Waves of words have washed ashore about the religious dimension of “Star Wars,” contributing to the series’ status as a singular, unprecedented phenomenon in cinematic history. It starts with the plot itself and continues with ritualistic patterns of veneration. The ninth and (ostensibly) last installment of the saga sets out to do honor to the previous eight episodes with genuine reverence. For many fans this may be a fitting conclusion, but it’s also the picture’s major stumbling block.
“Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” is the third film of the third trilogy, which was produced by Disney after the studio acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. The trilogy opened with “The Force Awakens” (2015), directed by J.J. Abrams as a direct continuation of the original trilogy (installments 4-6 in the full series). Abrams, who had already rebooted the “Star Trek” label, wanted the torch to be passed from Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo to a new generation of heroes led by young Rey (Daisy Ridley).
“The Force Awakens” was a disappointment, but nevertheless stirred optimism. Abrams appeared to have set in place an intriguing foundation for extending George Lucas’ mythology into new realms, while minimizing the damage done by the second trilogy (installments 1-3 in the full series).
However, the new film is influenced largely by its predecessor, “The Last Jedi” (2017), directed by Rian Johnson. Though the film suffered from being the second part of a trilogy, shorn of a beginning and an end, Johnson left his distinctive mark and injected a refreshing spirit into a saga that had become frozen in time. Unlike the critics, many fans were displeased with the result and, as usual, did not keep their opinions to themselves. Most of the fury was aimed at a director with a too-personal style, a too-reflective villain, a too-grumbly Luke Skywalker and the rebel Rose, too much a woman and too Asian for the web trolls.
According to many reports, Disney took the criticism very much to heart. The problem is that the lesson the studio learned comprised two contradictory demands: a desire to see a new and exciting installment, and in the same breath a stubborn refusal to depart from Lucas’ framework. Johnson’s removal and Abrams’ reinstatement as director reflected the mother corporation’s wish to end the saga of the Skywalker family without rocking the boat. As co-writer of the screenplay together with Chris Terrio, Abrams assumed the task of giving the fans everything they wanted. Think of an exercise in customer retention. In large measure he can be said to have succeeded, and certainly there will be fans who will consider this a fitting conclusion to the saga.
In this vein, the new film carries a minimum of boldness and a maximum of nostalgia for the past. The plot begins shortly after the end of “The Last Jedi,” when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) adjusts to a promotion he organized for himself as supreme leader of the wicked First Order. Already during the opening crawl, which begins with the cry “The dead speak!”, we learn that the Emperor Palpatine is alive and kicking. The villain of the first six installments, it turns out, survived Darth Vader and now wants to recruit his grandson to crush the rebels. In the meantime, Rey trains with Leia (Carrie Fisher) and is strengthened as a Jedi. The confrontations between the rebels and the Order begin almost immediately, and without sliding into spoilers I will note that they continue almost without a break for 142 minutes.
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With very little plot and plenty of action, the only fallbacks left to “The Rise of Skywalker” are nostalgia and action. The former is more meaningful: Abrams sacrifices any character development of his new heroes for the sake of nonstop homage to the three trilogies. Multiple homages do not obligate a treadmill approach; Lucas himself filled “Star Wars” with references to books, movies and comics, from Flash Gordon to “Casablanca.” Despite the unsophistication of the script, there was an outburst of sweeping creativity. That glitter and passion are lacking in the screenplay by Abrams and Terrio.
Abrams, for his part, approaches the series like a coal miner and processes it for the screen, artificial and engineered. Alongside old worlds, certain objects and a gallery of references, veteran characters recur nonstop. Some of these appearances occur in flashbacks, some by means of holograms, but there are also some for whom death turns out to be a temporary nuisance. That option is the most problematic, as it defuses any possible tension, even in this world. Not one figure from the past who crops up advances the plot, but when the aim is heartwarming nostalgia, anything goes. The one exception is the late Carrie Fisher, who plays Leia three years after her death, by means of archival material and a smidgeon of nostalgia.
While nostalgia brings with it a buffet of warmed-over noodles, the action scenes are the high point. As part of a series of breakthrough films in the genre as such, and in visual effects particularly, “The Rise of Skywalker” meets the standard. Along with the incessant effort to activate the nostalgia glands, Abrams and Disney also invested properly in the Skywalkers’ last war. Sometimes sword against sword, sometimes spaceship against spaceship, but always impressive. In fact, almost the whole movie is an unbroken – and dizzying – chain of spectacular battles in alternating worlds. This sets the tone for rollercoaster action, in which every quiet moment is short and passing and only prepares the ground for the next blow. One battle scene amid immense ocean-like waves generates terrifying images, with a wow effect.
However, with a confused, humorless script, bland characters and a narrative that starts off fragmented and then becomes even more diffused, the inflation of action exacts a price. The constant leaping between worlds undermines plot continuity and raises many questions along the way: Who is fighting against whom? On what planet are they? With the film’s center of gravity tilting disproportionately toward the battle scenes, character development also suffers. Kylo Ren and Rey get to talk quite a bit telepathically, injecting a little humanity into the picture, but they are overwhelmed by the explosions.
Still, “The Rise of Skywalker” fulfills the goal that Disney set itself. Abrams is skilled at collecting unconnected threads into one clear ending. As he does here. But the overall effort, which looks as though it was dictated by marketing people, turns the result into one of the more synthetic products to come out of Hollywood in recent years.