Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker review: new hope springs eternal

The climactic ninth instalment of the galaxy-busting space fantasy grabs its darlings and hyperdrives to a better future.

The Last Jedi review: eighth time’s the charm

Rebecca Harrison

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

A long time ago on a distant planet, a little girl cries out for her parents as they leave her behind. Where are they going? Why are they leaving her? How will she survive?

Now, in the present, there is something that Rey’s adoptive family are not telling her, and she cannot find peace. Worlds burn around her as the galaxy descends into the dark reign of the First Order’s chaos. The Sith conspire to destroy everything. The dead speak. All the characters you have ever loved prepare to fight to the death against the Dark Side. But in spite of all the horror, this is Star Wars. And there is hope, always hope, and the power of the mysterious Force.

The final film in the nine-part saga is an energetic caper that ties together loose ends with the dexterity of the Millennium Falcon weaving through an asteroid field. It sees villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) find an old Sith map to an unchartered planet (Exogol) that holds the key to the evil First Order’s domination over the galaxy. Realising his discovery of a dark and terrifying secret, the Resistance – led by Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), plus Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and a host of recurring characters – race to stop him from establishing a new era of Imperial rule.

Returning as director, J.J. Abrams introduces an array of new planets, ships and characters that jostle for attention alongside old haunts and ghostly objects from the saga’s past in this warm and enjoyable if flawed film. From Fifth Element-style runes to sacred Jedi texts, there are enough artefacts here to fill an archive. The Rise of Skywalker is a film that makes its history tangible, and in touching and being touched, it asks that you hold on in material ways to the world and the people around you.

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

Of course, many historic figures make meaningful returns to the screen, too, including Lando (Billy Dee Williams) and the masterful Leia (Carrie Fisher), who appears thanks to footage shot for the earlier sequel movies. For among the younger Resistance fighters, youthful imposter syndrome abounds: do they really have what it takes to honour their forebears and save the day? It’s up to the film’s elders to elevate their younger counterparts. Sometimes this means the older characters must give up their memories; sometimes the young are forced to remember. If the past must die – as Kylo asserted in The Last Jedi – then you have to reconcile yourself to your role in history, to your place in all this.

Places and planets in the movie lack the iconic majesty of earlier films, with Exogol the most memorable new addition with its Revenge of the Sith-style scorched earth. In fact, there are so many new locations and characters in the film that it leaves you a little breathless, with outlaw Zorrie Bliss (Keri Russell) and First Order-survivor Jannah (Naomi Ackie) underserved by their rapid introductions and minimal screen time. Like the Millennium Falcon repeatedly jumping through hyperspace, the effect is overwhelming.

Yet the rapid editing does work when juxtaposed with extreme close ups of characters and objects that create more contemplative moments of stillness. The cinematography is in the same monstrous vein as The Empire Strikes Back: all canted frames, oblique imagery and extreme high angles peering down over the perilous wrecks of the past. And both the score and sound design – which shifts from dialogue-free sequences to unnerving crackles and shrieks – are quite extraordinary.

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

In terms of representation, the film’s female characters are poorly used. With a range of women on screen, Abrams wastes enormous potential for female friendships among familiar faces Maz (Lupita Nyong’o) and Connix (Billie Lourd) in empty gestures toward inclusivity. The sidelining of Resistance fighter Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), one of the stars of The Last Jedi, is even more troubling. That said, there are some much-needed moments of community for the black characters, and although Finn’s sensitivity deserves greater reward, his point of view is privileged throughout. His is the beating heart of this wild and joyous film, which – finally! – gives viewers the moment of queer representation that so many of us have been looking for.

Thus, The Rise of Skywalker pays dividends in fan service, and it pushes every nostalgic button on its dashboard. It’s very funny, and by twists and turns incredibly sad, too, with surprises so big that Han Solo’s ego looks small by comparison. As for Rey and Kylo’s fates – she contains multitudes, and he contains more than he ever knew. In the end, it’s a film about coming together and demonstrating kindness, about standing in solidarity and making ethical choices. In our own dark times, it reminds us of the power of hope.

 

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