Reviewing the finale to not just this Star Wars trilogy but the other two that came before it is no easy task, because I find myself torn between two viewpoints. More on that later, but for now let me preface this review by saying it will have no spoilers, or indeed any significant discussion of plot details. I may later write a spoiler-laden second review but for now this is safe territory for those who are yet to view the film.
My history with the Star Wars saga is long, complicated, and deeply personal. The original trilogy aren’t merely classics, but cinematic sacred texts that spoke volumes to me as a child (and as an adult). The prequels were a technical triumph, but in retrospect, otherwise a disappointment (although to be fair, they are much loved by those who saw them as children). The new trilogy, by contrast, began strongly, with The Force Awakens. It wasn’t up to the standard of the original films, but proved solidly enjoyable.
Then came The Last Jedi, or as I call it, The-Star-Wars-Film-I-Didn’t-Know-I-Desperately-Needed.
A very vocal (but I’m convinced small) group of so-called fans condemned The Last Jedi for reasons that to me seem foolish at best, and sexist, racist, and hateful at worst. Needless to say I cannot emphasise enough how much I disagree with their views. In years to come, I believe The Last Jedi will be recognised as what it so obviously is to me: a masterpiece. It is bold, exciting, and visually stunning; iconoclastic for all the right reasons, yet still working within the template set by George Lucas. It thrilled me, gripped me, and deeply moved me (to tears, in fact). To be honest, the saga could have ended there, and I wouldn’t have complained.
So how then does The Rise of Skywalker develop the themes Rian Johnson introduced in The Last Jedi? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. Much of what Johnson set up is either ignored entirely, or retreated from, presumably in an attempt to appease the afore-mentioned vocal groups who derided Johnson’s film. Instead, The Rise of Skywalker feels more like a direct sequel to The Force Awakens (even though it isn’t), with writer Chris Terrio and director JJ Abrams playing things decidedly safe.
Does this matter? Well, on one level, no. The Rise of Skywalker certainly doesn’t leave the viewer short-changed in terms of spectacle. There are all the strange planets, droids, aliens, monsters, chases, space-battles, and duels you could possibly wish for, and the visual effects are, as always, staggering. One lightsabre fight that takes place amid huge crashing waves is particularly epic, and the whole thing cracks along with plenty of amusing banter from well-loved characters.
Better still, the film features two stunning lead performances from Daisy Ridley as Rey, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Their fascinating, Force-projecting relationship is placed front and centre here, and it does develop in some genuinely interesting ways. Whether duelling or verbally sparring, there’s an underlying tinge of eroticism which bizarrely brought to mind Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones’s dangerous sexual tension in sadly forgotten western Duel in the Sun. So yes, the film certainly delivers on that front.
The rest of the cast rather play second fiddle, but they are always fun to watch, especially John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron. The much-trumpeted return of Emperor Palpatine is agreeably ludicrous. In fact, his return owes more to ideas in Harry Potter than anything in previous Star Wars films. That said, it’s always a joy to watch Ian McDiarmid in cackling pantomime villain mode. Also on the villainous side, we get the return of frustrated space-Hitler General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and better still Richard E Grant as new character General Pryde.
By contrast, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose is unfairly sidelined (I suspect in response to fanbrat vitriol), and Carrie Fisher’s appearance (via repurposed footage shot for previous films) is distracting, because I couldn’t help but attempt to spot the joins. Other older cast members return, including Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Joonas Suatamo as Chewbacca (taking over again, from the late Peter Mayhew), and obviously Anthony Daniels as C-3PO (much less underused in this film, to my mind). Other new additions to the cast do well in sorely underwritten roles – for example, Naomi Ackie’s Jannah, and Keri Russell’s Zori Bliss. Perhaps there would have been more opportunity for these characters to shine, had the plot been a little more simplified, and a little less follow-the-artefacts.
One cannot review a Star Wars film without discussing the invaluable contributions of composer John Williams, and here he is on great form. There are a couple of tremendous new themes, woven into a score that also cleverly refers to older themes, often in minor keys, or in “remember this?” moments. Lifelong fans will have much to enjoy as they spot the musical references throughout. Williams has said this will be his last score for Star Wars, and he will be desperately missed in future episodes. Despite the incessant bickering from various factions of fandom, one thing at least they can all agree on is that without John Williams, Star Wars would have been a very, very different beast indeed.
Ultimately, there are two ways to view The Rise of Skywalker. First, as a back-peddle from The Last Jedi, and a wasted opportunity which instead of forging ahead with new ideas, relies on old ones, and “plays the hits” so to speak. As such, it’s not a terrible film, just a very safe (albeit needlessly convoluted) one that falls back on the Return of the Jedi style of wrapping up Star Wars trilogies.
Alternatively, you can accept Obi-Wan’s “certain point of view” ideology, and essentially reject the idea that anything from The Last Jedi has been back-peddled. You can accept that Star Wars has always, first and foremost, been a throwback to 1930s/40s Saturday matinee serials like Flash Gordon, and as such the thrill-a-minute breakneck pace, whizz-bang, don’t-take-it-too-seriously aesthetic is entirely in keeping with what made the original trilogy so remarkable. To be coldly objective, Return of the Jedi isn’t guiltless of moving away from some of the darker themes in its predecessor. Indeed, the original treatment for it was much darker (it included the death of Han Solo, and a much more melancholy finale). Instead, George Lucas realised that the saga needed to end on a more upbeat, redemptive note. Let’s face it: even though Return of the Jedi rehashed the Death Star idea, and became more about muppets and monsters than a more grown-up reinvention of mythology, it did feature that amazing Luke/Vader/Emperor confrontation. Furthermore, it was adored by the children who saw it at the time, including me, who now won’t hear a word against it. I suspect the same may end up being the case for children watching The Rise of Skywalker.
For that reason alone, I’m opting for the latter of the above views for the time being, giving The Rise of Skywalker the benefit of the doubt as an exhilarating spectacle that delivers a satisfying, action-packed, fan-service stuffed finale to what is now being called the “Skywalker saga” Star Wars films. What the future holds for the franchise I have no idea, but I am sure we haven’t seen the last of that galaxy far, far away.
UK Certificate: 12A
US Certificate: PG-13