Movie Review: ‘Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’

Slipcover art for the Multi-Screen Edition Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (marketed as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker(2019)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams

Story by: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Chris Terrio, and J.J. Abrams. Based on characters and situations created by George Lucas

Starring: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Joonas Suotamo, Keri Russell, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid

The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA dispatches secret agents to gather intelligence, while REY, the last hope of the Jedi, trains for battle against the diabolical FIRST ORDER.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader KYLO REN rages in search of the phantom Emperor, determined to destroy any threat to his power… – Title crawl from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

On December 20, 2019, 42 years and seven months after the theatrical release of George Lucas’s Star Wars (aka Star Wars: A New Hope), Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studio released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and final episode of the Skywalker Saga. Set 35 years after the events of the original film, director J.J. Abrams’ second Star Wars film pits the remnants of General Leia Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) Resistance against the mighty First Order and a shadowy adversary from the past.

Co-written by Abrams with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio and based on a story by Abrams, Terrio, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker begins on Mustafar, the lava planet where a young Darth Vader was defeated by his former Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and sustained the severe injuries that necessitated the use of his now-iconic cybernetic life-supporting armored suit and breath mask.

On that hellish planet, Vader’s grandson Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is seeking a Sith relic that will lead him to Exegol, an uncharted world from whence a mysterious message from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) was recently broadcast. Ren, who is consumed by the need to rule the galaxy on his own terms, is desperate to determine if Palpatine, who was believed to have died 31 years earlier when the Empire’s second Death Star was destroyed at the Battle of Endor, is really alive.

Ren, whose birth name is Ben Solo and is the last of the Skywalker line, eventually makes his way to the Unknown Regions and Exegol itself. There, the leader of the Knights of Ren makes an unexpected and most unwelcome discovery:

Emperor Palpatine: At last. Snoke trained you well.

Kylo Ren: I killed Snoke. I’ll kill you.

Emperor Palpatine: My boy, I made Snoke. I have been every voice…

Snoke: have ever heard..

Darth Vader: …inside your head.

Emperor Palpatine: The First Order was just the beginning. I will give you so much more.

Kylo Ren: You’ll die first.

Emperor Palpatine: I’ve died before. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be… unnatural.

Kylo Ren: What could you give me?

Emperor Palpatine: Everything. A new empire. The might of the Final Order will soon be ready. It will be yours if you do as I ask. Kill the girl, end the Jedi and become what your grandfather Vader could not. You will rule all the galaxy as the new emperor. But beware. She is not who you think she is.

“I made Snoke…” Screenshot from the Movies Anywhere digital release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (C) Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Meanwhile, Rey is continuing her Jedi training under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in cleverly repurposed footage from Star Wars: The Force Awakens).  In the year since the Battle of Crait, the scavenger girl from Jakku has learned much from Leia, who herself was trained by her brother, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) after the fall of the Empire but stopped her journey along the Jedi path after sensing her son Ben’s ultimate fall to the Dark Side of the Force.

But in an echo of a much younger Luke’s destiny, Rey discovers that all roads lead to Exegol. Her journey – and the final confrontation between good and evil, seduction and redemption – begins when Resistance heroes Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), accompanied by Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) return on the Millennium Falcon with the information provided by a spy within the First Order: Palpatine has indeed returned, and he is amassing a huge fleet to re-establish his regime throughout the galaxy.

Of course, since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the conclusion of the nine-episode Skywalker Saga, the final outcome is not in doubt. But as the old saying goes, “it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.”

Because Abrams and Terrio (and before them, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, the original writer-director team for Episode IX before they were replaced by Lucasfilm in 2017) have kept George Lucas’s ethos that each Trilogy in the Star Wars mirrors the themes of the others in different iterations, we see familiar plot points from the Prequels and the Original Trilogy as Rey and Kylo Ren both deal with their inner demons and their shared destiny vis a vis the Force itself.

