STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong'o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams. Directed by J. J. Abrams. 142 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction violence).
After he slapped a new coat of paint on ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ and released it in 2015 as ‘The Force Awakens’, the first ‘Star Wars’ entry to be produced since Disney added Lucasfilm to their expanding media empire, I was convinced that director J. J. Abrams would attempt the same trick for his saga-capping ninth entry, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’. I’m pleased to say that I stand corrected, because Abrams has produced a boldly strange and satisfying film that pays homage to the franchise’s long history while still moving in unexpected and thrilling directions. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably as good a conclusion as we could have hoped for to a series with such an astonishing legacy and such an outspoken fan base.
The film’s opening crawl announces that a transmission from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, deliciously diabolical), the evil Sith lord long thought dead, has rung out across the galaxy. In an elegant, near-wordless opening, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, excellently conflicted), the Supreme Leader of the First Order who yearns to destroy every vestige of the Empire, tracks the Emperor down to a hidden Sith stronghold on the planet Exegol. Originally planning to kill Palpatine, Ren is instead swayed by his promise of a mighty army and joins his Final Order. Ren is assigned a new mission: assassinate Rey (Daisy Ridley, the film’s emotional heart), the former scavenger with formidable force powers who trained as a Jedi under the late Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and is now a member of the Resistance under General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).
A spy inside the First Order alerts the Resistance about an imminent attack upon every planet that does not surrender to them. The Resistance’s only hope to halt the deadly onslaught is to destroy the Emperor before he can mobilise his massive fleet of planet-destroying ships. Picking up the threads of Luke’s search for a Sith Wayfinder (a nifty McGuffin-cum-space GPS that will lead them to Exegol), Rey travels to desert planet Pasaana with Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega, who together with Isaac cements his leading man charisma), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), plus droids BB-8 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), battling the ticking clock to save the galaxy.
Writers Chris Terrio and J. J. Abrams (who inherited part of a story from previously announced director Colin Trevorrow and his co-writer Derek Connolly) have crafted a story piled high with fan service (it’s not really a spoiler to observe that Chewie finally gets his medal). It embraces classic ‘Star Wars’ in a way that ‘The Last Jedi’ didn’t, managing to shoehorn in so many old fan-favourite characters that it’s essentially one Jar Jar Binks away from becoming a complete, galactic family reunion. This renewed commitment to canon gives the sense of Abrams trying to negate his predecessor, director of ‘The Last Jedi’ Rian Johnson; after the latter deliberately stepped away from the familiar elements that Abrams established in ‘The Force Awakens’ (characters like Snoke and Captain Phasma were summarily knocked off), Abrams and Terrio in turn undo some of Johnson’s decisions, sidelining Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and revising Rey’s big parentage reveal.
While some of this revisionist one-upmanship is frustrating, there’s also a strong impression that Johnson’s daring yet divisive entry emboldened Abrams to get a little weird this time around. Though old characters are paraded through the story, ‘Rise’ also brings some fresh elements to the world, like new force powers and flying stormtroopers. The plot is even more surprising – a lot happens and happens fast. Though, like ‘The Force Awakens’, much of it boils down to an Indiana Jones-esque quest to find and use an artefact, it covers acres of unexpected territory. Rey leads her fellowship to Kijimi, where they encounter Poe’s old acquaintance Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell, leaves an impression with limited screen time) and scene-stealing droid mechanic, Babu Frik (voiced hilariously by Shirley Henderson). They take a quick jaunt to a Resistance outpost on Kef Bir, where Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and other sympathisers lend them a hand. And of course, everything leads to an epic showdown with the Emperor and his Final Order on Exegol, a sequence that recalls influences as diverse as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Triumph of the Will’.
Frankly, so much happens across the film’s 142 minutes that you wish the film was longer; in a year where ‘Avengers: Endgame’ approached the three-hour mark and was rewarded by critics and audiences for giving its culmination event story the scope that it warranted, it’s not unreasonable to want the same from the final ‘Star Wars’ film. The plot alone might have benefited from a bit more time and space to breathe (pun intended), but some of its character development needed more time, like Kylo Ren’s especially rushed character arc. Other elements don’t work at all, like the Emperor’s strangely lame and underutilised squad of Dark Side-adjacent warriors, the supposedly elite Knights of Ren, who rarely cause our heroes more than a light sweat. The film’s most egregious failing is its clunky desire to include a second farewell to the late Carrie Fisher, whose role in the film was pieced together from unused footage shot for ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’. Not only is Leia unnecessary to the plot, but every scene in which she appears feels awkward in the extreme, because every exchange was essentially reverse-engineered from whatever lines they had Fisher performing on file. It’s a real shame that Leia wasn’t allowed to retire gracefully after ‘The Last Jedi’.
But there are upsides to be found in ‘Rise’ too. The film delivers some powerful emotional beats, largely courtesy of the electric chemistry between Rey and Kylo Ren that ‘The Last Jedi’ honed. The action is the most physical it’s ever been in a ‘Star Wars’ episode, particularly the gunplay, with laser blasts knocking their targets about with tangible power and leaving dark scorch marks on stormtrooper armour and the handsome sets. The effects are still spectacular, blending cutting edge CG with practical elements that benefit from the kind of budget that these old school techniques rarely receive. Ultimately, in the film as in the narrative, the good outweighs the bad.
If one were to rank the ‘Star Wars’ films, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ probably lands squarely right in the middle of the bunch. It’s messy at times, undeniably too fast and bears witness to some poor creative decisions, but there’s enough here to satisfy fans of the industry-shaping franchise and casual blockbuster viewers. As Skywalker rises (in a sense) in this instalment, you know that ‘Star Wars’ too will rise again, and while ‘Rise’ reportedly puts a definitive period at the end of the Skywalker saga, there’s nothing here that will dampen interest in what Lucasfilm decides to do with their beloved galaxy far, far away.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 17.
Walt Disney Studios.