Film Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

star wars rise skywalker movie poster one sheetLet’s just start with the TLDR: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a good sci-fi film, but it’s not great. Yes, they manage to wrap up a lot of the storylines left unfinished in the sprawling series that started way back in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope, but between trying to offer a neat ending and weaving in endless fan favorite characters, lines and scenes, the overall film ends up a bit dull.

Like so many science fiction fans, I grew up with Star Wars and can still remember the opening scene of the first film at our local Southern California cineplex. I was so blown away and loved it so much that I immediately went and saw it again at the great Cinerama Dome theater in downtown Los Angeles. A sprawling space Western, the Star Wars universe gave us so many great characters, from the impulsive young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) to the loveable rogue Han Solo (Harrison Ford), mysterious Obi Wan (Alec Guinness), incomprehensible Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2. Then so many other characters joined the narrative as the sequence confusingly went from episodes 4, 5 and 6 to episodes 1, 2, 3 and then, more recently, episodes 7, 8, and, with The Rise of Skywalker, Episode 9. More recent installments gave us new heroes and villains both, from Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

The underlying mythos has always been about good versus evil, however, with “The Force” being a mystical energy that weaves through everything in the universe. The evil Sith seeks to gain oppressive control of the galaxy using The Force while the Jedi perpetually aid The Resistance using The Force for good, seeking peace and freedom for all planets. Head of the Sith is the twisted Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is so powerful that he can even return from the dead. He does just that to lead one last push against the Resistance in The Rise of Skywalker.

But Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is much more a continuation of Rey, Finn and Poe’s adventures as they fight to prevent The First Order (secretly controlled by Palpatine) from crushing the Resistance and taking over the galaxy. This is a good thing, because all three are interesting and engaging characters, from the love that Finn feels towards Rey but can’t quite verbalize to Rey’s blossoming Jedi skills even as she wrestles with her own murky past to Poe’s own gradually unveiling backstory. In an obvious parallel to how Luke was trained in the ways of the Jedi by Yoda in earlier Star Wars movies, The Rise of Skywalker opens with Rey being trained in the ways of the Jedi Master by Leia Organa. Like Luke before her, Rey doesn’t stick around to finish the training: The universe needs her!

The Star Wars universe has grown very complicated, though, not the least of which is that there are films that are part of the main narrative (for example, 2017’s The Last Jedi, also known as Episode VIII) and films that take place in the universe but aren’t actually part of the nine-movie story arc (2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). It also has a legendary fan base that includes some pretty obsessive superfans who have read all the books, watched all the animated TV series and endlessly picked apart every plot element and character. Director J.J.Abrams offers a lot to the fan base in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but at the cost of losing the attention of everyone else in the theater.

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) battles Kylo (Adam Driver), from “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

And that’s the real problem with The Rise of Skywalker: Instead of staying focused on a single core narrative (Rey vs. Palpatine, in case that’s not obvious from the trailers) it bounces all over the place and offers up a lot of backstory and exposition that’s rather boring and tedious for most everyone in the movie theater. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t lots of fun and engaging scenes in the movie, from a great speeder chase scene complete with wry banter between our heroes to a dark scene where Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) – who is revealed as Poe’s love interest, solving the triangle set up with Poe v. Finn and Rey – leads the group to master robotic tinkerer Babu Frik.

But the recent Star Wars films have also given us one of the most interesting villains in recent cinematic history: Kylo Ren. The son of Leia and Han Solo, he’s been drawn to the Dark Side of The Force, just to wrestle with his innate human part versus his newfound identity as a sadistic and evil Dark Lord. The fight to find his true identity is unquestionably one of the driving forces of the modern Star Wars universe and his love/hate relationship with Rey is fuel for great storytelling. The battles and simultaneous dialog between the two on their frequent lightsaber duels are some of the highlights of the film. My favorite, however, is Poe; he’s a rogue that’s a clear throwback to Han Solo from the original trilogy and I wanted to see more of him on screen, particularly as his relationship with the mysterious Zorii (who, perhaps in a nod to The Mandalorian, never takes off her helmet).

There’s nothing wrong with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but I was hoping for a sweeping epic finale to a nine-film series that has influenced our culture to an extraordinary degree, a film where I’d be cheering on The Resistance and booing when Kylo Ren or especially Emperor Palpatine were on screen. Will you enjoy it and have a good time at the theater with your eagerly acquired tickets? Yes. But you might find your attention wandering at points and even confused by the many cameos that pull you out of the story as it heads to the final completely predictable scene. As I said at the beginning, it’s good, not great. Enjoy it, then let me know what you thought post-movie in the comments.

Dad at the Movies Note: This is a film suitable for just about anyone in your family who has the attention span to sit through any of the earlier Star Wars movies with sufficient attention to know what’s going on. There are really no scary scenes, monsters and creepy aliens are only on screen for moments, and considering how much fighting there is, you never see more than a drop or two of blood, and that only for dramatic effect. Pre-teen on up, it’s time to buy tickets for the family.

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