Endings are hard. This we know.
Lost. Battlestar Galactica. Game of Thrones. The Sopranos. The Matrix trilogy. The first Star Wars trilogy. The prequel Star Wars trilogy. The list is endless. The question is always the same: "Can they stick the landing?" Invariably, the reception is mixed, although some receptions are more mixed than others. (Does that even make sense? Who cares?)
The Rise of Skywalker had the pressure to not only resolve a trilogy, but three trilogies. What I've learned over the years is when it comes to any long-standing work of pop entertainment, the creators have an almost impossible job, because they can't please everyone. The reality is that we all find it fun to imagine our version of the final chapter of a movie or TV series. But the creators have the responsibility of having to actually make a choice and do something. They can't do everything. And their choices will not please everyone.
The Rise of Skywalker is an entertaining, well-paced, and passable final entry in the sequel trilogy, but it's also a compromise of conventional wisdom featuring plenty of strange detours, dead ends, narrative shortcuts, and unfinished business. My expectations were tempered going in, and I was mostly satisfied with the broad strokes of what I got — but my modest expectations were not exceeded, and the finer points left me wanting. There are significant problems, to be sure, and it reveals some fundamental problems with this trilogy that have been sitting there for a while. I didn't love this, but I didn't dislike it either. This is a competent finish, but "competent" is lukewarm praise given the pedigree.
What's hardest to understand is the apparent lack of a plan for this trilogy from the outset. The Last Jedi felt subversive because it pulled the rug out from under our expectations by killing Snoke in the second episode of a trilogy, and revealing Rey's parents as "nobody" when episode one promised that they were surely somebody. Also, Luke Skywalker committed to being a hermit. What Rian Johnson did was apparently not in J.J. Abrams' plan (who returns here to finish things) at the beginning. How else to explain the firing of Colin Trevorrow, the sudden and contrived reintroduction of Emperor Palpatine as the Big Bad at this late stage, and the backtracking on Rey's parents? Maybe they were trying to encourage creative spontaneity earlier on, but I find it beyond odd that the crown jewel property of all franchises, owned by the granddaddy of all entertainment companies, would not have had a more concrete overarching plan when it ordered this trilogy. Why would you approve the writer/director of the middle chapter to do things you didn't intend to follow through with? Or have the inmates (that is, the "fans" on social media) taken over the asylum, and now creators do whatever the online backlash browbeats them into?
Whatever the behind-the-scenes reasoning behind the changes in apparent direction, The Rise of Skywalker does an efficient job of papering over them with the grand cinematic language of Star Wars. Structurally, with its quest for our heroes to find the secret Sith world of Exegol — where Palpatine and his massive fleet are hidden, having forged an alliance with Kylo Ren — this movie goes back to the episodic serial that's the more classic Star Wars approach, with a series of mini-adventures (and MacGuffins) within the bigger picture, as opposed to The Last Jedi, which was much more plot-limited and linear. I feel like I got my money's worth and have gotten my Star Wars fix out of this trilogy, but I suspect that's because I've put things in the perspective that these movies are often taken way too seriously when their primary function is to be fun, accessible entertainment for the masses.
Granted, there are still big holes in the foundation of this trilogy. The political situation which gave rise to the First Order in the first place — not adequately explained in The Force Awakens (shouldn't the New Republic have had someone, like an army, to stop them before they built a WMD to destroy the government?) — still cries out for an explanation which surely doesn't happen here. (It seems, however, we may yet get that explanation in The Mandalorian and its various spinoffs.) The spark the Rebellion was looking to provide at the end of The Last Jedi still has not ignited the fire.
Similarly, how or why Palpatine resurrected himself (the Force plus cloning?) or created Snoke, and how he built an entire fleet on Exegol, are simply plot points best left to the imagination, or, better yet, left unscrutinized altogether. The always reliable Ian McDiarmid returns once more to reprise his role as the Galaxy's Most Evil Man set on unleashing the "Final Order" to crush the galaxy under his power once again. McDiarmid does his job, even if Palpatine has now become a mysterious ghoul whose power flows from the Dark Side of a Force that has become more narratively flexible with every passing movie. The Force, once a philosophical platform (Yoda's lessons), then a needless sci-fi device (midi-chlorians), is now a plot convenience that does whatever is required to advance the story. The Last Jedi could project images halfway across the galaxy, and now we can use the Force to teleport physical objects from here to there. (Need a lightsaber? Beam it!)
