REVIEW – ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ is a messy, yet somewhat satisfying conclusion

If the last twenty years and five films have taught us anything about Star Wars fans, it’s one blindingly obvious fact; you cannot please them all. Serve up too many elements of the films that came before and you’re derided for lazily recycling the past. Stray too far away from the tried and true formula and you’re vilified for destroying the franchise. There really is no way to win everyone over, particularly with how sacred many rightly hold the original trilogy.

In 2015, co-writer/director J.J Abrams was criticised by some for The Force Awakens feeling too familiar to the plot and structure of the original Star Wars. In 2017, the pitchforks came out for writer/director Rian Johnson after a collection of very vocal fans (just because a group is loud doesn’t make it the majority) found his edgy, daring, and divisive The Last Jedi meddled too heavily with their treasured saga. See. You just can’t win.

Now we arrive at The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding chapter of Disney’s colossal sequel trilogy and (apparently) the finale of the entire Skywalker saga. After juggling through a few writers and directors (sorry, Colin Trevorrow), Abrams returns to the director’s chair to bring this incarnation of the franchise to a close with a messy, yet somewhat satisfying conclusion that’s sure to spark plenty of furious debate. And may God help us all.

It’s difficult to summarise the plot details of this third chapter without someone instantly crying spoilers. Even revealing the colour of a character’s shoes will likely devastate someone, so let’s try to keep this brief and as spoiler-free as possible. If you’d prefer to know literally nothing of this film than what has been unveiled in the trailers, maybe skip the next few paragraphs. You have been warned.

Somewhere out in space, the voice of long-thought dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned (this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given he’s in the trailer and on the poster), transmitting a message that attracts the attention of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who sets out to find and destroy the former leader of the Galactic Empire. This guy does not easily suffer challengers to his throne as the head villain of this trilogy.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is continuing her Jedi training, now under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher). After an unknown First Order spy informs Leia of the Emperor’s secretive plan to return from the grave with an arsenal of starships, Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Chewbacca set off in the Millennium Falcon on a voyage to save the galaxy for one last time.

That’s really all one can say without venturing too deeply into spoiler territory. But, with a two-and-a-half-hour running time, you can imagine there’s plenty more going down in this bombastic space opera, including the introduction of a few new characters who mostly register little impact. Or, more accurately, aren’t given a whole lot to do by Abrams and Chris Terrio‘s screenplay, which labours most of the new cast with the thankless task of spouting nothing but constant exposition.

It’s that very screenplay that proves to be one of the biggest flaws of The Rise of Skywalker, as it foolishly attempts to cram a potentially three-and-a-half-hour-long epic into just 141 minutes. After the ridiculous success of Avengers: Endgame, it’s rather baffling anyone thought Star Wars fans couldn’t handle/didn’t deserve an equally-long concluding chapter. This is the final film of a nine-part series that spans over four decades. Why exactly are we rushing through this?

This is particularly troublesome in the film’s first hour where our band of heroes zoom off on a neverending McGuffin hunt, as they attempt to track down one mystical doodad after another on some previously unseen planet in their hopes of eventually locating Palpatine. A pyramid-shaped trinket. A Sith dagger. Poe’s ex-girlfriend. Two turtle doves. And a partridge in a pear tree. Abrams barrels through this scavenger hunt with such ridiculous speed, it’s hard to keep up with what thing they’re trying to find to get to the next place to locate the other thing that’s the key to unlocking the previous thing.

It’s not that this first act is particularly dull or lifeless. It’s always fun to journey to new lands within the Star Wars galaxy. And, ultimately, these discoveries each offers something to the overall narrative, with a few of those doodads coming into play again later in the film. It’s just the pacing is so unnervingly fast and each mystery is solved remarkably easily, making the entire pointless trek seem like nothing more than an attempt to draw out the inevitable showdown.

