This is it. The end of the Star Wars saga films. Nine episodes. Forty-two years. Three sets of trilogies. Five directors. One Emperor. That’s right, the trailer featured his voice, the poster featured his face – here he is, right in the opening crawl, and immediately this chain of films becomes clear, that ‘from a certain point of view’, this is what they have been about all along – absolute power. The absolute power to delight and to frustrate, to engross and to confound, to evolve and to regress. It is this power that keeps this latest troubled entry from completely falling in on itself and to emerge as a work, that despite failing to completely stick the landing, will be debated for all its merits and faults, all its triumphs and failures, for years to come.
It may not be surprising, but it is still ironic, that like its forebearer, ‘Return of the Jedi’, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ can’t quite deliver on the grand promise of its two superior predecessors. While this is the case, just like RotJ, TRoS is an adventure film of the highest order, a spectacle of spectacles, crammed not with the character building of ‘The Force Awakens’ nor the lofty philosophical ideals of ‘The Last Jedi.’ This is not necessarily a bad thing, but anyone craving for the continued deconstruction of the Star Wars mythos will come away wanting.
In their zeal to create a driving narrative, returning director J.J. Abrams, and his cast and crew lose the deliberateness of his first foray into the galaxy. Like other episodes, number IX also drops in media res after a fascinatingly head-scratching expository opening crawl. For the first portion of the film, the editing and cutting is so jarring it’s akin to the light speed skipping Oscar Isaac’s ace pilot Poe Dameron, John Boyega’s ex-stormtrooper Finn, Chewbacca, and a whole menagerie of creatures do in the Millenium Falcon. It’s quickly apparent that Carrie Fisher’s Leia was to play a pivotal role here, just as Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill each did in the previous films. As stellar a job the filmmakers did in inserting her into Jedi training scenes with Daisy Ridley as her new master, the emotional heft of their bond can’t be fully realized due to her untimely passing.
What is fully fleshed out is the chemistry and the complicated relationship between Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Ridley plays a matured version of the wide-eyed, but self-assured scavenger from ‘The Force Awakens.’ She’s learned in the ways of the Force, extremely powerful, and maintains that overarching kindness and respect that make her such a great hero to root for. Driver is on another level – this guy has the goods. He is somehow able to take rote and sometimes repetitive dialogue and spin it into gold. It should be acknowledged that this is screenwriter Chris Terrio’s first contribution to the Star Wars franchise – why Lucasfilm would think that tapping the author of DC’s convoluted ‘Batman v Superman’ and ‘Justice League’ to assist Abrams in molding this movie on the fly is a true mystery. Ren’s scenes here with Rey, as in ‘The Last Jedi’, make up the core of the movie, and above all with these new films forms their main emotional beat. It’s astounding to watch him, doing the best acting of anyone in any of the movies, whether it be new trilogy, original trilogy, or prequel trilogy, and ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is better for it. It goes without saying, but without Ridley and Driver selling this material, there’s no way of buying into Rey and Kylo.
Despite these attempts and some success at pulling at these various threads, the whole endeavor threatens to collapse in on itself at multiple times during its run. Thankfully the witty banter and repartee help keep things relatively light, the actors drive through some of the more clunky dialogue/exposition, and there are enough real shocks and surprises to counter some of the more predictable elements. There’s some wondrous things to behold, imagery for the ages, some new interesting characters to see and interact with, but nothing resonates in sight and sound on first viewing quite like the first two films in this sequel trilogy. Like all things Star Wars, what makes the fantasy world so fun, opinion and appreciation can change, evolve, and grow with multiple viewings, but at least initially, Episode IX is a lot to take in . . .
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Written By: J.J. Abrams & Chris Terrio
Running Time: 141 min.
* * * (out of four stars) -OR- B