There’s a moment at the end of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope that helps us understand where the series is at today, and how it got here. Fresh off the Rebel Alliance’s impossible victory, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) bestows gold medals to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). By blowing up the Death Star, Luke and Han stopped The Empire dead in its tracks. Cool right? The problem is that Han’s co-pilot and best friend, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), also risked his shaggy ass fighting The Empire. And guess what? Chewie is standing right there with the guys, but nobody gives him a medal. It’s not like a 7”3 Wookiee wearing a bandolier around his chest is easy to miss.
Seen through 2019’s super-woke lens, the optics of this scenario are unacceptable. Society valorizes the white guys who rescued the princess while Chewie, “the other,” gets left out in the cold. Today, no filmmaker that wasn’t actively trolling moviegoers would let this scene make it into the final cut. But Hollywood was a different place when Star Wars arrived in 1977.
I point this out because there is a strange tension at play within this new trilogy. Much like its perpetually tortured villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), this series can’t decide what it truly is. At times Star Wars pushes boundaries through inclusive casting and presenting fresh types of stories. These new movies almost try too hard to account for the original trilogy’s blind spots. But most often, director J.J. Abrams is unwilling to step away from what worked in the past, and the result is another Star Wars retread that serves its audience cinematic comfort food.
One of the taglines for the movie is, “No one’s ever really gone.” So, let me tell you, ain’t that the truth. The film begins focused on its villain, Kylo Ren, who is now the Supreme Leader of The First Order. The late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is somehow transmitting messages from beyond the grave. Threatened by the Sith Lord’s return, Kylo sets out to destroy Palpatine before he becomes too powerful to stop.
At the same time, a dark force keeps calling out to Rey (Daisy Ridley), who, under Leia, has levelled up her Jedi skills. One thing is clear: whatever is reaching out to Rey and Kylo has sinister plans for them. It turns out that the Palpatine’s disciples have kept busy since Luke and Vader vanquished their dark lord. They’ve secretly assembled an immense fleet of starships that will shift the galaxy’s balance of power. And now, all they need is an all-powerful Sith Lord or Jedi Master to lead them to victory.
Out of all the movies released since the original trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker comes the closest to capturing what made me fall in love with Star Wars. This picture is two-and-a-half-hours of swashbuckling adventure, and there isn’t a dull moment from the opening crawl until the final credits. These movies stand out for the ground-breaking special effects and fantastic creature designs (and samurai space wizards), but what keeps us coming back are the characters. And this is where The Rise of Skywalker shines brightest.
Back in 2015, moviegoers fell in love with Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and BB-8. But the last two films saw them spread out across the galaxy on separate missions. These characters have been such a huge part of pop culture that it’s easy to forget they haven’t spent much time onscreen together. The Rise of Skywalker is the first time the gang has been in one place working as a team, and it’s everything fans could hope for. Watching these beloved characters joke, squabble, and risk their lives together is as close as this film gets to reaching the original trilogy’s highs.
For over 40-years now, Star Wars has lived on in cartoons, video games, comic books and streaming series. At this point it would take an exceptional filmmaker to fill the the movie with creatures and planets that don’t feel derivative. Time and time again, we’ve seen similar desert planets, arctic wastelands, and scummy bars. Abrams and his creative team do an excellent job populating the screen with aliens, settings, and technology that feel of the universe but still look fresh.
Early on in the picture, there’s a dance sequence on a desert planet that I wanted the camera to stop and live in for a few extra minutes. We look on as colourfully clad alien creatures get there groove on as Rey and the gang make their way through the crowd. The sequence really highlights the strange and magical appeal Star Wars movies have when they’re firing on all cylinders. And then, only a few moments later, the camera lingers on some adorable alien children that could give “Baby Yoda” a run for cutey of the year. I can’t wait until I have the movie on Blu-ray so I can pour over all the fine details in each scene.
As much as I enjoyed this movie it’s far from perfect. The scope of the film feels massive but not epic. Abrams sticks to his brand and jam-packs the movie with spectacle. There is no shortage of shootouts, chases, and lightsaber battles, but there isn’t one great moment that seared itself into my brain. No scene recaptures the visual highs of The Last Jedi’s throne room battle or rips your heart out like Paige Tico’s self-sacrifice. Abrams gives the audience more to enjoy than The Last Jedi, but nothing that is more enjoyable.
I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, because The Rise of Skywalker is all kinds of fun. But its biggest drawback is Abrams’ obsequious desire to give fans what they want. The best films stick with you because they make you think about what you’ve seen and leave you asking questions. They aren’t afraid to make viewers uncomfortable. Would The Empire Strikes Back hit the same dramatic highs if it ended on a positive note?
In 2017, The Last Jedi’s director Rian Johnson pissed off legions of Star Wars die-hards with his progressive take on the source material. “We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda says in the film at one point, which is like a middle-finger to Star Wars’ life-long fans. Abrams’ desire to please those fans limits the number of compelling places where the story may go. Unlike Johnson’s film, The Rise of Skywalker plays it too safe to make you feel like there is any real threat. Johnson operates like a Corellian smuggler, sneaking challenging themes into our blockbuster entertainment. Abrams is more like the Mos Eisley Cantina Band, content with belting out the hits.
This last Star Wars trilogy passed back and forth between Abrams and Johnson like a hot potato, and the three parts don’t come together as a cohesive whole – Kelly Marie Tran fans will know what I’m talking about. But overall, there is one beautiful theme at play in each film. And that’s the notion that no matter where we come from and what we’ve done, we have the power to define who we are and what we stand for. It’s a message that keeps Abrams’ cinematic brand of comfort food tasting so delicious.
If lowly smugglers, outcasts, and droids can be heroes, and orphans from dusty planets can become legends, then surely you and I have it in us, to follow our dreams.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives in theatres on December 19, 2019.
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