Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Film Review)

Over the last few years, a new Star Wars film has become something to – mostly – look forward to. The CGI-heavy but otherwise weightless prequel series put me off the franchise for a while, but after Disney’s dubious acquisition of George Lucas’ blockbuster property, The Force Awakens got me back into them. The standalone films so far could have been a lot better, but despite the infuriating level of studio interference in Solo and Rogue One, there are still things to enjoy about both. Recent Disney+ series The Mandalorian is solid, pulpy fun with some fantastic practical effects and the tactility of the original trilogy. My favourite by far, though, is Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which wasn’t just an incredible Star Wars film, but a great film, full stop. Given complete creative freedom by Star Wars boss Kathleen Kennedy, Johnson took the franchise in surprising new directions, doing something truly new with the universe and its characters for the first time. This second instalment in the new trilogy divided fans, however, many of whom have spent their days since Jedi’s 2017 release whining ad absolute nauseum about the film failing to pander to their expectations (as if that’s a bad thing), as well as hounding actress Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) off social media.

After Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow stepped out of the director’s chair for the third and final instalment, not just for this trilogy but the Skywalker saga as a whole, J.J. Abrams returned to helm The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams’ initial foray into Star Wars gave us the brilliant The Force Awakens, which, although it didn’t break any drastically new ground for the franchise, has to be praised for introducing a great new cast of diverse and interesting characters in Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren, among others.

Abrams has a pretty good track record; I’ll defend Lost until my dying breath, and his Mission: Impossible film is one of my favourites. Before Star Wars he did a great job of reinventing another sci-fi juggernaut with 2009’s Star Trek reboot. Even his lesser films, like Stark Trek sequel, Into Darkness, and the Spielberg homage Super 8 aren’t outright disasters.

But then there’s The Rise of Skywalker, which, for me, was a colossal disappointment after the previous films, and a massive step backwards after Rian Johnson broke the mould with episode eight. And yeah, I’ll be mentioning The Last Jedi a few more times, so you might as well start a drinking game for every time it comes up. Comparisons are inevitable, especially with such a variance in quality from one film to another. That’s two drinks so far, by the way.

Here’s what’s good about it. It mostly looks great – there are some beautiful set-pieces, the costumes and practical effects are wonderful as always, and there’s a real physicality to some parts of the film. John Williams’ score is gorgeous. I don’t envy the filmmakers the task of incorporating the late Carrie Fisher into the film, and they did the best job they could with the material they had, even if it does feel quite clunky. The brilliant cast is back, but it’s the material they have to work with that isn’t so brilliant. At a basic level, the script, co-written by Abrams, and Batman v. Superman and Justice League’s Chris Terrio, is bog-standard. There’s no character-driven story here as in the previous instalment (drink), but an ugly mush of convolutions and contrivances comprised of hunts for boring McGuffins, plot holes bigger than the film’s budget, a whole lot of tedious exposition, and dialogue that sounds like the writers stole all the lines from some tepid book of motivational quotes.

I think the problem here is that the filmmakers didn’t have even a broad roadmap for their trilogy starting out. Abrams set up some big mysteries in The Force Awakens and Johnson jettisoned them in The Last Jedi (drink), from Rey’s parentage to the origins of Snoke. Abrams wastes time in The Rise of Skywalker re-establishing these aspects in a film that feels more like a direct sequel to The Force Awakens than a cohesive part of a trilogy. He even sticks poor Adam Driver back behind Kylo Ren’s reforged mask – which now looks like a cheap plastic Kmart knockoff – for far too much of the film.

Speaking of which, they spend too little time on further developing this trilogy’s genuinely engaging and unique characters, and far too much focused on what they try to pass off for a plot, which is frankly ridiculous even by Star Wars standards – I found myself wishing for the days of tedious Trade Federation politics.

Abrams pulls a Bryan Singer with The Rise of Skywalker, relegating characters outside the main four to the sidelines. Naomie Ackie, Keri Russell and Richard E. Grant are fun new additions, but Dominic Monaghan’s role is pointless. Most infuriating of the existing characters is Rose Tico, who gets nothing to do after such an interesting and promising role in The Last Jedi (drink). But even the protagonists get little room to stretch and nowhere interesting to go. Some of the arcs play out in exactly the kind of way I hoped they wouldn’t, and one is particularly cringeworthy. Disney, backtracking cowards that they are, have gone for the laziest, easiest approach here, and it’s agonising to watch the actors wade through the slush of this soulless script.

The Rise of Skywalker splashes around in the wading pool of mediocre Star Wars clichés and “Oh no, I’m related to X” tropes, not only doing nothing new but rehashing characters and scenarios from previous films. The big villain here of course is Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine, who’s suddenly back from the dead with zero explanation and an entire fleet of (again, entirely unexplained) Star Destroyers. At which point I just thought, Who fucking cares?

Where The Last Jedi (drink) had a crisp, beautiful clarity to its world and its action sequences, Rise feels, aside from a few epic-looking but ultimately empty set pieces, like a disjointed mess for most of its agonising runtime. From its annoyingly choppy and rushed opening, the way it was shot and edited feels like a series of separate scenes and elements hastily strung together like anal beads (and this questionable analogy), except anal beads would likely have been a far more enjoyable experience.

The final shot of The Last Jedi (drink) expanded the Star Wars universe in a way previous films hadn’t, redefining what its characters were capable of outside the select chosen ones. All Rise does is shrink it back down with more tepid familial “revelations”, an unnecessarily convoluted plot, and characters that don’t surprise or engage with their arcs or their actions.

“Some things are stronger than blood,” Luke’s force ghost says. Yeah, fan service, apparently.