THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Is a Salvage Operation

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by J.J. Abrams & Chris Terrio
Story by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow and J.J. Abrams & Chris Terrio
Based on characters created by George Lucas
Produced by J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Michelle Rejwan
Rated PG-13, 2h 21m 

There were several of us discussing this film immediately after seeing it Tuesday, and I made the point that it’s like that piece of candy that you always like, and you have one, but then afterward it’s not quite as good as you had hoped. The Rise of Skywalker is a bit like that.

All cards on the table: I absolutely hated The Last Jedi. Not only does it disrespect established canon and character arcs that have existed since 1977, but it also completely ignores the fact that it’s Act II of a three-act play. By itself with no legacy characters, and maybe with another pass or two on the script, it might have held up better, but it’s just garbage in a box. Pretty garbage, thanks to Steve Yedlin’s cinematography, but still garbage in a box. So it was with very measured and very low expectations that I went into this screening. I expected to be disappointed.

I wasn’t. Not exactly.

It’s hard to give this film a fair review, given that J.J. Abrams was handicapped going into it. Consider that he and co-writer Chris Terrio had to take what little footage of Carrie Fisher existed, weave it into a plot that picked up where The Force Awakens left off, while at the same time deal with the death of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. On top of that, there are numerous questions to be answered, as well as forty-plus years of saga to wrap up. In one movie. It’s a daunting task on the face of it, so it’s with that in mind that I have to temper my thoughts and give Abrams just a tad little bit of leeway.

Not much, mind you. But a little. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the people making this film.

Essentially, you have three lists of “things the movie needs” — answers to questions, fixes to problems, and fan service. I’m just spit-balling here. Abrams probably sat down with Terrio and went over the script draft from Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, picked out what they could use, and then went through the three lists to see what needed to go into the melting pot.

This chapter essentially picks up threads that maybe were in that lost Episode VIII, the one that didn’t get made by J.J. Abrams. It hits the ground running with a MacGuffin Chase™ and doesn’t really let up. And that works most of the time, but some scenes suffer a bit for not being given any time to breathe. We go from one set piece to the next to the next with little variation on the pace. It’s go-go-go from the beginning. The quiet moments are there, but they’re short-lived and left me wanting a little more. Now, some of that is limited by what footage of Fisher exists, but still… the pace is frenetic in places, and while the plot doesn’t feel too terribly rushed, the actors do at times.

There are some surprises, especially in how the Force manifests for both Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Some of that can be explained away by Rey having the old Jedi texts. So, sure. She studies. And we finally get a bit of a training montage so it’s not completely out of the blue that Rey has skills. She’s a little less of a Mary Sue in this outing. (She’s still a Mary Sue, but Abrams gives us a reason for that.) Abrams does give us some scenes that try to make up for lost time when it comes to her training, and it serves also to establish more of a relationship with Leia.

Rey also struggles in this one, which was very satisfying to see. She needs to fall. She needs to struggle. She needs to fail.

The other two members of the Young Hero Trio™ also get some overdue character development. We get some back-story on Poe (Oscar Isaac) that re-establishes his position as the Han Solo analogue in the group. Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega) gets to finally take charge of his fate and do what he should have been doing in Act II. No side stories that go nowhere and do nothing. And the three of them all finally get to interact in a substantial way, and their characters are all the better for it.

Speaking of which, we dodged a bullet with regard to Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). While I felt, at the time, that Lando should have been the contact at Canto Bight in The Last Jedi, I’ve come to realize that had he been there, and had he betrayed Rose and Finn, it would have been too out of character for Lando. We’ve already seen that at Bespin, and I’d like to think that Lando learns from his mistakes. So when he shows up here, it’s with a pretty clean slate. Lando’s doing what Lando does best, working some angle on some planet when he gets pulled back into the thick of things.

Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) gets much better treatment here, as well. Not only is she in a position with more responsibility and respect, but she also doesn’t look like an anime potato anymore. Hair, wardrobe, and her overall character development have gotten a much-needed make-over. KMT is such an attractive young lady and a skilled performer. The Last Jedi did her a disservice on so many levels…

The other newcomers fit in with the general story, even though there’s not a lot of time for them to be fully baked, and there are some welcome cameos that are way too brief (pay attention to the bartender with the eye patch). Even shorter than Dave Filoni’s cameo in The Mandalorian. Naomi Ackie’s Janna is a kindred spirit for Finn (not a love interest, mind you), and her back-story is intriguing enough that I’d be just fine seeing a spinoff to follow her journey. In fact, there’s a setup for this that’s not too shabby.

There are moments that feel lifted from Return of the Jedi, just as The Force Awakens feels like Abrams painted with the A New Hope brush, but given that the structure of these films tends to repeat elements and beats in the stories (think Ring Theory), it’s no surprise that themes re-surface and factor into the overall plot here. And since Abrams is having to play catch-up and cram Act II into Act III, there’s a lot of exposition. It’s as organic as he and Terrio can make it, I suppose, and it’s delivered at the same pace as everything else, but it’s a lot to take in. Which makes it tough to savor the big emotional moments, because we don’t get to linger on them.

It should also be noted that while this film acknowledges that the last film happened, there are moments where we get dialogue that looks straight at us and says, “yeah, oops” very much like Geoff Johns did with Rebirth #1 at DC Comics. It’s not a straight-up apology for The Last Jedi — we won’t ever get that — but it’s at least an acknowledgement that some things in the last film didn’t go over too well.

The back half of the film is action set after action set. It’s fairly easy to follow everything, but the plot moments out-number the character moments. And the reveals that come in the third act of this third act…well, they just aren’t as high-impact as they could have been. Even avoiding spoilers as much as I was able, I still had an inkling of what was coming, and there were moments where I wished I could still be that ten-year-old from 1980, the one who had no idea that “No, I am your father” was coming. We ruin these things for ourselves these days with social media and the internet.

Note that some leaks that have surfaced online aren’t accurate. Some aren’t correct at all. Some are correct, but not in the way you might think. It’s a mixed bag all around.

And that’s probably the best way to sum up The Rise of Skywalker: a mixed bag. Some stuff works, some stuff kinda works. It’s not great, but it’s not a dumpster fire. At least it’s not while you watch it. I enjoyed it mainly because I didn’t expect to like it at all, but I also figured The Last Jedi is rock bottom so our only way out is up. Your mileage may vary, and there are going to be some of you who hated The Last Jedi who may decide to hate this one out of spite. Try to relax and have a good time.

I’m damning with faint praise when I say The Rise of Skywalker is “not that bad”. As I was leaving the theater, I couldn’t help but think about the 50th anniversary of Star Trek and how CBS had plans for that event that never saw the light of day because of the Axanar lawsuit. In the case of Star Wars, too much attention got pulled away by the divisions among the fans, among the critics, and the damage control that had to happen in order to rescue the franchise. As I left the theater, I was thinking to myself that while The Rise of Skywalker isn’t exactly bad, it’s also not quite what we could have gotten.

The Skywalker Saga doesn’t go out with a whimper, but it doesn’t go out with a very impressive bang, either. Ultimately, the real tragedy of the entire trilogy is the fact that we never got to see Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford all together on the screen one last time.

 

There will be more discussion of The Rise of Skywalker on the next edition of The Rancor Pit Friday, December 27th at 8pm Central on SciFi4Me TV.

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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