Mike Lambert, “Russian Mafia,” KNOCK OFF.)
Since they announced the new trilogy I’ve thought Lucasfilm was crazy to do it as a handoff between directors. When LAST JEDI worked out so well it seemed like maybe I was wrong. But the baton pass is not as smooth this time. I don’t like to use the language of improv comedy, but it seems J.J. is not a good “yes and”er. Like, as much as I like the weird red scars on Kylo’s repaired mask, it’s as weird as if RETURN OF THE JEDI undid Luke’s robot hand from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
“Oh, you think you can come in here and make a part 2 that moves the story to a new place beyond part 1? You didn’t think I was gonna find out and make part 3 and then back up to the original place? Well I got news for you, motherfucker!”
But I guess it’s a visual cue that Kylo is also going back on having killed his master and becoming the leader – now he’s agreed to be Palpatine’s stooge, so he puts a mask on again.
Abrams didn’t quite give Johnson’s character Rose Tico the Jar-Jar-in-Episode-II treatment, but he clearly had no idea how to use her. (Then again, his own character Maz Kanata has even less to do.) When he has Luke catch Rey’s tossed light saber and tell her he was wrong to exile himself it’s a fitting and logical reversal/continuation of LAST JEDI’s story, but it comes off very “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave?” I don’t think he’s trying to criticize the last movie, he’s trying to joke around to make peace with the “fans,” in this case meaning non-fans. That sours it a little for me. With rotating directors – or without it all being the weird vision of George Lucas – we get two directors/stories fighting against each other and we feel like we have to take sides.
I kinda liked that they mentioned “The Holdo Maneuver” – a phrase I believe was coined by a Star Wars nerd podcast – and why they can’t use it again. Goes without saying in my opinion but if this will seal the hole of whining on that topic I approve.
The biggest foul is that Abrams mostly – arguably completely – ignores the ending (in fact, purpose) of LAST JEDI. Luke finally (pretended to) leave the island in order to be the spark that reignites the Rebellion. We see in the epilogue that his incredible feats have inspired legends and hope across the galaxy. I didn’t expect or want them to bring back “broom boy,” but where is that rising tide? Only in the final battle, when the “not a Navy, just people” (a line I loved) show up. I guess that must mean things have changed since the last time they called for help because of Luke’s actions. Otherwise this chapter doesn’t continue from the events of that one.
But there are a few things Johnson set up that Abrams figured out something great to do with. Maybe my favorite is the Kylo/Rey Force connection, with more A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET now that they can pull objects from each other’s locations. The passing of the light saber is great – he finally gets (and deserves) the weapon he said was his in THE FORCE AWAKENS. And the resolution of the Rey/Ben Solo relationship (which prompted some guy to yell “Fuck that shit!” at the 10:30 Thursday show at Cinerama) is entirely built off of LAST JEDI.
Some people can’t accept when they don’t get what they want in a sequel. They can’t let the expectations go and appreciate the thing for what it is – that’s part of why it can be hard to discuss Star Wars online without pulling your hair out. I really wanted them to stay with the superior idea of Rey not being from a famous family. I gotta accept that it’s now about her being good even though she’s descended from the greatest evil in the galaxy. About Leia trusting her enough to train her despite this heritage. I also wanted – in fact assumed – that Luke saying “See ya around kid” meant he was gonna be Force haunting Kylo. Coming to him to hassle him in ghost form. Oh well.
Also I wish at some point Lando had a line that began, “Ever since Lobot retired…”
But I got my three biggest wishes:
1. Anakin Skywalker Force Ghost. Kind of. I maintain that the logical progression after Episodes I-VI is for Anakin’s ghost to come to Luke. And for him to tell his grandson that he moved beyond Darth Vader. But at least we got his voice speaking to Rey. That’s something. I’m glad Abrams gave in and embraced a little bit of prequel stuff (and even the cartoons!)
3. It’s not about killing Supreme Leader Kylo Ren. It’s about redeeming him. Anything else would be anti-Star-Wars, I think, but many people thought I was crazy for saying that in our discussions the last few years.
Though this angry murderer switching sides was not 100% true to human behavior, and required some magic, I think it feels more earned than either Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side or Vader’s… well, attempted murder it turns out of The Emperor to save Luke. In THE FORCE AWAKENS we saw Kylo’s vulnerability – Snoke scolding him about being tempted by the light side of the Force, his emotion and hesitation before killing Han. In THE LAST JEDI we saw him decide not to fire on Leia. And we saw him build a relationship with Rey through their Force connection, trying to push her to his side but in the process having conversations and bonding with her. And we see him reject Snoke, though for the wrong reasons. Now with the life force of his mother, and the act of forgiveness by Rey (almost killing him, but then healing him), and the intervention of (the memory of) his completely charming father (who he calls “Dad” for the first time instead of “Han Solo”), he finally comes back.
As with THE FORCE AWAKENS, the story of the new generation of characters is much stronger than anything with the original ones. Bless Billy Dee Williams (HIT!) and the character of Lando, and it’s kind of sweet when he gives leadership advice to Poe, but it’s one of those movie roles that’s more for “hey, it’s [actor], I love [actor]” then for actually telling a story.
