There is nothing more important than an ending. Great endings are genuinely profound. “The Godfather Part II”, “The Usual Suspects”, “Heat”, “Moonlight” and even one of the sixteen endings of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (the bit where the Hobbits finally get to enjoy a cheeky beer together). Each of these reverberates at a frequency that synthesises everything that the movie or the series is ultimately about.
I detested J.J Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (TROS). It’s a shell of a film, more machine now than ever. A twisted wreck of fan service, messy assembly of conveniences, lazy echoes and callbacks crashing into an aborted conclusion.
The First Order, under the ferocious leadership of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), has delayed their extermination of the final sparks of the Resistance to pursue a broadcast claiming that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and well. When Ren discovers the reincarnated Sith Lord and his behind the scenes manipulations, he joins forces to unite the power-hungry oppressive remnants of the Empire to unleash the “Last Order” or their remaining opposition.
Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is training under the supervision of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher – RIP) when a spy within the First Order confirms Palpatine’s return. Not only is he back, but he’s been preparing an unstoppable fleet to give the entire galaxy an ultimatum; surrender to his rule or to die. With the help of Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Rey must find a ‘wayfinder’ (essentially Sith GPS) to confront the Sith Lord and fulfil her destiny.
In amongst the ferocity of the discourse of “The Last Jedi,” are very valid criticisms. Perhaps Luke’s (Mark Hamill) ‘troll’ like petulance and fishing expedition ephemera could have been trimmed. His introduction could have been more sombre, waiting for incisive wisdom and training – mirroring his experience with Master Yoda in ‘Empire’.
Perhaps Holdo (Laura Dern) could have been more clear with Poe (Isaac) that she had a plan for the Resistance and that he’d lost the privilege to hear it. Perhaps the trip to Canto Bight could have been better contextualised as the haven for those galactic war profiteers earlier and with less monster mash and flash. Evidently, for those of us who accept ‘The Last Jedi’ as a ‘flawed’ masterpiece, it’s the conclusion that rewards the story’s ambition.
The reason I bother mentioning any of this is to say that as I was watching TROS, I was undergoing an internal hostage negotiation. Question after question, even during the opening crawl, I was talking myself down to see if the end would justify the increasingly mystifying means. As a viewer, I’m less wedded to plot details than mood, feeling, texture, character, music, aesthetic choices. Yet I found myself flooded with a litany of what I deemed to be necessary details absent from the movie. Don’t worry, someone from Disney will point out that if I had read twenty-seven companion comics, three novelisations and subscribe to a weekly newsletter – it will fill in the gaps. But who has that kind of time?
The pacing of the film is blistering as it sets its scene and for once that’s not a good thing. In the opening crawl of the film, we learn that Palpatine is back, broadcasting like Happy Harry Hardon from an undisclosed Galactic location. In literally minute one, Kylo Ren is face to face with the titanic arch-villain of the series – this time with zombified eyes and an “Itchy and Scratchy” escalation level fleet of planet-killing star destroyers poised to strike at his command.
How did he return? How was he found? How did he maintain secrecy assembling the most extensive fleet ever? Where did he get the resources to assemble this fleet? How did they develop this ultimate weaponry in complete isolation and secret? Who is operating the ships? Was Snoke, in fact, a Palpatine clone? Don’t worry in another 2 hours and 15 minutes won’t we surely see the tangle of new and remaining threads braided into a somewhat satisfying conclusion? To quote “Solo” director Ron Howard from another franchise: “We don’t”.
The existing suite of introduced characters wallow from barkeep turned freedom fighter Maz (voiced by Lupita Nyongo) who is nothing but a chorus, to Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose who is effectively abandoned. Rey’s heritage, a point of contention and debate since the inception of the sequel trilogy, is key to the conclusion of the story here. Trouble is, it’s a damned showstopper of epic stupidity. It’s not only a betrayal to Rey, but it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the characters that it purports are essential to the entire saga.
The fate of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo – the mesmerising Adam Driver – has been intrinsically connected to the quality of the sequel trilogy. For all the promise of the character and the construction of perhaps the most moving moments of the entire series that play out in this film, he and the whole Skywalker/Solo family’s sacrifices are for naught. His ambivalence weighed too heavily on writers Terrio and Abrams and their kit bag of bad story ideas leftover from Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow.
The publicity train of actors told us repeatedly how great it has been to have all of their characters together. However, when the group is is together; the task at hand is clear. Each new hurdle on the way to the climax feels like another series of mounting distractions, character introductions, and of course, toy introductions. When we find Lando, the legendary Billy Dee Williams, he looks as comfortable as Ben Affleck dressing as Batman at his kid’s daytime birthday party.
Lando, we’re lead to believe, has been hanging on one of our stopover planets since he and Luke had followed a Sith agent there. Why is Lando still there? How, with all of Luke’s tremendous power and mastery of the Force, could he not get his hands on it? Why hadn’t he already answered the call to distress at the end of ‘The Last Jedi’? Sorry, it’s hard to curb the impulse to interrogate. I’ll refrain from going into more details here, but sufficed to say; it’s nigh impossible to go to the depths of what’s wrong with the movie without spoilers.
Are there moments to salvage? A few. Visually there are some superb shots, a lot of which, you’ve seen in the trailers. There’s a wondrous Kylo and Rey showdown as towering waves lash at the husk of the crashed second Death Star. The trailer teased Rey acrobatically dismantling a tie-fighter with a lightsaber – that scene is glorious.
Ridley and Driver are the performances of the film once again. Their interplay and the telepathic connection is back in full swing and evolving to allow them to tussle across vast distances. Ren’s obsession with Rey hasn’t diminished; in fact, the emergence of the Emperor has only strengthened his resolve to turn her to the dark side of the Force.
Desire, attraction, obsession; this is by far the most exciting relationship in the series – and remember – a sister french kissed her brother in ‘Empire’. The chemistry between Boyega and Isaac as Finn and Poe is delightful yet squandered. There’s also one soaring gleeful moment of flirtation between Poe (Isaac) and Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), but it’s too little and too late.
“Star Wars,” like so many people, is where my love for movies began, bloomed and blossomed. But to paraphrase one of the greatest films ever made and the most legendary characters ever conceived and performed; “Kids, I’ve flown from one side of this Star Wars galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange and wonderful stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me stop believing that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything, until now.”
TROS takes my magic and gives me midichlorians. Less than 24 hours ago the voice of a Princess, the sound of a laser sword, a droid’s whistle, a whining roar of walking shag carpet, even a Corellian piece of space junk; could move me to tears. After TROS, they’re all just tricks and nostalgic drugs. Nothing about TROS makes me feel the need to revisit it. More than that, it’s stained my desire ever to go back to that galaxy far far away. I have the finale of “The Mandalorian” left, and for this critic – the saga and the universe ends.