For better or worse, pre-release discourse has become engrained in film criticism. We saw it first with Joker, but it’s doubtful anyone could’ve seen the level of polarization that the supposed final entry to the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: Episode IX- The Rise of Skywalker. To encourage friendly and lively debate, it felt appropriate to bring our initial, spoiler-free thoughts on the film in the form of a Full Circle Showdown.
Full Circle Showdown is an in-depth discussion and collaborative review from two writers who have different opinions and ways of seeing films. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy what’s likely to be one our most out of this world showdowns yet as we talk about The Rise of Skywalker!
Review #1: James Preston Poole (Lead Critic)
Star Wars: Episode IX- The Rise of Skywalker is going to make people upset. Director J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens) walks back many of the controversial reveals of the previous film, Rian Johnson’s excellent The Last Jedi. Meanwhile he tries tying the saga together in a way that will be convoluted to some; downright offensive to others, as well as cramming in about three films worth of story. On paper, this sounds like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Yet, from the second those lights dimmed, and the familiar theme played, to the moment the film was over. I couldn’t help myself but be filled with a feeling the best of Star Wars movies have given me: complete, unadulterated joy.
I’ll admit, for the first hour or so I was certain that this film wouldn’t be for me. Despite a haunting opening where Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) finds out the truth behind the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), J.J. Abrams and writer Chris Terrio (Batman v. Superman) lead an endless march of exposition. We bounce from MacGuffin to MacGuffin, getting way too much information from each mystical object across a multitude of planets. There’s about three movies worth of material in the first hour. A given, as there’s a lot of table setting to be dealt with before The Rise of Skywalker gets where Abrams wants it to go. It’s clear there wasn’t any sort of roadmap for this trilogy. So for the film to properly tell its story, it has to succumb to necessary contrivances in order to get to the good stuff.
An uncomfortable aspect that many (myself included) have to reluctantly talk about is the inclusion of General Leia Organa Solo, via stock footage. Due to Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing in 2016, there was simply no way around having to concede to using body doubles and old footage to have Leia be in the film. Unfortunately, it comes across as awkward, and at many points creepy. It’s a good natured attempt to honor Fisher’s legacy that simply doesn’t pan out.
However, that “good stuff” mentioned earlier? It’s great stuff. And it’s bountiful. Even in that first hour, the characters are as sharp as ever before, in performance and writing. Other than Leia, the legacy characters like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suatomo) get their moments in their sun. The sequel trilogy characters fare better of course. In their portrayals of Poe and Finn, Oscar Isaac and John Boyega get a lot more to do here. Thus, adding some layers to characters that were given minor regressions in the previous films.
The connection between Ben Solo, aka “Kylo Ren”, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues to be the focal point of the trilogy, and for good reason. Driver and Ridley were born to play these characters. Two sides of the same coin, they give full pathos to these roles to such a degree; that they may be the very best characters in the saga. As the film continues past the rocky first hour, a series of back-to-back reveals involving Kylo and Rey happen. These reveals are likely to be a point of contention for a lot of fans.
A lot of people are accusing The Rise of Skywalker of disrespecting the choices of The Last Jedi. I disagree. In fact, the big twist of the film feels incredibly brave, recontextualizing The Last Jedi and even the saga as a whole. After this reveal, everything starts to pull together. The story manages to weave together a lot of complex ideas that have dominated the series for ages. Good vs. evil, destiny, the power of connection- it’s all here, and it’s all fully explored. Not to mention, the lore of Star Wars is furthered in a way that will lead to some grand universe material. The best parts of these movies have always been the concepts that fans get to play with in their own imagination.
Along this specific journey, the action and the worlds we visit in this film are mesmerizing. Star Wars ain’t looked this pretty, let me tell you. Director of Photography Dan Mindel gives life to images you only see in the mind of a child. It includes the lightsaber duels, a scene that introduces the concept of “hyperspace skipping”, as well as the settings of a sort of space music festival. Even the seedy world where we find Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) is great. But it’s really one of the newest planets where the imagery comes to life.
A place of pure nightmare fuel, it is a dazzling externalization of pure evil. I wouldn’t dare do a disservice by robbing the reader of the ability to see it for themselves. It’s here that Kylo and Rey are finally forced to reckon with destiny. Where all the threads of the saga comes to a head. Where the journey finally ends. And I’m satisfied with what the team behind The Rise of Skywalker came up with.
