a (mostly) spoiler-free movie review by NICHOLAS GEMAS
January 2, 2020
Star Wars Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker (TRoS) wins points for the most unwieldy Star Wars film title since, oh, 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. Furthermore, as far as Star Wars movie subtitles go, The Rise of Skywalker is the biggest non-starter since 1999’s The Phantom Menace: it doesn’t mean much, and is about as bland as the movie itself.
Bland, sayeth I? Sure, why not be critical? In the two weeks (or so) since TRoS was released in (U.S.) theaters, it’s become quite popular to bash the movie. Indeed, TRoS‘s Tomatometer score is the lowest since Phantom Menace*, and Metacritic reports the film as garnering a mean score of only 54 out of 100, or “mixed or average reviews”.
What about me? Well, some background: I liked The Last Jedi, the 2017 entry in this “sequel trilogy”. I was surprised to find myself having to defend TLJ in my group of Star Wars-fan friends. Accordingly, even though so many fans seemed to love it, I had mixed feelings about 2015’s The Force Awakens: it was a respectable but clumsily-written entry, that, yet, improves each time I (re-)watch it.
To my mind, The Rise of Skywalker occupies the middle ground, quality-wise, between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The movie is too frenetic, too fast, too choppy to claim any real ground as a piece of important cinema, and yet it has (a handful of) moments that genuinely surprised and delighted me, including one real, big laugh!
And up there I mentioned bland. At its worst, TRoS is an example of simply stuffing too much material into one movie. There’s too much plot. Too many characters. Too many quick cuts. The plot makes little sense and you’re playing catch up until, basically, the final “big battle” at the end. The cumulative result is the opposite of the old adage “less is more”: there’s so much happening, so quickly, that it’s impossible to find your bearings, and sooner or later you give up. When it’s all said and done, you don’t remember much at all. Your senses are overwhelmed, and sure, you might say the movie is bland.
On the other hand, there are those individual moments that work. Poe Dameron, the Rebel pilot played by Oscar Isaac, is an essential, principal character here, and Mr. Isaac easily steals the show away from the more “important” characters of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Actor John Boyega, portraying ex-Stormtrooper Finn, is another key component, showing how far his character has grown since The Force Awakens. Mr. Isaac and Mr. Boyega are the standouts among this cast, and together they really sell the movie, elevating the proceedings above the level of “bland” to something bigger and more important.
Now, a question (spoilers follow): the primary antagonist of these stories, Kylo Ren (Driver), becomes “good”… why? What does it all mean? The movie is going too fast for me to figure it out. (End of spoilers.)
John Williams is here to compose his ninth original score for the Star Wars movie series, and, although Mr. Williams hits all the marks, his efforts are, unfortunately, the least exciting of any of these scores since 2002’s Attack of the Clones. In a collection of classic and iconic film scores that includes the original 1977 A New Hope, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and even 2017’s The Last Jedi, the score to The Rise of Skywalker is, perhaps, the one to which I’ll return the least.
At the end of it all, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker for what it is: popcorn entertainment. It doesn’t reach for the higher mountains and deeper valleys of “cinema” à la 2017’s The Last Jedi, but it is more surefooted than 2015’s The Force Awakens.
Watching TRoS for the first time late on its opening weekend, and well aware of the critical backlash the film was already experiencing, I thought of these passages from Roger Ebert’s idiosyncratic 1999 review of The Phantom Menace:
If it were the first “Star Wars” movie, [it] would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough. … We think we know the territory; many of the early reviews have been blase, paying lip service to the visuals and wondering why the characters aren’t better developed. [But] how quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders[?]
I am reminded of the Isaac Asimov story “Nightfall,” about the planet where the stars were visible only once in a thousand years. So awesome was the sight that it drove men mad. We who can see the stars every night glance up casually at the cosmos and then quickly down again, searching for a Dairy Queen.
My rating of The Rise of Skywalker: three Baby Yodas out of four.
*I didn’t personally verify this, but here’s a link to the RottenTomatoes website if you want to check it out for yourself.