Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) By J.J. Abrams - Movie Review
Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (2019) Director: J.J. Abrams Writers: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams (story and screenplay by), Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow (story by), George Lucas (based on characters created by) Stars: Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Ian McDiarmid, Keri Russell, Domhnall Gleeson, Joonas Suotamo, Billy Dee Williams, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong'o, Naomi Ackie, Kelly Marie Tran, Dominic Monaghan, Greg Grunberg, Billie Lourd, Harrison Ford Runtime: 141 min Rated: PG (Canada) MPAA Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers)
Abrams’ End to the Star Wars Saga
As Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) opens Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and her beleaguered Resistance are foiled and find themselves attempting to stay alive to fight another day. The First Order grips the universe in a blanket of paralyzing fear as its new Supreme Leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)—Leia’s estranged son—seeks to eliminate a phantom menace from the past: a thought-dead yet mysteriously alive Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Tempted by Palpatine’s offer of a new secret fleet of Star Destroyers mounted with Death Star-style weapons along with the promise of the throne of a new Galactic Empire, Kylo Ren agrees to hunt down Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is desperately trying to complete her Jedi training with the help of Princess Leia. News of Palpatine and his secret fleet prompts the Resistance to make a last ditch attempt to stop Palpatine’s Final Order before it can merge with Ren’s First Order. Along the way old and new friends join Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and the rest of the Resistance as questions about Rey’s lineage are answered, storylines are resolved, and Palpatine is confronted one last time.
In a way Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017) painted Star Wars into a corner perhaps best epitomized by Kylo Ren when he says, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” On the other hand J.J. Abrams reveres Star Wars’ past and is not interested in letting it die. Audiences first saw this in Abrams’ Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015) and they see it again in Abram’s Episode IX – The Rise Of Skywalker (2019). As a result, whereas The Force Awakens borrowed heavily from the George Lucas’ first film Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), this new film borrows heavily from Richard Marquand’s Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi (1983). (Some viewers will see this as an homage full of respect while others will judge it uninspired). Abrams was considered a safe pair of hands to direct this final episode and while he made some bold story choices many of them are raked back quickly to please competing old and new fan bases. It appears Disney isn’t sure what to do with Star Wars. What is clear is that the entertainment monolith realized it needed a course correction and this film shows a concerted effort to stick the landing on its first stab at a Star Wars trilogy. The backbone of the fan base has been largely appeased by a side venture, Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian (2019–), a live-action TV program on the new Disney + streaming platform. That series miraculously captures the spirit of the original Star Wars franchise better than the majority of the recent Disney offerings. It’s on par with Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). The whole Disney Star Wars saga so far has been tumultuous and polarizing. Only now does the creative team behind the scenes appear to be finding its collective footing.
As with the prequel films Episode I, II and III this new Disney trilogy doesn’t appear to have a narrative plot with a well-planned beginning, middle and end. With the prequel films George Lucas knew where he needed his story to end and as a result Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) was given the task of tying everything up while establishing specific details, like Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader and the conception, birth, and concealment of his twins Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Leia Organa. Because of the different nature of Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) and Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) which even had two different actors playing the very young and older Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen) it was like the prequel trilogy had two opening acts. This left Episode III with a mad dash to the finishing line to complete it’s part of the story. A similar situation arose with the Disney trilogy. Abrams’ Episode VII and Johnson’s Episode VIII felt like two competing first acts with the second film ignoring or subverting much of what was set up in the first. This left Abrams’ with the same sort of problem of attempting to wrap everything up and complete his part of the story in a mad dash to the finish line yet again. Both Revenge of the Sith and The Rise of Skywalker end up feeling like one and a half films crammed into one, simultaneously playing catch up while pressing forward to wrap up everything. Lucas didn’t initially have this problem because audiences in the late 1970s and early 1980s genuinely had no idea where the Star Wars story might go from A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back to The Return of the Jedi.
All of this is compounded by Disney’s desire to wrap up these three trilogies with The Rise of Skywalker so it can tell new Star Wars stories which don’t have to serve the continuing Skywalker family saga. Abrams gives this to Disney while still leaving the door open, just a crack, for future Skywalker saga episodes if Disney wants to eventually return to that storyline by basically providing them with an ending which allows them to have their cake and eat it too. And herein lies the conundrum. Disney purchased the franchise from Lucas wanting creative freedom to do whatever it wanted, but it wasn’t just a purchase it was more like a wedding. Lucas was more like the father of the bride. Disney forgot that when it married Star Wars it also married into the Star Wars family of fans and part of that marriage was going to be pleasing the family. Lucas himself had challenges with his Star Wars fans when he made his prequel films which at times fans have harshly criticized although more recently have received wider acceptance and appreciation. Lucas’ first films didn’t suffer the kind of critical comparison faced by his prequels and Disney’s sequels. What’s more, this comparison today is often muddled up in an emotional haze of subjective nostalgia further amplified by the rise of social media and a multitude of individual opinions ranging from gushing fawning to acerbic toxicity.