Series creator George Lucas said he wanted Star Wars to be something of a modern myth. Like all myths, Star Wars has been added onto. Sometimes in ways others might not like, but it has always maintained what made it special. Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is an exclamation mark on what has made the saga resonate with so many. It’s messy, it’s convoluted at times. But it is a rousing piece of science fiction-fantasy that’s sure to inspire children in the way that the originals or the prequels inspired previous generations’ children. That’s the legacy of these of these movies, providing stories that inspire. That’s Star Wars.
Review #2: Ileana Meléndez (Head of Marketing)
It is my belief that movies are best experienced entering with little to no expectations. As I did with Avengers: Endgame, I avoided all TV spots for Episode IX and the pre-release discourse that raged on Twitter this past week. However, sitting down with a positive attitude that no matter the Star Wars movie; it was to be enjoyed regardless did help my spirits. But it in no way blinded me from the reality of the mistake people made when criticizing Rian Johnson’s vision that challenged fans and enriched characters. Especially after seeing The Rise of Skywalker.
To understand my view as anything other than a bit bitter, we should bring it back to J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens just for a moment. Episode VII was a wonderful, fantastical reintroduction to all things Star Wars for the fandom. Many dubbed it as a rip off of A New Hope, but it was appropriate to revisit the familiar and slowly take us to the new. Abrams was the person for the job, making everything exciting and, in the best way possible, childishly joyful. It worked then, but I’m afraid as a final chapter, his vision doesn’t necessarily work now.
Returning to Episode IX, the first 30 to 45 minutes was another fast-paced catch up of the world of Star Wars. With the quippy, action-packed opening that seemed to jump back and forth between characters for a bit, it felt a lot like “And that’s what you missed on Glee!”. Sequences and dialogue felt like a video game tutorial, complete with an awkward NPC General Organa giving the protagonist their quest. It struggles to find its footing into something substantial until you’re about an hour into the film. Despite a lightspeed first act that is mostly good just for its fantastic imagery that keeps you somewhat at ease; the true plot rolls in halfway through the movie, finally piquing your interest.
The dualism between Rey and Kylo Ren throughout the trilogy is something no one can deny; however much they may argue over its significance. At first, it seems simple; light and dark colliding in a battle for victory. But the complexity of this connection in the force is something that carried the trilogy heavily. And that is what makes this movie redeemable.
Though it isn’t Abrams’ strength to delve too deeply into the humanity of characters, he was able to carry Johnson’s hard work to the finish line without too much trouble. Rey and Kylo are never seen as true rivals, but survivors of their own demons. The dynamic in their fight scenes was some of the best in the trilogy. Some scenes, in classic Abrams fashion, seemed a bit outlandish in concept. Despite this, always remember this is a franchise about light up swords and laser guns in space. The background didn’t take away from the continuous dance between the two protagonists of the Force, displaying some of the best saber fight choreography in all of the galaxy.
Despite the dependence on quips and jokes with pretty much everyone aside from Rey and Kylo, the Resistance still got together and kicked ass as usual, even if it did seem a bit Endgame style. However, what really took away from the movie was how superficialized our friends in the Resistance became again. Finn and Poe bickered like an old married couple; but were definitely straight because of the constant reminders of girls they want to totally kiss. Rose was treated like salt to be lightly sprinkled on and just seemed like a forced cameo. Maz and other alien characters were just background noise. I think the droids got more character depth than the humans at times. But that’s just what happens when you have Disney behind the wheel.
Without invading spoiler territory, I must say that the introduction of new lore was one of the best and worst elements of the movie. Though the expansion of lore was fun and almost felt Indiana Jones in nature; some smaller parts were unnecessary to invent given almost similar lore we’ve had since the original trilogy. However, it’s kind of a non-issue that doesn’t overly distract from the main plot. The ancient history of the Jedi is not deepened greatly, but is still present in Rey and Kylo’s journeys. The wisdom (and mistakes) of thousands of generations of Jedi living through the Force is an inspiring wonder. It fills a multi-generational fandom with the hope of these stories living on forever.
Despite the problems The Rise of Skywalker has, it in no way deserves the hatred that has been threatening it this week. No matter its stumbling blocks, it remains a Star Wars film that wraps up over 40 years of story. A point of perfection no one could argue, is how it ends on a new beginning. Because who would ever want Star Wars to end?
The Rise of Skywalker clearly has its faults, but one thing our critics agree on is the focus on Rey and Kylo was an utter highlight of not just the end of The Skywalker Saga, but of the sequel trilogy. Character depth was a challenge of difference, and while James states people will hate this film, Ileana doesn’t believe it deserves the hate at all. Which one is right? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters now.