Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker spoiler-free review: Kylo, Rey save the film

Promotional image for Star Wars Episode IX.

Enlarge / The best new-trilogy actors awaken in Rise of Skywalker.
Ars Technica takes spoilers seriously in film reviews. After this article’s opening section, minor plot details are revealed to explain certain opinions, but we otherwise do not include any “major” spoilers. Deeper spoilers will likely appear in the comments section upon the film’s launch, usually posted with spoiler tags.

The best thing about Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is that it concludes the latest trilogy much in the same way it began. This new trilogy has all the trappings you’d expect in a Star Wars film wishlist: droids, Wookiees, blasters, lightsabers, epic space battles, wacky new characters, and on and on.

But the beating heart of this film, and the biggest reason I recommend it, is the evolving and intriguing relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rise of Skywalker is often a turbulent ride, usually to its detriment, but the storytelling conclusion for these eternally linked rivals (and the performances that carry these characters to their most powerful moments in the Star Wars series) eke this film across the “good enough for fans” line.

Without that quality (an admittedly large percentage of the film), Rise of Skywalker might otherwise serve as proof that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams was the wrong person to finish the latest trilogy. The film rushes between plot points, overuses certain characters, and wastes others. And whether you loved, tolerated, or hated 2017’s The Last Jedi, it’s easy to conclude that the previous film’s most intriguing developments and concepts were abandoned—and without any convincing proof that Abrams had better ideas in store.

“I’ll go without your blessing”

From here on out, the review is more specific about Rise of Skywalker‘s successes and failings, so while it is mindful of spoilers, you’ve been warned.

Let’s begin with the biggest failing of the film by far: how the character of Princess Leia awkwardly fits into the plot.

Shortly after the tragic passing of actor, writer, and activist Carrie Fisher, Lucasfilm announced that she would appear in Rise of Skywalker as Leia and that the film would use her real-life footage, as opposed to a CGI-ified Fisher. The resulting footage is perhaps the worst-case scenario Star Wars fans could have imagined: cookie-cutter dialogue against a green screen that could conceivably be slapped into any plot, devoid of the heart or humor that consistently marked Fisher’s work in the role of Leia.

One example of her toothless dialogue, transcribed verbatim from the film: “This mission is everything. We cannot fail.” Notice how spoiler-free that sentence is? Sure, that sounds like something Leia might say while serving as a general on a Resistance outpost. She offers slightly more specific dialogue in one interaction in the film, to set a major plot point into motion, but even that sequence has a jarring disconnect between herself and the character in question—and fails to sew together her character picking up a baton that was dropped at the end of Last Jedi. Everything about Leia’s appearance in Rise of Skywalker is rough, and it forces at least one other character to awkwardly produce the exclamation point that she was clearly set up to do herself.

In late 2017, I suggested recasting the role of Leia. I really wish someone at Lucasfilm could have either done that or jettisoned certain plot threads.

Instead, in order to make Leia’s limited appearance work, the film begins with a blur of fetch-quest activity. A pair of early sequences include striking visuals as heroes whiz through a variety of worlds, but these differ from the slowly unfolding opening sequences that have marked the best Star Wars films. Abrams frames every major player on their own separate journey, instead of letting us take our time to see each hero’s progress since the last film and how their individual progress has affected the others. We see a brief in-fighting outburst that hints to this sort of dynamic, but it’s quickly interrupted by a forced Leia-nization of the plot.

Jumanji: The Next Level is less fresh this time around but still lots of fun

Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, and Karen Gillan star in <em>Jumanji: The Next Level</em>.

Enlarge / Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, and Karen Gillan star in Jumanji: The Next Level.
Sony Pictures

The intrepid gang of teens who played their way out of a video game two years ago is back and facing a new in-game adventure in Jumanji: The Next Level, the latest installment in the popular franchise that originated with the 1995 film Jumanji. It’s a solid sequel, following the same winning formula that made its predecessor such a big success.

(Spoilers for 1995’s Jumanji and 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle; mild spoilers for Jumanji: The Next Level.)

The franchise has its roots in a 1981 fantasy children’s book by Chris van Allsburg, about two children who discover a jungle adventure board game with the ominous warning, “Do not begin unless you intend to finish.” The original 1995 film adaption followed the basic premise pretty closely, although it added several characters, most notably Robin Williams as a grown Alan Parrish and his childhood friend Sarah Whittle (Bonnie Hunt). As a young boy in 1969, Alan finds a supernatural board game called Jumanji and begins to play with Sarah.

