When Nirvana convened to record what would be their final album, Kurt Cobain embarked on a frustrating crusade to find the perfect producer. He wanted someone who could strip the varnish from everything that made Nevermind a generation-defining smash. Cobain ultimately hired Steve Albini, who helped deliver In Utero, a startling attempt to completely reorient Nirvana’s sound. In many ways, this mirrors the work that director Rian Johnson did on The Last Jedi. Johnson bravely fiddled with cinema’s most beloved canon, spiking the punchbowl with unexpected character arcs and stark deviations in narrative. Fans staggered out of that movie with an uneasy blend of frustration and fascination, and unsure if they wanted the boozy buzz Johnson was sneaking into their Star Wars.
Love it or hate it, The Rise of Skywalker is a frantic attempt to reign in The Last Jedi’s hubristic ambition. In Utero was great and all, but Nevermind flew off the shelves. J.J. Abrams returns from The Force Awakens and attempts to guide this behemoth franchise back to the cushy middle ground. Anybody who cried out for more fan service with the previous film will find themselves fed to the point of being uncomfortably full. By overcorrecting, Abrams will likely provoke some level of disappointment in every faction of fans.
But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, I’ll try to herd all of Skywalker‘s scattered plot points under one spoiler-free umbrella. After the events of The Last Jedi, our Resistance heroes reel from the news that a familiar villain has returned from the dead. This Big Bad Dude–who you already know if you’ve seen the previews–seeks to boost the hated First Order to a new level of evil. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Finn (John Boyega) must unite to locate a Sith artifact that can help destroy the Order and bring peace to the galaxy. Meanwhile, Rey confronts the truth of her identity, and her complicated bond with the conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
That bare-bones description is really all I give ya without ruining any surprises. Even at 142 minutes, Skywalker feels jam-packed with characters and story. The whole thing barrels along at full-speed, until the movie pants and gasps like a winded sprinter. By the time John Williams’s familiar fanfare closes the picture, it’s clear that this installment has unloaded a lot of plot onto its audience. Maybe too much.
Now for the good news: Despite its flaws, Skywalker gets a lot of stuff right. The trio of younger leads generate real chemistry with each other, making them easy to root for. Ridley, in particular, does fine work as a Jedi who learns that growing power comes with growing vulnerability. Even though Carrie Fisher passed in 2016, her posthumous scenes here further the story without making too much of a distraction. The booming score from John Williams invokes every familiar motif from across the franchise, and will thrill any Star Wars fan. All the lightsaber battles are well-staged, and come with an emotional gravity seldom found in the prequel trilogy.
Let’s turn to the Dark Side: If the aforementioned prequels suffered from lapses of lazy writing, this final chapter actually goes the opposite way. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio try so hard to do so much, and the strain becomes more evident as the picture goes along. Conflicts are set up and paid off within minutes, long-standing story arcs are given hollow resolutions, and the finale is so busy that I half-expected a kitchen sink to go flying across the scene. The script also goes out of its way to sand off the rough edges introduced in Last Jedi, a move that will cheapen the experience for those who enjoyed that film.
The perfect Star Wars movie requires a delicate mixture of volatile chemicals. It’s so difficult to get the ratios right that multiple filmmakers have had their eyebrows singed off. The Rise of Skywalker knows the proper ingredients. It just doesn’t know when to stop pouring them into the vat. Ironically, this will have the same polarizing effect as Last Jedi, but for the completely different reasons. I also suspect that opinions of Rian Johnson’s bold departure into left field will elevate with time. Sometimes, we just don’t realize that In Utero is exactly the kind of album we need.
142 min. PG-13.
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