Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Non-Spoiler Review
That’s it, that’s the end of the sequel trilogy and the Skywalker Saga. In just 4 years, the Star Wars fandom has gone from mega hype and $2bn at the global box office, descended into a civil war and now J.J. Abrams returns to finish the job he should have just seen all the way through in the first place.
Regardless of whether The Last Jedi floats someone’s boat or not, you can’t hide from the fact there is now a very disjointed and messy trilogy that just doesn’t work overall as The Last Jedi ended on a finale note with a youngling, looking to the stars with a sense of hope. In addition, regardless as to my feelings about The Last Jedi and Rian Johnson’s take on the franchise, it’s less frustration now with his vision that needed to be reigned in a bit, drop 30 minutes of the movie or keep the run time and focus on the main story, don’t just keep going and going until you almost end the trilogy in the second act, and more one person needed to see this through to the end from Episode VII through IX. I know Kathleen Kennedy is the head of Lucasfilm and producer, but this trilogy needed to be J.J.’s or Johnson’s from the start to finish.
The initial idea of having three directors come in is fine, that’s how the Original Trilogy was shot, but at no point can it be said that there is a clear vision on screen whereby someone guided the ship and ensured that the directors got to flex their muscles but also stick to the plan, the roadmap, MCU style. The Prequel Trilogy is an example of too much executive power held by one creative… George Lucas. This is now two trilogies that ultimately have not lived up to their potential – the stories for the Prequels are masterful, just the execution is lacking – due to forgetting what made the Original Trilogy work was a clear vision delivered through collaboration between creatives who were willing and able to express challenges and actually be listened to. The Prequel Trilogy may be flawed but it’s at least consistent, the Sequel Trilogy is now a mutant. It has a solid first act, one that recaptures the mood -- even if lazily by soft remaking Star Wars (1977) – and loosely (often too loosely) sets up the board. Then there’s an overly long and flabby second act with no real focus and half attempts to offer a climax the trilogy, often feeling like J.J. set up a Chessboard and Rian Johnson decided to play drafts. Then, now, the final act is two films crammed into one as J.J. attempts to reset the board and start the game again while still having to accept some of the positions Rian put the pieces in… or that some of the pieces were lost. Now, this is not to rage on Rian Johnson, J.J. has to shoulder some responsibility for placing too much emphasis on allusion and mystery boxes so he could play in the Star Wars sandbox how kids used to play with the Kenner figures and vehicles kicking the heavy world-building, the state of the Galaxy, can down the road to make room for his set pieces. However, it worked, The Force Awakens works and is a thrill ride. There’s plenty to pick at but just because J.J. had his way with the franchise and put off some of the much-needed seriousness to Episode VIII, that doesn’t give Rian the excuse to do whatever he wants, it’s a trilogy, The Last Jedi was not a stand-alone film. The most frustrating thing about The Last Jedi is how beautiful it looks and how you can see Johnson does have exceptional skills but decided to, in all honesty, be a dick about it all. Did he “subvert expectations”, yes and no. Subverting expectations would have meant the film was good and not just a bunch of stuff stolen from Empire and Jedi and twisted. It’s not really fair to pinch so much from those films and lead an audience down a hallway only to pull the rug from under them and scoff because they thought it was going to go another way. Tricking your audience by holding back information, portraying a character to be one way and doing a complete 180 for the heck of it and deconstructing a film, warping tropes, playing with established set ups only to do nothing with them beyond a hollow “nah”. It’s great to deconstruct a franchise to deliver an experience beyond what has come before, Nicholas Myers did that with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was too safe, it was an energy being type Trek flick that tried to align itself with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Myers came in and looked at the TOS era and did a proper deconstruction to rebuild something new, Johnson broke down Star Wars and pointed out some of the contrived elements, that’s to be applauded, it’s an old franchise, but didn’t build anything from the blocks. He recycled stuff from Empire and Jedi with “gothca” twists and ripped of Battlestar Galactica (2004). M. Night Shyamalan may frustrate at times, but when it comes to genre deconstruction and twists, the director is a master. He deconstructs a genre, and builds something unique with the pieces – I am so thinking of LEGO all the way throughout this part and how when you bought a set, the instructions showed you what else you could build with the parts and also could just build whatever you want but it’s different with a story because people notice if you haven’t used all the blocks and just brushed several under the sofa because you couldn’t be bothered to make them fit, this will come back up later.