The movie is ultimately setting us up for the once-again final showdown between the Dark Side and the Light, with Palpatine representing extreme evil and Rey the (maybe) next generation of Skywalker, if she can overcome the fear of her own internal Dark Side before doing so. Compared to Luke's showdown in Return of the Jedi, these two (especially Palpatine) have moved in the direction of avatars more than characters; compared to the prequels this feels alive and dynamic instead of wooden and preordained. This titanic showdown is how it probably was always going to have to end for Rey, whether it was going to be against Palpatine or Snoke or Ren. Snoke was already dispatched, and Ren has too much conflict and baggage to become the avatar of pure evil, so I suppose there's a certain logic to needing Palpatine to be the one to square off against Rey in the finale.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First this movie needs its quest, and it's a decent one that breaks down into a final run of episodic stops. Rise of Skywalker has more plot mechanics than the other two movies in this trilogy, and they give the story its forward momentum. The action first takes us to a planet where we meet the familiar face of Lando, who helps our heroes out but doesn't join them (yet) on the account of being too old for this young group's adventures. There's a meta-commentary in there somewhere. We follow a series of plot MacGuffins (a necklace, a Sith dagger with a mysterious inscription, C-3PO's forbidden language protocols, the two Wayfinders that point to Exegol) to and through various destinations.
Structurally, this mostly works. I suppose you could call it a patchwork of piece-moving, but I've always felt Star Wars works well when it's using its platform for this sort of galaxy-hopping, and the mechanics sweep us along for the ride. It leads to some cool scenes, like the one where we have to wipe 3PO's memory to have him decode the forbidden Sith language to learn what the dagger inscription means (although, since R2 later restores 3PO's data from backup, the supposed character sacrifice is minimized). Or the scenes on the ocean moon of Endor where we see the wreckage of the destroyed Death Star, which contains the second Wayfinder. (Gee, it's a good thing the wreckage landed right there on the coast and not in the middle of the ocean on what's an "ocean moon." Even better that the notches in the dagger line up perfectly from that one vantage point where Rey happens to stop and hold it up so it can tell her where to go!) So this is entertaining.
That being said, the plot can actually be too busy, and there are some head-scratching narrative cul-de-sacs. Finn meets a group of former stormtroopers who, like him, broke free of the First Order and are now seeking their place in the galaxy. It's an intriguing idea that could be a second-tier spinoff in a comic book, but the time spent on it here feels like a pointless dead end given everything else going on. Similarly, the character of Zorii (Keri Russell, a notable cast member who never removes her helmet) comes curiously out of left field. She's an old acquaintance of Poe's, who of course wants to kill him (and who was packaged into a Happy Meal toy my daughter got before the movie even came out), but mostly she's a minor plot device, completely underwritten and underutilized. I hesitate to suggest she was created and given a cool helmet merely to sell toys, but stranger things have happened. (See also: Boba Fett.)
These ancillary new characters are afforded more time than, say, Rose Tico, who, after having been such a major player in The Last Jedi, is barely in this movie, reduced to a handful of obligatory scenes for reasons that — although I don't know what the motivations actually were — feel like the producers caving to the worst impulses of a toxic segment of the audience. Meanwhile, the First Order spy feeding the Rebellion key information turns out to be General Hux, who doesn't care about helping them so much as screwing over Ren. This is serviceable; just enough time is devoted to this to tie up the loose end, and absolutely no more.
As this quest plays out, we have Rey slowly coming to grips with confronting her own powers and her Dark Side and the truth of her lineage. It turns out she is far from "nobody" and is actually Palpatine's granddaughter, because we have a certain number of pieces here and they all have to fit together. She realizes just how powerful she is, and how dangerous that power can be, as when she inadvertently shoots lightning from her fingertips during an attempt to rescue Chewbacca that goes horribly awry, resulting in what she believes is his death. While we know because of storytelling conventions that Rey isn't going to ultimately go to the Dark Side, Rey does not yet know this, and her struggle with herself and with Ren are what this movie (like, I guess, all previous Star Wars movies) is really about. Daisy Ridley's performance here is very good.
For all the heat The Rise of Skywalker takes, I think it keeps the most important core of itself — the emotional stories of Rey and Ren — effectively front and center, and handles them correctly. Granted, it's a retelling of the classic Skywalker formula, but I think we sort of knew that coming in. The conflict and imbalance within oneself is equally as important as all the external story beats running alongside it. And I must again point out this trilogy has acting, urgency, and a visceral aesthetic that put it far more in the original trilogy's style versus the far more aloof prequels.
Speaking of the Skywalkers, let's talk about them. Mark Hamill's Luke gets a few scenes as a Force spirit to presumably close out his 42-year arc. He's now the Obi-Wan ghost, telling the main protagonist what she must do when the going gets tough. These scenes do what they must, but if this trilogy feels like it underutilized Hamill (and possibly all the original characters) that's probably because we are as old and irrelevant as fans as they are as torch bearers. This belongs to the next generation's characters.
