New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER” IS FUN BUT SHORT ON SURPRISES

Unlike a number of chattering fanboys who couldn’t tweet enough bile about STAR WARS: THE LAST OF THE JEDI, I loved how filmmaker Rian Johnson tinkered and toyed with the formula and expectations. He cleverly killed off Snoke because he wasn’t the main villain. Kylo Ren was. Johnson also separated Finn and Poe, expanding the storyline of each without feeling the need to turn to a replay of their buddy act from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. And most famously, Johnson’s script did not treat Luke Skywalker with a haloed reverence, like he was the Second Coming. Instead, he wrote him as almost an anti-hero, an old man tired and bitter over war and fighting.

Well, the hordes of fans aching for more traditional storytelling in the STAR WARS universe let the powers that be know exactly how they felt, and those filmmakers responded with this new film. STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER gives them a more traditional type saga – it’s fun, spirited, and plays much more in the typical “Galaxy, Far, Far Away” fashion. And it addresses many of the fanboy complaints: an ugly, old villain takes center stage again, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) play more together, and the spirit of Luke (Mark Hamill) even returns to give sage advice like his old mentor Obi-Wan. The balance is restored.

But so is the obviousness.

There is nothing horribly wrong with this conclusion to the new trilogy, but there’s nothing particularly inspired about it either. There are well-choreographed fight scenes, some wonderfully emotional moments that will bring out the tears, and its production values are as superlative as always. There are even some delightful cameos, though they are there in the trailer, and casting surprises too, including a snarling Richard E. Grant as new villain General Pryde. Grant is always a welcome addition to any film. But what this new film doesn’t have is genuine shocks or surprises, nothing that truly gobsmacks. My jaw was on the floor when Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Hodo rammed the ship in THE LAST JEDI. It stayed firmly aligned all through this one.

Look no further than how Rey (Daisy Ridley) doesn’t expand enough as a character in this third time out. She’s a better fighter, sure, as clearly all of her Jedi training has paid off. Still, she’s little more than a fighter here. Where’s her philosophy about war, her feelings towards Kylo (Adam Driver), reactions to the deaths around here… where are her words? She has a number of fights, all well-choreographed, but precious little dialogue. Her scenes with Kylo are mostly skirmishes with a few odd smoldering glares.

Fans may hunger for more duels than duos, but the dialogue has always been a big part of the STAR WARS universe, from the Jedi philosophical exposition stated by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) in the first film, to the unique, backward syntax of Yoda (Frank Oz) in the second. Even Leia (Carrie Fisher) had a lot to say about everything in Johnson’s film. Here, most of the language is in the cryptic threats from the returning Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), or Poe and Finn repeating each other’s lines in comic banter-mode. (“They can fly now?!” “They can fly now!”)

Returning filmmaker J.J. Abrams holds it all together with pizzazz, despite such missed opportunities. A set-piece amongst a violently cascading ocean looks stunning. Oscar Isaac gets a lot of laughs. The new Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is given a lot of screentime. And Abrams does nicely by Fisher too, using archived footage repurposed here due to her death. Keri Russell makes a vivid impression as a new bounty hunter, though Abrams only will show us her gorgeous eyes. (Still, it’s enough to know exactly what actress is playing her.)

Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is unfortunately sidelined this go-round, and what the story does to Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux feels very wrong. Those are problems, but the big mistake is that everything stays too much in the assigned lanes. Even resurrecting a villain seems so old hat these days. And it’s a pretty egregious thing to bring back Palpatine. First, by not having him vanquished wholly by Darth Vader at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI lessens that character’s sacrifice and that film’s conclusion. His presence here also forces a re-evaluation of all subsequent chapters as he suggests he’s been alive and pulling the strings of everything the whole time. Really? How wrong is that? Fanboys should have a field day with that plot point on social media.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER does have one character arc that comes close to being genuinely sublime this time out, and that is Kylo’s. How he grows is not unexpected, but Driver makes it palpable. Without overacting once, he lets us understand all Kylo’s pain, pride, confusion, and ultimate relief at the conclusion of the story. I just wish there was even more of him, doing what he does well more directly with Ridley. I’ve seen enough dogfights in space to last centuries, but there simply wasn’t enough of Rey and Ren rising together.

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