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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker
★☆☆☆☆
First run Theater cinema

With a plot that resembles a fourth-grade scavenger hunt, a cast of actors who’ve clearly stopped taking their characters seriously, an endless barrage of cameos, callbacks, Easter eggs, and other shameless, distracting fan service; and a relentless “lightspeed-skipping” pace that tries desperately to keep viewers from thinking about any of what we’re watching for more than the split second it’s on screen, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker explodes onto screens with all the power of a damp roman candle. Picking up the narrative where Rian Jonson’s atrocious The Last Jedi left off, this crowded final installment in the bloated Star Wars saga centers on the only aspect of the previous picture that was even remotely interesting—the relationship between fervent future-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) and hipster Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

While Rey is being trained by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher in a performance composited from repurposed footage and audio), Kylo, who is Leia’s son, is contacted by the not-quite-dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, in a surprise reprise). The dark side of the Force is calling to both of these young, troubled souls who have the weight of the universe on their shoulders. But unlike in their intriguing mind-meld scenes from The Last Jedithe two actors have zero chemistry this time out. They honestly do not look happy to be in this series anymore. However, neither Ridley nor Driver embarrass themselves the way their mugging co-stars Oscar Isaac and John Boyega do. 

The plot has an unfathomable banality to it, and it is carried out through soulless performances, perhaps inevitable for a movie whose top-billed actor died prior to shooting. The lead players spend the bulk of the 152 minutes running around and flying around the galaxy emoting and joking with each other while the supporting players stand around screens and look worried. A great many characters die (or seem to die) at various key points, only to be instantly revived. Everything builds to the inevitable giant space battle (though this one takes place in the atmosphere of a mystery planet to make it seem a little different than the seven previous space battle climaxes). And, as the blueprint dictates, while this colossal space fight rages on, a more intimate confrontation between the forces of light and darkness takes place, where the ostensible main characters must come to terms with their destinies. 

After the middling Rouge One, the appalling The Last Jedi, and the just plain dumb, Solo, it’s difficult to imagine how the final (for now) chapter in Disney/Lucasfilm’s recycled and re-launched Star Wars saga could get any worse. But Rise of Skywalker is worse; it’s almost as bad as the George Lucas directed prequel trilogy. About a year prior to this film’s pre-determined release date, audiences started to question the whole concept of Disney putting out a new Star Wars movie every year, and fans started to bitch about choices made in the previous couple of pictures. Many of their complaints had merit, but some were arguably more misguided than the films themselves. In the face of these polarizing critiques, nervous producer Kathleen Kennedy decided to make some changes to her plans for this final episode. She fired director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World), discarded the screenplay he wrote with his usual collaborator Derek Connolly, and brought back J. J. Abrams, the man who helmed the highly successful (and quite promising) first instalment in this new series, The Force Awakens

But who in their right mind brings Abrams in to conclude something? This writer/director has never ended anything well. Abrams is a guy you engage to start something up in an exciting, intriguing way (like the Star Trek reboot in 2009 and his TV shows LostAlias, and Felicity). His pattern is to move on to his next project right about the time all the things he’s set in motion need to start coming together and making sense. He’s rarely tasked with finishing anything he’s set in motion, and for good reason—beginnings are easy, endings are hard. This final chapter of Star Wars’ third trilogy attempts to unify all the various narrative and thematic threads explored in the other pictures and send both long-time fans and newcomers off with the warm feeling that The Force Awakens did. But, like all movie “universe” franchises, the financial stakes of Star Wars are too big to risk doing anything innovative, and so the filmmakers again revert to what’s worked in the past. Unfortunately, the constant rejiggering of the same story beats and character arcs stopped working in this series a long time ago.

No Star Wars film has been able to top the ending of the original 1977 movie, yet each one, with the exception of the first (and best) sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, has attempted to do that very thing. Much of what happens in each new sequel or prequel contradicts myriad things that happened in the first trilogy, yet somehow each new film still manages to feel derivative to the point of a carbon copy of a Xerox of a mimeograph.