And as for Leia, well ... sigh. Leia's scenes here have a distinct sense of, "Well, they did the best they could under the circumstances." After Carrie Fisher's untimely death before the release of The Last Jedi, the producers announced they would not use CGI to put her in this film. What they do instead is put Leia in the film using unused footage of Fisher from The Force Awakens, and then digitally merge the sets and characters around her. It's a loophole, but I suppose the most respectful one that still fulfils the requirement of getting Leia into the film — which absolutely had to happen. But the results show the seams, with all of Leia's scenes coming across as generic dialogue or ambiguously blank reaction shots. (Abrams tried to sell this in pre-release interviews as fortuitously seamless, but that was pure spin.)
From a story perspective, Leia's key contribution is using all her remaining Force and life energy to reach out to her son in an attempt to turn him back to the Light. This results in a sequence where Ren has a vision of his father. The surprise cameo by Harrison Ford is a nice added bonus when you consider how much Ford has talked over the years about wanting to permanently retire Han Solo. And let it be said that the Ben Solo redemption arc, while probably something every viewer has been arriving at in every calculation since the first movie, plays out here satisfyingly enough, thanks to Adam Driver's performance. It's hard being something that's not in your nature despite your most extreme efforts, and for Ren it's trying to act as an agent of evil as if all his inner conflict saying that it's wrong can be brushed aside. It can't.
So it all points to the final battle on Exegol against Palpatine. It happens. It's action-packed and atmosphere-drenched and spectacle-filled and might best be described as the Lightning Apocalypse. The darkness of Exegol is oppositely equaled only by the strobe effect of so much blinding lightning. Palpatine makes his pitch to Rey to join him in ruling the galaxy. Of course he's doomed to fail. With limitless power comes limitless hubris. This is the guy who got thrown into the core of his own Death Star by his own apprentice. Ben Solo also realizes he needs to stop Palpatine and joins Rey in trying to quash the Big Bad. There's an epic struggle of lightsabers. And lightning. All of this uses J.J. Abrams' penchant for visual filmmaking to create a highly watchable spectacle of Good Versus Evil.
The fate of the galaxy and the defeat of the First Order also comes down to whether The People will come to the aid of the Rebellion — which, remember, is just the spark that starts the fire. One wonders what motivates these regular folks to finally stand up to totalitarianism after all these years of inaction. Why didn't they rise up and stop the First Order before it was such a problem if all it took was a massive fleet of regular people? I suppose they needed the tactical advantage of the First Order fleet being simultaneously disabled, but was that even part of the distress call sent here? (I guess the First Order's fleet is what's known as "eggs in one basket.")
The space battles involving the Millennium Falcon employ the same musical themes John Williams has been using for 40 years. Also the same spin moves and close calls. Actually, the space battles aren't space battles so much as sky battles in the lightning-lit night sky of a planet that only has daylight after the good guys win.
When victory is achieved by Rey sacrificing herself to use the Force to destroy Palpatine, Ben uses the Force to bring her back, ultimately at the cost of himself. The shared kiss between these two is all wrong, feeling completely awkward and gratuitous. Of course Ben Solo cannot live, as someone must be sacrificed on the altar of Bittersweet Endings. Also, because Kylo Ren did a lot of bad things. You know how it goes. Look at the precedents. Do the math.
So, yes, there's a certain clockwork efficiency here that feels like new ideas are hard to come by. That's kind of the modus operandi these days with this multi-billion-dollar property. And with so much Star Wars having been in theaters from 2015 through 2019, Lucasfilm is wise to be taking a step back to reconsider their plan for the film franchise. (With the TV franchise going full steam ahead, it's not like we're going to miss Star Wars.) I have no idea where we go from here. New ideas appear to be in short supply, even if old ideas work more or less as well as they always have. Comfort food fed to new generations.
I suppose The Rise of Skywalker works better the less you think about it. If you go along with the ride, this is a fun two-plus hours. If you do what most fans do and look deeper, you're going to find problems. But emotionally, this hits the notes it needs to hit. Ending the movie on Tatooine with Rey visiting Luke's home and burying his lightsaber in the sand, and revealing that she's going to carry on the Skywalker name as her own with her very own self-crafted yellow lightsaber — well, how else would you have ended this trilogy? As a moment of intimacy on the most well-known planet in the franchise that connects the end all the way back to the beginning — you'd be stupid to end it anywhere else. Some conventions must be followed through to their logical end. If Rian Johnson tore up the rule book, and J.J. Abrams was challenged with putting it back together, then ... mission accomplished? I can think of far worse ways to do it.
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