The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga. (from IMDB)
NOTE: This will be as spoiler-free as possible for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but I will be openly discussing plot elements of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi (and the original movies), therefore reflecting on spoilers of those movies.
So how exactly do you wrap up a saga that spans 42 years of storytelling over the course of 9 movies? Love them or hate them, the films that have been made in the Star Wars franchise since creator George Lucas sold it to Disney in 2012 have been a mixed bag, seeming even completely devoid of direction and purpose at times. It's greatly divided the fanbase -- probably even more so than the prequel trilogy (which were made by Lucas's own hands) in the early 2000's did -- but has also broadened the franchise's reach under the control of Disney. 2015 saw the release of the seventh installment of what is now being called The Skywalker Saga, The Force Awakens. Celebrated director and producer J.J. Abrams took the helm, leaving the Star Trek reboot series (after two films) to take on one of his biggest passions in Star Wars. The Force Awakens ended up topping the all-time domestic box office chart, overthrowing James Cameron's Avatar. It quickly was adopted by fans new and old alike, but was also maligned for largely being a retread of the 1977 original film (mimicking a lot of the story beats and characteristics of that film). Furthermore, it did the unthinkable in many fans' eyes by killing off one of the franchise's most beloved characters in Harrison Ford's Han Solo (I still have trouble watching that scene). It also disappointed many fans who had not only expected to see Luke Skywalker's mighty return, but who had also hoped to see the trio of Han, Luke and Leia reunite for the first time in over thirty years. In 2017, we were treated to the next episode, now helmed by a different director in Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi. The film picked up right after the events of The Force Awakens, and immediately it felt as if Johnson was tossing out much of what Abrams had set up and was trying to forge a new path. And in that film, fans not only didn't get to see Luke be the hero again that fans know him to be, but Johnson killed him off as well. Then, to further complicate things, actress Carrie Fisher, who played the iconic Princess Leia Organa, suddenly died in late 2016, disrupting any established plans for the third and final chapter of this new trilogy.
What now? What's even left to explore?
The original plans for Episode 9 involved Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow completing the trilogy and 9-movie saga. However, in the wake of Fisher's passing, Trevorrow's involvement fell apart, leaving the film's director's chair vacated. But it only seemed to make sense to bring Episode 7 director Abrams back to wrap things up; it just seemed like a no-win situation. Many fans absolutely despised The Last Jedi -- from the way it handled Luke and the way it didn't provide answers to big questions The Force Awakens proposed, to the inconsistent tone and Luke's demise -- so Abrams would certainly have his work cut out for him to try to pick up the pieces of the franchise and finish it off in a satisfying way.
The term "fan service" is something I've been hearing a lot to describe The Rise of Skywalker. Its title alone is curious and seems like an answer to the backlash over The Last Jedi. But "fan service" is an apt way to describe The Rise of Skywalker. The Last Jedi had been a big hit with critics and a dud with the core fanbase, while The Rise of Skywalker seems to be dividing critics quite a bit. But which group is the target audience of Star Wars? What is it about the franchise that attracts fans to it -- and so passionately? That seems to have been the topic of many discussions when Abrams and his team gathered in the planning room for Episode 9.
The Rise of Skywalker seems like everything a diehard fan who has been growing disenchanted with the current state of the franchise might hope for. It works in lots of classic visuals and callbacks, and continues the story restarted by The Force Awakens. While Awakens was a bit of a "soft reboot" in that it launched a new storyline while continuing the original one, it weaved in all these new threads and mysteries that fans wanted answers to. And one of the problems with a franchise that's so frequently - and relentlessly - scrutinized as much as this one is, is that fans can't seem to like something if it doesn't quite "make sense" to them when filtered through pre-established rules and lore established within this fictitious world. The Rise of Skywalker sets out to explain a lot, to the point that it's almost funny in retrospect, but the way Abrams handles it is quite impressive, considering. Avengers: Endgame, which released earlier this year, was wrapping up only 10 years of a storyline, but that one consisted of over 20 movies, which is certainly daunting. Its grand finale was fan service at its best, even if it did seem silly at times. But what good is entertainment if it can't high-five and hug its most devoted fanbase at times? (After all, these sequels wouldn't even exist without its fanbase! And The Last Jedi, as good as a story it was at times, seemed to be a prime example of what forgetting that looks like. Still, let's be honest; diehard fans are extremely hard to please.)
