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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Desperately Calls Out For Finality

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios
The final poster for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Big as a billboard in some places and as small as a mobile ad in others, the marketing imagery of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker touts the tagline “The Saga Will End.”  There’s something to be said for finality, especially with a 42-year-old franchise as venerated and cherished as this one. The virtues of remembrance, culmination, gratification, and other such lofty notions loom so much larger when an entity is billed to be the last of something important.

Diving deeper beyond the basic “something that is final” meaning, the dictionary of this galaxy describes “finality” as “conclusiveness,” “decisiveness,” or “an ultimate act, utterance, or belief.” J.J. Abrams’ massive space opera follows his own The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi to aim so very badly for those traits. In many peaks of scope and emotion, his movie achieves such finality.  In others, overindulgence and disarray put question marks on the value or vindication of all this promised fulfillment.

Going back to the tagline, the key word out of that poster’s sentence becomes “will.”  As grand of a finale as The Rise of Skywalker builds itself to be, the likelihood of its stewarding studio turning off this cash cow is zip, zilch, and zero.  This saga had an ending already in 1983 and another in 2005. Those had legitimate finality. Time will tell if this one, and its willy-nilly trajectories, will resonate strong enough or long enough to be of honored and revered significance.

Announcing his presence to the galaxy (and to us immediately in the yellow title scroll), a resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has elevated the First Order into the Final Order with his Sith influence and the manufactured might of a colossal new fleet of Star Destroyers.  His orders to his acolyte, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), are simply to “kill the girl.” That embattled female target remains Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has spent the undetermined amount of time since the Battle of Crait on the sidelines away from Resistance efforts to continue her Jedi training under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher).

As she continues to grow in immeasurable power and skill, Rey endures visions abound of possible future fates that hinge on an eventual rubber match with the former Ben Solo.  Matching a quintessential Star Wars motif, Rey has become the next emerging hero obligated to stare down the opposition with a will strengthened by summoned bravery.  With “never be afraid of who you are” encouragement, Rey’s fears are hefty emotional obstacles made thoroughly compelling by Daisy Ridley’s lead performance, her best in the series.  She may not be given the best scripted material (more on that later), but the actress squeezes every drop of rooting vulnerability out of this crucial plight.

Rey (left) battles Kylo Ren (right) on the sunken remnants of the Death Star
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Meanwhile, Rey’s supportive comrades and Resistance operatives, including Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), help her stay a step ahead of Kylo Ren and his masked squad of weaponized knights. Flanked by their handy droids, the tight crew zealously join Rey’s pursuit of items and information deemed vital for the fledgling revolutionaries being able to bring the fight to Palpatine instead of awaiting overwhelming decimation.  The invisible ticking clock urgency to blow enemies away and prevent “all for nothing” disappointment sets the plot off on numerous (as in too many) busy-bodied and lightspeed races and chases with weakly-presented MacGuffins in the cross-hairs.  

Long has Star Wars been about populating a heightened unity in support of influential individuals.  Call it amassing an army or the intimate recruitment of trusted friends. For Rey, her verbalized chant is the powerful wish of “be with me.” It is answered with “we have each other.”  Whomever stands behind the lead antagonist or comes to the aid of the lead protagonist does so with fervent dedication and multiplying motivation. True to this now ancient battle of dark versus light, not all assistance entering the fray comes in corporeal form.

J.J. Abrams has always been more than capable at delivering sheer adventure for the silver screen.  His urge for kinetic energy is answered by the polished production teams. Borrowed from good buddy Steven Spielberg, two-time Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter teamed with VFX concept artist Kevin Jenkins to create otherworldly arenas of flash and flair.  J.J.’s trusty cinematographer Dan Mindel (five previous collaborations between them) captured the accelerated action set to every possible hymn, horn, and hurrah from retiring composer legend John Williams. Merging four decades of cues and themes with impeccable placement and push, Williams deserves that 52nd career Oscar nomination without reservation. Flying through this fantastical world will always remain a rousing treat.  The wonderment and magic is there.  

That said, no amount of razzle-dazzle filling eyes and ears can cover up the glaring examples of questionable creativity and incomplete development enacted by Abrams and lead screenwriter Chris Terrio.  Even in a third film meant to wrap up storylines, The Rise of Skywalker compels itself to introduce even more tangents and swerves.  It has characters that answer questions with more questions and moments ringing with vague parable rather than stamping cemented mythology.  The arcs for Ridley and Driver fare the best, but the periphery is scattered with superfluous glaze. The isolation elements of The Last Jedi slowed matters down to create tangible suspense.  This overpacked trilogy capper favors sprinting set pieces instead.  Moving at a rush does not automatically or always create one in return, magic be damned.

To explain more crosses into spoiler territory, but there are downright mistakes here that expose the distance between forming merely a sense of finality, albeit a forcibly telegraphed one, and garnering a true, earned, and fitting consummation. Gauge all of this ambition straight toward the many synonyms of “finality.” Measure this film for “decisiveness,” “totality,” “resolution,” and even “integrity.”  You may find its force more thin than thick. 

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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