When it comes to Star Wars most movie fans would benefit from a reminder that the films are made primarily as space adventure stories for children. What’s also forgotten is that when Star Wars (1977) arrived it pretty much had the space adventure sub-genre all to itself; there had been nothing like it before and nothing to compare it to.
Even so, George Lucas, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand’s original trilogy was a lot better than it had any right to be. As such expectations for further Star Wars outings was very high. Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker (2019) is thus a film 42 years in the making, the final word on the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han.
The prequel trilogy, for all the hype surrounding it, never had to contend with these expectations. Being set before A New Hope the films didn’t have to handle the beloved original cast. Revenge of the Sith, the most underrated of all the Star Wars films, revelled in it, offering a story that was ninety-five percent bleak with just a five percent sprinkling of optimism. But the new trilogy didn’t have this option and had a ton of cherished moviedom to be mindful of. Rise of Skywalker in particular has the weight of the galaxy on its shoulders; get it wrong and there are no more chances left to get it right.
The Force Awakens was a commercial and critical success. The only gripe was that plot wise it was a carbon copy of A New Hope. The Last Jedi responded to those criticisms by taking the story and the franchise in new directions. It too was a success, though much of what made it so (a willingness to do things differently) angered large swathes of the Star Wars fandom. The Rise of Skywalker has swung back the other way again then; The Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson was jettisoned, and Force Awakens writer and director J.J. Abrams was brought back again.
For all the prequel’s faults the films at least had a clear through-line; Lucas’ dialogue was painful but the plot it told was clear and smoothly delivered. The new trilogy is nowhere near that flowing, and it’s now apparent that when the new trilogy was devised it wasn’t clear what story Abrams and Disney executive and producer Kathleen Kennedy wanted to tell.
And that’s the main failing of Rise of Skywalker. There are plot holes that could be nit-picked (how did Lando round up that many ships that quickly? Why create Snoke as a wrinkly old man?); yet if you can look past force powers you can look past these points. But some of the other problems go beyond mere plot quibbles. They are a direct result of a non-committal approach to what the new trilogy was meant to be.
The problems are clear from the off. The opening crawl, often a convenient excuse to breeze past Star Wars plot points, drops an immediate clanger. Emperor Palpatine is back, revealed by a broadcast message. You wonder how such a massive plot point can be relegated to a throwaway line of yellow text. Wouldn’t it have made for the perfect Last Jedi cliffhanger? But that’s the issue; it was never the plan to have Palpatine as the ultimate villain. It’s been hastily cobbled together by Johnson simply because a big surprise was needed, and with no time or movies left this was the only one they had to fall back on. The fact this rapid Palpatine return ruins Anakin / Darth Vader’s moment of redemption in Return of the Jedi, a moment that was built up to across six movies, is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
The story lurches on from there, struggling to mould the facets of two films in to a satisfying and fitting final act. We’re not told how Palpatine survived, we’re not told how he managed to construct a massive fleet of starships on a seemingly barren planet, and we’re not told what the difference is between the First Order and the Final Order. Further messy story wrangling follows.
Despite having zero sexual chemistry, Rey and Kylo/Ben share a kiss during their final scene, a moment that will stand as one of the most awkward in the entire franchise. Finn’s character development stalls; did he have force powers himself, and what was that he wanted to tell Rey? Poe doesn’t fare much better, never really moving on from the half cocky, half troubled pilot he was three films ago. Characters and plot threads introduced in The Last Jedi get relegated to the background or abandoned altogether, while new characters are introduced but given nowhere near enough screen time to develop. And at the end of it all, we don’t really find out what happens to the main cast of new heroes, other than Rey who finds herself alone on another desert planet, again.
And yet …
Despite the mess behind the scenes and the resulting mess of a plot, there’s still something undeniably thrilling about sitting in a cinema, seeing “A long time ago…” in glowing blue letters, then being pinned to your seat by the Star Wars fanfare. There’s undeniable magic when Chewie, Luke, Leia and Han are on screen, when characters are swinging lightsabres at each other, when X-Wings are swooping around Star Destroyers. And all of that holds true still for Rise of Skywalker.
The same mistake Force Awakens made is repeated here; just as that film repeated A New Hope, so this film repeats Return of the Jedi, the inexperienced Jedi fighting the Emperor in his throne room, the Emperor begging to be struck down while they both look on at the space battle raging outside, before the once Sith villain turns good to save the day. But it still works, and it’s still thrilling. You’ll still find yourself rooting for Rey just like you were rooting for Luke all those years ago. You’ll even be rooting for Kylo / Ben to who somehow manages to successfully transition away from the Sith and makes for one of the coolest looking Jedi seen so far in the brief moment he’s wielding a blue lightsabre.
Dotted through the film are those other winning Star Wars facets. John Williams (finally getting a blink and miss it cameo) provides yet another stunning soundtrack. The dusty, eerie wreckage of the earlier war still makes for a fascinating backdrop, most notably the watery wreck of the Death Star II which provides a stage for arguably the films stand out sequence. And then there are those touching send offs to the original cast. Chewie, Leia and C3PO all get final lump-in-the-throat final moments, and there’s even a chance to say farewell to Luke and Han. If you were being cynical you could argue that its just blatant fan service, but when it feels this good who really cares.
The final question is where Star Wars goes from here. It’s guaranteed that Disney will be making more movies in the future; they didn’t pay literally billions of pounds for 20th Century Fox to stop here. It they are being sensible they will finally leave the Skywalker saga alone and move on to brand new tales within the Star Wars universe. Whether that actually happens though its difficult to say. Whatever happens Disney would do well to pick one creative mind to oversee the project and stick with them; they won’t have the comforting nostalgia of the original trilogy to fall back on next time.