***1/2 out of ****
(for sci-fi violence and action)
Released: December 20, 2019
Runtime: 141 minutes
Directed by: J. J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Ian McDirmand, Anthony Daniels, Keri Russell, Billy Dee Williams, Joonas Suotamo, Richard E. Grant, Naomi Ackie, Kelly Marie Tran, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Mark Hamill
(To read my essay on how The Rise of Skywalker does not retcon The Last Jedi, click here)
As someone who grew frustrated with The Last Jedi more and more with each viewing — for its betrayal of Luke Skywalker and its deconstruction of the entire mythos (i.e. all the points that have been obnoxiously litigated to toxic extremes on social media for the past two years) — Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker achieved something I never thought possible: it didn’t retcon The Last Jedi, it redeemed it.
Harvesting the seeds that Rian Johnson planted, returning director J. J. Abrams (The Force Awakens) doesn’t ignore or reject the events of Episode VIII or their thematic essence; he fulfills them, giving them purpose and design, even putting meaningful buttons on things you’d never consider. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this but not only do I look forward to revisiting The Last Jedi again; now it feels absolutely necessary, right down to Luke’s sacrilegious lightsaber toss.
The final chapter in the Skywalker saga is not a course-correction; it is a completion. Abrams sees through on what the penultimate episode set up and, along with it, what came in the seven episodes prior. There’s nostalgia but not simply for nostalgia’s sake or because those aspects mean something to us as fans. It’s there because those elements mean something to this story, to these events, and to the people in it. In every detail, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is so much more than a service to fans; it plays like the ending that was always meant to be.
And Rey is one badass Jedi.
Like a full tilt pull-out-all-the-fireworks bombardment in a 4th of July grand finale, The Rise of Skywalker empties this saga’s arsenal from the jump and stays at pyrotechnic light speed until the very end. That break-neck pacing is one of the film’s few drawbacks, packing in two movies worth of plotting into one. If ever a three-hour cut were warranted, it’s here.
What’s sacrificed, however, isn’t story, character, or ideas, but quieter, tender moments that would’ve jerked more tears had they been allowed to breathe. That’s a small quibble, though, for a generations-spanning mythology that carries the impossible burden of bringing the biggest pop culture phenomenon of the last half century to a proper close. And yet it does. It’s a Life Day miracle.
Where the The Last Jedi made the Star Wars galaxy much smaller, limiting the bulk of its action to two locations (plus a brief stint to a third), The Rise of Skywalker spans that far far away cosmos once again, uniting and sending this trilogy’s core trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe across the galaxy’s expanse and to its farthest (and darkest) reaches, covering as much galactic territory as it does narrative in this propulsive, swashbuckling thrill ride that flies by in the fastest two hours and twenty minutes you’ll ever experience.
Along the way, Rey wields the Force in ways we’ve never seen, Finn comes into his own as a Resistance leader, and Poe is fully transformed into the Han Solo 2.0 it seemed inevitable he’d become.
There’s so much fun in finally seeing these three together, from bringing back the affection that Finn first felt for Rey in The Force Awakens to seeing the emotional bond that all three of them form. It’s a shame that it has to end here because, in many ways for that trio, it feels like a beginning.
Chewbacca remains the faithful soldier and friend, BB-8 remains the cutest ball of A.I. ever, and a sacrificial moment of truth for C-3P0 becomes the film’s best running gag of comic relief. R2D2 is still sarcastically beeping, too, and new little D-O is a PTSD-afflicted roller sure to steal hearts.
Then there are the two remaining Skywalkers, General Leia and her son Ben Solo (a.k.a. Kylo Ren), now the Supreme Leader of the First Order. After the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher, the notion of Abrams repurposing cut footage from The Force Awakens seemed like a dubious if admirable prospect. Lesson learned for the umpteenth time: don’t doubt J. J.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Leia makes more than a salvaged shoe-horned cameo; she is vital to the destinies of this trilogy’s yin and yang, Rey and Kylo. Leia’s role here is one of the finale’s biggest, most consequential highlights, not a mere afterthought. It’s as if this is how it was planned all along.
Meanwhile, Kylo’s tragic pursuit of the Dark Side reaches its full heartbreaking peak, with Adam Driver giving the most tormented single-film performance of the entire franchise. Some moments here are absolutely devastating. Whenever anyone wants an example of what Anakin’s portrayal should’ve been in the prequels, point them to Kylo Ren in The Rise of Skywalker.
