Film Review: “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker”

Warning: spoilers for the film follow.

I’m going to offer a somewhat controversial opinion: I actually really, really liked Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I thought that the visuals were spectacular, the performances were compelling, and the philosophical themes thought-provoking and timely.

Now, it has to be said that there were some issues with the film. Obviously, the writing in this installment leaves something to be desired. For example, much as I have yearned for and was excited by Palpatine’s return, it did feel like it came out of nowhere. Part of this no doubt stems from Rian Johnson’s decision to have Snoke thrust out of the frame rather abruptly in The Last Jedi (a decision this film mirrors with its cursory elimination of General Hux, a waste of a perfectly fine villain, IMHO). Casting about for a new big bad, and unwilling to let Kylo occupy that position, Abrams did the logical thing and brought back the best villain that Star Wars has ever seen. Personally, I think that a bit more exposition would have helped clarify his survival but alas, that doesn’t seem to be something that Abrams nor his fellow creators deemed essential.

And, of course, there’s the fact that the film rather brutally sidelines Rose Tico. I personally find the explanations offered so far–including that it was necessary in order to give more time to Princess Leia–infuriating and disingenuous, and the decision to exclude her from the adventure seems hamhanded and wrong-headed. Indeed, I see no reason why they couldn’t simply have had her go along with the other heroes on their various missions, other than that the writers decided that they had to cave into the gross, racist demands of the fan base (who were notoriously toxic toward the actress and forced her off of social media).

All that being said, I do think that Palpatine’s return signifies something important about the way that the Star Wars saga has always envisioned history: as a sort of eternal return that can be neither resisted nor fully redeemed. Palpatine is, quite literally, the ghost of the past come back to haunt the future, a reminder that no act of heroism, no matter how selfless and powerful, has the ability to keep such evil from returning.

Furthermore, I somewhat disagree with those others who see the revelation of Rey’s parentage to be a grievous betrayal of what Johnson proposed in The Last Jedi, namely that anyone, no matter their heritage or pedigree, can wield the Force. While there’s some truth to this claim, I think it’s important to recognize three things. First, that this heritage is far more of a burden than it is a blessing. In this instance, Rey’s choice is between accepting the burden of becoming the vessel for Palpatine’s spirit (and through him the rest of the Sith) or the Jedi. Second, Rey makes the specific choice to disavow that heritage in favour of the one that means the most to her; she chooses to become a Skywalker, rather than accepting the mantle of Palpatine. Third, the writers have made clear that Finn is himself Force-sensitive, so clearly there is still the possibility that someone not named Skywalker or Palpatine can wield it.

Writing problems aside, there’s no question in my mind that what has helped these films succeed are the performances. Each of the primary actors brings their A-game to this installment. As always, my heart did a little jump every time that Finn and Poe got into one of their little tiffs (further evidence, if any were needed, that there really is a romance going on between them), and I insist that there are some key editing moments that really encourage us to see the real romance between them. And of course Daisy Ridley continues to showcase her tremendous talent, and Adam Driver continues to make me swoon (I know, I know, but I can’t help it).

And, even given my own predilection for Palpatine, I think we can all agree that Ian McDiarmid continues to steal the show. You can certainly tell that he’s a Shakespearean actor, for he manages to convey all the rich complexity and utterly compelling evil of a stage villain. Though of course you know he’s going to be defeated, some small part of you can’t help but hope that he might succeed against all the odds.

Visually, The Rise of Skywalker is suitably stunning, and one scene in particular stands out to me: the haunting, powerful scene in which Palpatine, fully restored, thrusts his hands upward, creating a Force Lightning storm that threatens to destroy all that Rey holds dear. It’s a moment that’s exquisitely crafted, from the way that McDiarmid delivers his lines, to the crackle of the Force Lightning, to the exquisite mosaic of the Resistance fleet crumbling before such unimaginable might. It’s one of those truly epic moments that Star Wars does so well, and a convincing argument for seeing films like these on the big screen.

Overall, I’ve been happy with the new trilogy. Yes, there were issues, but it seems to me that these stem more from the studio heads than from the writers/directors of the new films. Had Disney either a.) kept to its original plan of having each installment controlled by a distinct creator (though perhaps with some overall vision) or b.) put all of it in the hands of Abrams in the first place, I think that a lot of this might have been avoided. Given the strange production circumstances and the very different artistic visions of Johnson and Abrams, I’d say we were fairly lucky in the films that we got.

And so we say goodbye to one era of the Star Wars saga. I’m actually quite looking forward to future developments, ranging from The Mandalorian to a new trilogy being developed by Rian Johnson. There are also the many new novels that are now being written. For someone like me, who has now fallen completely in love with Star Wars, there will plenty more adventures in a galaxy far, far away.

And that, I think, is a very good thing, indeed.