Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Film review: The Rise of Skywalker coughs, splutters, soils itself and dies


Oh boy, here we go again. We’ll try and keep this review of The Rise of Skywalker spoiler-free, but enter at your own risk.

Star Wars is in absolute tatters. Disney’s tenure has felt like a game of internal chicken; as if they were eyeing up Lucas’ disastrous prequel trilogy and egging themselves on to balls things up even more. There’s been a bevvy of aborted standalone films, a trilogy that totally lacked for a unifying vision (despite the first two parts both being plenty entertaining), and a fanbase that’s never been more divided on what constitutes Star Wars. $4 billion well spent, huh?

The fact that The Age of Disney spawned the franchise’s new highpoint in Rian Johnson’s incendiary and inquisitive middle episode The Last Jedi is as much to its credit as it is to its detriment. Only in the cold unfeeling paw of entertainment’s most cynical mouse could such a thorough deconstruction take root. The fact that Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker sees Star Wars bounce back to mindlessly jerking off the hardcore fanbase emphasises how spineless this whole endeavour has been.

So here we are. Suckling at JJ Abrams’ nostalgia teet, again. And yet, in the years since his zippy throwback The Force Awakens launched this new saga, JJ appears to have lost sight of what made his debut on the Star Wars stage show such a rollicking blast. The Rise of Skywalker has a pace to be sure, an almost breathless one, but it too often feels like forward momentum for forward momentum’s sake.

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Things start off…bad. The opening crawl, once the realm of wonder and imagination, shiftily reels out a bizarre, convoluted and at times chuckle-inducing backstory about Palpatine’s return to global politics. As a catalyst for the main plot it’s such an about-turn for the trilogy it almost feels like a Freudian journey into JJ’s Episode VIII dreams. Then, we’re straight off into exposition land, with scene after scene of lifeless hand-waving—the first sequence ties so many leftover mysteries into neat bows that it’s as cringingly desperate as it is boring.

This leads into the opening act-cum-treasure hunt, easily the worst half hour of Star Wars we’ve had since the infamous Holiday Special or Naboo’s love nest. We’re reintroduced to the gang of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), but they hardly get a moment to breathe or express anything other than where they’re headed to next, and what MacGuffin they’re chasing. The stilted tone is best characterised by Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), beamed in from beyond the grave to deliver unaired snippets stripped from their original context. It’s laughable in its contrivance.

It’s only on our umpteenth ill-defined planet that proceedings slow down, and a rhythm between our pals begins to emerge. Sadly, this isn’t enough to fix the problems first highlighted by the hyperactive editing. The locales continue to feel like small sets rather than full-sized planets, populated nearly entirely by cookie cutter characters (barring one gurgling pint-sized alien technician). It’s more akin to National Treasure than an entertaining space opera, full of hollow clues that align in improbable, if momentarily appeasing ways.

The Rise of Skywalker content image
An apt image given the film’s tendency towards self destruction. 

The characters are a problem too. Finn and Poe basically get stuck in cocksure holding patterns for the film’s duration, which would be tolerable if it wasn’t for some really misguided choices made for Kylo and Rey. Rather than character arcs they have character pivots, bold turns that rarely feel organic despite the solid groundwork for the two laid by JJ himself and strongly compounded by Johnson. You know you’re in trouble when perpetual nervous wreck C-3PO shines through as the most entertaining core character.

It’s JJ’s kowtowing to the fanbase over Johnson’s controversial The Last Jedi that feels the most cowardly though. Masks are rebuilt, origins are retconned and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is relegated to a position where her name is said more times than she has lines of dialogue. It’s not just that JJ feels the need to backtrack, it’s the air of bitterness. Rather than Johnson’s thoughtful subversions, JJ just smears shit over Johnson’s efforts whilst smiling earnestly at a select cabal of Very Angry online fans.

Above all else, The Rise of Skywalker reveals the hollowness in JJ’s approach. Very little here riffs on Return of the Jedi in the way The Force Awakens did A New Hope, but all its defining moments point backwards. Case in point: half of Palpatine’s lines are word-for-word recreation of his old adages. Say what you like about the prequels, but they at least had the sense to let Ian McDiarmid really revel in some campy throwback villainy. For The Rise of Skywalker, the only villain is a vision guided strictly by fears about what audiences want. Certainly, it wasn’t this.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is on wide release now, including showings at The Electric in Birmingham. You might as well see how it finishes, right?

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Blaise Radley

Film editor, occasional writer, and sporadically coherent ranter. Bear in mind that if it stars Robert Pattinson or is directed by Bong Joon-Ho it's probably getting an extra star off the bat.