The Skywalker Saga is notorious for its persistence in popular culture and imagination despite the fact that so few of its movies are genuinely great.
And no, I’m not just bashing the prequels – The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones may be different degrees of insufferable, but Revenge of the Sith was the greatest final part until, well, this.
Return of the Jedi was a disappointing conclusion to the original trilogy, dropping the high drama of its predecessors to focus on a distilled, child-friendly toy-commercial, wherein the interesting emotional confrontations between Luke Skywalker and his father sharply contrasts the uninspiring Endor plotline that dominates much of the movie.
The fall of the Emperor is subdued (as, indeed, it is here), but overall that first conclusion to the Saga goes out on a whimper. The Rise of Skywalker wisely resurrects the franchise’s biggest threat – more machine now, perhaps, than man, his spectral form lends Episode IX horror movie angles – to give the franchise the ending it deserves in hi-tech 2019 technicolour.
The undoing of the original ending (the Emperor is back, with a fleet of Star Destroyers equipped with guns with the power of Death Stars) will no doubt irk many fans; the idea that Skywalker was supposed to ‘bring balance to the Force’ (whatever that means) is swiftly dismissed via the vocal appearance of a certain spectral Force Ghost – but the return of Palpatine was writ large in the now de-canonised Expanded Universe, and the (albeit rushed) explanation for his return is sufficient in the context of the films.
While I may be disappointed by some potential missed opportunities (those that have read my Episode IX wishlist will know I was a strong advocate for Hayden Christensen’s return as Anakin Skywalker), it is unreasonable to judge a film by the extent to which it fulfills your expectations or delivers plot points you wanted to see.
Some of the movie’s greatest moments were surprises I never considered – Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo was unexpected and beautifully done, ‘rhyming’ in classic George Lucas fashion with his final appearance with Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. This sequence, which paved the path to Kylo’s redemption, was allegedly supposed to include the Force Ghost of Anakin, though admittedly Solo’s presence (as a manifestation of his son’s memory) made much more sense and Abrams was wise for leaning toward emotional impact rather than fan service here.
Indeed, Christensen deserved more than a voice cameo (as beautiful as that scene was), but I commend Abrams and crew for showing restraint and choosing to focus on Rey’s journey – the film moved at a breakneck pace, and none of the characters knew what Anakin looked like – introducing him, especially in the final confrontation, would have slowed the movie down to a halt.
Indeed, the pacing means that some of the more easily scrutinizable elements are glossed over, casting the audience as spectators in a thrill-ride rather than encouraging them to be active critics a la Last Jedi.
Star Wars die-hards will no doubt be disappointed by this movie – there are already too many reviews on e-magazines and YouTube dismissing this as the ‘worst Star Wars movie ever’ – but it is, like The Force Awakens before it, an enjoyable ride start to finish with no dull moment in sight. The Rise of Skywalker is a perfect popcorn movie, while not being unafraid to explore concepts introduced in the controversial Last Jedi – the past has, indeed, been laid to rest, and Rey ends the movie ready, apparently, to form a new Order of her own, rid of all of the vanities Luke warned her led to rise of (shock!) Grandfather after Revenge of the Sith.
If all of this sounds like retreading familiar ground, that’s because it is. The Rise of Skywalker may not resemble Return of the Jedi as overtly as Abrams’ first venture into the Star Wars universe did its very first movie, but the repeat of certain storybeats is un-mistakeable, though the execution is superior.
Abrams expanded on Johnson’s explanation of her parents without undermining it, and the moment in which Ray learns she raised herself in Episode XIII is no less poignant. Rey may be a descendent of the Emperor, but Abrams expertly handles this in a way that allows the movie to explore the idea that our heritage doesn’t define us.
As for the other characters, Finn and Poe are cast into the limelight once again, while other heritage characters are given unexpectedly large chunks of screentime. We could have maybe done with fewer red herrings – Chewbacca’s apparent death was a genuinely emotionally impactful moment which would have been best left alone – but to see Chewie and C3PO given bigger roles than just being cast as background characters was refreshing.
Abrams and co did their best to bring Princess Leia to life via archived footage of the late Carrie Fisher, who understandably has been given a backseat in this film. Leia’s sections are, as to be expected, somewhat awkward and hackneyed, but this is forgivable given the context, and the idea of Leia training Rey was a stroke of genius cementing the General’s role as much more than just a Princess forevermore.
Unfortunately, as though to pander to vocal critics of Johnson’s take on the franchise, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico was somewhat unceremoniously cast aside, and while the new characters Zorii Bliss and Jannah aren’t seen much, their presence expands the universe and helps flesh out certain characters in meaningful ways.
There’s a lot to criticize and nitpick in The Rise of Skywalker – especially for all those who already decided they would hate this trilogy. Overall, Abrams succeeded in the unenviable task of bringing a forty-two year saga engineered by too many dissenting voices to count, and gave us a spectacle befitting the tag ‘space opera’ the franchise has been given. Seeming like the natural conclusion to an inter-generational conflict centring on two families, The Rise of Skywalker nonetheless left me wanting more. Unfortunately, due to Disney’s insistence (as for now) the Skywalker Saga is over, some of my questions will never be answered – how will Rey ensure the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated again? will Finn become a Jedi? is the First Order actually over?- but I left the cinema feeling satisfied, elated and, most importantly, deeply entertained.
Episode IX may not have fulfilled all my wishes, but it didn’t need to, and all of the surprises made me glad I religiously avoided all Star Wars-related content on the internet in the weeks leading up to its release. It did, however, fulfill my most important demand – it justified the existence of the sequel trilogy, giving it a unique identity and moving the universe past its obsession with the family that gave the Saga its name, and gave us an ending which wasn’t cheapened by pandering to an ever-expanding toy market, allowing Star Wars as we knew it to end with the fireworks it always deserved.