'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker': Film Review

More is rather less.
12/20/2019

Director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio close the book on the core origin story of George Lucas' space saga as the torch of intergalactic control is passed from one generation to the next.

How many film franchises have lasted for 42 years? Who will be surprised if Disney, the adoptive parent of George Lucas' remarkable baby, doesn't keep siring new offspring for the seemingly inexhaustible intergalactic mother ship known as Star Wars for longer than anyone connected with the original series is still alive? Will movie theaters still exist when the children, biological or otherwise, of Rey or Poe or Finn are old enough to fly? Has the property now become too Disneyfied? Will even more of the core fan base that angrily turned on The Last Jedi continue and amplify their vendetta in the wake of the new entry?

These are some of the questions swirling around Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which eventfully, if not exactly satisfactorily, closes the book on the core origin story of this indelible world. On a popular level, it succeeds in a way that good escapist fiction always has, by transporting you completely to a fabulous foreign realm unvisitable by any other means. No one who has seen the preceding VIII chapters will dare miss this concluding installment, which means that the vast majority of the known moviegoing world will turn up. And in theaters, no less. But there are nagging problems that, while evident in the previous two entries, have become more pronounced now.

With J.J. Abrams back at the helm after having efficiently relaunched the franchise four years ago with The Force Awakensthere was little doubt that the serious business of keeping Disney's most valuable acquisition well-tended would be responsibly managed by the man who previously relaunched Star Trek on the big screen. If anything, the director has overcompensated, practically tripping over himself in a mad-dash effort to deliver the expected goods and then some. It's easy to conjure up the image of him as a beleaguered chef in a large kitchen preparing a huge banquet, trying to satisfy lots of customers in the ways that count and not goof up anything too important.

In the most obvious ways he has largely succeeded, even if the more-is-more approach ultimately leaves one both bloated from too many courses and uncertain about some of the ingredients. To switch metaphors, he's also a traffic cop; there's more travel here than in Around the World in 80 Days, and it sure moves a lot faster, but half the time you don't know either where the characters are or why they're going somewhere else, which is virtually all the time. The dramatic structure owes more to a pinball machine than to a logically planned trip, but this doesn't matter all that much, as most viewers will just be on board for a great ride and more than willing to go wherever the film takes them.

The core dynamic at play in the script by Chris Terrio (Argo, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League) and Abrams, from a story by Derek Connolly (Safety Not GuaranteedJurassic World, Monster Trucks), is, appropriately enough given the franchise's jump from Fox to Disney, the passing of the torch of intergalactic control from one generation to the next. Courtesy of a rather significant amount of previously unused footage, the late Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa is on hand to participate in the transfer of power. The sense of continuity is furthered by the liberation from self-imposed hermitude of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and the big-screen re-emergence, after 34 years and numerous gigs as the character on TV and in video games, of Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian. 

At the outset, the universe is at a point where domination by the First Order once again seems a possibility. You would think that the utter and repeated obliteration suffered by the dark side in the past would be enough for peace and quiet to prevail at least for a few lifetimes. But, no, somehow old Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is still hanging in there and a massive generation of young stormtroopers is at the ready to attack once heir presumptive Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) sheds his Hamlet-like indecision and decides to seize his opportunity to rule the world.

The main thing giving him pause is his keen attraction to Rey (Daisy Ridley). Despite his predilection for wearing his own, red-veined version of a Darth Vader mask, for the longest time he remains hung up on a fantasy that he and Rey can become the ruling couple of the universe. But she's no more prone to entertain this notion than she's ever been, preferring to hone her skills as a badass warrior, a vocation furthered when Leia bestows her personal lightsaber on the intensely focused younger woman.

For quite a long time, the film jumps all over the place, making as many stops as a local subway train. Rey and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) remain at odds about most things, but the main demand on the latter's time is jerry-rigging his rickety used spacecrafts and otherwise wrestling with physical jeopardy, which happens all the time as the small band of Resistance fighters fly hither and yon looking for the Emperor's gathering forces. Never does a mechanical problem remain unsolved by Poe for more than a minute or two.

So agreeable are most of the performers and so busy are the characters tending to urgent matters that the why and wherefore of what's happening onscreen becomes increasingly obscure: Where does everyone stand in relation to one another? Where is so-and-so going and why? What's at stake in this particular confrontation? (Of course, there has to be at least a mini-crisis every few minutes.) Not everything can represent the same urgent importance, nor should the fate of the universe be at stake every 10 minutes. Yes, it was so in 1930s serials like Flash Gordon, which is what inspired Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place, and very occasionally, such as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a modern director has been able to pull off a highly episodic adventure like this. 

Here, though, the massive jumble of standoffs, near-misses, tense confrontations, narrow escapes and slick victories, while momentarily exciting, can lack plausible motivation and credibility. More often than not, one wonders not so much what just happened but why, and what was at stake. A plot like this, featuring so many characters, locations and story dynamics, can by nature be confusing; so relentless is the pileup of incident that, at a certain point, one can be excused for checking out on the particulars of what's going on at a given moment and why in favor of just going along for the amusement park ride.

There are directors who are content with such ambitions, just as there are large audiences for same. Abrams has a foot in one camp and the other foot in another, hoping to have it both ways, which he manages for the reason that The Rise of Skywalker has a good sense of forward movement that keeps the pic, and the viewer, keyed up for well over two hours. It might not be easy to confidently say what's actually going on at any given moment and why, but the filmmakers' practiced hands, along with the deep investment on the part of fans, will likely keep the majority of viewers happily on board despite the checkered nature of the storytelling.

Still, an increasingly vexing issue that serves to hold one's enthusiasm in check are the main characters and cast of episodes VII to IX. The simultaneous onscreen presence here of Fisher, Hamill, Williams and a fun, unbilled appearance by another franchise favorite creates a wave of sentimental affection and goodwill that the younger leads have never generated across three films. Isaac has loosened up a bit to become more engaging as the series has progressed, but the same can't be said for Ridley, whose portrait of Rey runs the gamut between determined and grim. As Kylo Ren, Driver is, for the most part, broodingly recessive in a not particularly intriguing way; his character an uninterestingly conflicted, not to mention inarticulate, Hamlet.

It almost goes without saying that, from a physical production point of view, The Rise of Skywalker is stupendous, enough reason by itself to see and even enjoy the film. Clearly no expense has been spared in making almost every scene spectacular, and cinematographer Dan Mindel has here surpassed his work on The Force Awakens and numerous other special effects extravaganzas with his often striking images (some eye-popping settings, particularly in Jordan and along a stormy seacoast that makes the one in Ryan's Daughter look like a wading pool, don't hurt). Production designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins and costume designer Michael Kaplan aced their jobs as well, as have, in spades, the visual and special effects teams.

John Williams, 87 years young, has composed yet another rambunctious, melodious, propulsive score for a very big film; you wouldn't want anyone else on the job. 

Production companies: Lucasfilm, Bad Robot
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams, story by Derek Connoly, Colin Trevorrow, Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams, based on characters created by George Lucas
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Michelle Rejwau
Executive producers: Tommy Gormley, Callum Greene, Jason D. McGatlin
Director of photography: Dan Mindel
Production designers: Rick Carter, Kevin Jenkins
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Editors: Maryann Brandon, Stefan Grube
Music: John Williams
Casting: Nina Gold, April Webster, Alyssa Weisberg

Rated PG-13, 141 minutes