Disney’s Star Wars isn’t a universe; it’s a snow globe. The characters are all related to each other. It takes less than a second to get from one solar system to another, regardless of what type of ship you’re flying.  Entire planets are depicted like small towns where it’s easy to bump into someone from your past—sometimes these worlds come off like the old Cheers bar, where “everybody knows your name.” Nothing of value ever gets damaged past the point of a quick repair, and nobody really dies. These risk-averse movies contain no physical, emotional, or dramatic stakes. We’re supposed to feel a sense of loss at the many deaths that occur, but how can we when we’ve seen virtually everyone who dies come right back to life or live on as a ghost? And these are not the passive, observant ghosts of the original trilogy, that the heroes could see and occasionally seek advice from; these ghosts interact with the characters to the point where, for all intense and purposes, they are sharing the same physical reality.

In fact, there isn’t any clear physical reality to Star Wars anymore. The tangible “lived-in universe” that Lucas created in his first trilogy, and that Abrams brought back in The Force Awakens, has now been replaced with standard contemporary blockbuster videogame visuals, devoid of anything relatable in terms of their environments or physical properties. Nothing in the non-stop action sequences is rendered in an inventive way that could evoke wonder, surprise, or excitement. The film can’t even arouse nostalgia anymore, despite John Williams’ greatest hits from his earlier cues that underscore every moment. And the palpable human characteristics of the heroes and villains that originally populated this series have been swapped out for close-ups of actors making earnest facial expressions while emoting empty platitudes. These solemn demonstrations are often immediately followed by childish wisecrack banter from their scene partners, undermining whatever intense feelings the previous moments were supposed to evoke.

Abrams has made a career of “hanging a lantern on” the logic flaws in his stories by allowing his characters to make jokes about whatever gaps in logic might be necessary in order for their adventure to progress without getting bogged down with unsatisfactory explanations. This elevated form of turning to the camera and saying, “Hey folks, it’s only a movie,” has become standard operating procedure for most contemporary genre storytelling on TV and film. But in his previous scripts, these witty meta-comments worked because they were used judiciously and came during moments of rest when it might be natural for characters to joke about their unusual situation or predicament. In Rise of Skywalker, the characters are required to make these observations multiple times in a scene. And, since there are no periods of downtime because everything in this picture unfolds at an emotional high point, the playful joshing frequently occurs at the most inopportune times of fighting or fleeing. 

Critics of the original trilogy will say all the flaws I’ve expanded on, and dozens of others I won’t bother going into, have been part of this series from its inception. But they’ve forgotten (or weren’t around to experience) the wonder and amazement the first three movies instilled in diverse audiences of all ages. We were reminded of that grand sensation with The Force Awakens, which was no masterpiece but it managed to capture a little of the Star Wars magic one more time. Perhaps one more time of recreating this feeling was the best Disney could hope for, but I don’t think so. Lucas created the Star Wars mythology in the mid-'70s by combining a rich array of literary, cinematic, historical, and folkloric sources and presenting them in a fresh new way. The territory of his creation is vast and still holds immense possibilities. 

Since acquiring Lucasfilm, the Disney Company has only explored the surfaces of this expansive mythology, which damns what they’ve done with it so far but doesn’t rule out the possibility of something new and good in the future. I’m not one of those fans who feel his childhood has been wrecked because these new movies exist, nor do I believe the prequels broke the bewitching spell the first films cast on me. It is telling that on more than one occasion in The Rise of Skywalker, a character states that if this last adventure isn’t successful then everything that came before it will have been for nothing. Fortunately, that’s not true.

Twitter Capsule:
Who in their right mind brings JJ Abrams in to FINISH something? The final (for now) instalment of the bloated Star Wars saga shrinks this "universe" to the size of a snowglobe. Unfathomable banal writing, soulless performances, and tedious action.

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Produced by J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan

Screenplay by J. J. Abrams and Chris Terrio
Story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, J. J. Abrams, and Chris Terrio
Based on characters created by George Lucas

With: 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, Greg Grunberg, Shirley Henderson, Billie Lourd, Dominic Monaghan, Amanda Lawrence, Ann Firbank, Warwick Davis, John Williams, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Denis Lawson, Harrison Ford, the voices of James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Frank Oz, Andy Serkis, Hayden Christensen, J.J. Abrams, Debra Wilson, Olivia d'Abo, Angelique Perrin, and Freddie Prinze Jr.

Cinematography: Daniel Mindel
Editing: Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube
Music: John Williams

Runtime: 142 min
Release Date: 20 December 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color