There is a moment in ‘Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker’ where Adam Driver’s cracklingly compelling Kylo Ren has the helmet he smashed beyond recognition in ‘The Last Jedi’ repaired. The end product looks whole but is clumsy and grotesque with its fiery fissures, backed by minimal innovation and even less purpose as the helmet is discarded in the blink of an eye. The same is true of the J.J. Abrams’ conclusion to the Skywalker saga.
Most painfully, Kylo Ren’s reconstruction of his helmet is also a marker for the film’s decision retreat into the shadows of the past; in stark contrast to the philosophical highs of Rian Johnson’s brilliant, bold and wholesome helming of the divisive ‘The Last Jedi’. Johnson lit a path onto the exciting unknown, which is all Star Wars patriarch George Lucas wanted for his franchise. But this light is dimmed by Abrams’ succumbing to the pull of the familiar and lazy.
To the film’s credit it serves us the bitterest pill early, confirming to us Emperor Palpatine’s return as the big bad in the Star Wars universe. The least said the better. The film’s only saving grace is the absorbing dynamic between Kylo and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who has to wrestle not only with the pull of the dark side but the equally imposing spectre of her past which looms more ominously as the saga nears its conclusion.
Rey is still linked through the force with Kylo, transcending space and sometimes time. We first get this sequence where she is distracted by him during her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher). Then their connection grows stronger, constantly testing the limits of “force time” until that magnificently staged and savage yet oddly sensual lightsaber duel which fittingly takes place in the ruins of the Death Star, scored in part to the violent crashing of roaring waves.
‘Rise of Skywalker’ never loses sight of the inner conflict and the internalised battle between good and evil that rages not only in Kylo, as we’ve seen in the previous films, but slowly in Rey. She now has fears that it is her destiny to fall prey to the dark side and this angst puts her in positions where she learns the wrong lessons from her first Jedi teacher Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil).
We now see the once resolute Rey on shaky ground; the ground we most associate with the unstable Kylo. Her relations with her friends seem fraught as she becomes more of a lone ranger, making the kind of rash decisions expected of the unraveling Kylo, whose arc dangles the prospect of redemption before us.
Speaking of Rey’s friends, Finn (John Boyega) spends most of his time with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewie (Jonas Suotamo) following crumbs across the galaxy that will ultimately lead to Palpatine who resides in uncharted Sith territory. These characters ride the coattails of the plot, offering nothing by way of character development. That’s more than we can say of the likes of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) who is sidelined altogether.
The sense of what could have been in ‘Rise Of Skywalker’ is inevitable not just because Colin Trevorrow was initially expected to direct this film but also because of the absence of Carrie Fisher. There is a Leia shaped hole in the film as big as the Death Star and I wonder if the film would have been better served just killing her off in the opening scrawl as quickly as it resurrected Palpatine. What we get is a portion of further grief and agony watching her wander aimlessly in the film, a notch above a hologram when we know she could have been so much more under different circumstances.
There are some new characters too like Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss, who has some heated history with Poe; Lando (Billy Dee Williams) who’s return I wish wasn’t ruined by the trailers; Babu Frik (Shirley Henderson), who someone on Twitter swore was cuter than Baby Yoda; Jannah, the leader of a company of ex storm troopers whose explosion of natural hair is more interesting than her actual use in the story.
These are characters we come across in three visually arresting and distinct settings, the lush and colorful Forbidden Desert of Pasaana, the Stalin-era Russia-inspired (I honestly don’t know what this comp means) Kijimi and the roaring terrain of the grave of the Death Star in the Endor system.
One of the benefits of Palpatine’s early intro is that I came to accept his place in the story as the 142 minutes running time crept on. The stakes are simple even though why they came to be isn’t easy to explain. Like the dark side, online rabbit holes on how Palpatine could have survived to call out to me. I don’t expect that any of them will make sense. All we know is that the now decrepit Emperor has a massive world-ending fleet at his disposal to establish the Final Order.
Some of the positives in the Rise Of Skywalker will become more prominent with time but I doubt they will ever overcome the secondary infection that comes with the sense that it exists to undo ‘The Last Jedi’. Some of the storytelling decisions here are not just clunky but plain anathema in the way they directly or indirectly feel subservient to the fan backlash. Not to get into spoilers but this film even seems to mock the Holdo maneuver.
Things are operating on a meta-level in the way audiences are asked to choose between the draws of the narrative frustrations and the wondrous depth-laden flourishes. Like the matchup between the resistance and the evil empire onscreen, negatives seem to overwhelm the good this film has to offer. But the good remains earnest and heartwarming even if it lacks in imagination.
Though it easy to take attempts at scale and wonder for granted in 2019, Abrams really never comes close to reaching the highs of ‘The Force Awakens’, which he directed, or the ‘The Last Jedi’. There are moments of astute direction of note, like his composition of the desert encounter between Kylo and Rey, infusing such dexterity and grace into the basics of establishing time and space.
But the direction of the action especially wanted for more inspired visual flourishes. I thought the Knights of Ren existed in service of a fight scene to rival ‘The Last Jedi’s’ crimson delights in the throne room eruption of violence with the Praetorian Guard but that was not to be.
Is ‘Rise of Skywalker’ the worst Star Wars film? I can’t say. But it is by far the most disappointing given the ironclad foundations that manifested in a hollow shack of a story. The Skywalker Saga alas ends with a whimper. But we can take solace in the fact that a money-making franchise like this machine will offer more than enough avenues for redemption down the line.