movie review

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Is a Formulaic, Crowd-Pleasing Cartoon

Episode IX is a dream movie for Disney as much as I’m guessing it’s a nightmare for George Lucas. Photo: Lucasfilms

Fanbrats, have I got a movie for you! Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker has none of the things that made you howl watching The Last Jedi — no “non-canonical” twists or abrasive exchanges or oddball narrative detours with actors you don’t care about. No more idiosyncrasies, either: The characters’ outsize hearts are always audible beneath their cranky façades, their sides Dark or Light with no distracting smears of gray — except for poor Ben/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Vader Mini-Me whose inner tussles make him cockeyed, miserable, and extra emotive. There’s no one around like The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson to gum up the works with anything resembling a personal style. Under J.J. Abrams, The Rise of Skywalker hits its marks and bashes ahead, so speedy that no emotion sinks in too deeply. Abrams’s battle sequences (ship to ship, lightsaber to lightsaber) don’t have much spatial coherence or snap, but they look dazzlingly expensive, especially the lightsaber duel atop a sea that’s one titanic wall of water following another. The big battles end with infectious whoops and fist-pumps and backslaps, our heroes throwing themselves on top of one another and crying. Lots of tears in this movie. Lots of feelings, wo-oh-oh feelings. If you hated the drily witty The Last Jedi, you’ll love The Rise of Skywalker as much as I loved The Last Jedi and hated The Rise of Skywalker.

Stuck for a new supervillain, Abrams and his co-writer, Chris Terrio, have resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) — not a spoiler, since it’s in the opening slanted-backward expository crawl, which by the way is so prolix I wrote in my notebook, “TL;DR.” Going by his number of mwah-ha-has, he’s more evil than ever. He has launched a round-up-the-innocents operation called the Final Order, which also involves convincing Kylo Ren to kill our heroine, Rey (Daisy Ridley). (Palpatine’s motives change from scene to scene. Is he a little senile? I also wondered that about the aged Chewbacca, who often seems lost.) Kylo, of course, needs no prodding to pursue Rey, now a fully ascendant Jedi. He psychically phones her, sometimes to urge her to join him and rule the galaxy, sometimes just to heavily breathe. (Like grandfather, like son. He has even designed his own cute little Vader helmet, black with red crackle lines.) Kylo and Rey are so attuned to each other that they can have a lightsaber duel in their heads, a prelude to in-the-flesh lightsaber battles that are always getting interrupted. During one, a lovelorn Finn (John Boyega) screams, “Rey! Reeeeyyyyyy!” which is beyond stupid because why would he distract her? He can’t contribute anything, and if she turns and yells, “What!?” she’ll get skewered. It was evidently important to Abrams (and his Disney overseers) that we register Finn’s wo-oh-oh feelings, even if it meant turning him into a blithering idiot.

Speaking of blithering, I wanted to begin this review by breaking the news that Carrie Fisher is all over the movie, so maybe her death was a hoax — but then I remembered that Peter Cushing had a big part in Rogue One after he’d been gone for decades. Someday, kids will watch The Rise of Skywalker and not realize that Fisher’s General Leia is from behind a (short, stooped) stand-in and from the front computer-generated (and voiced by who — or what?). But in the here-and-now it’s just too freaky — especially when the CGI zombie appears in shots with Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, who plays a Resistance lieutenant. The technology inspires awe, but ethically speaking I’m not sure we’ve advanced much beyond Ed Wood putting a cape on his wife’s chiropractor and telling him to skulk around like the recently expired Bela Lugosi. In any case, the cyber Dr. Frankensteins must have fallen behind in their task, because Leia’s final scenes are weirdly truncated, right when they need to be huge and meaningful.

The Rise of Skywalker is another of those zillion-dollar franchise films where I felt embarrassed for the actors but pleased for them, too, because the money is no doubt amazing and will presumably free them to do things they care about. Oscar Isaac started out great guns in The Force Awakens as spice smuggler Poe Dameron, intergalactic man of mystery, but after a fun scene in which he and Ridley bitch at each other while trying to keep their faces straight, he turns into a grinning doofus cheerleader. Richard E. Grant achieves something novel as the Emperor’s henchman, Allegiant General Pryde: near-total facial immobility, with zero variation in vocal pitch. Grant moves no muscles other than the ones beside his mouth, out of which come lines like, “Yes, Supreme Leader” — said to the drama-queeny Kylo Ren with withering, Withnail-esque disdain. Billy Dee Williams returns as Lando Calrissian with a toasty voice that says, “I’m still catnip to the ladies” — and damn if he doesn’t make you believe it. Someone whose husky tones I knew but just … couldn’t … place until I saw the credits plays Poe’s pop-top smuggler ex, Zorii Bliss, inside a slinky suit and visor: I’ll let you discover her identity for yourself. And on the subject of voices, I wondered if Anthony Daniels had left us, too, because C-3PO sounds unusually high-pitched and artificial, but he’s happily still around — if, unhappily, in weird voice. In addition to other returning stars, Denis Lawson — the Scottish dreamboat from Local Hero and a rebel pilot in the first Star Wars trilogy — does a one-shot cameo that made at least one person whoop. Lawson made more of an impression, alas, than Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, a fanbrat unfavorite in The Last Jedi who has been rudely shoved into the background. The fanbrats must be pleased to have been heard and respected. I imagine they’re quite proud of themselves.

Despite Abrams’s flashcard tempos, the leads come off beautifully. Ridley is more confident here, more centered, more Jedi. She moves so fluidly that I actually believed she was capable of the rousing backward somersault Rey does, in the course of which she bisects an enemy ship with her lightsaber. She’s a fraction of the size of Adam Driver (a colleague pointed out that his thigh is wider than her head), yet when they spar they seem perfectly matched. Driver continues to fascinate, perplex, and thrill in equal measure. His acting is always a surprise, in part because his features are so hooded that you can’t predict his next expression, in part because his characters seem opaque to themselves, so he seems to be discovering his emotions at the same point we do.

For all its storytelling glitches and cornball dialogue, The Rise of Skywalker has the kind of gung-ho inspirational spirit that must have elated the Disney Company after the sour response to The Last Jedi. It’s a dream movie for them — it’s the first Star Wars film that feels like it comes from Disney — as I’m guessing it’s a nightmare for George Lucas. Which raises an interesting question: Do you think back fondly on Lucas’s episodes one, two, and three, which were rigorous and uncompromising in telling the story of Anakin Skywalker’s corruption into Darth Vader but also clunky, tin-eared, and visually flat (dull tableaux livened only by relentless CGI)? Or do you prefer the formulaic, crowd-pleasing cartoons of J.J. Abrams? Tough call. I emerged from Lucas’s films with a measure of respect, though. At the end of The Rise of Skywalker, I could almost hear an announcer’s voice asking, “Now that you’ve defeated the Empire, Rey, what are you going to do?” and then, “I’m going to Disney World!”

*A version of this article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Rise of Skywalker Is a Formulaic, Crowd-Pleasing Cartoon