So, a bit of context first.
I’d consider myself a Star Wars fan – not a major know-it-all die-hard who can tell you off-hand and in detail the dimensions of the Theed Palace Banquet Hall and its relevance in being the official reception in the Royal Palace of the people of Naboo, but someone who, due to my advancing years, can say they still remember queuing outside the Odeon Newcastle for the original as an excited 8-year-old and who then went on to see it in cinemas around five times, back in a time when movies stayed around for a couple of months at a time and have seen every one that came after that – and since Attack of the Clones all of them on day of release, including last night attending the triple bill of the ‘new trilogy’ starting at 6 at the local Odeon and ending with the new, and final, film at 00:01. I felt The Force Awakens got things ‘back on track’ and gave me the sense of fun and ‘wow’ and, unlike a lot of ‘real fans’ I didn’t hate The Last Jedi – I actually thought it was pretty great, Leia Space Ghost and the awful Casino world section notwithstanding. That is to say, I’ve been looking forward to The Rise of Skywalker for quite some time and had no pre-disposed feelings of mistrust going in. Coming out? I didn’t feel rage or a retro-fitted ruined childhood, I just felt a low-level disappointment: something I’ve never felt at a Star Wars film on first viewing: no not even Phantom Menace or AotC
TRoS has a runtime of 2 hours 21 minutes and has a lot to cover in that time in order to attempt to bring a nine movie series to a satisfying conclusion – especially when it is also setting out to both please those unhappy with the last movie and course-correct judged missteps The Last Jedi took – that’s going to happen when you give writing and directing credits to one person as that movie did with Rian Johnson. Well, now JJ Abrams is back at the helm and apparently didn’t like some of the things that were done with his toys.
We pick up where we left off, and as per usual the opening scroll gives us the details of what’s happened since the last movie. Kylo Ren is searching for something, Rey is training, Finn and Poe are off on a quest and we’re off and running with cold openings left, right and centre. And there are a lot of lefts, rights and diversions on the way. McGuffin after Mcguffin to allow for ever new worlds to cover any environment not yet seen and what, for the first time for me, felt like a video game; ‘level three has been completed but the princess has been moved to another castle’.
The trailers have made it pretty clear that there’s a returning, long-thought-gone big bad on the scene: presumably because Johnson despatched the previous one in relatively short shrift. So it’s not really a spoiler to say that the Emperor is back: it’s made clear in the first ten minutes or so. I’ll leave the why and the how out of it.
In a nutshell? The rebels, down to their bare bones (again) are making a last-ditch attempt to defeat the evil Empire – whether you call them Sith or First Order or whatever, they’re ever-more-powerful in size which, without wanting to bring politics into it too much made me wonder where they get their numbers from: if they are so bad, and so evil, how over nine movies have they recruited so many across their ranks (and yes, I know this is answered to some degree in Attack of the Clones, but you get my slightly facetious point: the rebels were down to around fifty by the end of the last movie – enough to fit onto the Millenium Falcon certainly, but they’ve grown enough to have cannon fodder pilots and x-wings and all once again)
There are enough (too many?) callbacks and parallels to things we’ve seen before throughout the series: Rey in training, Poe being boosted to be the Han Solo character that was clearly intended from the outset but never really given enough screen time to fully establish, Finn being…well, Finn – John Bodega has not really been served well anywhere in the new series and the character has less to do and less real character development than Chewbacca…there are more droids and given more screentime: R2D2 not cute enough for you? Here’s BB8. BB8 getting a bit long-in-the-tooth? Here’s a new one: D-O- a weird little homemade thing that came across to me like Forky from Toy Story 4.
The action is unrelenting – more so than any other Star Wars movie and from the off. Action scene after action scene, but to the point very quickly where there is no real gravity (no pun intended) to them. Familiarity is one thing, but even, despite better than ever effects and larger than before worldscapes, it finally felt for me as though it were a been-here, seen-it set of scenarios. Do something, get something, get captured, escape. Repeat. There are some stunning set pieces – the Rey running in the desert and somersaulting over the pursuing ship as seen in the trailer is impressive, but its preceded by flying stormtroopers (“They can do that now?” – a line repeated three times for comedy effect) which does draw to mind the oldest Star Wars cliche of why spend all the time and effort on these new weapons/ battle tactics when they still can’t shoot straight/ fly TIE fighters without crashing into something…?)
The gang are back together and off on an adventure, and then another, and then another – constantly divided and reunited. There are old (very old) faces from the original series along the way – including a blink-and-you’ll miss it little easter egg for fans of New Hope, and new faces added to the mix – none of whom (Richard E Grant as Allegiant General Pryde – a pointless addition to the ranking officer list, Keri Russell as a masked mercenary Zorii Bliss and a cameo from Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer which steps into spoiler territory to say more) add anything of note to the story. There are callbacks and cute gags (and some groans at attempts at wink-wink humour) throughout and the story moves along…sort of. And I think that was part of my problem here. I don’t expect much from a Star Wars script – a big thing being built that needs to be blown up, a big bad to be confronted. Maybe a little twist along the way…but for the first time in my Star Wars viewing history I felt a little…dare to whisper it, bored, as things went on. Maybe it’s because I’m 50 years old, maybe it’s because I was watching it at 2o’clock in the morning but…I don’t think so. There is one particular moment which should be the ultimate rousing call to action that frankly, Avengers did recently and far more effectively – I know I wasn’t the only one watching that groaned slightly: I heard it, even from the fellow fans who’d made the first night effort. Because there was no weight to it: a grandstanding moment that came to nothing because immediately after it happens, it’s rendered irrelevant by another action and that, for me, summed up the feel of the whole movie. Do something, it’s negated or contradicted and we’re left with an often impressive action scene, but for what reason in plot advancement? As an early review, I will leave this spoiler-free but would say the ending felt particularly problematic in this regard. The influence of the superhero movie felt very strong: almost a trope in itself in the way it played out.
Two hour and twenty-something minutes may seem a decent length of time to spin out a good yarn. The problem is that JJ introduces so many new touches that (I at least immediately) felt like well, there’s a Deus ex machina in waiting to help the plot when needed. Jedi Ghosts can do that? The force allows you to do that? That character is able to do that with that character? (And no, unfortunately not Poe and Finn, which did come across as the most unrequited homoerotic subplot not fully explored). It all added to the ‘power-up’ video game effect and lessened dramatic tension because, ultimately, too much of it felt as if it had no consequence.
Maybe it’s me – and maybe it’s just time. For me, or the series. I’m sure the true, real, know-everything-about-it fans will have their love/ hate feelings. I’m sure the movie will make a bazillion (although I have to say it is the first Star Wars movie I can see myself not seeing more than once in the cinema), and I’m sure the toys will fly off the shelves – there are more additions and more callbacks and more muppet work at play than any other in the series.
I’m a little tired and emotional now: and not just because I didn’t get to bed until after 3. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I think about it more – although normally it’s the other way around: even with the weaker instalments in the series I’ve tended to come out of them thinking there was a lot to like and only later started picking through the details and thinking about what didn’t work for me: finally, and for the final movie, it felt very much the other way around here.