The secret is in the small moments.
That’s always been the truth when it comes to Star Wars.
For more than 40 years the franchise has held an uncommon grip on pop cinema, drawing audiences back again and again to the galaxy far, far away. While the quality of the films has undulated across the decades as various directors, writers and studios have pulled the strings, the saga has, for the most part, hemmed to a common model: swashbuckling adventure, big action scenes, cutting-edge digital and practical effects, and John Williams’ sweeping, soaring scores. When considered in its totality, the saga has been a symphony of popcorn-fueled bombast, with good and evil — literally the light and the dark — doing battle across the stars.
But it’s the small moments that have been the connective tissue that has held the films together in the hearts of generations of fans. Moments that not only serve as a bridge from one lightsaber battle to the next, but as a bridge between the cinematic galaxy and the audience.
Like Luke Skywalker stopping to look at the double-sunned horizon in the original 1977 film, pining for adventure, for a new start, longing to break free of the pull of his humble childhood home. We felt that. Or when Leia tells Han she loves him in The Empire Strikes Back, and he responds simply, “I know.” There’s a reason those moments are so iconic: Because they feel real. In a fantastical sci-fi space opera stuffed with starships and blasters and monsters and breakneck battles, it’s in the instances where the films have stopped to take a breath that they’ve found their humanity.
And that is the essential flaw in director J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth movie in the franchise’s main series and purportedly the final installment of the so-called Skywalker Saga. While certainly not without its charms, Skywalker is an absolutely frantic film, one that fires out of the gate from its opening scene and hurtles from one big action set piece to the next. It’s like a boulder rumbling down a mountain, sending the saga’s final chapter careening toward a thunderous close.
That will doubtlessly hold appeal for some. Abrams certainly doesn’t cheat those who come looking for thrills. But I found myself wishing the movie wasn’t quite so breathless. After more than four decades of investment in the various characters, storylines and overall mythos that Star Wars has brought to the culture, I would have liked to have been able to let things sink in just a bit. While it’s not a film that is bereft of emotion — there was a moment involving Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) that brought a serious lump to my throat — Abrams simply doesn’t give the more heartfelt moments the space they need to find their mark.
There’s no doubt Abrams had a heavy lift here. He successfully resurrected the franchise with 2015’s rousing-but-safe The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars outing after Disney purchased Lucasfilm. That was followed in 2017 by director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, a critically acclaimed, meta take on the saga that turned Star Wars on its ear and bitterly divided hardcore franchise fans. Abrams — and Disney — clearly wanted to guide the series back toward more straightforward adventure, which is where we land in The Rise of Skywalker.
For all its flash, the gist of Skywalker is actually pretty simple. Thought to have been killed in the events of Return of the Jedi, the evil Emperor Palpatine (a deliciously over-the-top Ian McDiermid, eating entire scenes whole) turns up alive and reveals his sinister behind-the-scenes machinations in the years since. Our heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac, who gives one of the best turns in the picture, finally fully embracing the mantle of a new school Han Solo) and Chewie set off to find a device that will lead them to the Emperor and a final showdown. Adam Driver returns as the villainous Kylo Ren, skulking through the film with his typical mix of melancholy and rage, tight-roping along a character arc that doesn’t feel fully earned.
The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed with callbacks, cameos and small supporting turns — some of which I dare not spoil here — that certainly lift the movie. Billy Dee Williams is back as Lando Calrissian, and he comes to play. At 82, Williams still oozes the charm that makes Lando such a beloved side character in this saga. Skywalker also does a laudable job in its handling of Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. The actress died in 2016, and Abrams uses previously filmed footage and some digital trickery to give Leia as fitting a send-off as possible.
While he didn’t exactly stick the landing, Abrams certainly crafted an action-packed, rollicking final chapter in this more than 40-year-old saga. And there’s no question it’s an entry that will be debated until long after many of us are dead and gone. I just wish it hadn’t raced quite so swiftly to the finish. I’d have loved to have had a small moment or two to linger on in the galaxy just a bit longer.