Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Long thought dead, the evil Emperor Palpatine is back. He wants Supreme Leader Kylo Ren of the First Order to command his ‘Final Order’ forces and take over the galaxy, but Kylo has a different plan. And it involves the last remaining Jedi knight…
WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.
* Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – the Resistance’s most buccaneering pilot – is at the helm of the Millennium Falcon as the story begins. This feels so perfectly spot on: throughout his trilogy of films, Poe has been the clear successor to Han Solo (another charismatic scoundrel driven by boyish bravado). During a journey to collect a communique from a spy, for example, Poe even uses an unorthodox and daring ‘light-speed skipping’ manoeuvre, which involves jumping vast distances across the galaxy but re-entering normal space inside a planet’s atmosphere. (Ignore the logic, enjoy the visuals.) However, the spy’s message confirms some terrifying rumours: the powerful Emperor Palpatine, a dark lord of the Sith who was killed by Darth Vader around 30 years ago, is somehow back on the scene… There’s also trouble in the rebels’ camp. Safely back at base, Poe’s irritable with his powerful Jedi friend Rey because she’s prioritising her spiritual training over helping to fight the totalitarian First Order. Thankfully, she soon gets on board (literally) when she, Poe and others all head out on a mission to find the Sith homeworld. It’s a complicated quest. The gang eventually stumble across a dagger, which has an inscription that details how to find a Wayfinder – a kind of stellar compass that will lead to the Sith’s planet. But there’s a big problem: the inscription is in the runic language of the Sith, and although Resistance droid C-3PO *can* read it, his strict programming doesn’t allow him to translate from that language (for… reasons…). The team have little choice but to take C-3PO to the planet Kijimi, where they employ a droid blacksmith to retrieve the information from his memory banks. Poe knows this world well – it’s a bleak, wintery, urban, film-noir place, and he used to smuggle spice here. Much later, after Rey has identified the location of Sith planet Exegol, Poe – who’s now the commander of the entire Resistance – coordinates a mammoth plan. Most of their available forces will attack the planet, while others will head off to seek reinforcements. Poe being Poe, he doesn’t sit back at base like a general. He pilots one of the attack’s lead crafts, flying into danger… Throughout all three of these movies, Oscar Isaac has been sensation as Poe, perfectly capturing the swashbuckling tone that’s always there when Star Wars is at its best.
* On the early mission with Poe, stormtrooper-turned-good-guy Finn (John Boyega) collects the intel from the spy within the Nazi-like First Order. Later, while on a desert planet trying to track down information about Palpatine, Finn and his friends are sucked into quicksand. Just before his head bobs under the surface, Finn starts to tell Rey that he has something important to tell her – but his words are cut off. (We all know what he was going to say.) After being one of the genuine highlights in his debut film, The Force Awakens, John Boyega should be disappointed by how his character has fared in films two and three. He’s a very good actor giving a really likeable performance, but sadly Finn often feels underused and a bit sidelined.
* The Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is still a big part of the Resistance movement, but he’s seemingly killed off when Rey believes her Force powers have caused a tragic accident. (Don’t fret. We soon find out he’s okay.) Near the end of the movie, Chewie is then involved in perhaps the most cloyingly ghastly Star Wars moment outside of the prequels. While everyone else celebrates the destruction of the fascistic Final Order fleet, his alien friend Maz walks up to Chewbacca and says, ‘This is for you.’ She passes him a chunky gold medal, which most fans will recognise as the same type given to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo – but notably not Chewie – after the destruction of the Death Star in the 1977 film. The fact he was overlooked at that ceremony has long been a favourite ‘oddity’ of Star Wars connoisseurs (alongside a stormtrooper who bangs his head on a door and, of course, the fact that siblings Luke and Leia share a kiss in The Empire Strikes Back). But to ‘solve’ the issue 42 years later is just cringeworthy. It also smacks of a bigger issue with The Rise of Skywalker: that fan-pleasing continuity is more important than focused storytelling. (On the upside, Chewbacca is at his most expressive and characterful in this film, thanks to an improvement in the prosthetic face mask.)
