Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio, Derek Connolly (story), Colin Trevorrow (story), George Lucas (characters)
Composer: John Williams
Starring: 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
Here we go again… The fifth feature film produced by Disney in the Star Wars franchise has finally arrived on an unsuspecting and ravenous public. Given the relative mediocrity of The Force Awakens, and set against the insane controversy of The Last Jedi, the final part of this weird trilogy had high expectations and fan demands impinged upon it. Could they nominally “redeem” Star Wars? Could they address all the questions we wanted answered? Would J.J. Abrams succeed in directing the first well received sequel in his career?
Violence/Scary Images: Characters shoot guns and fight with swords. A sword wound is shown in somewhat graphic detail. A character is vaporized. Multiple space ship battles; there are several fatal crashes. Characters are threatened by a giant alien snake.
Language/Crude Humor: Mild language.
Sexual Content: Several characters kiss, including two women in the background of one shot.
Spiritual Content: Several characters utilize the Force – an energy that can be manipulated for either good or evil. It connects the users to those who have previously passed away, and several ghosts interact with the characters.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Themes of redemption, avoiding temptation, overcoming evil and facing fear.
SPOILER ALERT: General discussion of the plot and structure follows, but no major reveals are explained or mentioned in detail.
A great privilege I was given this year was the chance to meet Alan Hofmanis – the American producer for the Ugandan film studio known as Wakaliwood. Getting to speak with him in the lobby of the Music Box Theater in Chicago was enlightening, because he has some of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard from a film producer. He has an amazing perspective as someone who has run the gambit from New York City high society to the slums of Uganda. The one thing that most surprised me though, was something that really shouldn’t have. He talked briefly about the kinds of movies that appeal to people in foreign countries like Uganda. To paraphrase him: Coen Brothers’ movies and Tarantino films have no cultural impact in Uganda, because lofty art movies usually speak to the culture they’re from.
At the same time, Buster Keaton comedies and Chuck Norris action movies are extremely popular there. No matter which culture you live in, a bank robbery is terrible and scary. As cheesy and occasionally offensive as some of those movies are by modern standards, the basic precepts of good and evil are the same wherever you go. That’s why despite whatever racial contexts an American can read into Joker, there are people in the ongoing Hong Kong protests right now who use the imagery of the movie to lambast the oppression of the Chinese government. The most important movies are the ones that cross boundaries and speak to everyone.
Maybe that’s the reason something like Star Wars is the largest movie franchise ever. I don’t mean to bury the lead so quickly, but no matter what country you’re from, the imagery and ideas of the original three movies are universal. There is an objective morality to life. Authoritarianism is wrong. People are impulsive and make bad decisions for good reasons. At the end of the day though, nobody is beyond redemption.
Star Wars is many people’s favorite THING ever. That’s why people get so worked up when these movies underperform. A bad Star Wars movie isn’t just a singularly bad movie. A bad Star Wars film is a movie that came in place of a good one, and because of that, it becomes a cultural vacuum that sucks in everything around it.
Forgive me for burying the lead though. I couldn’t resist giving Wakaliwood a quick shoutout. There’s a lot riding on the success of the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga. Disney has bet the cart that this particular story is one that’s worth dedicating seven years of development, though the reaction to it has been an immensely mixed one. While the reaction to the Prequel trilogy was almost universally negative, here the reaction is almost universally split. The Force Awakens made almost everyone happy for a couple weeks, before second opinions recontextualized the film as a relative failure. The Last Jedi then told a story so radical that half the fanbase massively rejected it. It’s clear that Star Wars needs to grow and evolve, to adapt to a changing world and filmmaking landscape. At the same time, it also needs to adhere to the tone and feeling of the original movies which everyone loves. There’s room for nostalgic unironic content like The Mandalorian and Rogue One, but Disney clearly wanted to use its main saga films to tell a more ambitious epic about intergenerational conflict, inheritance and legacy.
Sadly for all their efforts, they’ve failed to stick the landing meaningfully. The Rise of Skywalker is a rather quietly disappointing movie. It’s full of some staggering highs and lows, but struggles to keep its head above sea level. In a franchise as deeply fractured as Star Wars, I’m hard pressed to say this is some kind of all-time low. Yet it’s certainly the weakest film of the Disney era and it gives the worst moments of the Prequel trilogy a run for its money. Thankfully unlike them, it’s never boring. J.J. Abrams, for all his faults, is quite good at making his films energetic and engaging. Unfortunately there’s little substance. Where as those movies had fascinating depth beneath their faulty exterior, this film has a beautiful surface with little beneath it. That said for what it’s worth, The Rise of Skywalker is easily one of the most beautifully made movies you’ll see in a theater this year.
At a glance, Disney seemingly wanted the final entry to resolve some of the story ideas from the first movie, while also placating the fans who disliked the recent direction of the Saga films. There’s an enormous amount of ambition built into this film from a foundational level. It’s trying to reestablish a new status quo for the Resistence and the First Order, while still maintaining the overall narrative of Rey and Kylo’s story arcs. The movie feathers in answers about Snoke’s identity, Rey’s lineage and the Knights of Ren. It’s clear that Abrams wanted these topics explored more thoroughly in the last film, so he is left to sprinkle them in delicately here. As a result, the movie spends about an hour slow dripping major character reveals while the plot shoots by at a breakneck pace.
