JJ Abrams returns to direct the latest instalment in the classic saga – is it a triumph or a disappointment?
“Will this agony never end,” bleats C-3PO in Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and you can see where he is coming from. Not that the film is agony as such. It’s actually a fast-moving, action-packed, swashbuckling swords ‘n’ sorcery space opera with typically high standards of production design and visual effects, and a pleasing blend of gloom and humour. But you would be forgiven for being tired of the whole palaver well before it finishes. Just as the first two episodes in the third Star Wars trilogy were retreads of the first two episodes of the original trilogy from the 1970s and 80s, this final episode is a retread of 1983’s The Return of The Jedi. The trouble with that is that The Return of the Jedi was a perfectly satisfying conclusion to the Star Wars saga, wrapping up everything that needed to be wrapped up. All The Rise of Skywalker does is wrap up everything a second time, answering the same questions and revisiting the same themes. It’s an encore as awkwardly unnecessary as when you bid a tearful farewell to a friend, and then you bump into them and have to say goodbye all over again.
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Another factor is that the previous episode, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, wittily subverted and commented on the story so far. It attempted something new and challenging – and fans have been complaining about it on the internet ever since. The Rise of Skywalker, however, marks The Return of JJ Abrams, who directed The Force Awakens, and Abrams is dead set on giving the fans everything they want and expect. Much like 2020’s other blockbuster grand finale, Avengers: Endgame, this one isn’t about engaging with casual viewers, it’s about inviting devotees to whoop at every catchphrase; every reprise of one of John Williams’ classic melodies; every reappearance of a much-loved character.
Speaking of which, Abrams brings back Billy Dee Williams, as roguishly charming as ever as the roguish Lando Calrissian, and he brings back Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine, the evil Emperor who was killed by Darth Vader – or so it seemed – at the end of Return of the Jedi. In fact, Palpatine is alive and well, and he has been manipulating the characters in secret for the past two films, a narrative cheat which is almost as irritating as it was in Spectre when it turned out that Blofeld has been responsible for everything that happened to Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Palpatine even had time to amass a fleet of mega-starships that will wipe out the Resistance once and for all unless someone can track him to his cavernous underground lair first. Of course, the people for the job are Rey (Daisy Ridley) the trainee Jedi, Poe (Oscar Isaac) the ace pilot, and Finn (John Boyega) the reformed Stormtrooper, along with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels).
The main feeling it instils in the viewer is a renewed respect for the imagination of Lucas
Fans will enjoy seeing the gang getting together again like this. But to find Palpatine, Rey and the boys first have to find a pyramid-shaped trinket. And to find the trinket they first have to find a special dagger. And to translate the inscription on the dagger they have to find a particular mechanic, Poe. It’s a video-game plot so contrived and ultimately pointless that George Lucas would have scrapped it when he was making his prequel trilogy. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Abrams and his co-writers have abandoned plotting altogether; all they’re interested in is stuffing their film with recognisably Star Wars-y material for two-and-a-bit hours. Remember how the original trilogy had a cute small robot called R2-D2, and so the new trilogy introduced a cuter and smaller robot called BB-8? Well, The Rise of Skywalker introduces another even cuter and even smaller robot, raising the question just how cute and small the sidekicks will be when Disney launches another Star Wars trilogy in a few years from now.
The film has so many different characters and worlds squeezed into it that none of them has time to make an impact. As gratifying as it is to see Richard E Grant striding along shiny corridors as a villain named General Pryde, he isn’t given any personality traits except the ‘pride’ in his name, and I’m not even sure about that. In place of memorable, distinctive moments, The Rise of Skywalker fobs us off with familiar ones. Here’s yet another desert planet; yet another planet being blown up; yet another lightsaber duel; yet another dogfight between a swarm of TIE Fighters and X-Wing Fighters. And here is yet more Harry Potter-ish mythology about the Jedi and the Sith, and yet more tiresome emphasis on which character is related to which other character. This fan service all leads to the supremely uncompelling issue of whether Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Palpatine can tempt Rey to embrace the Dark Side of the Force. Well, what do you think? Anyone who has seen Return of the Jedi will know exactly what’s going to happen because they’ve seen it happen before.
Having said all that, the film is well acted, it looks so good that there is bound to be a fabulous tie-in coffee-table book of concept art, and it has a positive message about never giving up hope. But the main feeling it instils in the viewer is a renewed respect for the imagination of Lucas. The Rise of Skywalker has been lovingly crafted by a host of talented people, and yet the best they can do is pay tribute to everything he did several decades ago.
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