Friday, May 6, 2022

Second Look - Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

Note: This review contains spoilers for the Star Wars Skywalker Saga and Avengers: Endgame.

As the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy went on, though I noticed some issues with it, I made the choice to reserve my judgement on the trilogy as a whole until the release of the final part, The Rise of Skywalker, cautiously optimistic that it might make the journey worth it as Revenge of the Sith did for the prequels. Unfortunately, The Rise of Skywalker proved what happens when you devote yourself to a trilogy without a solid outline, dragging down the entire trilogy as a result. This eventually led me to reevaluate the trilogy with the context provided by The Rise of Skywalker, though it wouldn’t be fair to go through said reevaluation without looking at the third part again, which I have not seen since the original theatrical release in 2019. Upon a second viewing, my opinion didn’t change all that much, and in fact it may have lowered a little bit.

To quote the opening crawl: “The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE. GENERAL LEIA ORGANA dispatches secret agents to gather intelligence, while REY, the last hope of the Jedi, trains for battle against the diabolical FIRST ORDER. Meanwhile, Supreme Leader KYLO REN rages in search of the phantom Emperor, determined to destroy any threat to his power....”

On a remote planet, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) hunts down a Sith wayfinder, which he hooks up to his ship to travel to the planet Exegol. There, he meets Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has mysteriously risen from the dead and reveals to Kylo Ren that he has been behind the scenes of his rise to power the entire time. Not only that, he offers Kylo Ren the means to rule over the galaxy using a massive fleet of Star Destroyers that he had kept hidden, in exchange for bringing him Rey (Daisy Ridley).

"Somehow, Palpatine has returned." - Poe Dameron

If you’re wondering what this “mysterious broadcast” is, you’re not alone, as I among many were confused as to what it was referring to when the movie came out. As it turns out, however, Disney and/or Lucasfilm made the questionable decision to put such a plot-critical detail in a Fortnite Battle Royale event, and a limited edition one at that, meaning those who didn’t fall into the demographic of Star Wars fans who were also Fortnite players in the year 2019 were completely lost. Fortunately, fans have managed to preserve the contents of the broadcast, even the audio, and it was immortalized in The Rise of Skywalker novelization. To quote the broadcast: “At last the work of generations is complete. The great error is corrected. The day of victory is at hand. The day of revenge. The day of the Sith."

This Fortnite event in particular, in case you were wondering.

That aside, the story itself isn’t that great, with many of its problems stemming from reintroducing Emperor Palpatine, who was killed in Return of the Jedi and was not hinted to exist at all in the previous two sequels. Apparently, Palpatine was the one behind Kylo Ren’s machinations the entire time and he had been hiding out on the planet Exegol, which can only be found with a Sith wayfinder and only two of those wayfinders exist in the entire galaxy. Not only that, he somehow managed to accrue and conceal a large army of Star Destroyers, which invites more questions than it answers. Not helping is that the movie seems to dodge the question of how Palpatine is alive again, with Palpatine implying it was some sort of nonspecific Force power that only the Dark Side can use, as well as Poe Dameron literally saying “Somehow, Palpatine has returned,” all of which feels like lazy writing. Making Rey a descendent of Palpatine also involves retconning The Last Jedi, which established that her parents were no one special, plus Palpatine seems to have only been reintroduced as the antagonist to make up for Snoke's premature death.

In doing so, the movie ends up retreading several plot points from Return of the Jedi, up to and including the entire final confrontation with Palpatine, with Kylo Ren teaming up with Rey to take him down, solidifying the Sequel Trilogy as an ill-conceived rehash of the Original Trilogy in many respects. Granted, it doesn’t adhere to Return of the Jedi as closely as The Force Awakens did with the original Star Wars, but the similarities are still noticeable, like lowering the enemy's defenses by taking down a broadcast tower in place of a shield generator. It's also easy to draw comparisons with the ending of Avengers: Endgame, which came out earlier that same year, as it includes Lando Calrissian showing up at Exegol with a large backup fleet at the last minute and the final exchange between Rey and Palpatine emulates the final exchange between Thanos and Tony Stark/Iron Man, down to the cadence of the dialogue.

One thing the movie does get credit for is the visuals still being consistent with what is expected from Star Wars, as it at least looks like it’s still part of the same universe. The lighting and color palette of the planet Exegol is also dark and dismal (possible seizure warning), providing an appropriate contrast with the rest of the locales, plus the pristine look of Empire ship interiors is nice to look at due to how crisp the colors are. Much like the Porgs in The Last Jedi, the new droid D-O, while adorable, seemed obviously designed to sell product since he doesn’t do much in the film itself aside from providing information on Exegol.

Due to a combination of the untimely death of Carrie Fisher in 2016 and The Last Jedi's insistence on having her character Leia survive to the end in spite of that, The Rise of Skywalker tries to work around this by recycling unused footage from The Force Awakens and writing her scenes around that. This also includes having Rey dressed as she did in the seventh film for the sake of visual continuity and obviously recontextualizing some lines to work with this film’s plot, sometimes awkwardly, as well as using body doubles and creative camera work for shots where you don’t see Carrie Fisher’s face. The movie does give Leia a proper send-off and the filmmakers get credit for trying to make do with what they had to work with, though that doesn’t make the effect any less obvious.

Carrie Fisher's (right) inclusion isn't completely convincing,
but you can't say the filmmakers didn't try their best.

As with the rest of the sequels, one saving grace is John Williams’ iconic score, with fits in nicely with the rest of his work on the franchise. The returning actors from the previous films are also good in their roles, with Luke Skywalker feeling more in-character compared to The Last Jedi and Oscar Isaac and John Boyega sharing more screen time together to flesh out the dynamic between Poe and Finn. While Billy Dee Williams has provided voice work for Lando Calrissian over the years, including video games and a handful of LEGO projects, he hadn’t made a physical on-screen appearance as the character since Return of the Jedi, and his performance here shows that he still has it. Since the late Carrie Fisher appears here through repurposed archive footage, I will say her performance is still good, but whether or not the context it’s placed in works may depend entirely on the viewer. Lastly, though the character of Palpatine comes out of nowhere in the context of the trilogy, Ian McDiarmid absolutely nails it here, proving his effectiveness at playing such an iconic and menacing character.

As it stands, while there are some good aspects to it, The Rise of Skywalker is the culmination of everything wrong with the Sequel Trilogy on a storytelling level. The ultimately lackluster conclusion to the trilogy’s patchwork storyline makes this movie and the trilogy as a whole difficult to recommend even for die-hard fans.

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