The following review is as spoiler-free as I could make it per my editor’s request. The following may contain some spoilers but I have done my best to be as circumspect as possible.
I couldn’t help but feel Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was longer than most other Star Wars films. A narrative mess with eye-popping spectacle, jaw-dropping on the nose cinematic imagery while an almost silly amount of insurmountable obstacles mount up for our heroes to overcome. So about average for Star Wars.
J.J. Abrams has the unenviable task of following up Rian Johnsons’s The Last Jedi to conclude a trilogy he set up. Abrams co-wrote the script along with Chris Terrio. Together they have managed to make a love letter to both the franchise and the fans. Even if the fans rarely deserve the film’s sincere salivating affections for its characters and audience.
My issues are much the same I had with this year’s earlier box office juggernaut Avengers: Endgame. I realize my thoughts and feelings on that holy spectacle of cinema are not shared by almost anyone, but I still maintain that a movie that is wholly fanservice is a movie that ultimately does nothing of real interest for anyone.
However, unlike Endgame, TROS is a gorgeous and lush pantheon of imagery and riveting action set pieces. Abrams may have his narrative faults but he knows how to work with his cinematographer Dan Mindel. Mindel and Abrams give us breathtaking scenes such as Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo (Adam Driver) having a lightsaber battle atop a fallen Death Star while rolling waves crash around them. It’s impossible to fault the movie for looking ugly.
TROS also takes chances with consequences. Every single one is then almost immediately reversed or revealed not to have a consequence. But hey they allow up to three minutes, usually, before revealing the risk or consequence was just a fake-out and everything is fine and with little or no actual risk being taken.
After a while, it gets so hilariously absurd you find yourself giggling at the absurdity of it all. Once you start realizing the film’s tendency to play Lucy to the audience’s Charlie Brown you begin to see the moment in which Abrams pulls the football away. But to his credit, it never feels malicious so much as a man pulling out all the stops to try to amuse us.
Like a sweating tap dancer who’s had to go on because the main act for which everyone has paid to see has mysteriously vanished and he is now desperately trying to win a crowd over who is having none of his attempts and feels none of his pain. For crying out loud, there’s a moment where our heroes are trapped in quicksand and John William’s score pulses as if they might really be in danger. It’s all just a preposterous adventure in some of the best ways.
Star Wars, as Patrick H. Willems once said, “is a story about space wizards intended for children”. As such it’s never particularly taken itself all that seriously. When Star Wars has taken itself seriously it was never as serious as the supposed grown-ups who gnashed their teeth and stamped their feet at the decisions made without consulting them.
Abrams and company lean into the sort of childlike wonder and heedless gee-whiz of it all and don’t even bother apologizing for the absurd twists, turns, and backtracks. TROS starts off with reams of exposition dialogue that covers so much ground that fifteen minutes in I realized so much has “happened” and the movie has barely even done anything yet.
The script vacillates between pure exposition and lovely well-crafted banter. Most of the lines spoken by Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is dialogue meant for audience members to make sure they understand what’s going on because while Kylo may not be a genius, he can’t be all that daft. But then you have moments such as when Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) are playing a familiar game aboard the Millennium Falcon. The ease in which they chat back and forth made TROS feel as if Abrams was wrapping a warm comforting blanket around me.
Sadly, the banter is scarce and the exposition is all but suffocating. The galaxy is mighty small in Star Wars so new characters are scarce. Oh, sure we get Zorrie Bliss (Keri Russell) and her sidekick Babu Frik. We also get Jannah (Naomi Ackie) a former Storm Trooper, who like Finn, walked away from the Imperial Forces.
The price is the movie has sidelined Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). One of the many bright spots and joyous discoveries from the last film, here she is relegated to lines about troop positions and relaying commands. A shame since those brief moments we can feel ourselves hoping and wishing she drop the headset and jump into the Falcon and fly off with the rest of the gang.
If it seems like I’m going back and forth, it’s because I am. I like a lot of what Abrams and company shoved into TROS. Sometimes the dialogue hit me right in my cold dead heart. “They win by making us feel that we are alone. We’re not.” I couldn’t help but pump my fists towards the end when the tide of battle began to turn in our hero’s favor.
At the same time, there were dramatic moments in which I found myself bursting out laughing. One particular moment where a character reveals something about themselves had me howling. The moment was so ridiculous yet so audaciously bold I couldn’t help but grin in appreciation. Granted I was the only one laughing, probably because the other people in the theater were die-hard fans who find little joy or mirth in any Star Wars movie.
In the end, I’m left feeling relieved and happy the trilogy is at an end. I’ve always loved Star Wars, though I was always more a Spaceballs fan. But over the years my love has started to wane-because of the fans. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a ham-fisted, joyously melodramatic, heedless cry of love for a fandom that has rarely deserved it.