By Stephen Whitty
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a band of plucky rebels picked up a lightsaber or two and went to war against an empire. And they’re still at it. But is the Force still with them?
The latest and last film in the Star Wars triple-trilogy works really hard for fans. It brings back just about every franchise character that ever lived. Ever died, too (that’s what flashbacks and hallucinations are for). It even invites back a few you hoped they wouldn’t, like the Ewoks.
The film’s not just a nostalgia trip, either. A spirited Daisy Ridley truly comes into her own as Jedi-in-training Rey, and Oscar Isaac is an even-more-dashing-than usual Poe Dameron. John Boyega’s Finn gets pushed to the sidelines, unfortunately, but Adam Driver’s devilish Kylo Ren firmly grabs the spotlight — in some ways, in the end, this is his story.
But in fulfilling its duty to the fans, sometimes the film feels a little too … dutiful. The previous film, The Last Jedi, took risks. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t. In fact, a lot of times it feels like a direct sequel to the safer film before that, The Force Awakens. Sometimes it even feels like a thinly disguised remake of Return of the Jedi.
Of course, it’s been more than 35 years since that classic, and things have changed, including audiences’ attention spans. Director J.J. Abrams’ hyperkinetic camera is always moving, panning, swirling, even when it doesn’t need to. While the original films took time to set scenes or let dialogue unfold, The Rise of Skywalker starts at a run, as it keeps cramming in plot points and action sequences, and never quite catches its breath.
Neither do we. The relationships between Rey, Poe and Finn aren’t just taken for granted, they’re pretty much ignored — until they’re finally contradicted, along with their characters. Finn spends the first half of the film crushing hard on Rey, then quickly falls for someone else. Poe is an arrogant hothead until he isn’t.
Other, potentially powerful emotional moments don’t pay off. It’s nice to see Billy Dee Williams again as Lando Calrissian, but it doesn’t lead to anything surprising. While it was valiant to try to bring back Princess Leia’s character after Carrie Fisher’s death, it’s clear there just wasn’t enough leftover footage to construct a performance.
And those who never took to that beach ball droid BB-8 will be even less enthused to see he now has his own little friend, a squeaky bit of junk who looks like Pixar’s desk lamp, and feels like the franchise’s latest crass grab at merchandising.
But, even a flawed Star Wars film is, still, a Star Wars film. John Williams’ music is stirring, right from the opening title. The lightsaber battles thrill. And if the original, mythic, questing message of the first films has been tamed and tweaked into little more than a mild, modern-day, Dr. Phil-style affirmation — that you’re not your parents — at least the movie leaves you feeling happier when you walk out than when you walked in.
And these days, that’s a rare, and necessary, treat.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available On Demand and on DVD beginning March 31. Check your cable system for availability.