“The dead speak!”
So begins the traditional opening title crawl for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The claim couldn’t be more correct. Despite many deaths, Star Wars has refused to stay quiet, speaking multiple times into the popular culture since the first film in 1977. Frequently—especially in the case of the homage-heavy most recent trilogy—Star Wars even nostalgically resuscitates its own corpse. Rise of Skywalker purports to be the final installment in the central, nine-film cycle, but I’ll believe it when I (don’t) see it.
Nevertheless, an air of finality hangs over the picture, which gives Rise of Skywalker whatever intermittent potency it has. This isn’t The Irishman—another, far more momentous cinematic closing of the book from 2019. Heck it isn’t even Avengers: Endgame, which concluded its own science-fiction cycle earlier in the year with far more excitement, panache, and emotional power. But the film shouldn’t be snidely dismissed, despite its faults. With Rise of Skywalker, Star Wars limps to a close, but there’s still good in it.
Most compelling is the continuing central conflict between Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) and dark side enthusiast Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has consolidated power in the aftermath of The Last Jedi. Amassing a military force stronger than any that Rey’s diminished Resistance has ever seen, Kylo Ren aims not only to conquer the galaxy, but also to convince Rey to embrace her own darkness and rule by his side.
The Romeo and Juliet vibes that first flickered between Rey and Kylo Ren in 2015’s The Force Awakens come to the fore here. Are they adversaries or star-crossed lovers? Might they be siblings? Cousins? Something else? Speculation has run rampant ever since The Force Awakens (I’ll save spoilers for later). Ridley and Driver—who both give operatic performances of blood, sweat, and hard stares—wring that tension for all its worth, while director J.J. Abrams (returning after The Force Awakens) emphasizes it in the filmmaking. Using their connection to the series’ fabled Force, Rey and Kylo Ren once again physically interact while in separate locations, including one out-of-time-and-space lightsaber duel that feels simultaneously like fighting and foreplay. (It also results in Ren losing the beloved mask of Darth Vader, his grandfather.)
These are the better elements of the script, written by Abrams and Chris Terrio. Otherwise, Rise of Skywalker is a mess in terms of actual plot. It gets off to a clunky start, with frantically paced table-setting scenes that offer a lot of CGI and action but never really capture the imagination. The movie then proceeds to assign a series of busy tasks to its ensemble cast, who are sent across space in search of various MacGuffins, doohickies, and dongles. (At one point, they need to retrieve a dagger because it offers a clue to a “wayfinder” that will guide them to a hidden location.) After all that is accomplished, the film works its way to a convoluted, confusing climax that nonetheless restages the finale of 1983’s Return of the Jedi (more on that later).
At least Rise of Skywalker keeps its core ensemble on the screen together, something Last Jedi failed to do. For much of the film, Rey is joined by rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), as well as Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, veteran of all nine films). Boyega and Isaac bring a crucial wit and lightness to the proceedings, including a very funny moment in which Poe (who has always been willing to be emasculated in this more woman-centric trilogy) wilts when his flashlight fails to measure up to Rey’s lightsaber.
And yet it’s C-3PO, who has never been a beloved character of mine, who might actually be Rise of Skywalker’s MVP. The film’s most moving moment—the one that best incorporates honest nostalgia with immediate urgency—comes when our heroes need a crucial message that’s buried in C-3PO’s hard drive, but can only retrieve it by rebooting him and thereby wiping his memory clean. C-3PO agrees to make the sacrifice, and then pauses. When asked by Poe what he’s doing, he replies, “Taking one last look, sir, at my friends.” There’s both poignancy and wonder in watching C-3PO’s glowing eyes go dim, as we realize all the history of the saga that is fading away. Sadly, it’s the only scene in the movie that manages such a tone.
The Romeo and Juliet vibes come to the fore here.
As for the action scenes, there’s also only a single one that stands out (Last Jedi had far more majestic set pieces). Early on, Rey and Kylo Ren face off on a desert planet, where she’s severely outmatched. She stands alone on the sand, while he bears down on her while piloting a screaming spacecraft. Abrams comes to life as a filmmaker here, cutting back and forth between long shots of Ren’s speeding vehicle—gathering speed and closing ground—and close-ups of Rey’s face, gathering determination. When she performs a backflip over the ship’s wing and slices it off—captured in a single, elegant, slow-motion shot—it’s thrilling, as well as another example of the aesthetic scale of hope that the series has long employed: the good guys always have a chance, despite the oppressive visual odds.
Unfortunately, the visuals in the film’s climax are merely oppressive. (Spoilers ahead.) After learning that she is in fact not a Skywalker but a Palpatine—the granddaughter of Senator Palpatine, who grew in Sith power over the course of the series to become Darth Sidious—Rey confronts him in his underground lair. What follows is that rehash of the climax of Return of the Jedi (which was already somewhat recycled in Last Jedi), as Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) urges Rey to give in to her darkness while her friends in the Resistance battle his forces in the skies above. A scene both familiar and confusing plays out in a shadowy, CGI cave. And while there’s a death (after much Romeo and Juliet-style dying and resurrecting between Rey and Kylo Ren), Kylo Ren’s ultimate demise feels weightless in a movie in which so many of those who have been lost—Mark Hamill’s Luke, Carrie Fisher’s Leia, even Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in a gratuitous cameo—keep returning.
What’s missing from Skywalker—and what something like Avengers: Endgame emphasized—is a freshness of vision, a boldness in direction, a willingness to let some characters move on for good. The dead do a lot of speaking in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—often literally. Maybe they should have stayed silent.