Film Review | The Rote Revenge of the Imperial Menace

Expert blockbuster wrangler J.J. Abrams flies back to a galaxy far, far away to finish what he started with The Force Awakens, in a final chapter for the Stars Wars saga that’s replete with fun but thin on genuine thrills

Reys of light: Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver wage physical, psychic and psychological battle in this (supposedly) final installment of the now nine-part Star Wars saga
Reys of light: Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver wage physical, psychic and psychological battle in this (supposedly) final installment of the now nine-part Star Wars saga

In a cinematic universe where richly mushrooming franchises and their countless remakes and reboots have become the norm, and where the increasing popularity of serialised entertainment is once again becoming a bona fide cultural touchstone, the idea of any popular film series truly ‘ending’ has become about as rare a commodity as the precious supernatural objects that animate most of their plots into action.

Nevertheless, the good people at Disney and Lucasfilm – the latter gobbled up by the former some years back in what is arguably the most significant corporate merger for this generation’s entertainment industry – have decided to sell us on the idea that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or ‘Episode Nine’ of the space-pulp behemoth that George Lucas built back in 1977, will be the final installment in the ‘official’ series that have thrilled and disappointed various factions of fans in equal measure, and over a record span of time.

As such, what we end up getting this time around, as The Force Awakens (2015) helmer J.J. Abrams returns to the fold after genre wunderkind Rian Johnson was allowed to introduce a little bit of iconoclastic anarchy in ‘The Last Jedi’ (2017), angering a sadly vocal and woefully misguided element of the ‘fanbase’, is a perfectly fine finish that is sadly bereft of any real surprises despite being packed with twists and revelations.

Still, it hits the ground running with gusto, as Abrams, joined by veteran scribe Chris Terrio, is quick to remind us that for all its cultural longevity, its unforgettable characters and era-defining lines and tropes, the Star Wars universe remains a rambunctious space-pulp adventure whose target audience is your inner child (and your kids, of course).

The trademark opening crawl for ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ certainly does not shy away from this stylistic tendency, declaring with lurid aplomb that ‘The dead speak!’ Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDarmind) was apparently not killed for good by his Sith Lord apprentice Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker back in Return of the Jedi (1983) - he was merely biding his time and using Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis) as a puppet to train up Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) into being the lynchpin foot-soldier for the true rise of the Sith as well as, crucially, an unbeatable flotilla of super-powered Star Destroyers known as The Final Order. Should Palpatine prove successful, the ramshackle rebellion that hangs by a thin thread expertly held together by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) will be snuffed out in one fell swoop. The Resistance’s erstwhile champions – Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the trusty droids R2-D2 (Hassan Taj/Lee Towersey) and C-3PO (Anthokny Daniels) – are willing to give it their all. But a big part of their effort hinges on Rey (Daisy Ridley), the budding Jedi still being dangerously pulled into Kylo Ren’s orbit.

But Rey wastes no time in playing the victim here, which is one of the more satisfying strands in J.J. Abrams’s final victory leap for the saga. Keeping that edge of hesitant brittleness that makes her character all the more human, Abrams crucially takes some steps towards making her a more decisive fighter, giving her one cool set piece after another but more importantly, some challenging home truths to bang her head against before she’s forced to get back to the business of keeping the Resistance afloat.

Or doing her bit for it all, at the very least, while her buddies see to the comparatively mundane duties of sneaking, shooting and sabotage as they set about weakening the Kylo Ren-managed First Order in whatever way they can.

That’s all well and good, and fully in line with the Star Wars mission statement as the plot sprints to the finish line in zippy and yes, pulpy gusto. But the creaking of an overburdened pastiche-machine can only be drowned out to a point. Granted, the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher in 2016 naturally means that her own arc gets short shrift, which is a heartbreaking prospect but forgivable given the circumstances.

What’s less forgivable is Abrams’s sloppy brushing away of some of The Last Jedi’s more interesting suggestions: that the Force is felt keenly by all who care to listen (impoverished kids included), and that Rey is ultimately just a random unfortunate who managed to harness it in a particularly powerful way. To be fair, Finn is shown to be somewhat Force-sensitive in parts, though the world-building parameters behind this phenomenon are given very little consideration and more often than not are simply introduced to get the heroes out of a tough fix. It must also be said that Palpatine’s reintroduction, despite being an undeniable bit of giddy fan-service, is an equally slapdash bit of diabolos ex machina that’s meant to up the stakes and bring things back to the kind of dynastic full circle that the saga has always delighted in.

But those who accept that this new trilogy is meant to accomplish very little apart from offer a warm nostalgic buzz will find plenty to delight in here. The set pieces work, the jokes are spot-on and the characters behave like the best versions of themselves, never once disappointing us or letting down the cause that is the root of their being. Thankfully, we’ll always have ‘The Last Jedi’ in our rearview mirror to remind us that the archetypes George Lucas channelled so expertly a long, long time ago have the potential for great art, as well as great entertainment.

The verdict

Closing off the new and supposedly final installment of the nine-part Star Wars saga with competence and confidence, blockbuster maestro JJ Abrams perhaps necessarily sacrifices risks and inventiveness, resulting in a reassuring finale that will please but won’t surprise. Still, none of this is to the detriment of the big picture, which one can see clearly now: the powers to be wanted a joyous nostalgia trip to get the fans back on board with The Force Awakens, a bit of spice and darkness with The Last Jedi to have an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ of their own, and to wrap it all up in a neat little bow with The Rise of Skywalker, sending us back home with satisfied smiles, all loose ends tied up, and the long-haul nostalgia game of the ‘new trilogy’ now fully completed.