What once seemed like a brave new era of adventure in a galaxy far far away has rather stewed of late. While there’s no denying a franchise so casually able to earn hundreds of millions, if not billions, at the box office still holds fond regard in hearts and minds across the globe, Disney’s reborn Star Wars all too quickly shed its early sparkle. If The Force Awakens took things to light speed on the power of nostalgia, an internal failure to configure a future for Star Wars beyond the past has rendered it all rather vanilla. Rogue One had it, Solo didn’t; as for The Last Jedi, that depends on who you ask. Now comes The Rise of Skywalker – grand finale to a nonology four decades in the making – less victory lap than MOT with longevity to prove.
On balance, the positives here just about outweigh the negatives. Mind, there are plenty of both. Kicking off a year on from the red dusted climax of 2017, The Rise of Skywalker opens as it means to go on. Which is to say: by undoing a handful of Rian Johnson’s more radical twists. If The Last Jedi left the resistance all but entirely wiped out, here we find them somewhat rejuvenated. The late great Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa – present by virtue of previously unused footage from The Force Awakens – still rules the roost and is to be found training budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley, excellent) in the ways of the Force. Several hundred miles across the galaxy, meanwhile, on the planet Exegol, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, still licking his wounds) has a discovery to unearth. It is, thanks to early trailer reveals, no spoiler at this stage to note that such is the return of Ian McDiarmid’s long since incinerated Emperor Palpatine, wicked cackle and all.
Herein lies the film’s most striking flaw. Fan pleasing it might be to bring back so iconic a character from beyond the grave, the return of Palpatine lacks logic and undermines the sanctity of death within the contexts of the franchise. Time after time, right through the film, characters are brutally offed, only to reappear without so much as a scar mere minutes later. Such strident lack of jeopardy is compounded further still both by the flippancy of the film’s tone – watch for the moment a shot down clone zips off like an untied balloon – and how painfully its script mirrors plots passed. No one expects a dystopian conclusion to a Star Wars blockbuster but it would be nice to wonder at least how it might possibly happen. There’s none of that here. This is not to say Abrams doesn’t repeat the familiar with panache – several of his chase sequences frisson with creative energy – only that it’s much harder to care than before when it comes to the bigger picture.
Perhaps Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio simply hadn’t time enough to mine originality. Certainly, the troubled history of this ninth Skywalker instalment has been well documented, with all from Colin Trevorrow to Jack Thorne ejected, at one time or another, in light of so-called ‘creative differences’. The sad passing of Fisher, naturally, weighs heavily on the final film also. Her cobbled together scenes work as well as can be expected but can’t help but feel uncomfortably stilted, even generic. Likewise, Abrams and Terrio struggle in the opening act to reconcile Johnson’s disparities with the former’s inaugural vision. Old teasers, many dismissed or blown off by Johnson, resurface here, with returns for the question of Rey’s parentage, the Knights of Ren and even the significance of Snoke. All retconned, all fan satiating.
For many, this is no bad thing. Rise of Skywalker does what it says on the tin and delivers a solid Star Wars experience. Sure, it peddles the perfunctory – get this, save them, do this, find this – and teeters on tedium by critical standards but Abrams ultimately pulls through by the merits of his winning cast, investable world building and pleasingly executed closing act. There’s rip roaring fun to be had and no denying that this galaxy has more to give. John Williams’ final score for the franchise is as majestic as could be hoped and there’re ample cameos to aid the lift. Better still, the film does at least do justice to its youthful leads, with Ridley bouncing terrifically off John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs, having spent the last film apart. With Driver, meanwhile, she crafts a genuinely fascinating relationship, four years in the making and fuelled by a curious chemistry and the powerful blending of light and dark. They nail it, even when the story around them does not.
Ultimately, whereas Johnson did his best to break the mould, Abrams matches the effort with a glue gun and sticky tape. The result is a tad shoddy but crowd pleasing; a beating stick for critics and bastion of commerciality for executives everywhere. And yet, while it’s easy to be swept up in the fun, even those who love the film must, on some level, question the point. Three new films, no new direction.