Anyway, the main point of all this is that it’s clear there were two directors who just didn’t see eye-to-eye creatively no matter what is said in the press, the real villain here is lack of communication and leadership from the top to ensure that everyone leading one of these Episodes were on the same page and signed off on each other’s work whole heatedly to ensure consistency. You only have to look into why Colin Trevorrow was reportedly let go to see that the Sequel Trilogy was falling apart in the Summer of 2017, months before The Last Jedi was due for release. “Creative differences” was cited and considering his Episode IX was due Christmas 2019, it shows how Lucasfilm just hadn’t planned enough and was trying to push through this trilogy too quickly. The parting ways of Trevorrow and Lucasfilm has had a lasting impact of The Rise of Skywalker. By the time J.J. was brought back on board, the timetable to get Episode IX through three stages of production was ridiculous for a film series like Star Wars. Throw into the mix the reaction to the release of The Last Jedi, both from lovers, “haters” and the studio’s PR machine that kicked in to deflect hard and paint anyone who dared even suggest points of criticism as trolls, toxic manbabies, Russian bots and worse, and it’s clear The Rise of Skywalker was being hastily put together in a chaotic and angry environment. To be clear, what some fans said to Rian Johnson was disgusting but on the other hand, Rian Johnson did not need to chime in on Tweets, some that hadn’t even tagged him, and begin a discussion from an instantly aggressive and combative footing – trolling is out of order but it can be ignored. I get trolled all the time on my personal Twitter for expressing points of view, I ignore most of them as they are just “FUCK YOU” level trite. Nor did other creatives have to do likewise. There was no need for “fans” (twats) to attack the people behind the film but there was also no need for them to gang up and belittle fans, some of whom were simply making valid points. There was also no need for the PR machine to spin every negative experience as an “attack of the fans”. In all honesty, so many people, creatives, fans, executives and journalists should be ashamed of themselves for their behaviour during this period. It was shocking at how religious this became. It was no longer about film discussion; it was the attack or defence of an all-encompassing ideology and there’s no reasoning with anyone once they have drunk the Kool-Aid. Since the midnight screenings of The Rise of Skywalker kicked-out, it’s clear now that this was not a “problem with a bunch of toxic fans/manbabies” it’s a disgusting problem with social media, echo chambers and cultism and tribalism. Within minutes, Tweets flooding the Twittersphere from Last Jedi fans contained numerous death threats aimed at J.J. Abrams, why? Because The Rise of Skywalker didn’t deliver on their fan theories, slash fan fiction fantasies and “subverted” their expectations. Now the shoe is firmly on the other foot, it’s shocking to see how quickly a vocal minority of Last Jedi fans fell to the dark side and down into a chasm of hypocrisy; pumping out the same toxic vitriol they had supposedly been against just two years ago. End of the day, the discourse was polarised into absolutes and only Siths etc. etc.
Sorry about all that, it’s impossible to review The Rise of Skywalker in a vacuum, the film is the film and it’s on the screen but so much swirling around it plays into the bigger picture that it would be unfair to not at least mention all that while dissecting the third and final chapter in the Disney trilogy.
So, what of The Rise of Skywalker? It’s complicated. As expressed by the above, this review will have to flit between addressing what is up on the screen and the why. Ultimately, it’s a 4-hour film or two Star Wars films, crammed into one two hour slot and feels butchered but it’s tonnes of fun if you step back and just think of it like one of the better Transformers films, it’s non-stop action and adventure, but a Jedi craves not those things. So, strap in folks, this is going to be a long one.
