Spoiler-Free Review Of 'Rise Of Skywalker'
A life-long 'Star Wars' nerd's perspective
"Hidden Fortress" (1958, one of the films Lucas said inspired him to make "Star Wars")
"Star Wars" (1977)
"Empire Strikes Back" (1980)
"Rogue One" (2016)
As a card-carrying member of the original "Star Wars" fan club, I know what it means to give a spoiler-free review of the final chapter in the Skywalker saga.
I have to confess that when it comes to reviewing "Star Wars" films, I am a fan first and a critic second. I can't help it. I have grown up with George Lucas’ “Star Wars” films and yes, it has been a love-hate relationship.
I was 17 when "Star Wars" (that first film will always just be “Star Wars” to me and not “A New Hope”) opened and I waited in line at the Valley Circle Theater in Mission Valley where I think I saw it about a dozen times that summer of 1977. The following year I managed to get tickets to the Academy Awards (my uncle was in the Directors Guild and got me connected) when “Star Wars” was up for Best Picture and was infuriated when “Annie Hall” won.
The 'Star Wars' Saga
“Star Wars” (along with the films of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) was a major influence in my decision to go into filmmaking and film studies. So with “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opening in theaters and closing out the saga that Lucas conceived more than four decades ago, I felt there was not just a lot riding on the film but that I, like so many people, also had a lot invested in the franchise.
Let me begin by saying, you can breathe a sigh of relief. J.J. Abrams does not pull a Jar Jar on us.
As much as I loved Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” I know that film caused divided opinions among fans. I got kicked out of a Facebook “Star Wars” fan group for daring to challenge the admins with a positive take on the film. It has truly saddened me to see my beloved “Star Wars” be a place where toxic fandom exists. We used to just celebrate our shared love for the films and readily tolerate differences of opinion. You love Ewoks, I don’t. So what?
Abrams, who won a cult following with TV’s “Lost” and successfully rebooted “Star Trek” on the big screen, was called upon to revitalize the “Star Wars” franchise after fans felt betrayed by Lucas’ special editions of the original trilogy films and angered by his prequels.
Abrams proved to be the right man for the job. In 2015 “The Force Awakens” arrived and although it was not a great film it was the healing film we needed. It restored our faith in that galaxy far, far away. It removed Midi-chlorians, and it reminded us that a "Star Wars" film could again be fun.
Abrams now returns to the directing chair for the final chapter of the final trilogy of the Skywalker Saga and he essentially delivers a film exactly like “The Force Awakens.” He provides a lot of fan service — some great and much appreciated and some that just feels calculated — and gives us a film that wraps everything up pretty nicely. You can leave the cinema feeling good about where it all ends.
Taking risks versus playing it safe
Johnson took risks with “The Last Jedi” and while not all of them paid off, at least it felt like he had a personal take on the Skywalker saga. What I loved about “The Last Jedi” was the return to a sense that anyone could become a hero/heroine. It didn’t matter who your parents were or where you grew up or if you had Midi-chlorians, so long as you were inspired to take action and stand up for what you believed in then you could make a difference, and consequently, you could inspire others. I loved that, and although I had issues with cute Porgs and that extended Canto Bight sequence, I will always hold that film dear to my heart.
Abrams, on the other hand, doesn’t really take risks. With both "The Force Awakens" and "The Rise of Skywalker" he jumps in with big action scenes to start and finish, then crams a lot of plot in to answer as many questions as possible and correct any misdirections that have occurred, and then fills in with plenty of callbacks to the original films in terms of cameos that fans will love and returning to locations we know. It's a proven formula. It worked in "The Force Awakens" and it works again in "The Rise of Skywalker," which is a highly entertaining film that feels mostly satisfying as a closer in a saga.
