Rebel, er, Resistance forces once again assemble to take down the Empire, no, First Order, wait, Final Order and their planet-exploding, galaxy-enslaving weapons of mass destruction in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the fourth film in six non-prequel Star Wars movies to follow, roughly, the same exact plot outline.
Hey, if it ain’t broke, right?
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit screens in 2015, fans thirsting for a return to Han Solo and Chewbacca and all the familiar aspects of the original trilogy were finally sated after thirty long years. But when The Last Jedi dared to do something different two years later, there was chaos: hey, this wasn’t the Star Wars we ‘member.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which brings Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams back into the trilogy, attempts to correct course from The Last Jedi, and in that sense it largely succeeds: this is a genuinely satisfying, even emotional end to the story Abrams started in the 2015 film that completely shifts focus away from some of the elements imposed by the last film’s director, Rian Johnson.
This is also an exciting, even exhilarating cinematic experience, full of technical wonder and first-rate effects. Like the Marvel movies, Disney isn’t taking chances with their hottest big-screen franchise; unlike those films, the set and production design, costumes and creatures, and CGI effects are all faultless here in the biggest and most bombastic Star Wars movie to date.
But for anyone looking for something new, a surprise or two, an unexpected plot element or story direction… nope, nada, you won’t find any of that in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker.
Warning: minor plot spoilers in below paragraphs.
Following the death of Supreme Leader Snoke in The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has taken his mantle as the leader of the First Order in The Rise of Skywalker – and has set on a path of destroying anyone that may challenge his power.
That includes, wouldn’t you know it, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who apparently die not perish in The Return of the Jedi, but instead has spent the last three decades building a fleet of Star Destroyer warships to finally take out those pesky rebels and their now-grown children for good.
Each of those Star Destroyers – and there appear to be thousands of them – come equipped with their own Death Star rays which can destroy entire planets. Helpfully, this is demonstrated, yet again, in an early scene in which a planet gets blown up. Instead of dispersing these weapons of mass destruction around the galaxy, Palpatine plans to launch a coordinated attack in, oh, let’s say exactly sixteen hours.
That gives Rey (Daisey Ridley) and her Resistance companions just enough time to go on a desert adventure to retrieve the mystical MacGuffin that reveals the secret coordinates of Palpatine’s Sith base on Exogol, so they can bring the fight to the former Empire and blow up all their laser cannons before any more planets can get blown up.
While previous films in the trilogy have given the colorful cast of supporting characters room to grow, this one is all about Ridley’s Rey and (to a lesser extent) Driver’s Ren. And while it comes at the expense of the other characters, the filmmakers do a great job of bringing both of those storylines full circle from Force Awakens.
While the Rey character has been criticized for being overpowered in previous films, here it’s made clear that that’s the point: her power is almost limitless but also terrifying, as depicted in an early scene where she lets anger take hold of her and does something horrifying. Rise of Skywalker ultimately turns into a Last Temptation of Christ parable, even if there’s little doubt as to Rey’s ultimate intentions, and serves as a nice counterpoint to the prequel trilogy’s Anakin Skywalker storyline.
Ren, too, seems to realize that Rey’s power is beyond his scope, and that power ultimately doesn’t matter as much as what one does with it. His story is one of redemption, and while it isn’t as complex as, say, Game of Thrones’ Jamie Lannister, it’s nice to see the franchise do something a little more elaborate with one of their more traditional villains.
The stories of Rey and Ren, however, overshadow everything else in Rise of Skywalker. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaacs) are along for the ride most of the way, but get precious little to do in their own right; ditto Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, seen in the role for the first time since Return of the Jedi), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, replacing Peter Mayhew), and droids BB-8 and R2-D2. Comic relief droid C-3P0, almost ironically, has the most meaningful storyline of any of the supporting characters.
Leia (Carrie Fisher, who died before the film went into production) is used only sparingly, though the character appears in one key sequence; ditto Mark Hamil, whose Luke shows up only briefly. A surprising amount of fan service to other films in the franchise shows up as well, in ultra-brief cameos for everything from the Ewoks to Mace Windu.
And poor Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose was a major character in The Last Jedi, is so aggressively written into the sidelines here that one assumes she personally offended the filmmakers; along with Billie Lourd, she has but a handful of lines among the Resistance rabble.
A pair of new potential love interests for Finn and Poe show up, meanwhile, in the form of Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and Zorii Bliss (Keri Russel); neither has much of anything to do, however, and may well have been added to dispel rumors of homosexuality between the male protagonists. And sell some additional toys, of course.
That, ultimately, is the purpose of The Rise of Skywalker: to keep things as predictable and non-controversial as possible and maintain a steady course while boosting the sale of ancillary products and stabilizing the brand for the future. To that end, the film is unassailable as a piece of money-in-the-bank corporate product that will satisfy most viewers without challenging any.
The Rise of Skywalker will be seen and consumed and enjoyed by Star Wars fans, and largely forgotten over the next decades as The Last Jedi, for reasons good and bad, will prove the most memorable picture this new trilogy has produced. Rise of Skywalker, ultimately, isn’t even the most memorable Star Wars product of 2019: that can currently be seen online, in the form of the Disney+ show The Mandalorian.