Rey trains on the lush moon of Ajan Kloss. Screenshot from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Obviously, the biggest influence on this last of the sequels is Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Not only do we see that Palpatine somehow survived not only his fall down that long shaft in the second Death Star, but that he did discover a way to cheat death per his “Tragedy of Darth Plageuis” monologue in Star Wars; Revenge of the Sith. The film also takes us to a remnant of the aforementioned Death Star II  that ended up on Kef Bir, an ocean moon in the Endor system, and features several exciting lightsaber duels, thrilling cliffhanger sequences, a climactic space battle, and even a resolution to the conflict between the two central families of this saga: the Skywalkers and the Palpatines.

My Take

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is, for good or ill, the summation of a saga that unfolded over 42 years. It not only has to satisfactorily end a three-film cycle that focuses on Rey’s hero’s journey; it also has to wrap up a nine-part story, told in the style of 1930s matinee serials a la Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.  And even though the story told in The Rise of Skywalker leaves the viewer asking more questions at the end than, say, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio accomplish both goals…at least to my satisfaction.

Honestly, bringing back Ian McDiarmid as a resurrected Emperor Palpatine and revealing him as the puppetmaster behind Supreme Leader Snoke and the rise of the First Order makes sense. The “Emperor reborn” concept is not exactly a new idea in Star Wars lore;  Tom Veitch’s Dark Empire trilogy for Dark Horse Comics resurrected Palpatine in an eerily similar fashion in the early 1990s. The revelation that Palpatine created Snoke in order to turn Ben Solo into “a new Vader” is both simple and logical; Snoke, in essence, was just an avatar for the galaxy’s most powerful villain and just a “training tool” intended to turn Leia’s son – the last of the Skywalkers – into Palpatine’s final revenge on Anakin, Luke, Leia, and everyone who fought alongside them to end his tyrannical rule three decades before.

Is the film perfect? In some respects, no. It’s a bit more convoluted than I’d have liked, and it leaves it up to ancillary media (such as the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: The Visual Dictionary and Rae Carson’s novelization of the Terrio-Abrams screenplay) to provide answers to some of the questions viewers are left with after the final credits fade to black and the last notes of John Williams’ Finale linger in the air at the movie’s conclusion.

Still, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a fun roller coaster ride to that galaxy far, far away. It captures the thrilling sense of “what’s gonna happen next” that made the original 1977 film so much to watch. As I said before, its beats and themes dovetail nicely with the other Trilogies’ concluding Episodes, even recycling elements from Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, including cameos from characters seen in those films and, in at least one case, lines of dialogue as well.

Once again, J.J. Abrams (who is a lifelong Star Wars film and is the only other person, besides George Lucas himself, to direct more than one movie in the franchise) gets great performances from his cast, which was slated to be led by Carrie Fisher before she died in late December of 2016. Episode IX was originally set up to be “Leia’s film” when Lucasfilm began making the Sequel Trilogy; Star Wars: The Force Awakens was “Han Solo’s film,”while Star Wars: The Last Jedi was Luke’s.

Addressing Fisher’s death and trying to figure out Leia’s role was the challenge that stymied the Connolly-Trevorrow team; Abrams eventually discovered a way to use unused footage from The Force Awakens and write the scenes with Leia around that material. Thus, the director gets kudos from this writer for successfully blending material shot in 2014 with new material featuring Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and other cast members that was filmed in 2018 and early 2019.

As always, Industrial Light and Magic created beautifully rendered special effects that takes the viewer, at least for The Rise of Skywalker’s 142 minutes’ worth of runtime. Cinematographer Dan Mindel gives us a wide variety of vistas that range from hellish Mustafar to the snowy planet of Kijimi (which is also the Sequel Trilogy’s first reveal of a planet under First Order occupation), and all points in between. And, of course, Maestro John Williams (who has a cameo as a bartender on Kijimi) works his usual musical magic in this, his final Star Wars score.

All in all, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable film experience, as well as a nicely satisfying conclusion to the cornerstone saga in a space-fantasy franchise set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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