Please note that this review is completely spoiler-free!
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is, in many respects, fan-fiction. George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars to Disney in 2012, and since then the company – under new leadership from Kathleen Kennedy – has brought in a new generation of filmmakers to continue the legacy of Star Wars for a new audience. Say what you will about these films but they’re the labour of love from fans of the series, even if they might not be what Lucas intended.
J.J. Abrams brought the series back with Episode VII: The Force Awakens in 2015, which was a warm nostalgic cuddle of a film chock-full of references, call-backs and deliberate homages. Rian Johnson‘s Episode VIII: The Last Jedi in 2015 endeavoured to twist the Star Wars narrative into new and more interesting directions, but was met with criticism for doing so. Now that Abrams is back in the directing saddle, it’s up to him to find a balance in the Force between his nostalgic tendencies and Johnson’s attraction to a fresh narrative away from the series’ past.
Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker picks up about a year or so after the last installment, with the Resistance hearing news of a terrifying new threat emerging on the other side of the galaxy. Rey (Daisy Ridley), meanwhile, has been training with Leia (Carrie Fisher, reprising her role through archive footage), and is struggling between the light and dark within her. This new threat has angered Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) though, and he seeks to assert his dominance as the Supreme Leader of the First Order. It’s up to Rey, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), along with Chewie, the droids, the Resistance and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) to thwart these threats to the galaxy once and for all…
I think I need to get this out there very quickly: The Rise of Skywalker is an admittedly underwhelming finale to this nine-part saga, and despite its best efforts, is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of story and characters it tries to cram in there. It doesn’t help too that Abrams, unlike Rian Johnson, is so determined to reassert his own new status quo that many plot-threads feel unnecessary. Kylo Ren puts his helmet back together for… reasons. There’s a greater emphasis placed on the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and the Sith than perhaps needs be, so much so that the First Order feel secondary compared to a bigger, older threat. Palpatine is a good fun villain (of course he is), but Abrams’ emphasis on Sith lore doesn’t contribute to the story beyond stretching it into a weird quest narrative that feels episodic and clunky. The film’s first half is filled with scenes that are too short. Mood isn’t properly established. Characters don’t really get a chance to talk. And the effects work to bring Princess Leia into the film may be good, but its not quite good enough for what Abrams tries to do.
The film gets it right when it slows down to breathe, and lets the characters just interact. So much is crammed into 141 minutes that it all ends up feeling too action-packed – a 3-hour run-time like that of Avengers: Endgame earlier this year would certainly have helped. The Rise of Skywalker tries to have its cake and eat it too often, and in doing so squanders so much potential that this new trilogy had. There’s a number of plot-points that feel designed to appeal to the fans but I myself just wanted to see more of R2D2, Lando and Chewie, who each feel like glorified cameos at best.
It’s easy to invest in the story of Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren, but they don’t quite get the closure one was hoping for. It doesn’t help that, in repairing his mask, Kylo Ren doesn’t get to properly emote for a good chunk of the film. It’s a relief to see the thing eventually off his head so that Adam Driver can actually act, at which point Kylo Ren suddenly becomes so much more compelling. The other villains are a delight though, with Richard E. Grant making for a stellar First Order officer, whilst General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) gets a nice pay-off and a reference to the true identity of Snoke (Andy Serkis) is certainly tantalising for future fan fiction and debate…
Sadly though, the pay-offs don’t always work, and that’s partly because the film just hasn’t spent enough time to build these up properly, instead opting to rush through proceedings a bit too quickly. There’s plenty to love here, but we just don’t get enough of it, which is a real shame. The fan service may be too much for some, but I found that despite Abrams’ energetic direction, the editing was very, very choppy at points, presumably in order to keep this film at its 141 minute run-time.
There’s some wonderful cinematography here though, and John Williams‘ score is – as ever – a delight to the ears, not to mention that the cast are all uniformly great. Daisy Ridley gets a more meaty role here than in the last two films combined, whilst Oscar Isaac deals with some interesting turns for Poe Dameron and John Boyega is naturally charming as anything (even if Finn just seems to be the friend who wants everyone to make up and hug already).
The newcomers to the franchise get a more mixed offering. Babu Frink is naturally adorable and Keri Russell‘s Zorri Bliss deserves her own spin-off but Naomi Ackie‘s character feels like a tease for a story-line that will never go anywhere, whilst Kelly Marie Tran unfortunately doesn’t get the big hero moment she deserves.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker packs in plenty of spectacular special effects, fun action sequences and intriguing ideas to keep it afloat, but suffers from heavy editing and a rather clunky first half. When it gets it right, it soars. When it doesn’t, one can’t help but feel disappointed. It’s solid blockbuster entertainment, but nothing more.