The “Star Wars” universe is built on rivalries. The light and dark sides of the Force. The Empire versus the Rebel Alliance (or whatever the new substitute sides are called). Hayden Christensen …
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The “Star Wars” universe is built on rivalries. The light and dark sides of the Force. The Empire versus the Rebel Alliance (or whatever the new substitute sides are called). Hayden Christensen and acting. The latest conflict pits fans of director Rian Johnson’s iconoclastic interpretation of the “Star Wars” milieu versus those those who regard it as an affront to the series’ longstanding lore.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the purported final chapter in the space opera, returns “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams to the helm. With that also comes the return of several favorite Abrams devices: MacGuffins, lens flares, Keri Russell, etc. However, the much-reviled (by some) notion that Abrams jettisons every narrative that Johnson introduced in “Last Jedi” is nonsense. Indeed, for all the clash of filmmaking styles between the two filmmakers, the most essential narrative element in “Rise of Skywalker” is the through line connecting the entire latter day trilogy: the defining relationship between newest last Jedi hope Rey (Daisy Ridley) and petulant emo Skywalker spawn Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Their love-hate tête-à-tête remains front and center in “Rise of Skywalker,” even amid some mind-numbing periphery. For all the film’s bluster and bloat, its insistence on culminating with this pairing — and all it signifies — proves a firm foundation.
Everything else around it, on the other hand, is less than stellar. The film begins with the abrupt return of Emperor Palpatine, whose voice has suddenly been heard throughout the galaxy (no clue of how or why) and caused alarm with both Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Kylo. How abrupt, you ask? Well, it’s in the opening crawl, so we’re left to just accept that a key character apparently killed in “Return of the Jedi” is suddenly back with no build-up or explanation. It seems Palpatine forged a couple of horcruxes, so Kylo finds one that leads him to the Sith planet of Exegol (I thought the Sith homeworld was Korriban, but it’s best to not go down that or any other rabbit hole). There, a withered Palpatine is kept animated by caretakers and a contraption of tubes. Kylo, now Supreme Leader of the First Order, plans to slay this potential rival, but Palpatine woos him the Sith throne and seemingly hundreds of Star Destroyers lying dormant beneath the planet’s icy surface, which Palpatine unearths and pledges to something he calls the Final Order.
A few questions. Where did this immense fleet of ships come from, and how/why have they been hidden all this time? Where did the crew manning these ships come from? Why hasn’t this fleet been used before now? And no, it shouldn’t be incumbent on me to digest some “Star Wars” anthology or Reddit thread in order to make sense of it all.
Meanwhile, Leia sends Rey, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca, BB-8 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, given his best part in a long time) on their own Palpatine scavenger hunt. Their journey takes them on a “Star Wars” revue, including an aging Lando Calrissan (Billy Dee Williams). They hopscotch planets looking for the other horcrux, which they can only find using inscriptions on a hidden Sith dagger, which they can only translate using...you get the picture. Old “Star Wars” favorites pop up, and there’s a climactic space battle to save the galaxy (natch) once the Resistance (and the audience) suddenly discovers that the Final Order’s fleet is somehow equipped with guns capable of destroying a planet, a la the Death Star. Huh?
While the rest of the film frantically tries to shove as much as possible into an imperfect vessel, Rey and Kylo continue their inevitable rendezvous, commensurating and even dueling via the Force projection phenomenon Johnson introduced in “Last Jedi.” Their journey ends at Exegol, where the real conflict at the heart of this third trilogy culminates. Rey and Kylo represent the dyad of the Force — one virtue of this film trilogy is that the light side of the Force is depicted as co-equal with the dark, contrary to previous “Star Wars” films that always depicted the dark side as more powerful.
Yet while one character is ostensibly good and the other evil, they really occupy shades of gray between the two extremes represented in the previous trilogies. Both arrive in “Force Awakens” pining over relics of the past. Kylo worships his grandad Darth Vader’s mask, which Kylo refashions for himself, while Rey lives in the wreckage of past battles that dot the Jakku landscape. She dreams of glory, and it’s notable that she, like Kylo, dons her own mask, briefly putting on an old rebel fighter helmet. But although they arrive with contrasting motivations, they ultimately champion a desire to cast off the old guard and transcend the past. It’s partly why Kylo kills Han Solo in “Force Awakens” and Snoke in “Last Jedi.” It’s the ultimate effect of Rey’s sojourn to Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To in “Last Jedi” and, now, confronting Palpatine, the ancient Dark Lord of the Sith.
“The Rise of Skywalker” is a fan-focused paean to “Star Wars” mythmaking. It’s largely simplistic and derivative, i.e. standard-issue Abrams. But just as Luke once saw a glimmer of good in his lost father, there’s a subversive core to this triumvirate that Abrams introduced and Johnson advanced. But you need to block out the congested, carbon-copied clamour.
“Rise of Skywalker” almost succeeds in spite of itself. Almost.