Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

A Rey of light, yesterday
"This is perhaps less a swansong than a familiar sunset" | Photo: Disney

There's a line in Rise Of Skywalker that mentions 42 years, and as 2019 draws to a close this third of three trilogies seeks to do the same for a span started back in 1977. This is Episode IX, a 'last' chapter in a work that long ago and far away was nearly The Journal of the Whills. In a serial full of pilots it's useful to remember the adage about landings; any one you can walk away from is good.

This is such a landing. It's notable that this film seems circular: a franchise chasing its tail, returning after Rian Johnson to JJ Abrams to close the loop. There's a moment where a character's blood pulls an arc to point to a dark macguffin, a silhouette superimposed to signal a Sith synecdoche.

Copy picture

Fresh from a midnight screening, I'm loathe to spoil other surprises, homages, references. Suffice to say that I think it will speak more to those who preferred The Force Awakens to those who preferred The Last Jedi. In seeking to lay this story cycle to rest Abrams does not give us green shoots of new ideas, self-reflection, a bonfire of the old; but instead a literal unearthing, a re-cycle of story.

When last we saw the Resistance they were alone on the Falcon, and that's the first ship we see; the opening crawl revealing an ancient echo, that four-dotted ellipsis giving way to pan down from star-field to a planetary entity. I could swear that it waits a beat longer than the others, a last linger before this grand goodbye. There are nods to other bits of multi-faceted canon. The eagle-eyed will spot both ships and Rebels, the eagle-eared will hear Wilhelm and various voices.

It was something that seemed more like Rogue One than anything else that caught me - words to the effect of "if we don't do this then it will all have been for nothing". While that sentiment felt exculpatory for the bloody-handed Cassian Andor, it feels odd for a resistance built on hope. For a series that continually revisits a foundational moment in ever clunkier ways, it is surely enough to rebel. The completionist sentiment feels like a corporate one.

Among the references and revisitations I was minded more of Spectre than Skyfall. There are parallels beyond the expectations of franchise fans and film finance, the differences between directives to directors and their directions. There's a sense that the film's Imperial remnants are the same as the leftovers that filled Bond 24 after 23 had its fill: adequate when re-heated, but not quite as good.

Hokey scripts and ancient characters are no match for a good editor at your side (mine are long-suffering), but Star Wars as a whole is almost impossible to read outwith the context of film and film-making. It gave us the modern merchandising era, and the profusion of fresh faces and dustless droids is at times more like satisfying shelf-space and thematically padding theme parks than fulfilling the needs of narrative. It's already Oscar-nominated for its effects; there's an air of inevitability to that, and so perhaps in the plot.

World-shattering novelty is as much a component of Star Wars as puppets and pyrotechnics, but borrowing and bricolage are the bones of Bendu. Four decades and change give plenty of things to adopt, adapt, coerce and clone. One set of royal references in character and set design in a particular location owe such a debt to other works that have themselves stolen liberally from Star Wars that to identify them is to give away things the film keeps close to its chest. Treasures abound though, from signifiers hidden in sounds and voices to echoing architecture.

It's not too much to say that it attempts to strike a balance, and mostly succeeds, but there's an equilibrium that could do with disruption and Rise Of Skywalker is not it. This is perhaps less a swansong than a familiar sunset, but swapping potential harshness for a warm glow could be corporate cowardice as much as fan service through familiarity. Some of that is faces - there's a name spoken more times in some scenes here than in the entire original trilogy, and a sweet character's minimisation has the whiff of appeasement. Another's ending is as blunt as Boba Fett's, in a film that under weight of expectation has too much pressure to draw breath.

There's a saying that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and with Disney's acquisition of the Star Wars that 'gang aft agley' comes into play. Yet a lack of planning also seems a key to the franchise - it seems improbable that with literally billions of dollars at stake and John Williams composing there'd be this much busking. Carrie Fisher's passing inevitably has an effect, and while there are moments of tribute within the film it does at times feel like they've been struggling to compensate for that loss. Sometimes those compensators get blown, but at others old pieces rotate into place. While it does seem as if the Empire and its successors have finally learned lessons about single points of failure it doesn't look like the hegemons of Hollywood have.

Four years or so ago, at about this time in the morning, I wrote "It's almost impossible to consider as a film without weight of expectation. That weight meant the first two paragraphs of [that] review were written before your reviewer caught a last train to attend a midnight screening. In deference to expectations the rest will try to preserve secrets, but the question hanging remains - is it still the same?"

The answer again is 'Yes', but I almost wish it weren't. I enjoyed it, others will enjoy it more. Behind me in the cinema one remedy to an old injustice prompted spontaneous solitary applause. A line of dialogue appears to have been included purely to deal with Internet discussion of a moment from the last film, and while there's no discussion of tracking there's also none of tactics. It feels less like scripting than a papering of cracks, a capable cast and that Lucasfilm apparatus dedicated to repudiating a theory fomented in YouTube at a technical and not a moral level. Stooping not to conquer but to conform.

That there is an address to that 'problem' is contrast to other changes to what had been perceived as canon. Things move in ways we had not known they could, jumps between ways of seeing, objections and objects handed over and drop. These are new magics, but while some seem to build on The Last Jedi's bridges others seem intent on burning them.

My own moments of wonder had less to do with 'sense of' than pondering production realities. A consequence of cynicism perhaps, but as much as there were opportunities for redemption this also felt like an exercise in coupon collection. With so many predictions floating about it seems silly to single any out, but it becomes a reminder that when it comes to fan theories these are films also made by fans. I suspect a regression as a consequence of a perceived backlash to The Last Jedi. This is a work that has been handed over, but redeeming anything, anyone, usually has terms and conditions.

There are flashes of humour. All the cast charm as before, so too most of those numerous additions. The film could do with a strobe warning for some sequences that crib so heavily from horror that there's a suspicion the jumps are less to lightspeed than scare. There's a moment of directorial self-indulgence that's less painful than Jar Jar but has also spawned a specific piece of Lego. There's a background moment of representation that seems weighted to allow it to be cut for certain international markets. There's a screen delightfully full of space ships on more than one occasion. These are all good.

In attempting to be a summing up part, this is less than the sum of its parts. It's unfair to criticise a film for what it could have been. Even in this digital age a film can only develop once. It is obviously daft to complain that Star Wars is too commercial, and so I shan't. What I will say is that this feels too safe, "easier, more seductive." I feel it a dark path, but perhaps that is inevitable. Ultimately there is a difference between that 1977 work named 'Star Wars' and the Intellectual Property umbrella of 'Star Wars', a difference greater than those 42 years and change. This is more of the latter. Forever will it dominate our destiny.

Reviewed on: 19 Dec 2019
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Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker packshot
The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga.

Director: JJ Abrams

Writer: Chris Terrio, JJ Abrams, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow

Starring: Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Billie Lourd, Keri Russell, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Lupita Nyong'o

Year: 2019

Runtime: 141 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: USA

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