One analogy I considered post-midnight screening was that of a Chinese buffet. The Rise of Skywalker buffet has everything you love, you get to gorge yourself, the film is all you can eat job, but ultimately, it’s not going to keep all full for long. Plenty as fun now, it will be a lot more fulfilling for those who avoided all rumours and leaks as basically “it’s true, all of it” so a few people I have spoken to regret keeping track on the production as they didn’t get any surprises from it, moral of that story is to avoid as much as possible before going into the screen.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine has returned and has a new plan to achieve unlimited power and reconquer the Galaxy and bring about the “Final Order”. From the very first line of the title crawl I knew already this was going to be a mess. As I stated in a review of The Force Awakens on Facebook, the biggest strength of TFA was also subsequently the trilogy’s greatest weakness. J.J. brought Star Wars back to the action and adventure format, ditching the Prequel era world building. However, on reflection, while Awakens delivered a great thrill ride, sitting as a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi it really did need more Prequel world building scenes to set up the state of the Galaxy post the fall of the Empire. Who were the Republic, who powerful were they, how in control of the Galaxy were they? Where did the First Order come from, where do they get their resources, what’s their size compared to the New Republic? That can was kicked down the road, but the trouble was Rian Johnson had no desire to pick the can up and do the Prequel heavy lifting that The Last Jedi needed to ensure everything was fully formed for when Rise landed. The Last Jedi needed to be a far more Prequel era film, filled with talking and politics, not a slow space chase that forwards the story by about 48 hours, introduces new characters just so that the new TFA characters had someone to do something with because RJ just wanted to tell his story, one that was just a Star Wars trolling session rather than crafted around the characters placed into his care.
Characters, that’s what Star Wars is built upon and The Rise of Star Wars attempts to bring them back on track. Starting with Rey, she didn’t start off as a “Mary Sue”, because there were allusion to her power source and although the “your parents were nobodies, they were nothing” line which fanned the flames of “Mary Sue” claims, it's dealt with in the new film but it’s obviously a course correction and put in there as it appears Rian Johnson was 100% behind his claim that her parents were nothing and nobody which meant that she was a “Mary Sue” and a bad role model as no character should ever be presented as that perfect with that little graft as it deludes children and is just boring. There are characters, Indiana Jones is a bit of a “Gary Stu”, that are great and have a solid skill set in place before the audience is introduced to them but they, one, are not presented as “realistic” or “representative” and two, take a heavy licking throughout their adventures. They maybe full formed for the most part, but the compensate, the story kicks the hell out of them, and their trials are tougher because they are not scaled to their growth. Like Luke, Luke is not fully formed as a hero when we meet him and over the course of his skill development his challenges increase to keep him in check. Rey in Rise actually faces adversity, testing her resolves and strength of character, she loses, she gets a pasting, it’s too little too late, but at least tries to pull her back from the edge of the “Mary Sue” abyss so Rey is at least just over powered and borderline now.
Sticking with characters, unfortunately, it’s too late to use Finn properly, one of the most interesting characters set up in any of the Star Wars movies has been completely wasted. Okay, J.J. didn’t maximise Finn in The Force Awakens and had no chance of fulfilling his potential as an ex-Stormtrooper in Rise, J.J. had far too much to cover so Finn gets nothing more than some comic relief moments, an allusion to something deeper, something he has to say but never gets to say and then some heroic moments, Finn’s story ends. Done. Nothing of significance. Poe, Poe gets back on track and does plenty of Poe things. He’s back to his Force Awakens-self and even has a very touching moment of self-doubt as the weight of the Resistance/Rebels falls upon his shoulders and he is suddenly facing a challenge he’s not confident he can overcome. This was solid and how Poe should have been handled in TLJ.
