'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' is a crowd-pleasing thrill ride

Dec 18, 2019 at 1:24 pm
'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' is a crowd-pleasing thrill ride
Disney / LucasFilm

A sprawling, multigenerational epic, loaded down with technobabble, space battles, loads of exposition, light saber duels, family drama, lore, improbable escapes, and implausible plot contrivances, The Rise of Skywalker is a quintessential Star Wars movie, and for good or ill it’s long past time to reckon with what that really means. As the third entry in the current iteration, and the ninth installment of the massive saga begun by the vision of George Lucas in 1977, it carries the enormous burden of wrapping it all up into a tidy little package, just in time for the holidays — a seemingly impossible challenge that the filmmakers gladly bear.

The previous entry, director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, took real chances and attempted to dramatically subvert the mythos, which excited some critics — but to many old-school “Warsies” it was an act of defiance met with such hostility that it drove a deep, nasty rift into the fandom. The blowback and vitriol was so intense that Disney flinched, dumping the radical Johnson and bringing back traditionalist J.J. Abrams to close out the trilogy he started with the mostly well received The Force Awakens in 2015. Back in command, Abrams swiftly corrects course, explaining away or laughing off many of the more controversial decisions of his predecessor, and dropping endless winks and name checks to the past, reinforcing this brand’s innate desire to cling on to its holy relics. This fetishism is quite literal this time, with the story revolving around not just ghosts of the past, but multiple physical artifacts that serve as MacGuffins to drive the plot.

The famed opening title scrawl informs us that off screen, between chapters, an old, shadowy galactic menace has inexplicably returned, and both the heroic Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her twisted, dark side semi-soulmate Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are both racing to get to the bottom of this mystery, and to settle their personal score once and for all. Rey is intent on continuing to hone her mystic Jedi abilities for the looming final conflict, but her pals Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) convince her that the Resistance desperately needs her to immediately get back into the fight against the interstellar fascist group The First Order, or there won’t be a tomorrow.

On the brink of defeat in the last episode, our scrappy rebels get new hope from a spy inside the sinister fleet, who gives them a vital tip about the enemy's plans. Joined by old stalwarts C-3PO, Chewbacca, and R2-D2, the leading trio embarks on a quest to find a cryptic device called a “wayfinder” which is the only way to locate the hidden throne world of the villainous Sith, and to try to finally end their evil power at the source. Along the way, the good guys are aided by old warriors like Generals Leia (the late Carrie Fisher in a role pieced together from leftover footage), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams in a welcome return spoiled by the trailers), and newcomers (Keri Russell under a mask) that fail to make much of an impact. There are a few more surprise reveals and cameos, but If I disclose much more of the plot, the faithful would strike me down with their anger.

Indeed, Star Wars has always been about faith, both blind and justified, and to commit to the many, many plot holes and manifest illogic of the storyline requires one to suspend their disbelief and embrace the power of the force. Of course, this kind of devotion is also intertwined with nostalgia — with recapturing the feelings that the original films inspired in untold millions of viewers. Abrams, a very capable moviemaker, and a slavish devotee to the “new Hollywood” blockbuster style of his ’70s and ’80s forebears, is eager to please, and tries mightily to make this a crowd-pleasing thrill ride. On a purely technical level he succeeds, with solid action and a resolution to the chronicle that makes emotional, if not always practical sense.

The trouble with The Rise of Skywalker is that most of those thrills are built on what has come before, with themes borrowed from the franchise's most glorious moments, but falling a bit short of making its own distinct memories. The best moments involve the strange, forbidden attraction between Rey and Kylo (who somewhere beneath his dark facade is still the noble Ben Solo) but, the movie is hesitant to indulge in Ridley and Driver’s electric chemistry, or to move any of the other lingering romantic subplots beyond puppy love status. This is of course a fantasy realm, and not the real world, and that disconnect between adult themes and childhood wonder has kept Star Wars in a curious limbo. Ultimately, the entirety of the “Skywalker Saga” has been about how the sins of the father are redeemed by the child, about how the needs of the future must supplant those of the past... but yet, in the real world, neither the creators nor the fans can stop looking back to a Galaxy far, far away and a long time ago.

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.