* The droid R2-D2 (Hassan Taj and Lee Towersey) clicks and whistles occasionally, continuing his record of appearing in every Star Wars episode. His memory banks thankfully contain a copy of C-3PO’s personality, which comes in handy when his droid colleague has his mind wiped.
* Rey (Daisy Ridley) is now the last remaining hope for the Jedi. (Her mentor Luke Skywalker is dead, while her Resistance boss Leia has her hands full fighting fascism with guns and space ships rather than the ability to levitate rocks with your mind.) As the film begins, Rey is training in the jungles of the planet Ajan Kloss (didn’t he play for the Netherlands in the 1970s?) and it’s going okay. But with no Yoda figure to guide her, Rey has been struggling with maintaining concentration. Learning that Palpatine has returned, Rey realises some old notebooks of Luke’s are vital. Years ago, he was hunting for the Sith planet Exegol and discovered that a mystical object called a Wayfinder will pinpoint its location. So Rey, Poe and the others head off to pick up where Luke’s trail went cold: on the desert planet Pasaana (yes, that’s right: yet another desert planet in Star Wars). A convoluted series of clues (eventually) leads them to an ocean in the Endor system where Rey finds the Wayfinder in the ruins of the Empire’s second Death Star. However, Kylo Ren, the leader of the evil First Order army, shows up too – and destroys the compass. He also taunts his adversary and reveals her true heritage, a question that has dogged her since childhood. Rey, it turns out, is the secret granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. (Who saw *that* coming? Well, no one. Most of us had guessed that Rey was Luke’s daughter, or Han and Leia’s daughter. Or, as The Last Jedi seemed to confirm, that her parents were just a red herring. Her parental history has been a mystery since The Force Awakens, so having her be the granddaughter of a character not introduced until *this* movie in the trilogy is a bit of a curveball. Agatha Christie wouldn’t have tried something like this.) Anyway, Kylo is engaged in a power struggle with Palpatine and wants Rey’s help in defeating him; he hopes she will turn to the dark side so they can rule the galaxy together. She’s having none of this, though, and the two fight atop the Death Star ruins. She fatally stabs her rival, but because he’s never been *totally* evil and she knows there’s still good in him, she then uses her Force powers to revive him. This results in a moment of clarity for Kylo, who realises he can resist the temptations of the dark side. Later he and Rey fight together to defeat Palpatine… The movie then ends with a coda that sees Rey travel to Tatooine, to the farm where Luke grew up. She reverentially buries his and Leia’s lightsabers in the ground, then is asked her name by a passing woman. ‘Rey,’ she says. ‘Rey who?’ asks the woman. ‘Rey Skywalker,’ comes the reply, proud and defiant. She’s finally found her family – not the one she was born into, but the one she chose… As with Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, Daisy Ridley has been superb in these films. Rey is the trilogy’s equivalent of Luke Skywalker; the emotional centre of the story and the audience’s primary identification character. Ridley has played her with energy and intensity as well as humanity and sass.
* Early on, the spherical droid BB-8 helps out with Rey’s Jedi training regimes, but ends up getting bashed by a falling tree for his trouble.
* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still in overall command of the Resistance forces, issuing orders and platitudes from their secret base. She has also taken an interest in Rey, teaching her in the ways of the Force and becoming a kind of mother figure. Now a strong Force user herself, Leia later reaches out psychically across the stars in an attempt to make contact with her troubled son, Kylo Ren. But the effort is so draining that it kills her and she fades away from existence… As is well known, Carrie Fisher died in December 2016. Many assumed that Leia would therefore be absent from Episode IX, which was still 20 months away from being filmed. But director JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm supremo Kathleen Kennedy decided to include the character via repurposed footage taken from unused scenes shot for The Force Awakens. It’s hard to fault the intention, which was surely driven by noble motives. Leia has been a vital part of the Star Wars saga since the first five minutes of the opening film, so to have her be missing from the finale would undoubtedly have been unfortunate. However, and sadly, the result is more unfortunate. The iconic Princess Leia is reduced here to static shots of Carrie Fisher rotoscoped and dropped into scenes filmed long after her death. The other characters in the scenes have to use clunky phrases so Leia’s dialogue will connect to what they’re saying, and you never for one minute sense a genuine connection between anyone. The pull to include Leia in this film also upends Rey’s character arc. Her mentor in the previous film had been Luke, not Leia, but he’s now little more than a cameo. (The Poe/Leia connection that built so well in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is also mostly ignored.) Leia should have been allowed to die when Fisher did.
* Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)… Well… She’s in the film, certainly. The Resistance mechanic hangs around the Resistance’s jungle base, occasionally says something functional, and declines an invitation to go on the Wayfinder hunt. (Perhaps she knows that storyline already has too many characters.) After her spunky debut in The Last Jedi, it’s rather pathetic to see Rose pushed to the periphery here. Even worse, in that last film she formed a potentially romantic bond with Finn; now, it’s like the two have barely met. Some critics argue that JJ Abrams was keen to ignore The Last Jedi as much as possible because he hadn’t directed it. They may be spot on when it comes to Rose.
* Maz Kanata (Lupira Nyong’o), the diminutive alien we first met in The Force Awakens, has now gone all-in with the Resistance. We’re told she has experience and ability and knowledge without her ever being given the chance to demonstrate it. She doesn’t *do* anything. (As anyone who’s read this far in this blog post will know, The Rise of Skywalker is rather overpopulated with characters. Why Maz needed to be involved *at all* is difficult to fathom.)
* Humanoid protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is on hand to translate the Sith runic on the dagger the gang find on Pasaana, then promptly announces that he’s forbidden to share the info. (In a less cluttered film, this would be a great gag. But it’s just one of 700 arbitrary obstacles so comes off as annoying.) Later, a droid blacksmith tinkers with Threepio’s head and manages to extract the information Rey and the others need: the Wayfinder can be found in an Imperial vault on a moon of the Endor system. Beforehand, knowing the procedure will wipe his entire memory banks, C-3PO wistfully gazes at Finn, Rey and Poe and says he’s ‘Just taking one last look at my friends’. It’s a lovely moment of charm. With this film, of course, Anthony Daniels completes the full set: he’s the only actor to appear in all nine movies of the Skywalker saga.
* General Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) makes a surprise cameo on the planet Pasaana. He saves Rey and the others from some stormtroopers then conveniently helps them in the latest stage of their quest. He tells us that years earlier he and Luke Skywalker teamed up to search for the assassin who might lead them to the gizmo that could lead to the Sith homeworld. They didn’t find him, but Lando does know where his abandoned ship is. In other words, Rey and co now head off to find the ship that will lead to the assassin who might lead to the gizmo that could lead to the Sith homeworld where Palpatine is. (It’s like a videogame, this. Characters set sequential quests to find different MacGuffins.) It’s fun to see Billy Dee Williams back in a Star Wars movie, of course; it’s his first appearance since 1983. But Lando feels like he’s being wheeled out to please fans and he actually plays precious little role in the narrative. (Also, Lando and Luke were apparently the best of mates? Do they even *meet* in the original trilogy?!)
* D-0 (voiced by JJ Abrams) is a cute, small droid with a conic and comic face. He was once owned by the Sith assassin Ochi and now teams up with Rey and friends. He is entirely superfluous to the story.
* Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), an old flame of Poe’s, seeks him out when she hears he’s come to her home planet of Kajimi. She wears a full body suit and a helmet with face mask, aside from one moment when we see her eyes through a visor. She holds a bit of a grudge against Poe, but it’s clearly a love/hate thing and the former half wins when she gives him an Imperial badge that he can use to get out of tricky situations. She’d been saving it for her own attempt to escape her dreary planet, so it’s quite a sacrifice.
