Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
In wrestling the two-headed beast that was a divisive audience reaction to The Last Jedi and the ginormous box office flop that was Solo, Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy wielded her lightsaber to oust her original screenwriter-director choice Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) from the increasingly important 9th Episode of the Skywalker saga, instead opting to return the franchise to the relatively safe hands of the universe’s 7th movie director J.J. Abrams. Abrams, the filmmaker behind the cinematic reboots of both Star Wars and Star Trek, was therefore tasked with steering the increasingly fragile Star Wars ship into calmer waters with the central Skywalker saga’s conclusion; a film long considered a must-win for the Disney-Lucasfilm partnership. With repairs needed between the cinematic universe and its audience in order to appease some portions of the fandom, a box office hit needed to appease Disney accountants circling an increasingly fragile franchise, a critical hit needed to appease the Disney executives who are still considering the role of Kennedy with just weeks left on her Lucasfilm deal, and the need for a satisfying conclusion to one of the most beloved and popular franchise narratives of all time, Abrams seemed tasked with achieving the impossible: a film that wins for everyone. With The Rise of Skywalker, the talented director proved that even for a filmmaker as well versed in audience pleasing spectacle as him, the impossible is perhaps a little too much. There were no miraculous force-wielding powers at play here.
So much was made of the divisive nature of the expectation quelling The Last Jedi upon its release in 2017, Rian Johnson’s universe-rocking screenplay providing what many saw as a shot in the arm for the franchise and others saw as a decimation of all that had made the franchise so beloved in the first place. The resulting ill-natured discourse surrounding Star Wars created one of the most divided audiences in modern franchise history, and any enjoyment found in The Rise of Skywalker seems to be largely determined by which side of the Last Jedi divide you find yourself on.
If you disliked The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker course-corrected successfully enough to ease anxieties, but if you liked The Last Jedi, then a number of creative choices will seem to have completely undermined the character arcs and narratives set forth by Johnson’s 8th instalment, in what must be seen as an angry shove from Abrams to Johnson’s course-changing ideas.
The narrative for The Rise of Skywalker is, then, perhaps more about the creative hands behind the scenes wrestling for their own vision of the saga than the actual story on the screen; the narrative of the multi-billion dollar franchise leading characters (Rey, Finn, Ren, etc.) seemingly pulled in every direction at the whim of the individual filmmakers taken aboard by Lucasfilm to guide the creative side of the reboot project in an ill-judged attempt to recreate the original trilogy’s distinct sense of individuality across franchise entries.
At one stage in The Rise of Skywalker, one of the franchise’s most beloved characters utters the words “I was wrong”, as Abrams and company collectively dismiss many of The Last Jedi’s philosophies and character motivations; the film offering a knowing wink and a nod that explaining away huge creative shifts in momentary dialogue exchanges is by no means good enough, but that if the Star Wars audience wanted what they paid to see – epic action sequences and battles between the light side and the dark – then it will just have to do. The result is an at times disappointing and often disjointed narrative that seems to offer such unstable bedrock to the performers that even some of the most seasoned actors stuggle to find performances becoming of their names and silver screen history.
What’s worse is that the push and pull of creative forces behind the scenes plays out on the screen in the shape of a rushed first act that seems to put a band-aid on what are perceived as the weak points of Johnson’s work, restructuring the universe’s narrative to reconvene with what Abrams had set up in The Force Awakens, and then proceeds to accelerate at an at times impenetrable rate for the remainder of its runtime. The reasons for this are clear, and to many understandable, but it has an undeniably detrimental effect on the film itself, which if not for said pacing issues and The Last Jedi contradictions offers a pulsating, thrilling, emotional rollercoaster of a finale with hugely significant and rewarding moments.
If it was a war amongst the stars you wanted, then The Rise of Skywalker offered it and then some.
Visually, The Rise of Skywalker is unsurprisingly spectacular, the CGI and practical effects combinations creating a tangible quality to the universe that is at times awe-inspiring, while both the sound mixing and score were immaculate, John Williams’ work elevating every last frame of the piece – never before has a score seemed so intrinsic to the philosophical and ideological presentation at the heart of a film.
This 9th instalment also found great success in revisiting much of what made previous Star Wars films so unique and interesting from a universe building perspective, the heroes traversing the stars, meeting unique characters on distinct planets and finding themselves involved in battles alongside characters already embroiled in their own interesting and unique off-screen narratives. Perhaps most pleasing of all, these moments (many of which were dotted through the film’s first act) felt like Star Wars adventures; they contained the same quirks and star-gazing hopefulness of the original trilogy, Abrams successfully recreating the elements of the filmmaking that helped us to explore our collective imaginations all those years ago. Seeing new characters come to life and never before seen visuals burst out of the screen was becoming of a Star Wars film and an undeniable upgrade on The Last Jedi’s comparatively meta and at times drawn out approach to universe building. Perhaps more so than even in The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker felt like a universe that was lived in, occupied by more than just a handful of characters.
For all of the mishaps and detrimental course correction found in the screenplay, The Rise of Skywalker did see Abrams place a lot more emphasis on a number of elements that were vital to the original trilogy, the most notable and impactful of which was a return to the philosophy of choice, and how choice is what ultimately makes a character good or bad. In The Rise of Skywalker characters are often swept away by circumstance just as they are in any reasonably budgeted blockbuster (including other Star Wars movies), but the film never backs away from forcing its central characters to make key decisions that flip or twist the narrative in new directions, the indication being that this is a universe shaped by people choosing to do something good or to do something bad, and the pay offs to this ongoing revisitation is huge for a number of the leading characters. There is agency therefore placed in the hands of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and company, which emphasises the philosophy of the force and its relatability to us in the real world – if we too commit to one small act of kindness, that act can come to have universal significance.
The Rise of Skywalker will be remembered perhaps more fondly than it currently is once behind-the-scenes dramas fade into obscurity and the trilogy can be seen as less than what many hold it to the standard of being: the pinnacle of entertainment. This Abrams offering is fun, it has a number of franchise-leading moments of visual awe and narrative satisfaction, it offers something new while being assured in revisiting the old and it has enough going for it in every aspect to be seen with kinder eyes once the microscope of immediacy is removed. There are issues, many of which were foreseen in the turbulence of the film’s pre-production, and said issues were not handled in a manner befitting of a creative force directed by one singular vision, which is of course of huge detriment to the final product, but so far as space philosophy on steroids goes, there’s more than enough about The Rise of Skywalker to latch onto, even if it comes at a million miles per hour.
The likelihood that Episode IX of the Skywalker saga is the last ever Star Wars movie is slim to none, which makes learning lessons from this trilogy a vital part of the process moving forward at Disney and Lucasfilm. There have long been creative visions torn apart by warring factions, and while the effects are not so terminal in the case of The Rise of Skywalker, these issues do shape what has ultimately been put to screen and any such issues may not survive in the realm of non-Skywalker spin-offs, as seen with Solo. Whether this means reinstating the proposed Rian Johnson trilogy and following through on that filmmaker’s vision or simply rearranging high management at Lucasfilm remains to be seen, but there is a rot in the system that almost every Disney Star Wars release has had hints of before Episode IX and has come to the fore now more than ever.
The Rise of Skywalker faced the impossible behind the scenes and, unlike the force-wielding heroes on it, was unable to overcome the odds and make something truly extraordinary. Nevertheless, with all the forces at work and the height of expectation placed upon it, The Rise of Skywalker did enough to be enjoyed on its own; a solid if not groundbreaking Star Wars movie that succeeded in offering exciting moments of fan service that will long be remembered; a movie of significance if not of the highest artistic integrity.