Yet there is a part of me that just doesn’t feel excited about it in the way I did about “The Empire Strikes Back” or more recently “Rogue One.” I felt happy when I left the theater, but mostly relieved. I felt very strongly and positively about how “The Last Jedi” left us with Rey’s parents not being anyone special and I was worried about how this might be addressed in the final film. I can say that I am mostly happy because the idea about free will and individuality are upheld and that was key for me. But I didn't feel that Abrams brought anything fresh to the saga. Maybe a franchise like this doesn't need innovation but I remember that part of what was great about "The Empire Strikes Back" was that it felt different from the first film, darker. It was still true to the Saturday morning serial vibe but with a new twist.
'Rise of Skywalker'
I will give Abrams credit for some genuine emotion in "The Rise of Skywalker." Seeing Carrie Fisher as Leia is big in this film and makes you wonder what role she might have played if she had not died. But for me, the most emotional scenes were the ones with the non-human characters. I will confess to tearing up over scenes with C3PO and Chewy more than with any of the human characters. It was good to feel that my attachment to these characters and their feelings were being acknowledged. Abrams does champion the idea of friendship and camaraderie that was at the core of the original films, and his film inspires us with ideas about resistance and rebellion in the face of evil and tyranny no matter what the odds.
The original films had titles that harkened back to the Saturday morning serials Lucas loved. The titles were simple and clear: “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi.” This latest trilogy tries to be clever and deliberately vague in order to prompt fan debate before the films even opens. So “The Last Jedi” stirred questions about who that was referring to and what it meant. And then “The Rise of Skywalker” encouraged people to wonder if Luke would return or would Rey be revealed as a Skywalker or would Leia come into play? But at the end of both of those films the titles prove to be a little disingenuous.
The "Star Wars" films really succeed or fail on the likability of their casts. The prequels had the wooden Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen that left us cold but the latest trilogy had the old guard as well as some fresh faces.
Fisher, our original Princess who became a general, died in 2016 but there was apparently enough shot footage to allow her to play a role in “The Rise of Skywalker” with only minor reliance on CGI. It is no secret that Billy Dee Williams is back as Lando and that is a treat. The younger cast, led by Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe are all engaging and thoroughly likable. Ridley, in particular, has an inspiring determination and dare I say forceful glow. She has been a wonderful addition to the franchise, giving it a true heart and soul.
The production values and effects are top-notch in Episode IX, although Abrams seems more enamored with epic battles than with smaller-scale action. As much as I did not like the prequels, I will commend them for some of the lightsaber duels, especially Darth Maul’s (“The Phantom Menace” wasted such a great villain). I wish Abrams had employed some Asian action fight choreographers to give the lightsaber battles a little more of a wow factor in this film.
“The Rise of Skywalker” is a lot to process, not because it is a deep or complex film but because it brings to an end more than four decades of storytelling and of my own life. It makes me reflect back on all the films and what they meant and means to me so taking in this last one feels like I need to savor it for a bit. I watched the press screening with a mix of hope and trepidation. I didn’t want the film to ruin anything or do damage to elements I loved (all I will say is Han shot first and Greedo never said "Maclunky"). So I look forward to seeing it again on Friday when I can watch in a more relaxed manner, knowing what’s coming and being able to think about it more fully.
If “Star Wars” has been a part of your life like it has been mine then you have to see “The Rise of Skywalker.” The good news is that you will also be happy you did.
Of course, despite all the insistence that this is the end, nothing that has the potential to make money is ever really over and done with. Or as Luke reminds us in “The Last Jedi,” no one is ever really dead. If you need more “Star Wars” there is “The Mandalorian” offering a great spaghetti western take on bounty hunters and has given us a character that for lack of a better name is being called Baby Yoda, and there is Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland where you can stand under a beautiful life-size replica of the Millennium Falcon and pretend you are on another planet for just a few hours.
It's a bit sad to say goodbye to the Skywalker Saga that has been a part of my life for 40-some years but thank you, George Lucas, for giving us this galaxy far, far away. Long live "Star Wars" and may the Force always be with you.