We all know endings can be tough, particularly those meant to wrap up fan led franchises with years on their belt (just ask the Game of Thrones writers). But Star Wars had an even greater challenge awaiting it. 40 years of storytelling, 3 trilogies, countless characters, not to mention wrapping things up after a previous entry that worked hard to circumvent fan expectations. You’d forgive anyone walking away from such a task. Instead J.J Abrams stepped back into the fold (after original director Colin Trevorrow left citing those elusive ‘creative differences’) to finish off what he started. Has he managed it? To unite a fanbase that becomes increasingly vocal with each instalment? To bring together the story started all those years ago? In a word, well two, not quite.
An indeterminant amount of time has passed since Luke Skywalker gave his life to inspire hope in the galaxy once more. The Resistance is still desperately trying to fight back against the might of the First Order, now more empowered than ever thanks to a rage-filled Kylo Ren becoming their Supreme Leader. Something has stirred though, a voice long thought dead has begun to speak again. Emperor Palpatine. It’s customary that a new Star Wars movie must be followed with a tight grasp of spoilers so for now I’ll leave it at that. Not just for fear of revealing plot details but quite frankly because there is just so much plot at play here I wouldn’t know where to begin. The prologue sets things out clear, a dark and brooding chapter highlighting just how Palpatine has returned whilst setting up a number of macguffins designed to bring us to the finale. The effect is overwhelming, exposition flying in with nary a chance to settle before we’re rocked across the galaxy to the rest of our crew. Smartly J.J and ‘Justice League’ writer Chris Terrio opt to make sure the central crew (Poe, Rey, Finn, Chewie etc) are together as much as possible this time out. Their warmly felt banter lightening the ever darkening proceedings, despite some of the humour feeling a little forced. (No pun intended)
Taking off in search of said macguffins, the film launches forward with nary a thought to breathe. J.J has always had a knack for crafting colorful charismatic characters, giving them interactions that are efficient but human. Rise doesn’t have time for such proclivities. It is constantly in need of the next story development, the next action set piece or the next fan cameo. That’s not to say the actors don’t give their all, and they do. Daisy Ridley gives Rey a complexity and a pain that is all too believable, a desire to find herself but being torn by darker feelings inside. Her mirror throughout this trilogy, the broken anguished Kylo Ren, connects with her once more as their to and fro reaches its inevitable head. Adam Driver has been lucky getting to play one of this sagas most complex villains, and he continues his strong work here, even when the story dictates his arc rounds off a little too conveniently. Driver runs the gamut from childish rage, to arrogant despot via conflicted goodness and it’s a joy to watch. So it goes for the rest of the old faves. Oscar Issac leaning into full Indiana Jones vibes as the cocksure Poe, aided by John Boyega’s noble Finn (even if he does have less to do this time out). It’s nice to see Billy Dee Williams step back oh so smoothly into the garish robes of Lando too. As benefitting a grand finale, all get their moment to shine. Chewie getting more to do than ever, C-3PO actually being useful for a change and then we have Carrie Fisher’s potent appearance using old Episode 7 footage. A clever use of editing that is both affectionate and noticeably jarring.
Despite this being the big final send off, there is still time for a few new faces to showcase. Yet J.J is so intent on keeping his story moving that they barely have chance to stick, only through the liveliness of their respective performers do they have an opportunity to connect. Abrams gift for casting is present, utilising talent such as Keri Russell (kicking ass as Zori Bliss) to a sneering Richard E Grant by way of newcomer Naomi Ackie as Jannah, a character I really couldn’t tell you about mainly because I don’t have a clue about her internal motivations. A charge you could level across the entire film, outside of the central Rey/Rylo combination, none seem to have a deeper meaning beyond simply we’re the good guys or the bad guys. So beholden are they to plot machinations. There is certainly nothing wrong with heavy plot work if it is delivered within authentic interactions and is given the time to play out. Rise has no interest in that, a surprise considering how key relationships were to The Force Awakens. It works to an extent in keeping the audience from getting bored, yet you’d think with a saga set within the limitless imaginative potential as space, boredom would be far from likely. J.J has always been a confident conjurer of action, with a number of set-pieces offering suitable bombast. However without a semblance of character investment these are all for nought.
Things do tighten up in a stronger more focused second half, moving away from the video game mechanics of the opening hour. Twists pile up, albeit not exactly surprising ones, and the outcome feels earned if inevitable. In fact the ending is strong, both concluding this trilogy’s main story thrust whilst honouring the 40 years previous. It would be a cold unfeeling fan to not feel something. Now it may seem like I’m needlessly hating on the film, and I admit a lot of that is tied into the overall disappointment I feel (Star Wars more than any franchise carries a potent emotional connection likely resulting in why so many fans have such strong feelings towards it), but there is lots to like here. The bigger moments land well, the acting is always strong and like the rest of this trilogy it looks beautiful. Probably the biggest success of these new films are their strong devotion to old school in camera effects, with the production design landing on a number of tangibly epic visuals. Notably a visceral rain swept lightsaber battle, the environment a metaphorical representation to the churning emotions we’re witnessing. I just struggle to weigh that against the poor storytelling, which brings me nicely to the elephant in the room.
The Last Jedi. The middle chapter in this new story will go down as one of the most unwarrantedly controversial films in any franchise. Largely driven by Rian Johnson’s belief in the nature of unpredictable storytelling. He journeyed to places more complex and thematically driven than any of the films since Empire. His was a tale determined to let the past die (so much so that Kylo even says it, “killing it if you have to”), to attempt to bring Star Wars into a new future. The Force Awakens was a huge success critically and commercially, yet was predominately content to keep one foot in the past. Whether by aping the structure of A New Hope or in its talk of legacy and generational power. Jedi tore that down, turned Rey into a nobody and looked to the little person to be the next saviour. It was a pertinent message for our times. Sadly J.J doesn’t seem keen on that at all. Almost undoing all of that ideal in preference to recycled villainy and familiar themes. He’s always been a nostalgic filmmaker whether it’s Spielberg’s 80s influence in Super 8 or the witty callbacks of his Star Trek reboot. He seems a man capable of starting things so well but lacking the conviction to finish them in places new. The fans certainly didn’t help none either, launching toxic memes and unhelpful petitions. No film should ever be made based on what the public say, that may sound cynical but the best examples of strong franchise filmmaking are those that attempt to bring you something new and fresh. Rise has all too many moments that seem custom built to elicit a very specific reaction in a very specific audience base that I found myself uncomfortable. Case in point the horrific sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, particularly egregious when it was Tran who faced the strongest of the Jedi backlash.
J.J and Rian Johnson are not fully to blame though. Now it has concluded it’s painfully evident that this was a saga lacking in an overarching connectivity, each one seemingly after different things. Say what you will about the prequels but they had a linearity of purpose, working in tandem with what came before. Aspects of this trilogy have that but at times even J.J seems to retcon stuff he introduced back in Episode 7. Sometimes it appears he’s more in love with the visual look of things rather than what it all actually means. Marvel have cornered the market in making things feel as one whilst allowing creative visions to flow within it, I only wish that same principle would have been applied here. The journey may be at its end and I’m still thankful for most of it, especially the characters who I’ll miss most of all. It’s just a shame that for a director keen on legacy that he should leave one disappointingly unfulfilled. I never thought the Star War was the one it would have with itself.
Verdict: Bountiful action, strong character work and an emotive finale can’t make up for a whiplash pace and nonsensical plotting. The Skywalker saga bows out with not quite a bang, nor a whimper, merely a loud shrug.