Review: The Rise of Skywalker

To give the trilogy it's due, Cherwell recruited three movie goers with varying relationships to the franchise to review the final installment of the Star Wars Saga: a seasoned critic, a diehard fan, and a longtime Star Wars holdout.

Space Operatic Dullness by Mattie Donovan, “The Critic”

When this new trilogy of Star Wars films began back in 2015, there was a charming sense of nostalgia and goodwill among fans of the franchise. The Force Awakens was indulgent and silly yet a winning opening chapter – it may have felt like a dialled-up rehash of A New Hope, but it was also a piece of cinematic renewal that you couldn’t help getting on board with. New lead characters Rey, Poe and Finn were not fully formed, but were well on their way to having realised arcs centred around the time-old Star Wars themes of fate, binary morality and the pull of parental legacies. Hell, they even serviceably bumped off series veteran Harrison Ford, with one last hurrah for Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon . The baton felt well and truly passed on.

The Rise of Skywalker attempts to circumvent 2017’s divisive follow up The Last Jedi, serving more as a soft reboot to the franchise rather than a definitive saga closer. The result is a turgid mess, devoid of thematic exploration but rife with the window dressing of a 42-year-old franchise that feels its age. 

We enter in spectacular media res to this new story, with the opening crawl informing us that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and has been orchestrating things from behind the scenes, raising his forces to form the Final Order, a slightly less Nazified but just as drab Starfleet designed to quell the Resistance. All the while,  newly appointed Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) consolidates the power of the Empire and forges his own path. Such revelations are shrugged off with clinical ruthlessness by returning Force Awakens director JJ Abrams- what would have once made the meat of a whole other film is now mercilessly condensed into a prologue that is keen to move on. 

But move on to what exactly? The first act is beyond expositional, delivered more like a sequence of bizarre PS4 cutscenes, detailing Rey (an admittedly more assured Daisy Ridley) and co’s travels to new galactic hinterlands in search of this doo dad or that one, all in the name of locating the Emperor for the final showdown. Previously prophetic or fun worldbuilding now feels tired and strangely unearned. Revelations such as Rey’s parentage, previously put to bed by TLJ director Rian Johnson, are recklessly revived here by Abrams and co-scriptwriter Chris Terrio, in a confused attempt to establish new stakes.

This confusion extends to the ensemble cast, many of whom don’t serve a clear purpose in the story.. Billy Dee Williams’ iconic Lando Calrissian, seen sporting his cape centrally in the trailers, is sadly a non-entity, while relative newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is only given lines of nondescript urgency in the film’s muddled climax. A saving grace can be found in the handling of the untimely passing of Carrie Fisher; while noticeable to the attentive viewer, the stitching together of previously unused footage allowed for a fitting swansong to be given to General Leia. It’s just a shame that such a sense of earned finality does not extend to the wider saga.

Kylo Ren, forever the black sheep of this trilogy, is arguably the best served here. Trading in his dark side broodiness for something more conflictual, Driver gives Kylo Ren much belated elements of pathos and resignation that were previously unseen in his interactions with Rey. While the thematic duality of their relationship has never been more on the nose, Ridley and Driver have been able to make their conversations, if not their lightsaber duels, maintain a degree of sorely needed intrigue. 

John William’s updated score never disappoints, but it also feels like the only way of rousing emotional sentiment in this final instalment. In lieu of meaningful character moments, The Rise of Skywalker opts for technically impressive but empty spectacle. It is a misguided attempt by Abrams to replicate what he packaged so well with the Force Awakens: nostalgia. But such nostalgia has a rapid half life the first time around, let alone when you are attempting to conclude two previous films’ conflicting visions for your heroes’ . It’s serviceable as a lightsaber duelling blockbuster, but given the sort of space opera  Star Wars promises to offer, it’s painstakingly dull and uninspired.

Our critics agree: Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren has been one of the few true highlights of the trilogy.
credit: Disney and Lucasfilm Ltd.

Hope Wins, Kinda by Samuel Lapham, “The Diehard” 

It’s safe to say that the audience response to this latest Star Wars trilogy has been tepid at best. The Force Awakens played it remarkably safe, and The Last Jedi divided opinions for its mistreatment of Luke and Snoke, as well as the planetary separation of the three main characters.As the trilogy’s finale,, The Rise of Skywalker had nothing short of a momentous responsibility. Not only was it tasked with wrapping up the entire Star Wars saga, but it faced an arguably even greater challenge in attempting to steer this trilogy into a direction that felt clear and cohesive, something sorely lacking in the previous two instalments. As a result, it becomes difficult to determine whether The Rise of Skywalker underwhelms at an individual narrative level, or suffers because of the disjointed entries preceding it. But even despite its faults, Abrams teaches us that hope prevails in a galaxy far far away.

It’s no spoiler that a large part of the film’s marketing has been centered around the return of Emperor Palpatine, but because his arrival has not been anticipated or teased across the trilogy, his revival feels hollow. Moreover, it undermines Vader’s ultimate triumph over evil in the original trilogy. The decision feels less like an organic story development and more like a last ditch attempt to regenerate fan interest, which wouldn’t have been the issue that it is had Palpatine been utilised to better effect. Instead, his screen time is a compilation of snarls and taunts, lingering in the shadows without ever feeling relevant or essential to the story. To make matters worse, the revelation of a shoehorned personal connection between Palpatine and one of the main characters seems designed to evoke dramatic shock, but feels unearned. 

