What a roller-coaster adventure the last two years have been for Star Wars fans. Fair or not, Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” sparked all sorts of fan backlash, enough to prompt some to even blame it for the 2018 “Solo” movie’s disappointing box office numbers. Without question much of the outrage was over-the-top which caused many of the legitimate criticisms to be lost in the noise. But equally over-the-top was the critical praise, some of which heralded it as “the best Star Wars movie ever made”. Much of that was rooted in a needless lust for subversion and rabid contempt for fandom.
In reality “The Last Jedi” had problems but it wasn’t the franchise killing disaster some have painted it as. Actually, outside of about 30 minutes of wildly uneven (and arguably bad) storytelling, it’s a movie with an assortment of big thrills and exciting moments. More importantly it left the story in a promising place and gave the characters plenty to reckon with. It ultimately set the table for “Rise of Skywalker” and the return of director and co-writer J.J. Abrams.
Abrams clearly listened to the criticisms which has already triggered the predictable whines of “fan service” from certain critic circles. But Star Wars has always been about continuity and connection. Even the “stand-alone” movies are inherently connected to the films that came before them. So it makes sense that Abrams would try to rein in some of Johnson’s care-free creative choices. And as a movie tasked with wrapping up an entire four decade-plus saga, you almost have to expect some level of “fan service”.
Here’s the important thing, the “fan service” we get in Episode IX isn’t half-baked or intrusive. Most of it is entertaining, nostalgic, and ultimately satisfying. Cool callbacks of all kinds pop up throughout the movie, lots of it genuinely in service to the story while other bits are simply there for the fun of it. Do they go a little overboard? Perhaps. But whether or not it is a dealbreaker for you probably depends on how you’re approaching this film as a whole.
“Skywalker” gets off to a shaky (and frankly concerning) start. The first twenty minutes or so sees Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio bouncing us from one location to another while never letting us plant our feet. There is some snazzy scenery and a couple of decent action sequences, but they’re kinda lost in the film’s manic rush to get the story and the characters to where they need to be. But once the narrative pieces are put in place, the movie slows down a bit and gets into a more manageable rhythm.
The movie’s most captivating storyline remains the mysterious connection between young and raw Jedi extraordinaire Rey (Daisy Ridley) and tortured dark sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey works hard to hone her skills but is still haunted by questions of her identity. Kylo (who steals the movie) uses every ounce of rage he can muster to smother out the glimmer of light within him. Both Ridley and Driver approach most of their scenes with a steely intensity befitting of their characters and their inevitable collision course.
As for another big plus, “Skywalker” finally gives the trilogy’s heroes some meaningful screentime together. Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course BB-8 go off on a Sinbad-like quest (look that reference up kids) to find an artifact once sought by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). It’s believed to contain the location of a Wayfinder that will lead them to a Sith planet where a new dark force has emerged.
It turns out Kylo Ren has a Wayfinder of his own and has ventured to the sinister planet. While there he discovers a way to turn his terrorizing First Order into a bigger and truly unstoppable force. But it requires that he kill his one biggest threat – Rey. So as the rag-tag band of heroes look for a way to the Sith planet, the First Order scours the entire galaxy in pursuit of them.
Despite the seriousness of their mission, there are always moments of levity especially between playful best bros Poe and Finn. But it’s C-3PO who turns out to be the biggest ham. He’s the perfect punchline for several jokes but he also has some cracking comedic lines of his own. It’s just a shame R2-D2 was left back at the Rebel base with practically nothing to do. The same could be said for Lando (Billy Dee Williams). Who wasn’t thrilled to see the good-hearted gambler returning to the franchise? But he just conveniently pops up with little explanation and then quickly fades into the background.
And as you might expect, we get several new characters entering the galaxy far, far away for the first time. Among the best, Keri Russell’s Zori Bliss, a shady old acquaintance of Poe’s. It’s not a big role, but Zori has a background fans will love to explore. Richard E. Grant is a hoot playing the sour and ever-serious Allegiant General Pryde of the First Order. Grant chews up his lines in classic imperial officer fashion. We don’t quite get enough of his story, but he’s a fun and interesting presence. And Star Wars knows how to do droids. New here is D-O, affectionately called “conehead” by Poe. Again, small role but tender and quite funny.
Abrams does do some patchwork to several of Rian Johnson’s more controversial choices: Rey’s parents, Supreme Leader Snoke, etc. The movie addresses them in a way that should please many of the fans while infuriating those who couldn’t care less about Star Wars continuity or lore. But let’s be serious, “The Rise of Skywalker” had no chance of pleasing everyone. It was a hopeless proposition. So, do you follow Johnson’s lead and kick more sand in the eyes of long-time fans? Or do you make a movie for the devoted fanbase and face the ire of scorned critics?
Sadly, an unnecessary chasm between critics and fans is all but certain and is already blazing across social media. The film will probably be held to a ridiculously high standard (by fans AND critics) and unhelpful comparisons to the original trilogy are all but inevitable. It’s a shame because “Rise of Skywalker” is pure entertainment – fun, at times thrilling, with a steady tinge of franchise nostalgia and an emotional punch at the end. It’s far from perfect. The story is messy, there’s enough plot to fill two movies, and some of its characters need more attention. But this is still very much a Star Wars film and will evoke many of those same old feelings of kid-like joy and excitement for those who allow it.
VERDICT – 4 STARS