Kylo Ren, this is what will trigger so many TLJ fans, Ben Solo returns to his TFA trajectory and personally still comes out as about the best character introduced by the trilogy. His story is a re-run of Anakin but Star Wars needs a tragic character. Can’t go into much detail without heavy spoilers, but overall Kylo is the lead of this trilogy, Rey is still too bland and her arc is a flat line with some minor bumps towards the end.
Then there’s Hux. What Rise does to Hux is clear sign J.J. was furious with what RJ had done to him hence the addition of General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), who was one of the shining lights in the film, a top performance that hearkens back to the old Empire.
So, what of the overall story and flow. Well, as stated the pacing is breakneck, it’s relentless, it’s frantic and rapid. The film has so much to do and nowhere near enough time to achieve it. There are plenty of plot holes, but few break the film. Some plot holes being highlighted are not actually holes as they are set up but the set ups flyby so fast, it’s easy to miss them as one major “plot hole” is covered by a line of dialogue about 5 words long that takes place in amongst a very cluttered scene of exposition before the characters race to do what they just quickly set up. But then the film also is weighed down by trying to cover for the plot holes in The Last Jedi, having to pause to explain why they can’t pull a Holdo Manoeuvre and the like, which hurt Rise even more and they needed to address these issues a Rian hadn’t considered what he wanted to throw on the screen to achieve epic visuals would damage the storytelling going forward. There are so many “What?” moments that the frenetic pace makes them even more jarring if you are not paying 100% attention to every minor detail, I highly recommend trying to watch this in two separate states simultaneously, which is near impossible. It needs to be watched as intently as Christopher Nolan film while at the same time, with a brain switched off like it’s a Michael Bay movie. Speaking of Michael Bay, the pacing and editing is very similar to that of 6 Underground; a tonne of fun but mess, chopping and cavalier.
One massive bonus J.J. did get from The Last Jedi was the Force Skype ability introduced by Rian Johnson. It’s used to great effect in this film and helps J.J. cover the ground required without having to ram in yet more planet hopping scenes. If it wasn’t for this Force ability The Rise of Skywalker would have been even more clustered and relentless or would have had to throw it in late in the day to solve a major issue it had. The ability isn’t original, it’s not like TLJ invented it, it’s lifted from the EU but was the first time in a film. As for new Force Powers, Disney pushed out Chapter 7 of The Mandalorian early as is introduces a new Force Power that comes in to play several times Rise. The Power is set up in Rise itself, but the frantic pace means that there’s only about 15 minutes until the set up pays off, as stated previously, that’s the kicker, nearly all of the set ups and pay offs are separated by like three scenes and, to the point, it wouldn’t have been a shock for the opening of a sentence to drop something new and pay off by the end of ONE sentence. The worst crime is a character death set up that’s undermined within minutes but then the other characters continue as if the character is dead even though the audience has already been shown them to be alive. What comes next then has no emotional pay off as we, the audience, already know the character is still alive so we can’t share in the joy of the others when they find them safe.
