“The dead speak!”
That phrase – the first words of the opening scrawl in JJ Abrams’s Episode IX, also known as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – has become, in certain circles, handy code for trashing this film. But I think it’s the perfect way to begin this fun and fulfilling adventure. Yes, “the dead speak!” is hokey and corny. And so ought to be Star Wars.
Few need reminders that young George Lucas was influenced by approved-by-elite sources like Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell. That’s great for essayists, but when Leia grabbed Luke, kissed him on the cheek for good luck, and they swung across a chasm on a grappling hook, what’s plainly on the surface is pure Buck Rogers.
The Rise of Skywalker leans into this, and is fast-paced and funny, and blessedly devoid of talk about trade federations like the unbearable prequels. Its set and creature design, color palette, and blend of practical and computer effects make for some of the richest action-adventure sequences in recent years. Abrams is not a director without faults, but the guy always knows where to put the camera, and his imagery is propulsive and vibrant. Compare any frame in The Rise of Skywalker to the allegedly thrilling conclusion of Disney’s other big breadwinner, Avengers Endgame, and you will see the difference between a cinema that crackles versus soul-deadening smudgy brown nothingness.
From the opening “lightspeed-skipping” (so many worlds! so many employed illustrators!) to the Aki-Aki Festival of the Ancestors (“colorful kites and delectable sweets!”) to the group hug at the end, The Rise of Skywalker keeps it moving and keeps it big. Plus Chewbacca, the greatest character in the entire franchise by many parsecs, finally got that medal Princess Leia should have given him back on Yavin 4.
Giving Chewie his reward is an undeniable, four-decades-late bit of fan-service, a treacherous road to walk for a project like this. It opens the door to why many, I think, dislike this movie. Since the debut of The Force Awakens in 2015, Star Wars – a simple, enjoyable kids movie with laser-swords and Frank Oz-voiced puppets – has become contaminated with the same toxin found everywhere else in our culture. Somewhere between Gamergate and stealing mail from Nancy Pelosi’s office, there are online armies aligned based on what you think of these movies.
To some bad faith keyboard warriors Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi was perceived to represent a trashing of heritage on the altar of woke politics. The Rise of Skywalker was, therefore, a “Make The Galaxy Great Again” reactionary gesture. I reject all of this. I think both of the movies are terrific and have far more commonalities than differences (even though only Johnson’s has the outstanding throne room fight.)
I’m not saying turn your brain off to politics when you are watching a movie, but maybe don’t seek out conspiracies where none exist. It is true that Rose Tico’s storyline was effectively dumped by Abrams, but Admiral Holdo, the other character that misogynistic online ding-dongs rage against, gets a proper shout-out for her “maneuvers” when Poe and Finn are figuring out how to help Rey in battle on Exegol.
A battle, by the way, which has space horses racing across the hull of a star destroyer, and an undead wizard in a laboratory (beneath a giant cube of stone for some reason) that’s as gorgeous and silly as anything from Hammer Films. Ian McDiarmid’s return as Emperor Sheev Palpatine (“the dead speak!”) maybe comes out of nowhere, but, again, let’s look once more at the origins of Star Wars. In 1977 the advertising boasted Hammer’s Peter Cushing as its main villain, and then, as the sequel got re-written, we learned that Darth Vader was actually Luke Skywalker’s father. How is that any more ridiculous of a story turn than the return of Palpatine?
But there’s no need for me to be so defensive about The Rise of Skywalker. Let’s look at the highlights. C-3PO, the galaxy’s most annoying robot, is a non-stop comedy punching bag (“the one time we need you to talk and you can’t!!!”) whose second canonical memory wipe is a source of glee. Keri Russell’s helmeted Zorii Bliss is a welcome whiz-bang space ranger from the Buck Rogers mold, and Naomi Ackie’s Jannah on that aforementioned horse (an orbak, if you must know) cuts a striking image.
I found the yes-they-kiss, but-also-he-dies conclusion of the Rey-Kylo relationship to be appropriately satisfying, though I do agree I would have liked to have seen Finn hook up with Rose. Oh, who am I kidding, I really wanted to see him hook up with Poe, but Hollywood thinks audiences are ready to accept superluminal travel, but not a same-sex romance.
I get that some fans were keen on Rey not being of noble birth, but learning she is actually in the Palpatine line is quite fitting with the entirety of this series and the absurd coincidences it has featured from the start. Leia sends R2-D2 down to Tattooine to find Obi-Wan but he just so happens to get picked up by Jawas and sold to the man that’s been hiding Anakin’s son all this time? Please!
As such, Rey’s final line, declaring herself Rey Skywalker with Force Ghost Luke and Leia looking on with approval (the dead watch!), is considered a howler to critics. I think it’s perfect.