After setting up this franchise five years ago, Abrams has the unenviable task of returning to follow up a film he had no hand in. While several key elements established by Johnson in The Last Jedi remain, namely Kylo and Rey’s psychic connection, he tosses a hefty chunk of Johnson’s work right out the window. Kylo rebuilds the helmet he destroyed in the previous film with spiffy new fluorescent red lines. A key player in the predecessor, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is relegated to little more than a background character. And as for the ever-burning question regarding Rey’s lineage, well, you’ll just have to see the abrupt direction Abrams takes on that one.

One can’t help but wonder if these three films were keenly mapped out before production even began or if they’ve just been making it all up as they go along. Two directors working on three connecting films probably wasn’t the wisest idea, and it’s hard to say this trilogy flows organically from one to the next. It will be curious to learn if future generations find the experience of watching these three films somewhat jarring.

It’s inescapable the vision Abrams had for this trilogy that Johnson somewhat ignored. It’s still rather wild Disney even allowed it to occur. In some ways, The Rise of Skywalker feels almost like a soft reboot. Some will deem that entirely necessary. Some will find the idea wildly offensive. That being said, if you loved Abrams’ nostalgia vibes in The Force Awakens, this final film will absolutely be your cup of tea.

Echoing the rousing finale of the Avengers series, The Rise of Skywalker is supreme fan service, overloaded with franchise references and returning characters (it’s a joy to have Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian) to put a huge smile on the face of Star Wars fans. Is it all a little too much? Does it fall back on nostalgia too heavily? Perhaps, but if you’ve been with this franchise for 40 years, this film is speaking to you. There are certain boxes a Star Wars film must tick, and this one ticks them all.

Much has been made of the inclusion of Fisher, given her untimely death pre-dated production of this film. Working with cut elements from previously filmed scenes, Abrams tries his best to seamlessly insert Leia in an important yet minimal way. It doesn’t always work and it’s hard not to notice how her “performance” has been stitched together in post-production. Regardless, it’s glorious to have Fisher play some part in the finale of the saga that made her a star.

The problem with Abrams’ safe style is his frustrating inability to take true risks. There are numerous times in The Rise of Skywalker where the director dabbles with something genuinely bold, particularly some wildly unexpected narrative moments, but doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. It’s a cavalcade of shocks that seemingly spin the story on its head, only to shyly back away from truly going for it. Again, it’s hard to discuss these events without spoilers, but one genuinely moving moment towards the film’s conclusion is completely undone by the director bluntly refusing to try something unexpected.

As expected, The Rise of Skywalker is a spectacular looking film from a production standpoint. We know this franchise can deliver the spectacle, and Abrams offers plenty of dazzling set-pieces to keep an audience endlessly entertained. Supreme visual effects work by the team at Industrial Light & Magic and stunning production design from Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins are complemented by Dan Mindel‘s absorbing cinematography, creating some genuinely stunning imagery. And, in a bittersweet adieu, John Williams provides a stirring, turbulent, and resonant score for the final time, inserting several of his beloved Star Wars pieces into a wholly new work that will surely see the composer receive his 52nd (!) Oscar nomination.

It’s undeniable Abrams loves the Star Wars franchise and has crafted a conclusion aimed squarely at his fellow fans. He knows precisely how to tug at your heartstrings and there are numerous moments here that will have you reaching for the tissues. It’s the finale we possibly needed but perhaps not the one we hoped for. It fails to take the risks it could have, but it still offers a gratifying and sentimental farewell. This may not be the supreme conclusion some were anticipating but nowhere near the disaster it might have been.

As a devoted fan of this franchise since the age of 5, The Rise of Skywalker still provided this film critic with endless joy, even if the final product felt a little too safe and familiar. I laughed. I cried. I cheered. I gasped. I thanked my lucky stars I’ve been alive to witness one of cinema’s greatest ever sagas. Thanks for the memories, Star Wars. And may the force be with you. Always.

Distributor: Walt Disney
Cast: 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
Director: J.J. Abrams
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Michelle Rejwau
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams
Cinematography: Dan Mindel
Production Design: Rick Carter, Kevin Jenkins
Costume Design: Michael Kaplan
Music: John Williams

Editing: Maryann Brandon, Stefan Grube
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: 19th December 2019 (Australia)