The game unleashes actual jungle hazards into the real world, and the only way to make it go away is to face down your fear and finish the game. Of course, this proves complicated: Alan gets sucked into the game and a panicked Sarah stops playing, leaving him stranded for the next 26 years. It falls to two young orphans in 1995 (another departure: in the book, their parents are still alive), Peter and Judy Shepherd (Bradley Pierce and a young Kirsten Dunst), to finish the game he and Sarah started.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) updated the concept for the 21st century, turning the board game into a video game. (It is sometimes cited as the third installment in the franchise, since 2005’s Zathura: A Space Adventure takes place in the same universe and is based on another of van Allsburg’s books.)

In 1996, a disaffected teen named Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione) is given the board game by his father, who found it on a beach. He’s not into old school board games, so the game transforms into a video game cartridge. Alex, like Alan before him, also gets sucked into the game, until four high school students discover the game 20 years later while serving detention. It was a clever twist, with the teens taking on avatars—a source of much of the film’s humor—to tackle the various levels of the game, hoping to finish before losing all their allotted three lives.

Choose your avatar wisely

Uber-nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), an archaeologist/explorer with a “smoldering intensity” and no in-game weaknesses. The shy, brainy Martha (Morgan Turner) finds herself playing the babelicious Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), whose skills include “dance fighting.” Narcissistic popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) chooses Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), the team cartographer. Jock Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain) gets to play zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Eventually they run into Alex, whose avatar is pilot Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas). Their mission: return a magic jewel to a rock sculpture known as the Jaguar’s Eye, before evil archeologist Russell van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) can steal it back.

Spoiler alert: The teens succeed in mastering the game—learning some valuable lessons about identity and friendship in the process—and Fridge smashes it to make sure nobody ever gets trapped in Jumanji again. Welcome to the Jungle was a genuinely fun (and funny) film, with clever twists on the original film and plenty of sly nods to common tropes of video gameplay. The film opened with an initial weak showing at the box office; it was playing opposite an obscure art house film called Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But positive word of mouth soon boosted attendance, and the film went on to gross $962 million globally. When studios see those kinds of returns, they naturally start thinking about a sequel.

The trailer for Jumanji: The Next Level dropped this summer, promising another fun romp through the game world. A despondent Spencer, now a student at New York University, comes home for Christmas and digs out the pieces of the video game in the basement. He repairs it and once again gets sucked into the game. Seriously, did Spencer learn nothing from the prior film?

When Fridge, Martha, and Bethany come to the house to visit, they find the game running and quickly realize what happened. They resolve to go back into the game to rescue their friend—except this time they don’t have time to choose their avatars. Spencer’s crotchety grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and his elderly pal Milo (Danny Glover), get sucked into the game, too. Wacky hijinks ensue, starting with who gets what avatar.

Grandpa Eddie finds himself in Dr. Smolder Bravestone, while Milo ends up with the Finbar avatar. Martha is still Ruby Roundhouse, Fridge is now Sheldon, and when they find Spencer, he’s playing a new avatar: a master thief named Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina). Bethany inexplicably gets left behind, eventually enlisting the help of an adult Alex (Colin Hanks). They, too, end up in the game, Alex once again playing the pilot, and Bethany a beautiful black stallion named Cyclone. This time, the quest involves recovering another magic jewel (the Falcon’s Heart) from ruthless warlord Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann, aka the Hound from Game of Thrones), who killed Bravestone’s parents, per the in-game backstory.

Dwayne Johnson once again proves he has serious comedic chops.

The cast delivers strong performances, especially those playing the avatars, who must channel both their characters and the individual tics of whoever is playing those avatars. Dwayne Johnson once again proves he has serious comedic chops, deftly mimicking Danny DeVito’s vocal inflections, accent, facial expressions, and mannerisms. Sure, the life lessons each character learns are a bit too Movie of the Week—the same was true of Welcome to the Jungle—but it’s nice to see the rather bitter Eddie gradually come to terms with getting old. (“Aging is a gift. I forget that sometimes.”)

If anything, The Next Level is too similar to the 2017 film, despite bringing fresh faces and a few surprising twists into the mix. That’s partly due to the inherent predictability of video game design: there’s only so much you can do with the premise, and you know going in that the outcome will be much the same as the last time. What was an innovative reinvention in Welcome to the Jungle is now familiar, and hence less surprising. But it’s still a lot of fun, and it’s the kind of entertaining film that tends to do well in the holiday season. A post-credits scene hints at the possibility of yet another sequel. If so, let’s hope it finds a way to reinvent the basic formula one more time.

Jumanji: The Next Level opens this weekend in theaters.