Movies|‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Review: Revolution No. 9
Not that anybody has asked, but if I had to come up with a definitive ranking of all the “Star Wars” episodes — leaving out sidebars like the animated “Clone Wars,” the young Han Solo movie and the latest “Mandalorian” Baby Yoda memes — the result could only be a nine-way tie for fourth place.
You know I’m right, even if you insist on making a case for “The Empire Strikes Back” or “The Last Jedi,” to name the two installments that are usually cited as the best individual movies. (Please do not insist.) At least since “The Return of the Jedi” (1983), the point of each chapter has been consolidation rather than distinction. For a single film to risk being too interesting would be to imperil the long-term strategy of cultivating a multigenerational, multinational fandom. “The Rise of Skywalker” — Episode IX, in case you’ve lost count — is one of the best. (It opens Friday.) Also one of the worst. Perfectly middling. It all amounts to the same thing.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the series has evolved — or was designed, if you favor that theology — to average out over time, to be good enough for its various and expanding constituencies without alienating any of them. Over the years, my own allegiances have shifted. When I was a kid back in the “New Hope” era, I liked the action and the wisecracks and Princess Leia. By the end of Anakin Skywalker’s grim journey to the Dark Side in “Revenge of the Sith” I had developed a scholarly preoccupation with the political theory of galactic imperialism. More recently I’ve grown fond of some of the cute new droids and space creatures, and also of the spunky resistance fighters with their one-syllable names. Rey. Finn. Poe.
They are back, of course — played with unflagging conviction by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Also back is everyone’s favorite Dark-Side-curious emo-Jedi bad boyfriend, Mr. Kylo Ren, formerly known as Ben Solo and irrefutably embodied by Adam Driver. I will say very little about what any of these people — or C-3PO, Chewbacca, BB-8 and any new characters or surprises — actually do for two and a half hours, because the spoiler-sensitive constituency is especially large and vocal.
Also because they do and say quite a lot. “The Rise of Skywalker” has at least five hours worth of plot, and if that’s your particular fetish, I’m not going to get in the way of your fun. Suffice to say that various items need to be collected from planets with exotic names, and that bad guys cackle and rant on the bridges of massive spaceships while good guys zip around bravely doing the work of resistance. Mysteries are solved. Sacrifices are made. Fights are fought in the air, on the ground and in deep cavernous spaces where … but that’s enough for now.
The director is J.J. Abrams, perhaps the most consistent B student in modern popular culture. He has shepherded George Lucas’s mythomaniacal creations in the Disney era, making the old galaxy a more diverse and also a less idiosyncratic place.
Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed “The Last Jedi,” injected some rich color and complicated emotion into the chronicles of domination and rebellion, and also a dash of iconoclastic energy. The bond between Rey and Kylo felt both politically dangerous and sexually provocative, while Rey’s obscure origins suggested that the rebels might finally come to represent something more genuinely democratic than the enlightened wing of the galactic ruling class.
Abrams, who also directed “The Force Awakens,” the first chapter in this trilogy, suppresses that potential, reaffirming the historic “Star Wars” commitment to dynastic bloodlines and messianic mumbo-jumbo, even as he ends on a note of huggy, smiley pseudo-populism. The whole Kylo-Rey thing turns out to involve their grandparents, which is kind of weird, though it could have added a shiver of gothic creepiness to the story. Ridley and Driver are downright valiant in their pursuit of tragic dignity in increasingly preposterous circumstances.
Abrams is too slick and shallow a filmmaker to endow the dramas of repression and insurgency, of family fate and individual destiny, of solidarity and the will to power, with their full moral and metaphysical weight. At the same time, his pseudo-visionary self-importance won’t allow him to surrender to whimsy or mischief. The struggle of good against evil feels less like a cosmic battle than a longstanding sports rivalry between teams whose glory days are receding. The head coaches come and go, the uniforms are redesigned, certain key players are the subjects of trade rumors, and the fans keep showing up.
Which is not entirely terrible. “The Rise of Skywalker” isn’t a great “Star Wars” movie, but that may be because there is no such thing. That seems to be the way we like it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Rated PG-13. Kylo feels really bad. Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes.