Lightyears from sticking the landing.
Rian Johnson’s intergalactic legacy lies in toxic ashes. ‘Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be,’ his script sang. The Last Jedi was a beacon for what Star Wars could be; yet, in its staunch, over-stuffed fan-servicing finale, The Rise of Skywalker thunders with cynical lightning.
Through John Williams’ goosebumping, perennial theme, the words ‘The dead speak!’ float from below. It’s no exposure to reveal that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is, in fact, alive and sort-of well through miscellaneous means. ‘Cloning, dark science, stuff only the Sith know’ are attributed. Don’t overthink it, the main point is he’s here (a cautious indictment of the exclusively forward-thinking screenplay to follow).
After we catch up with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on a planet-to-planet, blood-spilling onslaught, we’re back with our new trilogy heroes. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are off lightspeed-skipping in Resistance-orientated missions, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) refines her acquaintance with the Force under the tutelage of General Leia (Carrie Fisher in carefully, though coldly employed post-humous footage).
‘Stuff’ is the key word: characters do stuff, stuff happens, but why? What stuff really matters? JJ Abrams’ attempt at course-correction, (returning after hardcore fans’ blanket dismissal of Johnson’s subversions) alongside co-screenwriter Chris Terrio, flip-reverses The Last Jedi‘s earth-shattering, exceedingly interesting threads – as well as lacking the soul of what made The Force Awakens so wondrous, even under the narrative shadow of A New Hope.
Purity is what drives Star Wars: the light, the dark, the magic, the good guys against overarching evil, masked or hooded. But in the final chapter of a decades-long saga, one also expects shock and awe – alas, there’s only sprinklings of either to go around.
It’s a visually arresting ride, epically ornate frames – whether it be huge regiments of x-wings and tie fighters flying and landing in unison or deep-space mayhem – strung with an overriding, cool blue colour palette (the pull of the light has never felt so significant). Abrams (and Star Trek alumnus cinematographer Dan Mindel) has always had a keen sci-fi eye (with a dash of lens flare), here balancing a weighty skill-set across a vast range of thrilling set-pieces (a dynamic desert chase is a highlight).
All elements work in tandem during a midpoint lightsaber duel (of the fates) between Rey and Kylo, the centrepiece attraction of the whole affair which somehow balances the more grounded essence of the new trilogy bouts with the prequel’s ballet extravagance – utterly electric.
But, the runtime’s journey to get to the big, bombastic moments is feeble. The first half in particular runs like a ramshackle rollercoaster through an ever-changing (albeit textured) universe, with fresh faces (a scene-stealing Babu Frik) and old friends (a nostalgia-mining Lando) popping up like a fetch quest pre-requisite. Little substance to their intros (looking at you D-O, BB-8’s new pointless pal), built on solely the initial clap: like a poor man’s Infinity War in a galaxy far, far away.
Ridley and Driver escape the least-damaged. Their interactions, whether it be in-person or in-Force, mercifully slow things down to hone in on the central, emotional conflict: the destiny of one another’s morality. Both performances standout from the rest, and Rey and Kylo receive completed character arcs, for better or worse – but that’s more than can be said for their co-stars.
While seeing Finn, Poe, Chewie and Rey traversing the cosmos in the Millenium Falcon is an absolute joy, there’s a frustrating lack of actual character work. Finn, who entered the trilogy with relatable valiance, is reduced to little more than Rey’s cheerleader. Poe’s single best moment comes in a scene with Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss, which lasts mere minutes. Drama is created between the trio, but it never feels sincere – just further artificial cogs in a burst writer’s room.
The script is woven with laugh-out loud humour – C-3PO has never been funnier – but its constant tendency to try and sneakily smother a mess with nerdgasms retracts the smiles. Through a storm of recycled villainy, heartless cameos and undone triumphs, the only person who emerges truly unscathed is Williams and his brilliant score.
The final chapter in this 42-year-old saga should have been a heart-thumping event. Alas, The Rise of Skywalker feels so cripplingly stuck in the past that it’s less of an ode to Star Wars; rather, it’s the grandest indictment of the franchise’s failures.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm