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Film Review: In Uneven, If Fun, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the Nostalgia Is Strong

Film poster: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

42 years after it began, in 1977, the Star Wars saga comes to an end. Or rather, the original series, as envisioned by progenitor George Lucas, does so. Who knows, after all, what further adventures set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” the folks at Disney – who now own Star Wars– have in mind? Whatever comes, that doesn’t change the fact that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker concludes the story of siblings Luke and Leia, and their many friends. Good or bad, the film is a landmark. Since it is more good than bad, though hardly exceptional, let’s call it an acceptable final chapter. Given the horror show of the prequels – or episodes I, II and III, as they are called – it could have been worse, even if it could also have been better.

All the new characters, present in one or both of the last two movies (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi), along with older stalwarts like Luke Skywalker (who died last time, but the Force is strong in that one), Leia Organa, Chewbacca and droids C-3PO and R2-D2, among others. To briefly recap, when last we left our protagonists, villain Kylo Ren had succeeded in consolidating his hold over the First Order, even if he was frustrated in his further ambitions to recruit young Jedi apprentice Rey over to the dark side. The rebels took a hit but lived to fight another day.

Daisy Ridley as Rey in STAR WARS: THE RISE of SKYWALKER ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Now there is an even greater threat to the universe, as the opening crawl announces that Emperor Palpatine, the sinister Sith Lord behind the chaos of Episodes I-VI, is back, somehow not quite dead, if also not quite alive. His gathering armies need only a vibrant leader to wipe out all resistance, and Kylo Ren is just the man for the job. Kylo is game, but would prefer to do it together with Rey, with whom he has a strange, mystical bond that both attracts and repels. Will she fight off the temptation to join him in evil, especially once he reveals the truth of her origins? That’s the question.

Though extremely powerful, Rey can’t do battle entirely on her own, and so her trusty, able-bodied friends (and one would-be lover) Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, C-3PO and fellow droid BB-8 all tag along to help her find and stop Palpatine before he launches a deadly offensive against the rebels. They’re a wily bunch, but so are Kylo Ren and his henchmen. Who will get to the undead emperor first, and what will happen once they do? Hopefully, the fun is in the finding out.

John Boyega as Finn in STAR WARS: THE RISE of SKYWALKER ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The film, helmed by J.J. Abrams, who also directed The Force Awakens, is eminently watchable, and without the unfortunate bloat of the The Last Jedi, yet somehow never quite rises to a level that would elevate this final trilogy to greatness. There’s promise in the strong performances from Adam Driver (Marriage Story) as Kylo Ren and Daisy Ridley (Ophelia) as Rey, and some marvelous special effects in certain sequences (my favorite is a lightsaber battle on the ruined Death Star, ocean waves crashing on the ramparts), yet too much illogical silliness on the sidelines that takes away from the raw power of the best scenes.

I’m not talking about the humor (always welcome), but the dramatic laziness that infects much of the screenplay, whether it’s rebels fighting on the exterior hull of an imperial star cruiser (uh, air, anyone?), improbably lax First Order security that allows Poe and Finn to land in the bay of said star cruiser, or any number of odd behaviors on the part of ostensibly smart villains that allow our heroes an easy win. That, and the addition of awesome new Force-based powers that we’ve never seen before (conveniently appearing when most needed), merely serve to remind us that consistency and coherence are no one’s priority.

Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Drivr as Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE RISE of SKYWALKER ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Worse, the once essential Finn (John Boyega) is reduced to a lot of mooning after Rey, the woman it looks like he will never have, while she has eyes only for Kylo Ren, the man she shouldn’t have. Poe (Oscar Isaac) gets a more sizeable part, but at the end is still just a sidekick. Both tower, however, over poor Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), so vital in The Last Jedi and here all but forgotten. Yes, there are many wasted opportunities. 

For the rest, though Carrie Fisher died before the release of the previous movie, she is back as Leia, presumably having filmed all her scenes before her demise (and she’s fine), and Mark Hamill (also good) returns as Luke. Even better, Billy Dee Williams shows up to reprise his role as Lando Calrissian. Harrison Ford, whose Han Solo died in The Force Awakens, pops up, as well. The gang is all here, in other words, to say farewell, in what amounts to a rousing, if sloppy, finish. It’s moving, at times, but also somewhat forgettable. The nostalgia is strong, even if the narrative force is weak.

Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca, Oscar Isaac as Poe, Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn in STAR WARS: THE RISE of SKYWALKER ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
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