Is the Force strong with the latest – and apparently final – Star Wars movie? Here’s our spoiler-free review of The Rise Of Skywalker.
As if simply making a decent Star Wars movie wasn’t difficult enough, The Rise Of Skywalker gives itself an even an even greater task: round off not just the current sequel trilogy, which began with 2015’s The Force Awakens, but also provide a satisfying capstone to the entire mainline series of nine movies.
Then again, it’s possible that pitching The Rise Of Skywalker as a broader final chapter in a 42-year-old saga helps returning director JJ Abrams sidestep the need to engage too deeply with this film’s thorny predecessor, 2017’s The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson. The Rise Of Skywalker doesn’t ignore the events of that film – the Resistance is still vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the First Order, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), now Supreme Leader, is more despotic than ever – but neither does it spend much time exploring the themes and ideas that Johnson’s film introduced.
There’s no more talk about letting the past die, or why the Jedi needs to end; Abrams is more interested in gathering his gang of characters back together for one last adventure, with all the aerial battles, lightsaber fights and tests of mettle that a multiplex crowd could want.
The Rise Of Skywalker’s eagerness to please is, perhaps, both its greatest strength and its weakness. The plot, for all its numerous side characters and diverse locations, is a straightforward one, albeit impossible to describe in much detail without launching full-steam into spoiler territory. For our purposes, it’s probably safest to say that the story largely revolves around Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) trying to find some ancient devices that will help them in their struggle against the First Order, which is now bolstered by reinforcements from an uncharted part of the galaxy.
Meanwhile, Kylo Ren is more intent than ever on turning Rey to the Dark Side, even as the First Order’s fleet, now headed up by Allegiant General Pride (Richard E Grant, who’s on top form) readies its forces against the Resistance.
That’s an absurdly vague outline, admittedly, but it’s arguable that the story’s secondary to Abrams’ overwhelming desire to give every major character one last moment in the spotlight – not to mention give a few minutes’ screen time to some new faces.
This means that such newcomers as Jannah (a superb Naomi Ackie), a Resistance ally, and Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), an old flame of Poe’s, have to fight for attention with legacy characters like Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian, who makes a brief but more than welcome return.
Then there are the once important-seeming characters now reduced to little more than walk-on roles, like Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, or Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata. It’s a side effect of making The Rise Of Skywalker a Star Wars finale that so many of these characters have to vie for our attention.
The great cloud that hangs over The Rise Of Skywalker is, of course, the passing of Carrie Fisher, and it’s a relief to say that her presence here – which largely uses pre-existing footage from previous movies – is sensitively handled. In fact, given the pre-release stories of late and extensive reshoots, The Rise Of Skywalker flows remarkably well; the scars of Justice League’s troubled production are nowhere to be seen here. Rather, Abrams displays his now familiar ability to send us careening from one sequence to the next; there are chases among sand dunes, skirmishes in the midst of a raging ocean, and a handful of quite spectacular horror moments that almost border on the gothic. In terms of its effects and production design, The Rise Of Skywalker’s difficult to fault; Abrams’ commitment to practical effects is also on full display here, with some incidental yet disarming characters dotted around whose latex and puppetry only makes them more likeable.
‘Likeable’ might be the operative word when it comes to The Rise Of Skywalker, in fact. Again, where Rian Johnson appeared to positively relish thwarting our expectations in The Last Jedi, Abrams’ story – also credited to Chris Terrio, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly – largely seeks to provide a reassuring remix of classic Star Wars beats. That everyone involved gives The Rise Of Skywalker their all isn’t in doubt; Ridley exudes a renewed confidence as a wiser yet more conflicted Rey; Isaac is as winning as always as the hotshot pilot; Driver once again gives Kylo Ren the dark magnetism of a true Byronic hero. John Williams’ score, as reliable as always, soars.
It’s these aspects, I’d argue, that make The Rise Of Skywalker as effective as it is: Abrams remains content to reconfigure familiar conflicts and situations into new shapes, but beneath it all, he’s managed to capture the spirit of Star Wars: the warmth, the wide-eyed earnestness, the sense that, beneath all the military hardware and mass destruction, the series is really about the unstoppable power of unity and friendship.
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