Second Take: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Want to read more Rise of Skywalker thoughts? Check out Peter’s review here.

As I sit down to write my review for The Rise of Skywalker, I am overwhelmed by a terrible sadness. It’s as if half a dozen well developed characters and an infinite number of potential plotlines suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. You see, I know something terrible has happened. I have seen it. Twice. 

For the past four years, I have staunchly held my ground, taking the hits as I praised the sequel trilogy, but this artless, hollow and pandering finale has finally broken me. As someone who has proudly worn my Star Wars fanaticism as a badge of honour for three decades, it pains me to see that the entire 9-film saga ends here. On this note. As an uninspired and unimaginative collection of fan service.

While many argued that The Force Awakens was derivative of A New Hope, I saw an energised love letter to the original trilogy and a sincerely worded apology for the prequels. I saw an energetic and supremely likable new ensemble full of charisma, charm and potential. I felt totally invigorated as the propulsive spirit of a galaxy far far away was back on the big screen, backed by John Williams’ brilliant new score. It made me feel like a child again. I saw the film seven times at the movies. A new personal record. 

But, as much as I loved every second of The Force Awakens, I wanted the sequel to be different. I wanted it to challenge me. To try something new and unexpected. To expand the universe and the Force. To not copy old ground and be Empire 2.0. I hoped it would have something to say other than the past is cool. 

With Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, I finally received the film I knew I always wanted. But I quickly learned, the vocal audience and I didn’t agree. The internet wanted Luke to fly in with his laser sword and save the day. The internet wanted Rey to be a Skywalker or a Palpatine. The internet wanted Snoke to be the new Emperor. The internet cared not for the delightful Kelly Marie Tran and made it their mission to bully her from social media. The internet didn’t want Force sensitive Leia flying or a Holdo (a woman in charge) challenging Poe. 

The internet simply didn’t want what Rian offered. An independent filmmaker shaking things up and subverting expectations of the largest and most revered movie franchise in history. They had already written the sequel in their heads and were beyond bitterly disappointed and angrily frustrated when that movie didn’t come to pass. And I get it. Expectations and envisioning is a huge part of the fun. It helps to pass the time as we anticipate and prepare ourselves for the things we love. 

But The Last Jedi had something to say and an auteur’s vision at the helm (seriously if you haven’t you must check out Johnson’s Knives Out). It gave audiences a warm hug and said it’s OK to fail and accept that our heroes can be as flawed as ourselves. Rey, Luke, Poe and Kylo were catapulted from intriguing prospects to well-developed and believable characters. But more importantly, they felt human. 

So here we are, two years and a billion heated debates later, and while The Rise Of Skywalker is absolutely not the worst Star Wars film to date (Phantom Menace and/or Attack of the Clones will forever share that odious honour), it is by far the most disappointing. Less so a film, than a studio-led course correction that actively chose to take their production notes from reddit posts and angry comments sections, in favour of organically continuing to complete the story that JJ Abrams himself and Rian Johnson laid out. 

The story begins some time after the Battle of Crait, with the Resistance still struggling for survival and the First Order strengthening their tyrannical grasp on the galaxy. Rey has upped her Force training. Kylo is now the Supreme Leader. And the dead talk! 

You see with Snoke split in half, the series was missing an all-powerful antagonist, and your appreciation for the film can largely be predicated on how much you buy into the whole Palpatine lives plotpoint. And while Revenge of the Sith certainly provides some lore that explains how the Emperor may be able to avoid death, this film provides no such clarity. Yet, your belief in this fiction is central to your engagement and enjoyment. Because everything hinges on this belief. 

Once this knowledge is known by our band of heroes, the remainder of the film is a series of world hopping and mcguffin chasing to stop the Emperor. For the third time. While the script has other reasons for his inclusion, it feels reactionary, lazy and out of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong; I love me some Ian McDiarmid, but I needed his presence to feel earned not “well he’s there, just because.”

Fans of The Last Jedi (I know you do exist outside of Rotten Tomatoes and my pals on Letterboxd), may feel that JJ has retconned Rian Johnson’s ideas to hell, but that isn’t entirely the case. Although the unceremonious demotion and benching of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is by far the most egregious decision to cater to the fans’ ridiculous demands. 

There are certain elements that feel partially connected to the previous film, the main one being Rey and Kylo’s Force-based Facetiming. Unfortunately, the film spends the first 40 minutes haphazardly trying to reset the chess board and distance itself from Johnson’s efforts. It’s calculated but clunky. The movie starts and stops, then quickly skips ahead. This steccato-like storytelling and editing is best exemplified in Poe’s light-skipping manoeuvres, where he quickly skips in and out of lightspeed evading pursuit in the Millenium Falcon. We also see this off putting sequencing with Rey. One minute she states she doesn’t deserve to hold Luke’s lightsaber and passes it, defeated, back to Leia. Three minutes later she gets it back, no worries at all. 

This odd approach ensures there’s no momentum and it kills any sense of emotional investment for the journey ahead. And that’s what makes me truly sad. I just didn’t feel connected to what was presented and how we got there. Looking for ancient hidden technology and using coded daggers and maps to find it didn’t feel like Star Wars, but more like National Treasure: Space Force

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments, shots and sequences that belong in a film of this magnitude. Lucasfilm have spared no expense in creating an, at-times, monolithic film. Lightning filled skies with thousands of Star Destroyers; lightsaber battles on the sunken wreck of a Death Star. The set pieces and grandeur is on the screen, it’s just the hollow writing that fails to make these moments land or feel satisfying. 

And that leaves me perhaps with my biggest problem with The Rise of Skywalker. The sheer lack of imagination and risk. The safe and lifeless choices, and predictable conclusions, made for a film that I felt I had already seen. The reveals that have been demanded for four years now, came and went as scripted, when they should have knocked me flat. While the final confrontation was no doubt visually impactful, narratively and thematically there was no weight or heft. 

By its conclusion, I felt exhausted. Like I had just seen Disney/Lucasfilm and JJ Abrams cave into fan pressure and deliver a corporate product devoid of a vision or a reason to exist. A film with nothing to say after 40 years of relevance and cultural impact. A bastardisation of our greatest myth. A ransom note that had been paid in the blood of all fans. Because regardless of whether you loved or hated The Last Jedi, this final film was not what either of those camps deserved. 

And I’m done.

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