J.J. Abrams caps an iconic space-opera franchise with the flashy but not necessarily compelling ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

February 20, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 20, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the 11th entry in the blockbuster space opera, opens with a blast from the past. As the series’ signature opening crawl that follows the film’s title (see previous sentence) and episode number (nine) announces:

The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA dispatches secret agents to gather intelligence, while REY, the last hope of the Jedi, trains for battle against the diabolical FIRST ORDER.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader KYLO REN rages in search of the phantom Emperor, determined to destroy any threat to his power…

Director J.J. Abrams, who directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot and its first sequel and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among other projects, and who helped create the TV series Alias and Lost, thusly sets up the climax to the third Star Wars trilogy before a single planet, object or person appears on screen. If The Force Awakens, which launched the franchise’s latest trio in 2015, recapitulated George Lucas’s first Star Wars, retroactively titled A New Hope (1977), and The Last Jedi (2017) took The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as its template, then The Rise of Skywalker, released in December 2019, is here to replay 1983’s Return of the Jedi for audiences young and old.

Yes, we have a major early sequence set on a desert planet (originally Tatooine, here Passana); Return of the Jedi is mimicked down to a surprise appearance by a particular character and a hole in the ground in a desolate patch of landscape inhabited by something with a toothy maw. Yes, there is a planet-killing weapon that’s been constructed in secrecy that is about to be unleashed upon the galaxy (the weapon was singular in 1983; now there are many of them).

Yes, there is a mid-movie consultation with a diminutive alien that reveals an important plot point (back then, it related to family ties; here, it leads to the location of a device that will lead the heroes to a hidden planet). And yes, there is a climactic space battle that plays out in conjunction with a throne-room confrontation between the Jedi protagonist (then Luke Skywalker; now the orphaned Rey) and the Sith archvillain (Palpatine in both cases, with Ian McDiarmid reprising his role).

Of course, this being the 21st century, we get more of what we had from the original. The movie takes us to more planets; we have more characters; there are not one but three duels between Force-wielding contestants; and boy howdy, there are so many more special effects.

To sketch out the narrative in just a little more detail, Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley, playing apparently the last remaining heir to the galaxy’s order of peacekeeping warrior-wizards) follows the trail of her late mentor, original trilogy hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to Pasaana. She and her friends discover an inscribed knife that lists the location of a “wayfinder” that will in turn lead to Exegol, the evil Siths’ hidden home planet, but they have to visit a snowy world called Kajimi in order to get the inscription translated. This in turn leads to a world with a very stormy ocean before we proceed to the climactic sequence at Exegol.

Rey undertakes this quest alongside loyal adventurer Finn (John Boyega), hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the late Han Solo’s buddy Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Luke’s talkative protocol droid C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and Dameron’s cuddly spherical droid BB-8.

We stop in occasionally on the jungle world of Ajan Kloss, where the depleted Resistance — seemingly reduced to a dozen or so individuals at the end of The Last Jedi — have a new secret base for a functioning corvette and a dozen or so well-maintained fighters. Here the heroes consult with the Resistance commander, General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), who is also attempting to mentor Rey in the Jedi ways. We also get a few glimpses of the franchise’s other iconic droid, R2-D2, who seems to have entered a state of semi-retirement for reasons that eluded me.

Palpatine orders his would-be new apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), to kill Rey, but Ren — the new Supreme Leader of the fascist First Order — has other ideas. He has a strong attraction to and mystic Force bond with Rey. He wants her to join him in killing Palpatine and ruling over the galaxy with the massive fleet that the resurrected (cloned?) emperor has covertly built.

The complicated but fast-moving story unfurls thanks to a slick script that Abrams cowrote with Chris Terrio, the screenwriter behind Argo, who also cowrote the DC Comics movies Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. The duo had two collaborators who receive story credits for The Rise of Skywalker. One is Derek Connolly, the coauthor of Jurassic World and sequel, Kong: Skull Island and the action-comedies Monster Trucks and Pokémon Detective Pikachu. The other is director Colin Trevorrow, who made his bones with Safety Not Guaranteed, which Connolly wrote, before proceeding to helm the two (soon to be three!) Jurassic World features.

The narrative reunites viewers with the heinous First Order General Hux (a sneering Domhnall Gleeson), who advances the plot in a few ways, and the valiant Resistance technician Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a key but controversial character introduced in the polarizing The Last Jedi whom the filmmakers have chosen to de-emphasize here. We also meet several new characters.

The latter roster includes Hux’s new superior officer, General Pryde (Richard E. Grant); a smuggler with (apparently) a heart of gold and (definitely) a big helmet, a skintight jumpsuit and connections to Dameron’s shady past, Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell); a pocket-sized alien cyberneticist, Babu Frik (voiced by Shirley Henderson); and a just-as-small robot, D-O, whose raison d’être seemingly is to afford Disney, the Star Wars franchise owner, an extra opportunity to market stuff to kids. The most intriguing new character is Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who like Finn defected from the First Order stormtrooper corps and is functionally an orphan.

The exercise generally moves along at light speed, so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember some of the plot points.

Taken as a whole, I think the movie is adequate. It looks great, and may serve up the most amazing battles and effects of the entire franchise. (I ought to note that I haven’t seen Solo and have watched very little of the TV series: the animated Clone Wars, Rebels and Resistance and the new live-action The Mandalorian.)

The core trio of Rey, Finn and Dameron of are engaging, and their exploits over the first two-thirds or so of the movie are fun. But the story offers almost nothing that I found novel or surprising. There’s a sequence in the middle in which the heroes are treading on enemy turf, and I watched with a mixture of boredom and impatience — the former because I thought We’re doing this kind of thing again?, the latter because We’ve still got at least half of the movie to get through.

The biggest problem may be that, as I noted in my writeup of Last Jedi, my enthusiasm for Star Wars has dropped off over the years. I watched The Last Jedi about four and a half months after its premiere; my viewing of The Rise of Skywalker trailed the debut by two months. Maybe I’ve become an old fuddy-duddy, but I’m just not sure what this saga can do for me to find it more than just mildly entertaining.

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