'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' may give fans what they want, but...
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In "Star Wars," no one's ever really gone.
So Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) says, near the end of 2017's "The Last Jedi" and again in the trailer for the new sequel, "The Rise of Skywalker." In the trailer, those words are followed by an evil laugh so instantly familiar to fans of the long-running sci-fi franchise as belonging to a character who was killed five movies ago that it held out the promise of resuscitation.
That promise is confirmed in the on-screen text "crawl" that, as with previous films, opens "Skywalker," catching us up with what we need to know.
What that text crawl - which opens with the words "The dead speak!" - doesn't tell us is that the new movie, while fast-paced, eventful, occasionally even surprising, also panders wildly, closing out this last chapter of the nine films that have come to be known as the Skywalker Saga with a story that delivers to the faithful exactly the movie they wanted.
On the one hand, that's a good thing. On the other, it may not be the closure this epic, now 42 years in the making, deserves.
As "Skywalker" opens, we learn that Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, new supreme leader of the First Order (the bad guys), is about to take a meeting with that character we all thought was dead, a meeting that he hopes will confer even more power upon him and dominion over the galaxy. Rey (Daisy Ridley), our scavenger-turned-hero introduced in 2015's "The Force Awakens," is meanwhile continuing her training as a Jedi knight among the rebel forces struggling against the oppressors.
She and Kylo are powerful nemeses, each of them sensitive to the mystical energy known as the Force, with Kylo having embraced its dark side and Rey its light. It is no accident that her name sounds like "ray," but she wrestles with the pull of the shadows, for reasons we don't yet know (but will by this film's final act). For his part, Kylo, the son of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, digitally resurrected since her 2016 death), is also torn between good and evil. That tension - Rey and Kylo kind of dig each other, but they're also, you know, mortal enemies, so let's call it a love-hate relationship - is the spine of the new film.
Daisy Ridley is Rey in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." Picture: Lucasfilm Ltd
There's other stuff going on as well. Almost too much stuff, as Rey and her resistance-fighter comrades Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 set out on a life-or-death mission that leads them to video-game-like obstacles and dangers. These include, in rapid succession, flying Stormtroopers - yes, they fly now, as Poe notes sardonically - quicksand and a giant, carnivorous worm, as well as many scenery and climate changes. The special effects and cinematography are well done, particularly a scene set in wreckage that can only be reached by traversing monstrous ocean waves.
None of that is especially new. Nor is the climactic battle scene that will hinge on a one-chance-in-a-million stratagem. And the film's aversion to death, or at least the sort of sacrifice that matters - one that demonstrates victory comes at a real cost - is also familiar.
When Luke said no one's ever really gone, he didn't mean that no one actually dies in "Star Wars." Plenty of characters, named and unnamed, have given their lives in the pursuit of destruction - or preservation - of life as we know it in the rebel stronghold. But we're not given even the deaths of prominent characters in ways that might make us actually feel something other than adrenaline.
In myth, including not just the gods and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome but Westerns and even the superhero comic books and TV serials that inspired the "Star Wars" films, the good guys are often flawed. So it makes sense that Rey must be seen to grapple with her less virtuous nature (which she does in a scene that shows her, quite literally, facing off against herself). But there ought to be costs to overcoming those weaknesses - costs that the makers of "Star Wars" seem unwilling to demand of their hero or their story.
If there's loss at the end of "Skywalker," it's the easy kind.
Everybody wants a happy ending. But that doesn't mean that we should always get the one we want. It's fine, if also cliche, to be reminded that good will triumph over evil. But it would make for a deeper and more powerful lesson - one that, after nine movies, might leave a lasting dent in the heart - if the hero actually had to give up something, or someone, that didn't feel like a tiniest bit of a cop-out.