* Babu Frik (voiced by Shirley Henderson) is a tiny alien who works as an illegal droid blacksmith on Kajimi. Speaking in a sometimes unintelligible babble, he’s able to get the information about the Wayfinder out of C-3PO’s memory banks – but the procedure involves rebooting the droid to factory settings.
* Rey’s parents (Jodie Comer and Billy Howle) appear briefly in flashback when we learn that they were killed by agents of Palpatine who were hunting for the young Rey.
* Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is a rebel who lives on the Endorian moon where the Death Star from Return of the Jedi crashed and burnt. She and her dialogue-less friends like to ride horses, even when going into battle on a space ship. In her one real scene of substance, Jannah reveals to Finn that – like him – she was conscripted as a First Order stormtrooper when just a child. She was called TZ-1719 but then deserted after being ordered to kill innocent people. Given that this perfunctory character’s only connection is with Finn, why was her role in the story not given to Rose in order to develop that relationship?
* Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan) is a member of the Resistance who gets a few lines here and there. In The Force Awakens, a similar role was played by the actor Ken Leung. Was he unavailable for The Rise of Skywalker, so JJ Abrams replaced him with another cast member from Lost?
* Han Solo (an uncredited Harrison Ford) appears to his son, Kylo – as a psychic vision or a ghost or probably just a daydream – when the latter is having a crisis of faith.
* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has a one-scene cameo too, though it is actually him speaking from the afterlife. Angered by her failure to find the Wayfinder and emotional because she’s learnt her grandad is the biggest baddie in the universe, Rey flies off and hides on the same planet where Luke once lived in exile. At her lowest ebb, in fact, her mentor appears to her as a Force ghost – and gives her a pep-talk. At one point, she’s about to destroy his storied lightsaber, but he stops her. ‘A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect,’ he says, which is a pointed reference to the controversial moment in The Last Jedi that had Luke toss his weapon away with disdain.
* Wedge Antiles (Denis Lawson) gets a *two-second* cameo during the final battle. He’d been a Rebel Alliance regular during the original trilogy, when his screentime had been slightly longer.
* Wicket W Warrick (Warwick Davis) from Return of the Jedi likewise makes a look-down-at-your-phone-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance.
* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is now in total command of the First Order, after his coup in The Last Jedi. But a new threat is apparent in the form of the resurrected Palpatine, so Kylo wants to destroy his rival. Finding Palpatine hooked up to elaborate machinery in a dark, grimy, vast factory on the Sith homeworld, Kylo is surprised to be offered a deal. Palpatine wants Kylo to be the new emperor and has even built an enormous fleet of powerful ships with which they can crush any resistance. Having agreed, Kylo symbolically starts wearing his old face mask again – which has been soldered back together after he broke it during a tantrum in The Last Jedi. However, Kylo’s obsession with Rey still continues. He’s certain he can turn her to the dark side, so reaches out psychically and taunts her about her parentage. The fascinating thing about Kylo has always been the implication that he’s conflicted. In the original Star Wars trilogy, his grandfather Darth Vader went two and a half films before we sensed any doubt in his dastardly motives. But right from the start of The Force Awakens, thanks to good writing and excellent acting by Adam Driver, Kylo has been different. He’s felt trapped. In a strange way, he’s a victim of evil rather than a perpetrator of it. So, it’s completely plausible when, in The Rise of Skywalker’s final third, he joins forces with Rey to defeat Palpatine – not in order to replace him, but to vanquish the evil. The two have had a strong emotional connection throughout all three movies and we now seem them fight side-by-side, simpatico; even passing a lightsaber from one to the other via Force powers. They do manage to kill Palpatine, but at a cost: Rey lies dead. So Kylo returns the favour she gave him earlier and sacrifices his remaining ‘life force’ (that good old sci-fi standard) so she can live. He also gets a quick snog from her before he carks it himself.
* Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back! How do we know he’s back? It says so in the opening crawl of explanatory text. And how do we know *how* he’s back? Well, we don’t really. There’s talk of cloning and ‘dark arts’, but it’s all pretty vague. In part, the film presents his resurrection as a recent event, but then we’re told that he’s been pulling strings behind the scenes for decades – he was manipulating previous First Order supremo Snoke, for example, and was conducting a search for Rey when she was a child. When he finally meets Rey, he hopes to taunt her into killing him; this will complete her descent into darkness and she can take his place as the leader of all evilness everywhere. He tried the same with Luke in Return of the Jedi, obvs. It didn’t work then; it doesn’t work now.
* Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E Grant) is a severe and humourless First Order military commander. When he identifies a spy in their organisation, he cold-heartedly executes him on the spot. We later learn that he’s a long-time acolyte of Palpatine’s. Grant is typically classy in the role, playing a sneering bastard with conviction.
* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) reveals himself as the spy while saving Finn and Poe from execution by First Order stormtroopers. He’s not been helping the Resistance because he wants them to win, he says, bitterly; it’s because he wants his rival Kylo to lose.
BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Poe, Finn and Rey rescuing Chewie from the Star Destroyer is ace – there are lots of zippy tracking shots as our heroes run down corridors, shooting at stormtroopers, while Rey also gets to use her Force powers (see next section).
BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Encountering armed stormtroopers, Rey is able to swiftly nullify them by using a classic Jedi mind trick. They lose their aggression, drop their guns, and do what she says. Poe and Finn look on, both impressed and confused. ‘Does she do that to us?’ asks a worried Poe.
MUSIC: John Williams fulfils his life’s masterwork. The Star Wars series constitutes a nine-movie symphony of film score that is totally without parallel.
PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on Thursday 19 December 2019 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London. As has been the tradition with new Star Wars movies since 2015, I went with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. We had time to kill before the 8.45pm screening, so went for a meal at The Grapes, a lovely little pub in Limehouse co-owned by the actor Sir Ian McKellen.
REVIEW: There’s an episode of the 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H in which Alan Alda’s character, army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, desperately wants some new boots to replace a pair with a hole in the sole. But the supply officer won’t provide any, instead being more concerned about a sore tooth. So Hawkeye cuts a deal: the boots in exchange for him arranging a dentist’s appointment. However, the camp dentist says he’s too busy, so Hawkeye offers to get him a three-day pass to Tokyo in exchange for seeing the supply officer. But then the commanding officer won’t issue the pass unless Hawkeye helps with a personal problem he’s going through, and so on and so on – a comedic chain of tasks and negotiations, all so Hawkeye can get some new boots. The plotting in The Rise of Skywalker can sometimes feel like this too. Rather than character-driven storytelling, our heroes lunge from one short-term goal to another; it’s all very breathless, and provides plenty of movement and action, but you rarely get a sense of anyone learning anything or developing. It’s a shame, as when we do get emotion it really socks home – surely there are no dry eyes when Rey, Poe and Finn share a celebratory hug after winning the day. But all too often, instead of us experiencing the story with our heroes, events just happen around them and are then quickly forgotten. For example, Rey was the plot motor of her first film, driven by a desire to have an adventure and discover who her parents were. Here, she’s guilt-tripped into joining in, then told a guy who she thinks is beyond evil anyway killed her parents, which raises the ante in precisely no ways. Poe encounters an ex-girlfriend, who has no effect on his personality or motives in this story. Finn meets a fellow stormtrooper-survivor, but his character arc would be no different if she were removed from the cut. The movie also suffers horrendously with schmaltz. Perhaps it was inevitable, being the looooooong-awaited finale to cinema’s most popular series, but the fan-baiting references (Lando! Chewie’s medal! Tatooine!) begin to overload the story, while the perceived need to include a character whose actor has died is a well-intentioned folly. The Rise of Skywalker is still Star Wars; it’s still beautiful to look at, with thrilling action and moments of comedy and pathos and revelation. On a surface level, it’s entertaining and diverting and never boring. But, sadly, regrettably, it’s the weakest film in the Skywalker Saga outside of the prequels.
Seven complete redacted memory bypasses out of 10