- Movie Rating -

Star Wars, Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

| December 20, 2019

I have come to realize that critical reviews for a Star Wars movie function pretty much like looking at a monkey in a cowboy suit.  You see it and you might smile, but you don’t take it seriously and you move on with your day.  That’s pretty much the feeling I get from the early (and largely negative) reviews of Star Wars Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker which are more or less superfluous to my enjoyment of a series that I have followed obsessively since I was six-years old.  Their arguments seem tipped at the film being a big bucket of fan service.  And, well . . . they’re not wrong.  But technically every Star Wars movie and TV show that has come out after the original trilogy is fan service.  What’s wrong with that?  I’m a fan and I feel serviced.  I don’t see a problem here.

The issue, I suppose, is that many critics feel that the film is so busy giving fans their gratification that the story lays underneath it, unfocused and underwhelming.  I get that.  I see their point.  I also think there’s a fundamental point that they’re missing.  Following eight of the most famous movies in history, this is difficult story to tell, especially based on the strange knots from the previous two films that this one is burdened with having to untie.  This is a movie with a lot of places to go and a lot of things to get done.  Most of the items on its checklist it marks off beautifully while others . . . well.

There is no way to write this (or any) review without spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film I’ll press on with care, but if you’re looking for spoiler blackout, you may want to save this for later.  In that spirit:

From here potential spoilers!

The biggest question to be answered is how the Emperor survived that 9000-foot plunge down the Death Star reactor shaft and then further survived the destruction of the Death Star itself.  Well, the answer is kind of logical if you’ve been following this series all the way back to Phantom Menace.  I won’t give it away but his resurrection (of sorts) answers long debated questions of lineage, motivation and the charted course of destiny present in the lives of nearly every character that we have met along the way, even in Rogue One and Solo and the TV shows.

The greatest asset to The Rise of Skywalker is that it ties together something that I hadn’t really noticed.  Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, again) is the motivator for everything that happens in the Star Wars saga going all the way back to the beginning.  His voracious appetite for power is not just dictatorial, it is disturbingly Machiavellian.  Like the Grim Reaper in Bergman’s Seventh Seal he’s a chess player, but also a grandmaster at the long-con.  He is willing to set events in motion that will take many decades to come to fruition just to get what he wants.

In that way, he is invaluable to The Rise of Skywalker because this is a movie that ties everything together that we have already seen in the other ten movies.  I didn’t expect that.  I expected that J.J. Abrams would be so busy trying to plug up the holes left by Last Jedi that he might forget that he’s writing the last chapter of the entire series, but I was glad that the final chapter feels like a final chapter.

The worst of Palpatine’s machinations fall on Rey (Daisy Ridley, again) whose mind is overwhelmed by one line of dialogue that might have been too much to ask anyone: “A thousand generations live in you now” — WOW!  No Pressure!!

But, yes, all of the failings of the Jedi in the past rest on her tiny shoulders and so too do the overwhelming odds given to the puny Resistance as its numbers have withered and the Emperor’s new plan tips at a redesign of some old technology.  It’s quite clever in a galactic holocaust sort of way.

The burden of the film is the rather untidy way that the film tries to bring Rey to her final confrontation.  It’s a long treasure hunt that owes more to Pirates of the Caribbean than to Star Wars.  Basically, Rey and Finn and Poe need to [deep breath] locate a certain object on a certain planet but the location of that certain object is located on another certain planet whose location is written in an indecipherable Sith language that can only be translated by a trip to yet another certain planet but they can’t get that information because the source of that information is hidden inside a certain droid who can’t reveal this information because his programming won’t allow it [exhale].  It plays out way better than it sounds, but still.

The film is, needless to say, more episodic and choppier than the previous installments.  The streamlining of the storytelling that Rian Johnson brought to Last Jedi is given over to J.J. Abrams’ burden of just having to get all of the boxes checked in order to wrap things up.  You can feel this all the way through.  The movie has so much to do and so little time to do it that there is little time for nuance.  New characters are introduced but so little time is given to their plight that you feel as if their stories will have to wait for another movie, or a TV show.  The best new character is a spice runner with the rather fun name of Zorii Bliss (played by Keri Russell), an old acquaintance of Poe’s who is so entertaining that I wouldn’t mind seeing her in a series of her own. 

That’s rare because in a movie like this, performances are largely beside the point.  Much of Daisy Ridley’s performance requires her to look scared, or worried or defeated.  Much of Adam Driver’s performance requires him to look angry and worried and defeated.  I hadn’t noticed this before, but Driver’s strength as an actor is in his ability to emote inner turmoil.  I saw a lot of that here and in the recent Marriage Story.  He’s a very expressive actor even when he’s not saying a word.

John Boyega and Oscar Issacs don’t get much to do here.  They are at the center of the action but since their motivations have already been fleshed out in the previous film, it may have been thought that they weren’t necessary here.  That’s okay, because I don’t feel that I need anything more. Same goes for Billy Dee Williams whose role I thought would be just window dressing, but he’s much more functional to the plot and it’s nice to see him again.

And then . . . Carrie Fisher.  Everyone approaching this film will wonder exactly how she fits in here since she died two years ago.  Well, I’ll say that through unused footage and some clever technology, she’s in the movie quite a bit.  Actually, quite a bit more than you might expect.  Not to give anything away but the final button on her character is the film’s great emotional climax.

Emotional climaxes are all over this movie, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.  Some of those emotional moments feel earned and others feel somewhat manufactured.  It is hard to parcel them out without too many spoilers but the narrative structure of this film is often so weighted in the direction of trying to bring forth a spirit of finality to everything that you get exhausted just trying to sort out how you feel about the finished product.  I’ll admit, I had to sleep on it.

I recently placed The Last Jedi among my favorite films of the past decade and I have never had second thoughts about that.  It was the only Disney-era Star Wars movie that I can say completely took me by surprise.  A lot of that had to do with its director, Rian Johnson who has become a director of self-identity when you might think that he would simply follow the path of director-for-hire.  His films like Brick and Looper and the recent Knives Out always have a trajectory that keep you on your toes.  J.J. Abrams isn’t that kind of visionary.  His films are fun but they’re more or less straight forward.  The difference between Johnson and Abrams is that Johnson aims to make the film the he wants to see and Abrams aims to make the movie you want to see.

That’s really what Abrams tried to do here.  Yes, the film is loaded with fan service and there’s nothing wrong with that.  At best, it wraps up the overarching story that began with Phantom Menace.  At its worst bears the weight of a story that often seems a little unsure of itself, but in the final analysis I can look at my cowboy monkey of a review and smile.  I liked The Rise of Skywalker through all of the pits and cracks on its surface.  It ties up 42 years of history that I have with this series in a way that I found satisfying in ways that I didn’t expect.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2019) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized