Contains mild spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. You have been warned!
The JJ Abrams-helmed sequels have seemed to inspire more opinions than usual, whichever side of the fence those opinions fall on. At this point, I’ve heard every imaginable take. Episode VII was too paint-by-numbers, a carbon copy of A New Hope, a modern classic, a step in the right direction, underwhelming, etc etc. And as for the feelings on 2017’s The Last Jedi? Well, we really don’t have that kind of time.
Let’s just say people are talking about Star Wars more than ever. The pleasant surprises of a first thought excessive Rogue One and the ongoing Mandalorian show on the new Disney+ network have kept sights on the franchise, branching out in different directions and keeping key demographics entertained between instalments. But, at least for now, the main cinematic canon is coming to an end (remind me to punch myself in the face inside of five years when that’s wrong): Episode IX, 3/3 for the sequels… the big one. Here comes the granddaddy of all conversations. So here we go back to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
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The term ‘space opera’ is one I’ve always thought to be wildly apt. The cornerstone of the original set of movies is the depth of character interactions that ground it, even in the midsts of all the MacGuffins, symbolism and endless lore. It seems as if that’s a strength that might stand for the team behind these movies too. I’ve read countless quotables from cast member interviews positively elated to have the project back in JJ’s hands. Well, his fingerprints are EVERYWHERE. That famous ‘mystery box’ approach to filmmaking has never been so evident on screen.
For example, the instantly recognisable scrolling text intro drops you straight into the middle of a story it wasn’t telling where we left off. Palpatine is inexplicably back, I guess. With this as your drop off point, the first act is riddled with exposition that a third movie in a trilogy really shouldn’t need. Everyone is in on the act, and they race through describing what happened and to who, in a way that would be infinitely more interesting for us to have actually witnessed.
We progress through some classic Star Wars plot points. You know them. Things need retrieving, vague allusions to an unspoken truth… they’re tried and tested at this point. The dialogue seems leaps and bounds ahead by this portion already; everyone seems to have defined motivations extending beyond just saying them, and pseudo-religious force waffle is currently at a minimum. Everybody wins! Except not really.
In fact, with the exception of the quickest learning curve of all time vis-a-vis dialogue there is now SO MUCH HAPPENING. Too much, if anything. This movie feels like 75% second act. It just keeps piling on. Probably my main criticism of the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker is the insistence on pedal-to-metal in all elements. Nothing with this amount of set up should feel as rushed as it does. Then again, it must be incredibly hard to tether somebody’s ideas for a universe this dense back to your own, and the second act contains a lot of buffing to fit the fragmented pieces of the previous two episodes together. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are both absolutely fantastic as the meat of this section, definitely trilogy-best performances and some of the most compelling set pieces are built on their palpable chemistry. I won’t mention what Kylo and Rey get up to, for fear of dying a thousand internet deaths, but almost any time they share a screen is enthralling.
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Okay, so nice bit done with, it’s time to address something here. This is a film hell-bent on you not enjoying the third act. Seriously. There must have been a conscious effort to pull the tension out of key moments in the narrative with throw away dialogue (often misfiring jokes) and/or janky timing cues. This simply cannot happen on its own. Some of it is excusable when considering the young audience the franchise attracts, but some of it is so damn hammy, it’s like the film is laughing at your want for immersion. Well JJ, if you don’t care then neither do I, my guy. I’m spending the rest of the film strapped in for fan service alone… and boy, will I get it.
Desperately trying to right the ‘wrongs’ of the previous episode, JJ completely does away with the whole motif of letting the past die, and crams far too much of it into your poor little eyes. By the time we reach the climax (the real one), I sat absolutely exhausted wondering how in the hell I should actually feel. Even how I DID! It’s rather a rare thing to feel as the credits roll, that you have no real idea what the director was going for. I talked about the plight to tie everything up in a bow and to be fair, there was an attempt. A bloody valiant one, considering the parameters.
There were ultimately just too many plates being spun by the two directors of this trilogy for any ending to stand a chance of feeling satisfying.
My fears heading into The Rise of Skywalker were all concerned with an internal retcon job of the highest degree… the trailers seemed to suggest a heavy reliance on the iconography of the series so far as opposed to pushing forward with the new foundations laid. Even in that short showcase, a disparity between directorial visions was evident. Rian Johnson fought hard to make Kylo Ren a multi-faceted character instead of a two-bit villain, and JJ Abrams was quick to quite literally put the mask back on him. Say what you like about Episode VIII (and I’m pretty confident you have) but at the very least that instalment endeavoured to dream; to push past the limits of the franchise as we knew it. If you remotely enjoyed that angle from Johnson’s movie just… don’t expect much more of it.
The Rise of Skywalker is a relatively fun movie; but it’s a little tired. I, for one, think we should let it rest.