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'The Rise Of Skywalker' Makes For An Exciting, Exhaustive, Effortful Ending

Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) take on the enemy one last time in <em>Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker</em>.
Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) take on the enemy one last time in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The thing about the act of plate-spinning is: It's not about the plates. Not really.

We sit there in the audience, watching those various dishes spin atop their dowels. While it's aesthetically pleasing, in the abstract, to see so many pieces of Wedgwood china twirling away contentedly, what matters — the compelling drama of the whole affair — comes not from watching them, but from watching the poor schmuck running back-and-forth behind them. If we happen to notice one plate starting to wobble, after all, the first thing we do is look away from it, to see if the plate-spinner sees it, too.

We want them to succeed. The whole cheesy novelty act is predicated on this. The sheer skill it takes to keep the plates from falling — the eye, the timing, the light touch — that's what we're drawn to, really. The work of the thing.

J.J. Abrams is spinning a great many plates in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final chapter in the third and final trilogy of what we are now apparently supposed to call "The Skywalker Saga." He's not simply called upon to end the trilogy he began in 2015 with The Force Awakens, but the whole space-operatic, science-fiction-with-generous-helpings-of-fantasy, embrace-your-destiny, Joseph-Campbell, daddy-issues megillah. He has to land a Corellian light freighter that has been loaded down with everything that got kicked off in 1977 — when the saga's first film (but fourth chapter — long story, literally), A New Hope, debuted — establishing the Star Wars formula:

  • 1/3 epic space battles
  • 1/3 high-adventure narrow escapes for our doughty heroes
  • 1/3 characters intoning blissfully hokey dialogue about the Force and the Dark Side
  • He nails that 42-year-old recipe dutifully — effortfully, it must be said — but the flavoring's off. The story doesn't require him to toss in as many ingredients from earlier films in the saga as he does here, but he dumps them all (callbacks, references, echoes, events, characters) into the mix anyway. The result leaves you feeling not so much bloated — the film moves too quickly and is too much fun for that — but certainly overstuffed.

    The Rise of Skywalker is ostensibly positioned as a culmination, but it seems less momentous, less inevitable than the term would suggest. Instead, it's an accretion — a buildup of plotlines and characters that rolls toward its conclusion by dint of momentum lent to it by all that's come before.

    That lack of clear focus is largely a result of this most recent trilogy's peculiar provenance. In The Force Awakens, Abrams created its main characters and teased some intriguing mysteries for future films to explore before handing the reins to Rian Johnson, whose The Last Jedi in 2017 proceeded to explore some and (justifiably, in my opinion) abandon others, in an effort to shake things up. Now that Abrams is back at the helm, several plot threads that Johnson had summarily sealed away in boxes — including the parentage of Rey (Daisy Ridley) — get hauled back down from narrative deep storage and unpacked for fresh inspection.

    It's the directorial equivalent of a particularly petty game of Exquisite Corpse, wherein one partygoer writes the first sentence of a story, then hands it to a second partygoer who writes a sentence undercutting the first sentence, then the first partygoer takes the paper back and doubles down on what they had written in the first place.

    But then, that first sentence — The Force Awakens, in this case — was powered by the easy chemistry among its leads: Rey's steely resolve, Finn's (John Boyega's) comic timing and Poe's (Oscar Isaac's) preternatural charm. Johnson's The Last Jedi, for understandable story reasons, split them up — and for all the good and worthy risks that film took, the sundering of our trio was the one that didn't pay off. In Skywalker, Abrams reunites our heroes and pointedly keeps them that way, allowing their interpersonal energy and humor to ground us through an extended series of planet-hopping fetch quests that can't help but blur together.

    The mysterious connection between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is allowed to become less so, as is only fitting in the final chapter of their story. Abrams shows an admirable willingness to maintain the shades of gray that Johnson introduced into Star Wars' black-and-white cookie of a moral universe. Here again, characters make choices that do not always strictly accord with their wardrobe's color scheme.

    Less successful are the return appearances of various characters from previous trilogies, most of whom have been forcefully (heh) inserted into events. (Abrams wields a shoehorn with the same determination that Rey wields her lightsaber.) Some viewers will cry "fan service!" Many more will consider themselves fans and be grateful for being so rigorously and exhaustively serviced.

    The blockbuster conclusion to an era-defining film franchise is a spectacular feat of plate-spinning — with one vital difference. With The Rise of Skywalker, the spinner — Abrams — wants us to focus on the plates alone. And there are certainly moments when we do: tender scenes featuring previously unused footage of the late Carrie Fisher (and her back-of-the-head stand-in), a chase through the desert, a lightsaber battle on some familiar wreckage amid a roiling ocean.

    But there are many more moments — especially toward the film's conclusion, when a sequence showing just how hopelessly dire things get for our heroes just goes on and on and on -- when the spinning plates disappear, and all we can see is poor J.J. Abrams darting back and forth and back again, frantically struggling to keep them going.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.