It’s a near impossible task to separate this climactic entry in the Skywalker Saga from the discourse that has preceded and surrounded it. Decisions are made manifest in its first hour that feel instinctively cowardly, or at least overly safe. Yet, despite muddled moments and uninspired plotting, there’s a joy at the heart of The Rise of Skywalker that still satisfies.
Spoilers will follow.
JJ Abrams is back to direct again, the safest pair of hands in the galaxy, to a perhaps cloying degree. Skywalker opens with revisions, and in its first act repeatedly compounds them. The radical reshaping that Rian Johnson’s superb The Last Jedi portended is largely abandoned.
That means, in practise, that Daisy Ridley’s Rey has her parentage thrust immediately back into the limelight. Indeed, it’s not long until we find out the trite reason behind her Force powers, like it or not. It’s a bitter pill to swallow on first viewing — a reinforcement of the genetic undercurrents to Jedi privilege, and an overly neat tie-up of loose ends.
Then again, though, this is Star Wars. Everyone is someone’s child, each loose character fitting into the network of connections and relationships. When you get over the disappointment of Abrams bringing parents back into the mix, the crime becomes relatively forgivable. It’s not radical, and that’s a shame. It’s hardly the failure some are painting it as, though.
Kylo Ren is marauding across the galaxy, as we pick up the threads at the start of the film. Adam Driver’s muscly, sensitive Supreme Leader is chasing the voice of the long-gone Emperor Palpatine, with the aid of a Sith Wayfinder.
This is one of multiple doohickies the film surfaces to stitch its sequences together. Whether it’s this map to the Sith homeworld, a dagger pointing to said map’s location, or an abandoned ship hiding the location of said dagger, Skywalker is a treasure hunt in the tradition of Indiana Jones.
Once more this raises the central issue that Abrams grapples with — a structure so played-out that it almost falls in on itself. Yet, it doesn’t, with lovely performances to fall back on. Enough hasn’t been made of the superb casting this new trilogy has enjoyed, and in its key quartet of Ridley, Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac it has the charisma, warmth and chemistry to work wonders.
Whether bantering during a sandspeeder chase, working around the lamentably persistent presence of Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO or coordinating the translation of a minute droidsmith’s near-English mutterings, their camaraderie is heartwarming. It plays to the franchise’s strengths, of simple messages made with feeling. That droidsmith, Babu Frick, is a rival to Baby Yoda in his inspired design and casting, incidentally — Shirley Henderson, take a bow.
Once its first maneovres are complete, and it’s made clear that Skywalker is going to plough a different trough to that signalled by The Last Jedi, things straighten out. John Williams’ ever-impeccable scoring carries us from one encounter to the next, and the peerless aesthetic design and effects work of this cinematic universe are flexed.
There is a key difference between disliking the divergence of a plot from one’s hopes, and the film built around that plot being garbage. The Rise of Skywalker is far from flawless, and lacks the bravery that Rian Johnson encouraged, but it rounds off a nine-film saga at appropriately silly and epic scale, and still has the essential, cockle-warming earnestness that is in such short supply elsewhere. Why not enjoy the ride?