REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Disney / Lucasfilm

The following is a review of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker — Directed by J. J. Abrams.

Although the subtitle of this film suggests otherwise, Disney has been pretty adamant in saying that the Skywalker saga (i.e. the episodes) is coming to an end with this ninth episode, which thus ends Disney’s sequel trilogy. It has been a trilogy that has been bumpier than I expected it to be, which is largely due to Lucasfilm hirings and firings, as well as the return of a rabid, entitled, and toxic part of the Star Wars fandom, which has been determined to have their say on what can and cannot be appreciated about these films. This part of fandom has been absolutely infuriating, and it has robbed Star Wars fans of the happiness that one should get when you discuss something that you love. J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was an undeniably satisfying and very rewatchable table-setter, and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi was an ambitious, bold, and critically acclaimed exploration of legacy, legends, and failure. Now we have The Rise of Skywalker, J. J. Abrams’ curtain-closer. Though I did ultimately enjoy the film, I have to admit and acknowledge that this is definitely the sequel trilogy’s low-point, in part due to Abrams’ obvious attempt to appease parts of the fandom that could only be pacified by reversing decisions that were made in Rian Johnson’s film.

With the Battle of Crait in the characters’ collective rearview mirror, Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker begins with both the First Order and the Resistance rallying up their forces to prepare for new conflicts among the stars. But there has been a disturbance in the Force. The sinister Darth Sidious (played by Ian McDiarmid) has made his return, and he wants to develop the First Order into something more powerful and imperial. Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) has been asked to kill Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), but he does not trust the former Emperor, and his connection with Rey is still strong. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac) and Finn (played by John Boyega) are investigating whether or not there may be a spy in the First Order. Together, Poe, Finn, and Rey go on an adventure to find Sith artifacts that may lead them to the Emperor and one final battle to bring balance to the Force.

To reiterate, with The Rise of Skywalker, it frustratingly almost feels like J. J. Abrams is at war with Rian Johnson and The Last Jedi, which is a far superior film. Nothing about Episode IX bothered me more than Abrams and the writers’ obvious attempts to overrule Johnson’s creative decisions. As a fan of The Last Jedi, I was extremely disappointed to see just how much Abrams had decided to reject Johnson’s influence on this trilogy. In The Last Jedi, Rey’s parentage reveal was refreshing and bold, but, in Episode IX, Abrams insists that this is a story thread worth retreading and altering. In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren smashed his helmet to let go of the hero worship that had previously defined him, but, in The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams makes a point of showing us Kylo reassembling the helmet, and he wears it proudly. The Last Jedi introduced a new main character, Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran), who is almost completely ignored in this film. Most infuriating, however, is a line of dialogue uttered on Ahch-To that incontrovertibly mocks a bold character moment from The Last Jedi. Not only do these reversals bring attention to the lack of cohesion in the sequel trilogy, but they also suggest that a toxic vocal minority can get what they want from Disney and Lucasfilm if they scream about it long enough.

I think the most obvious issue with this film is the screenplay written by J. J. Abrams and Chris Terrio. J. J. Abrams has made a film that is jam-packed almost to the point of implosion. It feels like there are two arguably incomplete films squeezed into Episode IX. Also, I think that Abrams has overburdened himself with the film’s villain. I think that the inclusion of Darth Sidious into this trilogy feels hamfisted, extremely underexplained, and, like the first thirty minutes of the film, very rushed. There are so many MacGuffins and so many characters, and Abrams is so excited to continue his story that he almost shatters the new trilogy. At its worst, The Rise of Skywalker feels like fan-fiction, or, to put it more kindly, like a rough first draft from an overexcited filmmaker. Sometimes it feels like Abrams and Terrio were more concerned with ticking off boxes on the fandom’s wishlist than writing a good story. I think it is fairly clear that this is a poorly paced and messy film, even if you ultimately enjoy the film like I did. There are many foreshadowings and fate reversals within the film that eventually become quite predictable. I would also add that several lines of dialogue in the last scenes of the film are both heavy-handed and unoriginal, and this lack of inventiveness sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth. I would even go as far as to say that Rian Johnson’s ending to The Last Jedi is a better ending to the saga as a whole than Abrams’ ending in Episode IX.

With all of this having been said, I did find enjoyment in the closing chapter of the Skywalker saga, and I do, ultimately, like the film. I think there are a great many things to appreciate about this film. As we have become used to with Star Wars, the production design is outstanding, the visual effects (except for the effects in one flashback scene) are great, and the creature designs are decidedly fun and creative. Though I’m not fond of all of the new additions in this film, I think there are a couple of new creatures and characters that fit right into this universe seamlessly. John Williams’ music, his final score for a film in the saga, is a glorious recording of many previous great hits. So, on a purely technical level, The Rise of Skywalker is, like most Star Wars films, terrific.

I actually think this is both a really funny and moving episode. Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO has several memorable scenes here, and I think this is easily his funniest performance in the sequel trilogy. Also, there is a new creature in The Rise of Skywalker that is a genuine highlight. The greatest character chemistry in this sequel trilogy has been the one shared by Daisy Ridley and Adam Drivers’ characters. While both are good in the film, Adam Driver once again steals the movie from his co-stars. In The Force Awakens, he was introduced as a genuinely great new villain, and, in The Last Jedi, he showed new sides to his character that were genuinely interesting. Although I’m sure there are things to nitpick here and there, I really like the vast majority of things that J. J. Abrams and Chris Terrio do with his character. This is a film that may feel suffocated by fanservice and cameos, but, whenever he is on-screen, Driver’s natural talent shines through and makes the difficult scenes work for me. At times, he livens up the entire film.

The one final thing that I want to talk about in this review is how J. J. Abrams attempts to work around the loss of Carrie Fisher and still use her character. Using both previously used and unused footage that has been touched up via visual effects trickery, Abrams has done his best to complete Leia’s arc, and I, honestly, really like how he handles Fisher’s character, even though I’m sure we would’ve been treated to something more meaningful if she had been alive to appear in the film. Though we have clearly seen versions of some of her scenes in previous episodes, it made me happy to see just how big of a role she has to play in the character arcs that have defined the sequel trilogy. Furthermore, there are scenes that her character has an impact on that genuinely tugged at my heartstrings.

I believe this is the messiest and most poorly paced film in Disney’s sequel trilogy. The first thirty minutes of the film almost makes you feel winded, the resurfacing of the saga’s ultimate villain is woefully underexplained, and Abrams and Terrio’s script is disrespectful towards the previous film in the saga. However, the most engrossing and engaging relationship in the sequel trilogy works wonderfully here, in part, thanks to another praiseworthy performance from Adam Driver, and, although Abrams ran the risk of having his film be stifled by excessive amounts of fanservice, the returning director, ultimately, did manage to make another entertaining but undeniably safe episode of the franchise. The Force may not have been strong with J. J. Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker, the low-point in the sequel trilogy, but it works just well enough for me to feel good about recommending it.

7.7 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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