Without giving much away, The Rise of Skywalker may very well be the fastest-paced and most action-packed entry into the Star Wars saga. It's filled to the brim with story elements and plot points, but it's constantly driven by action. Just when you think it may let up for a moment, something else happens. In a lot of other movies, this would often be considered a bad thing (and maybe it is here to some degree), but for the most part, the movie still works as it is. I revisited all eight Episodes (and 2016's Rogue One) in preparation for seeing Episode 9, and I noticed just how thoughtfully paced the original trilogy was--with only Return of the Jedi seeming the most chaotic of the three. Political dogma, terrible dialog and wooden acting plagued the prequel trilogy (making them particularly dull at times -- especially since the impressiveness of their visuals has long worn off), while the pace is a lot quicker in the Disney sequel trilogy. Things move at an almost exhausting pace in The Rise of Skywalker. The first quarter of the film, or so, feels almost rushed, with scenes skipping around in an almost highlight reel fashion as the film tries to pack what feels like two movie's worth of storytelling into one. But this movie is a real ride; I found myself swept up in it and loving nearly every moment -- every little development, twist, reveal, cameo, and action sequence. It's not a perfect movie, and maybe some of the plot developments are silly or too "convenient," but I found it to be fun, emotional, entertaining, and even touching. There were happy and sad tears, even.
I've often said that it depends on how the following films tell the story that would affect the way I would process and enjoy the ones before it. For example, my favorite Star Wars movie is, and probably always will be, The Empire Strikes Back, but if you look at it closely, it not only breaks up the original trio into different directions for almost the whole film, but it freezes Han Solo in carbonite, sees Luke get defeated by Vader, and the heroes ultimately losing. Oh, and it kind of ends on a cliffhanging note that's a bit of a downer. (At the same time, though, it has that unforgettable Hoth opener, introduces Yoda, serves as a wonderful analogy for learning to live life as a Christian as Luke trains to be a Jedi, faces off Luke and Vader in an epic--and costly--lightsaber duel, and introduces the city of Bespin and Lando Calrissian!) But it's a pretty deep story with some great emotional moments. However, I don't think I'd enjoy it as much as I do if it weren't for Return of the Jedi making everything right and ending the story on a happy and celebratory note. The Rise of Skywalker does kind of right some of the "wrongs" or bittersweet aspects of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and I'm curious to see how processing this movie will affect how this Disney trilogy plays out as a 3-part arc.
The content, though, for The Rise of Skywalker is surprising. For starters, it's considerably darker and even scarier than all of the previous episodes -- maybe even combined. We took our 9-year-old, Star Wars-loving son with us to see it and he cowered in his seat almost the entire movie. (He even said about halfway through that he didn't want to watch it anymore, but I encouraged him to stick it out and he was super excited about a lot of the things that followed.) Aside from Anakin being dismembered, catching on fire, burning up, and then seeing him writhing on an operating table looking scarred and scabbed over in Revenge of the Sith, this may be the most gruesome of the Star Wars movies. It starts with us seeing heads and torsos of a couple bodies floating in a tube of liquid and then a zombie-like character with white eyes and fingers that are gnarled and missing pieces of them. Soon after, we see the decapitated head of an alien tossed onto a conference room table. After that, there are a couple instances where we see a wound close up in detail as it heals up (one of the times being surprisingly "gory" for Star Wars). And, during the finale, several characters have bloody cuts and abrasions across their heads and hands. There's some mild language in the film, once again, with several uses of "h*ll," "d*mn" and a use of "*ss," almost all by Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron. And, lastly, and most frustratingly, is the inclusion of the franchise's first same-sex kiss right at the end of the film. As what must be another kind of "fan service" for a very specific, but very vocal, group of fans, two nonessential Resistance women are seen sharing a passionate, happy kiss on the lips before the film's end. It's focused on in a way that feels very deliberate and very brazen, despite it literally having absolutely nothing to do with the story or plot. It feels entirely out of place and deliberately controversial -- so much so that it felt especially jarring in that moment (Yet, I had a sinking feeling it was coming, oddly enough). For a franchise that's avoided this kind of content for 42 years, it was really disappointing to see -- and all for the sake of being inclusive (which makes a timeless tale like Star Wars suddenly feel painfully "2019" in nature).
By this third film, I feel as though Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe have earned their place in the Star Wars universe. None of them will ever match or replace Luke, Leia and Han in my heart, but I feel like all of them -- Adam Driver as Kylo Ren included -- finally have developed with this film into characters we could care about. Their acting has been solid, and Abrams gave each one moments to shine in this installment. It was also great to see Chewbacca and C-3PO get some well-deserved focus once again, and I even enjoyed some of the new characters, particularly Keri Russell's Zorii Bliss.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will probably still be polarizing within the fanbase to some degree, especially amidst the fallout of The Last Jedi, but it's a pretty fun ride that manages to cover a lot of ground and tie things together while staying engaging from start to finish. Despite being a bit rushed at times, and maybe too focused on fan service, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a good time at the movies and a satisfying end to the direction the franchise has taken since Disney took the reins. It's hardly the best of the 9 films, and I'm eager to see how it holds up to rewatches, but after my initial viewing, this life-long Star Wars enthusiast was very satisfied with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/20/19)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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