Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: All Their Host Have I Commanded, by David Bax
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth film in the official Star Wars saga, the third in the current Star Wars sub-trilogy and the fifth live-action Star Wars movie released by Disney in the space of four years and two days, is, against all of the above odds, a good movie. That doesn’t mean it’s without problems, though, and I’m going to start with those, only so I can shift the cool stuff I really want to talk about–which aren’t really spoilers but might be interpreted as such by only the most sensitive die-hards–into later paragraphs in case you decide to stop here, wait until you see the movie and then come back to read the rest.
J.J. Abrams returns to the franchise as director and one of the main faults of The Force Awakens, his previous effort, is back with him, though thankfully in smaller doses. If huge chunks of that movie felt like watching a rerun, only occasional bits operate the same way here, mostly in the form of returning characters from the original trilogy and obligatory inclusions like someone saying, “I got a bad feeling about this,” which even the actor says like they’re crossing it off a list.
The Rise of Skywalker has fewer plot-centric issues than The Force Awakens mainly because Abrams and co-screenwriter Chris Terrio don’t include much plot at all. The movie sets up its very straightforward goals so quickly that it’s almost disorienting. After that, though, our main characters are off and running, this time on a single group mission, at least for most of the running time. That will come as a relief to those who felt that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (a superior film in pretty much every other way) suffered from an imbalance in its divided trajectories.
Now on to the cool stuff. Though The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t have quite the abundance of it as The Last Jedi, where Johnson rammed something visually and/or conceptually interesting into every scene, the film does feel altogether more free, loose and fun than The Force Awakens. There’s a character with such convincingly decrepit make-up and prostheses that his scenes feel like they’re out of a horror movie. Then there’s a delightful fantasy universe-expanding detour to a hippie-ish, renaissance fair, Burning Man type festival full of dancing aliens. And then there’s further muddying of the droid sentience question properly invoked in Ron Howard’s Solo with new robot D-O, who behaves like a traumatized rescue dog. And finally there’s the astral projection laser sword fight between two people who happen to be in entirely different places. Though it’s not the film’s most thrilling action scene, it’s the most innovative and engaging one.
That ability–of two people imbued with the franchise’s mystical energy The Force to reach across space to one another–was used in The Last Jedi to highlight the connection between this trilogy’s hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and its villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The Rise of Skywalker continues strengthening that bond until the deepest relationship in these three films is between two people who have spent very little actual time together.
It’s in one of these chats that Kylo remarks to Rey that, even though he doesn’t want to do something, he will if it comes to it. The moment stands out because Rey says something very similar to General Organa (Carrie Fisher) only a few scenes prior. Later, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) suggests the inverse to Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), implying that there’s something he very much wants to do but won’t. On the surface, these lines of dialogue can be taken as platitudes about doing the right thing or the greater good or what have you. But, taken together, they seem to reinforce the franchise’s long held philosophy of determinism (despite Johnson’s attempts to undo it). George Lucas, the property’s creator, developed a world in which fate and future were decided by blood and birth. The Rise of Skywalker appears to up the ante. Finn (John Boyega) is a former Stormtrooper, a soldier in a fascist army of the evil First Order, who tossed aside his conditioning and became part of the Resistance. The reminder that every Stormtrooper is a brainwashed flesh and blood individual may inspire some second thoughts about the scores of them we see getting blown away in every movie. Here, though, Finn has a short monologue that may salve your conscious. He says that his defection wasn’t a decision he made but an instinct, “a feeling.” Star Wars, this entry suggests, takes place in a universe governed by seemingly divine predestination. Those bad Stormtroopers were always going to be bad and Finn was always going to be good. The Resistance are a band of radical Calvinists or, more fittingly, Huguenots. The First Order is the persecuting French government.
That would be something to chew on during The Rise of Skywalker‘s duller moments, except there are so very few of those. Fans of the series will thrill to the cute aliens, the superficial pathos and the almost non-stop action sequences punctuated by corny lines that kind of sound like jokes but aren’t really. It’s always been easy to make fun of and poke holes in a Star Wars movie. This one in particular, though, is just as easy to lean back and enjoy.