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

Gaps in “The Rise of Skywalker’s” storytelling are made up for with friendship and weird little aliens

Despite the lights and fights, the battles of epic proportions, and the prophecies and mysticism, the best moments in “The Rise of Skywalker” are the small ones. A quick joke, a bright new world, and a moment of tension or love between our heroes are the moments that define the heart that has attracted so many fans to “Star Wars.” It’s in identifying this line between old and new, big and small, and epic and irreverent that every “Star Wars” creator has struggled to find since the infamous prequels and subsequent sequels. As the trilogy directorship moved from J.J. Abrams to Rian Johnson to Abrams yet again, fans looked to this final film to finally bring them what they wanted by bridging the gap between interpretations. But “The Rise of Skywalker” ultimately does not leave the viewer with some brilliant overarching plot; instead, its strengths lie in much needed character moments and conclusions that make sense emotionally, if not quite logically.

As was Abrams’s style in “The Force Awakens,” “The Rise of Skywalker” plays out the aesthetics of the original trilogy in the bright new worlds, small and silly aliens, and themes of mercy, redemption, and self-sacrifice. But this takes a divisive turn as Abrams recycles more literal elements from the original trilogy — notably the antagonist, Emperor Palpatine, who makes a completely unexplained return from the dead in this film.

Jumping into the plot, Palpatine’s return seems like a fortuitous event for the increasingly powerful First Order, who recently lost their head Sith Lord and replaced him with angsty upstart Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The weakened Resistance is understandably troubled, so our heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), embark on a fetch quest to find Palpatine and stop him. Meanwhile, Rey must learn to master her own Jedi powers and handle her strengthening force connection with Kylo, who despite his recent promotion to “bad guy supreme” is more torn between light and dark than ever before. 

The film has a lot going for it, and its first half is probably one of the most enjoyable setups of any Star Wars film. Rey, Finn, and Poe’s little journey across the galaxy allows them much needed bonding time after spending “The Last Jedi” off on individual journeys. This exploration of their friendship provides a crucial sense of what our heroes are really fighting for: each other. Likewise, despite his complicated relationship with the lore established by “The Last Jedi,” Abrams does not back down from exploring the complicated dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren. The often unwitting Force connection the two established in “The Last Jedi” is played to its full potential as both characters take advantage of their insight into the other in increasingly clever ways. “The Rise of Skywalker” really feels like the first film to make the effort to explore Kylo’s wishy-washy relationship with the dark side, finally giving the audience a more developed view on a complex character.

Of course, I would be remiss to not talk about the droids and the strange little aliens, which have naturally always been two of the “Star Wars” universe’s most beloved elements. This film brings two excellent additions to the franchise: a seemingly tough-talking mechanic that is in fact a six-inch-tall little alien speaking a belligerent nonsense language while our heroes try to haggle, and a former First Order droid with a few plot-relevant moments who serves the overall crucial function of being adorable. 

The film’s flaws stem from a conflicted relationship with the previous material. What we learn of the Force and this galaxy far, far away seems to stand very shakily on what we already knew of this world, quickly adding in new functions for the Force that had never been touched on in the eight previous films. These new developments didn’t need to feel as shoehorned in if only the groundwork had been laid in earlier films. Unfortunately, while Johnson and Abrams’s additions to the trilogy do somewhat result in the culmination of more nuanced and varied themes for the story as a whole, they result in a confusing round-robin style narrative that easily could have been solved by some earlier communication.

“The Rise of Skywalker” often feels like it’s trying to merge two conflicting worlds: Abrams’s “Star Wars” with Johnson’s, the dark and serious parts of the franchise with the bright and child-friendly aspects, and the elements that audiences loved so much in the original story with whatever the sequels may bring.

To the film’s credit, it manages the first two conflicts with surprising grace. Abrams takes the heart and aesthetic tones of “The Force Awakens” and breathes new life into them in “The Rise of Skywalker.” Simultaneously, he embraces many of the more left-field choices Johnson made in “The Last Jedi.” Likewise, the film may be one of the franchise’s funniest yet while skillfully not detracting from its darker moments. 

Ultimately, “The Rise of Skywalker’s” greatest problems are the same ones that have plagued the sequel films since their development: the lack of an overall vision for the trilogy, the fear of upsetting fans who will be disappointed in material not too closely laid in the original foundations of the franchise, and the futility of simply resurrecting the conflict of the original trilogy. As an audience, we’re savvy enough to know this new trilogy was created for pure financial reasons, but from a storytelling standpoint, the viewer still must wonder: what is this trilogy trying to say? What does it add to the “Star Wars’” story? This question seems emblematized by Rey’s own journey to find her place in the world, especially when her dubious origins are juxtaposed with antagonist Kylo Ren’s as a Skywalker descendant with the moral anguish of his grandfather. Perhaps when we understand the new face of “Star Wars,” we will understand what it has become.

But this question is the unfortunate victim of backtracking to the development made in “The Last Jedi.” While it ultimately manages to stick the landing by the end, a flawed second half of the film still leaves the answer unsatisfying. But perhaps this isn’t so surprising. Perhaps this film, much like Rey, also doesn’t know what its place should be within the world of “Star Wars.”

Director: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver

Release Date: Dec. 20, 2019

Rated: PG-13

Grade: B