I can see some attempt here to do a Mad Max: Fury Road style plot, where the story is being constantly propulsive with a clear set of objectives to accomplish by the end of the story. However, Abrams isn’t the kind of director who can pull off something so complicated. This movie has too much to accomplish before its conclusion. The side quests and short term goals never feel meaningful. The movie is at its best in the slower, more reflective moments; when it’s able to breathe and explore the weird new characters, alien designs and worlds. My favorite moment in the film came early on. The main cast visit an alien planet where an enormous kite festival is being held, and the story grinds to a halt for a few minutes to take in the scenery of this strange alien culture. We get to observe adorable alien children watch puppet shows and laugh. It’s joyful and heartwarming in the midst of chaos!
The movie is peppered with weird and wonderful moments like this. Most of the new alien designs are wonderfully muppet-like and bizarre in the brief moments we get to see them. It’s all quite playful and fun. A lot of this comes from Abram’s strengths as a director. He’s interested in finding new ways to explore old ideas and concepts from the original trilogy, such as one scene that plays like a clever reversal of the Rankor scene in Return of the Jedi. When it’s focusing on weird details, it’s a fun movie, and it’s really easy to groove on in a Krull/Deathstalker sort of way.
Sadly Abram’s instincts as a writer shine through in negative ways. Make no mistake, we’re rooted very deeply in Star Trek into Darkness territory here. Everything in the film feels totally rushed. Every scene, character and plot point feels underdeveloped to the point that you could’ve explored every setting and character in a movie twice as long as this. Thankfully the main plot following Rey and Kylo is intact and goes in interesting directions. Sadly that story isn’t properly setup and paid off in any emotionally meaningful way.
Oddly enough the movie has a bad habit of undoing major character moments in a pinch. There are two major scenes where characters essentially die on screen that are rapidly undone almost immediately for no purpose by the end of the film. They’re shocking and emotional beats by themselves, that represent two of the strongest character-based decisions found in the film. Those choices could’ve had a much stronger influence on the plot going forward, but the movie just loves these characters too much to commit to risky decisions like these. Conversely, the movie goes miles out of its way to find a meaningful final note to finish Leia’s story, given that Carrie Fisher passed away three years ago. The reassembled outtakes they used to form this character arc sadly don’t fit together well. They’re merely stiched together in a way to make Rey and Kylo’s arcs more effective.
The movie’s riskiest decision is also the one it advertized the most. It’s not a spoiler to say he’s back, given that the return of Ian McDiarmid as the series’ final villain was extremely prominant in the film’s marketing. Sadly, the resurrection of Emperor Palaptine should feel more important than it ultimately ends up being. Bizarrely it’s set up in the opening title crawl and proceeds to play out as if it’s not a big deal. There’s some throwaway dialog (that any fan whose read Star Wars: Dark Empire could tell you they ripped off) used as an explanation for his revival, but it’s never explored in detail. There’s just no time to get him introduced properly. When he does show up, he replicates the grandiloquent melodrama of the Prequels, with his screen presence sharing similarities to the likes of Skeletor. It’s interesting seeing a character whose grasp on the force is so powerful that he can basically do anything, yet his cheese factor is extreme.
J.J. Abrams is infamous for his inability to write endings. He’s an amazing visual director but the underlying structure of his work is based on a broken foundation. To paraphrase Billy Wilder: if your ending doesn’t work, it’s because the beginning didn’t set it up correctly. Abrams creates intensely interesting characters and then drops them in a world to run around like hamsters in a wheel. I’ve loved Rey, Poe, Finn and Kylo since the first movie in this trilogy and I’m relieved to finally watch them get the catharsis they deserve, but this isn’t how you earn those endings. As it stands, half of them didn’t even get a strong final note to go out on.
In truth, I was always expecting Episode IX to be the weakest chapter in this new trilogy. When they announced Colin Trevorrow as the film’s director back in 2015, I was pretty hopeless. Jurassic World isn’t the worst movie ever, but it’s hardly the kind of film that makes someone worthy of inheriting such a large project. He of course dropped out in 2017 and was replaced with J.J. Abrams. I had every reason to assume at this point that Abrams would direct a movie that was at least somewhat similar to The Force Awakens.
When I started hearing the extremely negative reactions to the film’s premiere this week, it was still quite disheartening. I’ll be straightforward here. I went into this film rooting for it extremely hard. I was prepared for it to be middling and messy given that I regularly go back and watch the Prequel films and other bad Star Wars stuff merely out of love. I adore everything Star Wars and I’m prepared to forgive a lot here. Give it a few years and I probably won’t be complaining about this movie. That said, fresh wounds sting. Almost everyone I saw this with in the cinema was groaning and frustrated by the time it was over. The mostly packed theater was pretty quiet for the most part during the screening. It was sadly lathargic.
We’re going to need a lot of therapy after this movie… Considering just how deeply the last half dozen bad decisions in this franchise have fractured society’s collective conscience, I can only imagine how a movie that mishandles the landing like this is going to affect people. It took decades to get over The Phantom Menace… By the time we got more cool-headed examinations of the movies, like the Plinkett Reviews and The People vs George Lucas to help us process our feelings more intelligently, more than a decade had passed.
In the final analysis, I’m sure most people are going to look back on the Sequel Trilogy with the same air they used to judge the Prequel Trilogy. Whatever can be said about it though, nothing good has been ruined. The things we don’t like about this movie will likely fade into the woodwork, just as Midichlorians and Ewoks did before. Now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox, we can expect 4K transfers of the trilogy any year now. Star Wars will never go away and the original trilogy will always remain. We are what we choose to be, and we should do our best to focus on the good things as much as we can.
The Bottom Line