Furthermore, Abrams not only continues the Force Connection between Rey and Kylo that Johnson began (marking Rian’s most substantial contribution to the mythos); he roots that mysterious bond into the very fabric of their identities…although, thankfully, J. J. doesn’t go so far as to define that at the midi-chlorian level.
Yet brilliantly, Abrams does not dismiss the core subversion of The Last Jedi, i.e. the belief that there has to be more than a single solitary Chosen One, or that such a savior need not rise strictly from a single elite bloodline. Abrams appreciates something that most of us too often lose sight of: the truth need not exist in simple “either/or” binaries. Quite often, two things can be true at the same time, even when they appear to contradict each other.
In the case of Rey, this trilogy’s Chosen One, Abrams makes the clear decision that her parentage means something. Her bloodline means something. It is unavoidably significant. And yet, as one character puts it to her, “Some things are stronger than blood.” In that one line, Abrams affirms everything that The Last Jedi was about, not at the expense of Rey’s origins but by putting them in their proper context.
The template of this saga is not just a hero’s journey; it is an identity journey. It’s a quest to find out who these heroes are, of fulfilling (or betraying) their potential, and how their lineage informs that journey just as it does for everyone. Anakin’s identity. Luke’s identity. Leia’s. Kylo’s. Rey’s. They are all metaphors for our own.
Family identity is more than a genre trope; it’s as powerful an aspect of the human condition as there is, for all of us, and perhaps especially for those who’ve been orphaned. It forms us, and it can even define us. That’s why it’s so important. That’s why it can’t be dismissed.
But here’s the important thing: it doesn’t fate us. We’re neither ordained nor doomed to repeat the legacies of our families. In the end, good triumphs over evil because of the conviction (and decision) that we’re not doomed to repeat or fulfill the failed legacies of our forefathers.
In this, Abrams embraces the fundamental ethos of The Last Jedi, including in how Kylo solders his broken helmet back together. That isn’t a retcon of what Rian Johnson did or why Snoke compelled Kylo to destroy it in the first place; that re-patched helmet (cool though it may be, with its bright red seams) is still just a mask. It’s still just a false, misguided identity that Kylo retreats behind, driven by the deception that his identity is in his grandfather rather than himself.
Fittingly, Rey’s path to becoming a Jedi (rooted in her lineage) is the most consequential of the entire saga. More than Anakin’s. More than Luke’s. She is the fulcrum on which the future of this galaxy rests, and Daisy Ridley carries that weight of that with the strongest of shoulders, the steeliest of resolve, and a risk-taking compassion.
With The Rise Of Skywalker, Ridley and Abrams make Rey the greatest Chosen One archetype in the history of the movies. Better than Luke, better than Neo, better than Harry Potter. Not because of her bloodline, but because of her choices.
The power of the Force reaches beyond its practitioners, too. In the true spirit of how it surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together, we see that axiom lived out through bonds between old characters and new, from Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and an old colleague Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) to Finn (John Boyega) and a new Resistance fighter Jannah (Naomi Ackie), as well as Chewbacca’s bond with them all (including how meaningful Leia is to him) plus the droids with each other and the people they serve.
Yes, there are numerous call-backs to previous episodes (from the original trilogy especially), things that the cynic would condescendingly dismiss as fan service. That’s a knee-jerk insult to what Abrams actually achieves: a thoughtful, intentional repurposing of this saga’s most sacred relics. Sure, you can call it fan service if you like. I call it destiny, because that’s how substantial and inspired Abrams makes every reference feel.
It also remains the best produced special effects-heavy blockbuster franchise. Requiring much more digital and optical wizardry than, say, a Mission: Impossible movie, The Rise of Skywalker fulfills the new trilogy’s edict of mixing the practical with the digital rather than overloading on the latter, and the result remains the best VFX in the business.
Given the speed of the plot, some of the rushed platitudes are simple and pat, and Lando (for as fun as it is to have him back) is the one element of undeniable fan pandering. These less-considered elements are countered by gasp-worthy surprises, jaw-dropping turns, and applause worthy payoffs. Suffice it to say, even the slew of trailers and commercials are proven deceptive out of context. There’s more to this than you know, including The Emperor.
The episodic Star Wars Saga may have come to an close with The Rise of Skywalker (capped by a sentimental throat-catching coda that fully champions the idea that your identity is what you make it), but because J. J. Abrams fulfilled the promise of three trilogies, nine films, and forty-plus years, its Force will be with us. Always.