There are many moments and narrative choices in The Rise of Skywalker that undo or at best temper what Johnson presented in The Last Jedi. Perhaps two of the greatest examples are found in the characters of Luke Skywalker and the droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). As was expected Luke Skywalker, who died in the previous film, returns as a “force ghost” and Abrams significantly tones down Johnson’s disillusioned crabby crotchety hermit Skywalker with someone who has more perspective and hopefulness and who actually encourages Rey instead of seeming uncooperative and discouraging. Likewise C-3PO, who Johnson treated as a prop in The Last Jedi, performs a significant and crucial role which leans on his vocation as a protocol and translator droid. Abrams honours both the previous characterizations of Skywalker and C-3PO by presenting them in a way that neatly dovetails into Hamill’s and Daniels’ original performances. This is the kind of good will towards hardcore original fans that shows in action that Abrams respects the past and isn’t interested in killing it. The way the script includes Skywalker and C-3PO clearly shows that writers Chris Terrio and Abrams actually considered the fact that many Star Wars fans don’t simply want to see their beloved characters standing around in the background or acting all edgy and out of character but rather want to see them participate in the story in a way that rings true. This is very different from what is now called fan-service-easter-eggs which only nods in passing at some detail, character, location, or object from previous films (for good or for ill Abrams has plenty of those in The Rise of Skywalker).
Similarly, Abrams makes up for the treatment the mighty Chewbacca received at the end of The Force Awakens following the death of his best friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) when audiences felt Chewbacca wasn’t given the appropriate opportunity to share his grief with Leia. In The Rise of Skywalker when Chewbacca receives news of Leia’s death he is given opportunity to express his grief and loss. Abrams was apologetic about his previous misstep handling Chewbacca and clearly desired to correct his past mistake. Unfortunately Abrams’ approach to characters like Luke Skywalker, C-3PO and Chewbacca doesn’t extend to characters like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) showing that his efforts aren’t consistent within the film.
The death of Leia in The Rise of Skywalker was almost inevitable following the actual death of Carrie Fisher in 2016. Using unused footage from the first two Disney films Abrams constructed a composite CGI-enhanced performance which looks to be about as good as they could do with what they had to work with. Leia’s death comes at a critical moment and contributes to the redemption of her son Kylo Ren/Ben Solo.
Christian viewers were eagerly anticipating the redemption of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and Abrams doesn’t disappoint. After Han Solo (Harrison Ford) returns to his son in a kind-of vision reliving the moments and words spoken between them in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren dissolves and Ben Solo emerges. In an act of repentance Ben throws his iconic angry crackling red Sith lightsaber into the deepest depth of the sea. Christians believe repentance is a gift from God therefore Kylo Ren returning to his true self—Ben Solo—is almost like a biblical description of forgiveness, “[The LORD] will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. [He] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). With new eyes Ben Solo can see and clearly remember his father’s compassion towards him, how Han had originally come to Star Killer Base treading underfoot the iniquities of Kylo Ren to get to his real son and redeem him. Elements of Han and Ben’s relationship in the Disney trilogy echo biblical elements of King David and his son Absalom. But where David never had the opportunity to reconcile with Absalom, Abrams gives Han this opportunity with Ben. Had Carrie Fisher not died in 2016 Abrams would likely have had this reconciliation happen between mother and son. The Han Solo ghost is not presented in the same way as Luke Skywalker and later Leia Organa. Kylo Ren/Ben Solo’s interaction with Han Solo is more like a vivid remembrance of their last conversation during which Ben is gifted the strength necessary to do the thing he knows is right. While not perfectly executed this is one of the most satisfying character arcs in the Disney trilogy. Ben Solo then becomes an asset to Rey in the film’s final act as she squares off against Palpatine.