Seriously getting a little annoyed now, as I really liked this story and gutted it the trilogy was dead in a ditch at the end of TLJ and J.J. simply had too much to do, that said he didn’t have to try to see out his basic framework and could have done something else, but what would he do? He needed something that at least looked epic on the surface to end the greatest cinematic saga of all-time (well, the MCU basically has easily swiped that crown now) but was left with nothing post TLJ… The Last Jedi felt like climax and the set up for a new trilogy. What is the story, the point, the reason to exist of this trilogy? The Prequels tell the story of the rise of the Empire and fall of Anakin Skywalker and Jedi order. The Original Trilogy is the fall of the Empire and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker and “Return” of the Jedi. The Last Jedi ensured that any momentum was hamstrung by taking place directly after The Force Awakens, proclaiming the “First Order reigns” which makes no sense and resets the stakes to Empire vs. Rebels, even though the world has not been built so it’s not clear how the First Order suddenly dominate within hours of losing their super-weapon, and then the characters just side quest and fart about in a piss poor wannabe BSG space chase leaving Rise to need to do way, way too much. Rise had to defibrillate the story, introduce the required characters but also deal with the baggage caused by TLJ characters that were superfluous, had to deal with the fact Carrie Fisher had died and yet TLJ still didn’t switch Holdo and Leia giving Rise the headache of using discarded footage to try and make something out of nothing. This leads to the shit sandwich that TLJ is more coherent and looks way better than Rise on the surface because it assassinated any opportunity Rise had to be a serious Saga conclusion. The Force Awakens left the story wide open, probably too open, whereas The Last Jedi was so cavalier and selfish it funnelled the story into a bottle where it feels like it wanted to keep it. Rise is a film that cannot be blamed 100% for itself and so much falls on TLJ, some will argue TLJ was screwed by the J.J. mystery boxes but that’s a fallacy as TLJ was set up for a home run, Rian just stubbornly had no intention of using any of them. Many a film sets up a dozen threads and the sequel ignores a few and runs with the strongest, TLJ just, petulantly, went its own way and then had the gall to blame fans for not getting things like the Knights of Ren. TLJ is one of the most arrogant films ever made, it’s so far up its own tail pipe.
One assessment of J.J., and I do very much respect him, probably a lot more than many, but he’s a poor Jedi. He’s always looking to the future, never in the here and now. If Star Trek (2009) his Star Wars show reel, huge chunks of this are his Indiana Jones show reel. The film has been accused of being a “’member berries” flick and that’s true but this film has as many nods to Raiders, Temple and Crusade (plus a major Goonies reference) as it did Star Wars call backs.
The takeaway, the Sequel Trilogy is now complete and just big budget fan fiction “Star Wars” the greatest hits that has little reason to actually exist. Rise, the story is a clustered mess, Palpatine’s plan makes little sense in its execution, the response to Palpatine is muddled, the fetch quests raise more questions than they should. The feel is breakneck, its pacing is relentless as J.J. basically crams two films into one to try to deliver the story he roughly mapped out from day one. TLJ is not exactly retconned but is glossed over and elements dismissed as dumb - going to anger a lot of people. J.J. actually answers many questions but the pace means you need to focus or they'll flit by and in the end he still runs out of time to conclude some story elements he begins in act one of Rise, let alone what he started in Awakens. It's a huge sprawling epic. It can be shredded, torn apart, if you stepped back with a review checklist and came at it like TLJ, BvS and the Transformers movies, it's going to get a critical pasting and it deserves it as a film on its own but also deserves plenty of concessions due to where Last Jedi left off. The film is a barrage of fetch quests filled with Easter Eggs, Goonies, Raiders, Crusade references galore. The pacing hurts it because the set ups are paid off/low points rebound too quickly due to the runtime needing to be at least another 90 mins. After watching it, I remembered where I had I'd seen something similar in terms of “get, cut, get, cut, get, cut” pacing and it's the opening to Diamonds Are Forever, which was just an intro as Bond tracks down Blofeld, this style dominates 80% of the film. It’s also reminiscent of the pace of the Bashki The Lord of the Rings, trying to smash out the story of two books in one film that’s way too short even for one book to be told properly. The momma jokes are gone and the humour, which is plentiful, is back to TFA tone and doesn't deflate every other scene. There are some genuinely funny moments that aren’t cringe inducing.
Yeah, it's a wild ride and some will love it, but others will hate it, that's just the way it is these days. I liked it, but it's a three-tier film. 1. From a "critical" standpoint, it’s garbage. 2. From a wider standpoint, much of what would be dissected in tier 1 is the result of production (lack of) decisions made in 2014 and the misguided story of The Last Jedi, so there's more to take into consideration. 3. It delivers plenty of mega bangs for your bucks stuff. If you want to see it, you must, no one can tell you what to think on this one, it really is one of those films that truly need to be judged for yourself.
Head of content and co-founder of Beyond the Box Office.