NOTE: This is a spoiler-free review, until the final paragraph where I ramble on my spoiler-filled thoughts.
Thursday marked the culmination of not only the Star Wars saga, but also an era in my Star Wars fandom. The trailer for the latest and final installment, The Rise of Skywalker, started with a short montage of all of the movies.
And in the past months, my own montage of moments has flooded my thoughts: asking a gazillion questions while watching the original Star Wars for the first time in first grade, fighting my brother Jeffrey and my dad in lightsaber duels in our basement, reading our school library’s Star Wars encyclopedias relentlessly, making my own fan films of the greatest battles, staking out in the theater lobby to see Episodes VII and VIII (and once even watching the Phantom Menace 3D release).
All this is to say, the Star Wars films transcend the film genre for me, and my reactions to and criticisms of these movies are unlike any other movie or franchise. I’m predisposed to enjoying these movies, as evidenced by my claim after Episode VII that “The Force Awakens takes a definite step forward and succeeds the originals as the best film of the Star Wars saga.” I’ve revised my opinion since. When I watch Star Wars movies, I’m looking for action and a good time, which is something I can’t say about any other film franchise.
The Rise of Skywalker lived up to that standard.
For a two-and-a-half hour movie, it felt short, and at no point did I feel bored or confused. Jedi Rey and Supreme Leader Kylo Ren take center stage again, with the plot’s premise focusing on the supposed rise of Emperor Palpatine and Rey’s temptation to the Dark Side. The Rise of Skywalker stuffs in a lot of storylines along with that premise (the film doesn’t pass my Empire Strikes Back test— whether the storytelling is concise enough so that one can easily summarize the movie in ten bullet points), and while some are unnecessary, the extra baggage doesn’t work to the plot’s detriment.
The film also relies on the relationships between the characters and the stakes of their circumstances to carry the lightsaber duels and chases. Contrast that against the elaborate, carefully choreographed duels of the prequels and some of the battles in the last couple installments, when each clash was more for amusement than to advance the plot. It’s arguably less efficient from a storytelling perspective, and this style was a strong choice for director J.J. Abrams in a movie tasked with wrapping a nine-movie saga.
While there are storylines aplenty, the connection between Rey and Kylo Ren is the most compelling of this movie, and both characters are at their peak in this film. The symmetry between these two characters makes their dynamic work so well — Rey, the powerful Jedi scarred by her past vs Kylo, the murderous villain unable to free himself from the force of his parents and the light side of the force. These two characters were the best aspect of the sequel trilogy in every movie, and the culmination of the storyline was a strong conclusion.
For all of the backlash from a plot perspective, it’s easy to gloss over the technical aspects that quietly elevate the films in so many ways. But those aspects have been integral since Star Wars’s groundbreaking start. John Williams’s score is brilliant as always with the integration of many of the classic pieces in pivotal points in the plot, and the sound design is again Oscar-worthy. As a big Star Wars fan, I can’t emphasize enough how much locations matter, and the worlds in this movie, including more than one blast from the past, are visually stunning and ingenious to the plot.
Speaking of blasts from the pasts, a key criticism for this trilogy in general has been its adherence to the norms set by its predecessors in the galaxy far, far away. Fan service, as some critics may call it, never felt so good. Even the prequels got shout-outs. One of my key fears about the new trilogy was that it would be too distant from the others. That concern was never relevant to these movies, and the final film felt connected to the others, as any conclusion should be.
Reviewing Star Wars movies is always a tricky task for me. While I can pick apart other Hollywood flicks from the lens of a critic, my connection to Star Wars requires something else. It’s less about what I see or what I hear than how I feel about it — a film critic’s version of the Force, I suppose.
The Rise of Skywalker was a fitting end to the sequel trilogy. It falls short of a perfect ending to the entire nine-film trilogy and doesn’t match the brilliance of Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith, but I can safely say that it is just as enjoyable and substantial an addition to the Star Wars universe as either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. At times The Rise of Skywalker was more spectacle than story, but I felt excited and content with this film. Most of all, it made me feel, as much as ever, like a Star Wars fan.
SPOILER SECTION (Warned you)
First off, kudos to Abrams and Disney to making a movie while facing massive problems posed by Rian Johnson’s creative choices as well as the passing of Carrie Fisher. Both were hardly noticeable in the final product…I loved the revelation that Rey was actually “Empress” Rey Palpatine, which enriched the Kylo Ren-Rey dynamic and established Emperor Palpatine as a great, scheming villain in all three of the trilogies (especially needed with Snoke’s quick demise). Maybe it detracts from the “Rey came from nowhere” idea, but the twist added a sense of inevitability to her temptation to the Dark Side and reinforced the idea that the main Star Wars saga is a tale of families….The cameos were fantastic— Luke, Han, even the voices at the end (a lot of prequel voices, which I always appreciate). Luke especially, after all the heat his character took in The Last Jedi. They may call it fan service, but I’ll take all the service I can get…I hated the Kylo-Rey kiss. Hated it. I told the people next to me that I wanted to ignite a lightsaber. Their relationship was so much more nuanced and grand than romantic, but maybe its Shakespearean nature made it too irresistible for the Disney higher-ups to resist the romantic moment. Felt like a cheap end to a relationship that defied words…I loved all the Rey-Kylo stuff (except for the end), but after Force Awakens set him up as a great character, Finn became little more than a missed opportunity and a familiar face along for the ride. His background was so unique and his character was great, but he instead became the Ron Weasley of the trilogy. That would’ve also helped balance the film and make the non-Rey stuff more than just dead time…The sequel trilogy definitely doesn’t detract from the other movies, and the hate it received from some critics and fans made the prequels look even better in comparison (never a bad thing for the trilogy I grew up with)…Some powers became ridiculous, like Emperor Palpatine using Force lightning on an entire fleet. Also, after making a Death Star, the second Death Star, and a Starkiller Base, did they really need to make what was effectively a planet full of Death Stars? It was cool and went well with the plot, but it was the fourth time we’ve seen it…The ending scene with Rey at Tatooine with the double suns was too perfect. An unbelievably awesome final image.