Is the whole film as satisfying as the conclusion to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo’s character arc? The emotional elements of The Rise of Skywalker’s narrative are rather uneven. Since Abrams is playing catch up and because Johnson split up the core characters of Rey, Fin, Poe in The Last Jedi, and because by the end of The Force Awakens these characters were only just coming together as a group and didn’t have prior interactions with supporting characters like Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and BB-8, the idea that they are actually close friends and love each other and would lay their lives down for each other is hard to buy into. This has the effect of flattening much of the emotional landscape of The Rise of Skywalker especially when characters like C-3PO look at Rey, Fin and Poe (in the absence of R2D2 and Chewbacca) and say “I’m just taking one last look at my friends.” Despite that gap, the film does a lot to create a sense of growing camaraderie but the idea that this is a continuing friendship falls a bit flat. This also contributes to an overall lack of tension and urgency. While Abrams sufficiently raises the stakes it’s hard to completely embrace the jeopardy or truly worry about many of the characters because of a seeming hollowness in the friendships. As a result some of the moments along the way feel unearned. Understandably this is a subjective criticism; however audiences who care to think about this particular aspect of the film will certainly see that more could have been done to develop the friendship storyline between Rey, Fin, and Poe when compared to the friendship of Luke, Leia and Han from Lucas’ original trilogy. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac do their best with thinly written characters.
In an odd way Abrams succeeds at making a film that feels like those outlandish 1930s Flash Gordon serials full of whiz-bang effects and cliff hangers which were high on intensity and low on character development and real drama. Lucas on the other hand, while inspired by those early sci-fi serials, in a way failed to fully capture their spirit because he injected true drama and, by the end of his trilogy, well-rounded characters basically elevating the entire genre. With Abrams and Disney this is most evident in the redemption of Ben Solo which is positioned as a B-plot in The Rise of Skywalker. By contrast, the redemption of Anakin Skywalker in The Return of the Jedi through the persistent hope of his son Luke overshadows Emperor Palpatine’s continued desire for galactic dominion in that film making his redemption narrative the true A-plot in Lucas’ original trilogy. Perhaps this is a good thing. The Disney trilogy and Lucas’ own prequel trilogy, even with their advanced special effects and CGI, respectfully bow to Lucas’ original trilogy and fail to outshine the true heart and soul of Star Wars. That said, if viewed as a linear story the Disney trilogy ends up undoing everything before it much to the frustration of some viewers.
With another solid score from composer John William and some spectacular visuals many will find The Rise of Skywalker satisfying because in significant ways it’s a return to form and shows more respect for what came before it. However, others will find fault with the film’s sheer goofiness from its rather silly scavenger hunt plot (reminiscent of console video games like Tomb Raider or every LEGO video game imaginable) to the cascading series of plot conveniences, to the puzzling and campy final confrontation between Rey and Palpatine, to the awkwardly executed young-adult-book-style Ray/Ben “Reylo” romantic kiss. At times it was almost like Disney said, “People liked Avengers: Endgame let’s do something like that,” forgetting that Star Wars is its own thing. The Star Wars moments in The Rise of Skywalker are good, like chocolate chips, but they are like chocolate chips in a chocolate chip cookie. There is just a lot of additional stuff crammed in this manic madcap film about which fans will disagree.
Then there is the lesbian kiss fiasco. It’s a superfluous yet calculated lesbian kiss between two unimportant characters – so superfluous it can easily be cut for release in Islamic countries without harming any aspect of the plot. Designed as a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in the celebratory conclusion it comes across as quintessential pandering. This inconsequential lip service is evidence that Disney doesn’t actually care about, or at least has little to no actual conviction concerning the LGBTQ social movement. If it did the studio would have suffered being banned in Islamic countries for its convictions. Cynically it can be said that the kiss is included to virtue signal to the left while knowing it would irritate the right, a ploy that would generate free publicity on both sides of the North American cultural spectrum in the form of thousands of articles and blogs and YouTube videos even when they likely already knew they would cut it out in Muslim majority regions. For the record, Disney is more worried about offending Muslims than offending traditional Christians.
Will there be any new Disney Skywalker saga films any time soon? It sounds like Disney will leave the Skywalker story alone for a while but the final scene suggests the possibility of continuing the Skywalker saga. Fans and casual viewers however may just need some time to process and further contemplate the Disney Star Wars trilogy and how it fits into the bigger story. While enjoyable and a great improvement over Johnson’s The Last Jedi Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker feels like a Cliff Notes Star Wars manic fever dream or maybe like a Star Wars comic book slapped onto the big screen. Disney may at times be a bit ham-fisted with its nostalgia but it is quite adept at nostalgia in general. After all, they’ve built a Magic Kingdom on it and when Disney thinks the Skywalker saga will be profitable again audiences should be prepared for another ‘Rise of Skywalker.’Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran, Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio programme. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!