STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

★★★

MAKING SENSE OF THE END OF THE 'STAR WARS' SAGA

BLU-RAY REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
30th March 2020

In my Blu-ray reviews for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' and 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi', I used the opportunity to defend the films, both of which I genuinely love. Both were beset by controversy (the latter especially), and yet I saw in them an evolution of the most beloved franchise in film history into something new and exciting. I also wrote of my hope that returning director J.J. Abrams would take up the gauntlet for the last stretch and "brings it all to a thunderous, thrilling end." Unfortunately, I'm not going to offer the same redemptive argument here for 'The Rise of Skywalker', the final film in the Star Wars saga. Met with general dismissal and disappointment on release, it was seen as a step back, a move away from the promise of the other entries and an unsatisfying end to the series. Time and distance haven't worked to improve the film, but setting emotion aside perhaps can lend some clarity to what went wrong, and what could have gone right.

To be honest, it's not that the ideas in 'The Rise of Skywalker' are bad - in fact, in an ideal world, a lot of them could have worked, perhaps even the baffling return of Emperor Palpatine. The problem was that two significant circumstances worked against the film: the first, the devastating loss of Carrie Fisher, was a challenge that had to be dealt with, resulting in the original plan for a Leia-focused final chapter to be jettisoned and technical trickery used to incorporate her into the film. However, the other was perhaps more problematic, and that was the fixed release date returning director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio had to work towards after original director Colin Treverrow left the film over creative differences. When similar issues plagued 'The Force Awakens', the release date was pushed back to give Abrams more time. Here, he was forced to develop perhaps the most important blockbuster of the decade with hardly enough time to do so.

'STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER' FINAL TRAILER

'The Rise of Skywalker' feels like a first draft screenplay, with every idea thrown at it and very little time given to making sense of the mess. Some have accused the film of attempting to erase the work Rian Johnson had done with 'The Last Jedi', but apart from the mishandling of Rose, the film seems far more concerned with having any story to tell, let alone working against the previous one. Hidden within the mess are some real gems - Rey (Daisy Ridley) beginning to question her power and her emotions beautifully mirrors the same journeys for Luke and Anakin, and maintains the Star Wars mantra of themes echoing across the series - but nothing feels properly developed or considered. Once-fascinating character arcs such as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) fall off a cliff, great characters are relegated to the sidelines and the middle act becomes an endless roundabout of repetitive set pieces that spin the wheel while the film frantically searches for a direction. It also seems afraid to actually have any stakes or result in any cost, actually making you disappointed when certain characters skirt death and rob the film of any emotional weight. The bones of a great film are there, but the time to find that film isn't.

That same frantic desperation is evident in the craft of the film as well. The production design is as incredible as ever, but Abrams' direction can't find the right tone or rhythm, instead setting a pace of the film running as fast as it can without taking a moment to breathe. The editing is erratic, the cinematography is unexpectedly chaotic and the sound design is often distractingly overwhelming. The effect is a film yelling excitedly at you for two hours, and this combined with the lack of narrative clarity or character development means that, when you come to the climax, it all just feels like too much for too little. That isn't to say that the film isn't at times entertaining, with some really strong set pieces, a surprisingly great handling of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and one last magnificent score from John Williams. The problem for all the good material is that the overall effect of a film is one so desperate to be liked that it'll throw everything it can at you, from loud sounds to bright colours to every classic Star Wars reference it possibly can to make you like it.

'The Rise of Skywalker' is not the worst film in the Star Wars saga. In fact, it's far from it (I'll never understand how the desperate need to have The Best Take on the new films seems to have erased everyone's memory that the prequel trilogy is essentially unwatchable). On its own, it's a perfectly functional film, with some good stuff and some bad stuff. And yet, it might be the most disappointing. It's not just that it's the last film in this sweeping epic we've been watching for over 40 years, or that it doesn't make good on all the promises of its predecessors, but that it's very likely that it never really had much of a chance to succeed in the first place. Maybe it would have been better with more time and more development. Maybe it suffered most from the fact the trilogy wasn't begun with an idea of an end in mind, or the ability to seed the return of its once-dead villain from the beginning. Maybe the stakes were just too high. 'The Rise of Skywalker' is the ending we have though, and even after some time away from its release, it's hard to feel anything other than disappointment.

The bones of a great film are there, but the time to find that film isn't.

PICTURE & SOUND
What isn't disappointing is the terrific 1080p 2.39:1 transfer on this two-disc Blu-ray release. It's much easier to enjoy the look of the film on a smaller screen when you're able to take more detail in, as opposed to in the cinema where it felt crazed and overwhelming, as well as lessening the impact of the artificial film grain applied to the digitally-shot film. The detail throughout is really striking, as well as the rich colour palette. It's certainly on par with the two previous films. It's complemented by a bombastic and well-balanced DTS-HD MA 7.1 track that, even with the frenetic sound design, is still wildly impressive.

The film is also released on 4K UHD, which was unavailable for review at the time.

SPECIAL FEATURES
As with 'The Force Awakens' and 'The Last Jedi', this set comes with a tremendous feature-length documentary on the making of the film. 'The Skywalker Legacy' (1:06:11) not only features extensive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from 'The Rise of Skywalker', but mixes it with terrific archival material from the making of the original films, particularly 'Return of the Jedi'. The result is a fascinating, thoroughly entertaining, often surprisingly moving look at the heart and love that went into the film - even if their choices aren't always the right ones, it's clear they were all made with good intentions. Highlights include how they approached the (frankly strange) inclusion of Carrie Fisher in the film and the care taken to support her daughter Billie Lourd through the process, the surprise cameo from composer John Williams, and how actor Shirley Henderson puppeteered the mouth of her character Babu Frick herself. Even if the film is a letdown, the set is basically worth the money just for this documentary.

The rest of the features focus on specific aspects of the production. They include:
- 'Pasaana Pursuit: Creating the Speeder Chase' (14:16), focused on the first-act chase sequence
- 'Aliens in the Desert' (5:59), a further look at the amazing desert festival sequence
- 'D-O: Key to the Past' (5:33), looking at the design and realisation of the ship that becomes key to Rey's past
- 'Warwick & Son' (5:37), a tribute to the legendary Warwick Davies, who first joined the films as Wicket the Ewok in 'Return of the Jedi' as a kid (shown in great archival footage), who returns to the character as a cameo in the film along with his son Harrison
- 'Cast of Creatures' (7:46), stepping through the new character and creatures in the film

Unfortunately, unlike the other films, there are no deleted scenes and no audio commentary to accompany the film.

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