The scenes with Leia (Carrie Fisher, SORORITY ROW) are understandably choppy and weird, always distracting though necessary so that a beloved main character has an important role in the finale. So we get why her final sacrifice is awkwardly rushed. The funny thing is there are other story elements where they weren’t working around existing outtakes that feel similar. The huge revelation that Luke trained Leia in the ways of the Force after RETURN OF THE JEDI is clumsily worked in when Force Ghost Luke blurts it out with little prompting.
That said, I sort of needed this explanation of why Leia’s life went the way it did, and Luke’s knowledge of her vision about her son gives more context to him pulling the light saber on young Ben at the Jedi Temple – another self-fulfilling prophecy.
[Update: I wrote the above thinking the vision was about her son turning evil – on second viewing, I realize it was just about him dying.]
I have come to the realization that J.J. must not be a Luke Skywalker fan – he directed two Star Wars movies and put him in two scenes. That’s so weird. So he must be a Han fan, and actually Han’s (somewhat inexplicable) appearance here does work very well, and Ford seems legitimately present.
I don’t think he likes R2 either. Definitely doesn’t realize that he was the hero of the first six movies. In 7 he made him a total chump. In this one he does have some sweet moments acknowledging that C3PO is his best friend. And 3PO gets several big laughs.
Poe continues from LAST JEDI, having learned to be a better leader, and to make more jokes. It’s nice to see him reunited with Finn, though that has the adverse effect of making Finn more of a sidekick than last time around. But the friendship is part of the fun.
Kylo Ren/Ben Solo might be the best part of this movie. I love that the opening scenes are him on a rampage. RETURN OF THE JEDI is the only other Star War that opens on the villain, and that villain also turns to the light side at the end. But this treats him like some adventure anti-hero, some of Williams’ strongest new themes roaring as we follow him through a battle (well, a massacre) and a journey through Sith-planet hellscapes to find and confront Palpatine in some dark underground lair.
And by the end he has re-dropped the helmet, lost some of the dark garb, and traded the temper for more of a dashing swashbuckler, somewhere between first-scene-of-REVENGE-OF-THE-SITH Anakin and his charming scoundrel pops.
And Rey continues to be a compelling hero, doing cool Force shit (including floating rocks), flying off on her own like her mentor, getting to fly his X-Wing (another gift Johnson left for Abrams), also using the opposite of violence to get out of some of her biggest jams (though blocking Palpatine’s lightning until he dies doesn’t seem that different from striking him down).
I kind of like that until the very end I was still thinking “Okay, but why is it RISE OF SKYWALKER again?” and then there’s a very nice epilogue that answers that question while tying the three trilogies together with the appearance of the Lars Moisture Farm under the twin suns of Tatooine, site of the most beautiful moment in STAR WARS.
They also crammed in some new-new characters. I’m fond of Zorii Bliss, played by Keri Russell (HONEY, I BLEW UP THE KID). I’m not sure if this is a mistake or something but according to IMDb Russell previously worked with Abrams on I guess some sort of TV show called “Felicity”? She even won a Golden Globe for that. Now she’s better known for starring in The Americans, for which she was twice nominated for a Golden Globe and three times for an Emmy. Playing this feisty criminal and ex of Poe, she’s completely hidden behind a body suit and Daft-Punk-esque helmet… except in one scene where she talks about her long-worked-for plan to escape the embattled planet of Kijimi, and asks Poe to come with her. A chance encounter with a cute boy inspires a seemingly rash decision to completely change her plans. As they sit and talk she opens her visor revealing only her huge, penetrating eyes. And suddenly I completely bought that Poe would be tempted to run off with this character who we never heard of until a couple scenes ago when she thought about turning him in for having abandoned her to join the Resistance.
As skeptical as I am about many of Abrams’ choices as a filmmaker, this is a brilliant thing that I can’t see another director doing, or knowing to do with Russell. And Zorii is just one of the characters who has apparently done bad things in the past but now makes sacrifices for the cause. Her presence asks the movie’s primary question: can you become a new version of you?
To me it’s a movie about not being defined by where you came from or what you used to do. Finn gives Poe shit about “shifty stuff” from his past as a Spice Runner, but he and Zorii (from his questionable days) behave heroically. Finn and his new friends in the Endor system bond over having quit being Stormtroopers. And in that final scene Rey chooses her allegiance to the Skywalker family over her genetic heritage as a Palpatine. (Even though her dad was a Palpatine and apparently a nice guy.)
That’s why, in the tradition of the prequels, I can largely forgive RISE OF SKYWALKER’s many obvious and bewildering flaws. Although I think the themes of LAST JEDI are more heartfelt and resonant, I do think there’s some of the true meaning of Star Wars in here.
I think this is an insane mess of a movie, but it doesn’t make me mad. It’s better than being bland. In my top secret rankings, this is a low one, but I look forward to seeing it again. I hope it changes and grows over time like the others.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.