The other major gripe is the pace at which the film moves. We never linger on a scene for more than the time it takes that scene to practically serve the narrative, and so characters aren’t given time to grow and develop. One lengthy subplot in particular, involving a meandering quest for an artefact that will enable our heroes to find the Emperor, could have been sacrificed in favor of much needed character development. Abrams does attempt to give each character their moments of self-discovery throughout the runtime, but again, this feels like a last ditch effort to create empathy before it’s all over.

Yet, as unnecessarily convoluted as the plot is, it thrives when the characters are allowed to breathe. One of the best things to come out of The Last Jedi was the strangely intimate force connection between Kylo and Rey, and The Rise of Skywalker capitalises on their complicated relationship. When the film grounds itself in the duo’s moral ambiguities, it delivers. And credit where credit is due, Adam Driver has remained the only real constant anchoring these films. 

Technically speaking, amid speeder chases and space battles, the spectacle that steals the show is undoubtedly the magnificent lightsaber duel on the wreckage of the second Death Star. Shot against the backdrop of a tidal storm, the scene reminds us of the phenomenal choreography that pitted Anakin against Obi Wan in the prequels – Contrasting the fires of Mustafar, Kylo and Rey’s final battle is set against a riotous tempest.

Rife with nostalgia, fan surprises and contrived stakes, the film still contains scenes destined to ignite smiles. Star Wars has always been about the colossal binary of light and dark, and the ability of seemingly ordinary people to conquer temptation. Though the Rise of Skywalker perhaps tries to do too much while lacking a solid foundation, it undeniably stays true to the roots of the saga.

The lightsaber duel between Rey and Kylo Ren on the wreckage of the Death Star was a stand out spectacle for many fans. credit: Disney and Lucasfilm Ltd.

Déjà vu in a Galaxy Far, Far Away by William Atkinson, “The Holdout”

Readers, I’ve disappointed my Mum in many ways down the years: I’ve forgotten Mother’s Days, I’ve failed to tidy my room, and I even did History at Oxford as an embarrassing teenage rebellion against a Mum who studied it at Cambridge. But there has been no area, no zone of motherly concern where I have let her down more spectacularly than in my lack of interest in Star Wars. I’ve really tried my best. I’ve watched the films, played the Lego video game and even got plastic lightsabers for Christmas.  But to a lady who grew up queuing around the block to see The Empire Strikes Back, a mother who has cried at all the various sort-of and actual deaths of Han Solo, my stubborn refusal to be enthusiastic about a galaxy far, far away is pretty much the best reason she has for disinheriting me. 

In my defence I believe I have a good excuse. I’m prepared for the backlash, but ladies and gentlemen, I find Star Wars a bit boring. The films mostly have the same plot; they’re as predictable as Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and a planet-destroying Space MacGuffin gets blown up. Rian Johnson tried to do it somewhat differently with The Last Jedi , but his attempts at reinvention  were immediately opposed and reviled by the Jedi neckbeards of the Twittersphere. Thus the plot developments of TLJ are almost entirely ignored by this year’s entry, The Rise of Skywalker. Instead of something vaguely original, we get another couple of hours of the same repetitive and unoriginal fan-pleasing tedium. 

The film is sadly formulaic.  The plot, essentially, is that Ian McDiarmid’s Evil Emperor is back (with almost no explanation, since he’s there for fan service) and is after our hero, Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Ridley has come a long way since The Force Awakens. There, her performance had a range of about two different facial expressions, but now she has blossomed as a talent. It’s mainly down to her and her co-stars, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, that the film is marginally more entertaining than it has any right to be. 

Our plucky heroes are up against Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. He stomps about a bit, is often a bit cross, and has a series of repetitive conversations with Rey. Whereas in The Last Jedi these were laced with sexual tension and the potential for Rey to go over to the Dark Side, here they are as immemorable as Christ Church hall food. Being a Star Wars film, this all eventually sets up a final act – via a series of planets inhabited by forgettable characters, one note aliens and continuity references – which involves the destruction of a planet-destroying weapon and the battle for the Ultimate Triumph of Good Over EvilTM

Despite The Rise of Skywalker’s total unoriginality, it could have mustered up some more entertainment if it hadn’t felt like the stakes were lower than a school sports day. Characters die for all of five minutes; scenes are sold as big emotional moments and then rendered pointless by a reversal a few scenes later. By the end I was laughing at the latest shlocky twist or obvious fake-out. Everything you expect to happen happens. Whereas Rian Johnson was audacious enough to do something shocking and different, J.J. Abrams has repeated his trick from The Force Awakens and reheated all the old tropes in a fan-friendly package. For someone indifferent about the whole saga, it’s not infuriating or disappointing – just dull.

I hope I’m not coming across as a party-pooper. For two hours of mindless entertainment, The Rise of Skywalker is still perfectly decent entertainment. For those who’ve grown up loving it, I’m sure the film will leave them with a smile on their faces: it certainly did for the bunch of Star Wars-loving mates I saw it with. So maybe I’m just an old cynic. But if Star Wars fans can be satisfied by this monotonous, brain-dead and stale slice of fan fiction, then I’m glad I’m not one of them.