Harried, hectic 'Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker' gets stuck in nostalgia for a long time ago
Writer/director J.J. Abrams delighted a lot of "Star Wars" fans with his freshening up of the series in 2015, kicking off a trilogy of sequels to the original three films with "Episode VII — The Force Awakens." The film brought new life to "Star Wars," rinsing out the dour taste of "The Prequels" with new heroes and new baddies to boot.
After Rian Johnson's second installment, "The Last Jedi," Abrams returns now, with co-writer Chris Terrio, for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," to close out the series of nine films that started over four decades ago. What a shame, then, that it all goes out with a fizzle rather than a bang.
All the elements are there: Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), training her little Jedi heart out, and of course, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the most interesting villain-who-shouldn't-be-a-villain of this series. It's the execution that fails "The Rise of Skywalker," which is a harried and hectic affair. Abrams hits the gas on this space race right away and never pauses to let a single emotion land, because the characters are too busy scrambling around the galaxy looking for thingamajigs and each other. The pace and volume of plot is punishing and numbing.
It's also frustrating, from a storytelling perspective, that Abrams has rendered death optional, in order to let beloved characters have a moment or more of screen time. It's not just characters who are reanimated like zombies, stripping all meaning from their deaths, but most ghoulishly, actors. It's not the first time the "Star Wars" team has digitally Frankensteined a deceased actor out of pixel dust and unused footage, but this time it feels like it's gone too far, with the late Carrie Fisher re-created for a full supporting performance as General Leia Organa.
The fixation on the past obliterates any chance for the new stuff to breathe. There are a few fresh and exciting characters, like the diminutive droidsmith Babu Frik, Keri Russell as the uber-cool helmeted warrior Zorii and Naomi Ackie as one of the Rebel Alliance's new allies. However, their screen time is diminished because "The Rise of Skywalker" can't stop looking at (and correcting) its own history.
Cinematographer Dan Mindel, who collaborated with Abrams on "The Force Awakens," his "Star Trek" films and "Mission: Impossible III," shoots "Rise of Skywalker" rather anonymously, with the look and framing of television. (Abrams got his start as a director on "Felicity," "Alias" and "Lost.") Every character is shot in flatly staged medium close-ups on land; in space, gray spaceships collide with other gray spaceships in a gray sky without any sense of geography, stakes or compositional dynamism. The dearth of cinematic eye candy makes you long for the striking images of "The Last Jedi," shot by Steve Yedlin.
There are other ways in which "The Rise of Skywalker" makes you long for the complex and prickly themes of "The Last Jedi," a film that felt artful, emotional, surprising and made for adults, much to the chagrin of a certain subset of fans. By the end of the low-stakes, frazzled and frankly basic "The Rise of Skywalker," some may be left feeling disappointed, while some may feel like they've been wonderfully served by the film, as packed to the brim as it is with Easter egg fan service payoffs.
Landing somewhere in the middle, it's adequate at best, a space-themed kiddie adventure with a few lessons about justice and hope and perseverance, which is how the "Stars Wars" movies started. "Rise of Skywalker" is the ultimate nostalgic throwback of them all, as a film that seems more appropriate for rewatching on VHS than anything else.
'STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER'
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Keri Russell, Naomi Ackie, Kelly Marie Tran.
Directed by J.J. Abrams.
2 hours, 21 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action.