Rushed and interminable, graceless and shapeless and loud, self-congratulatory and unsure of itself, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker squanders whatever (admittedly limited) potential existed to tell a semi-interesting Star Wars story in the 21st century.
(Damn right this review contains spoilers, so if you plan on dropping your coin in Disney’s slot and paying your respects to your childhood, bookmark it for later. I’d say skip the movie and just read on, but you and I both know that’s not gonna happen.)
After a prologue crawl that leads with a line as groan-worthy in its way as “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute,” the film drops us on some planet or other where now-Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, wearing that glassy, preoccupied look actors often get when their blockbuster obligations are almost complete) is slicing up some indeterminate species whose name we won’t learn until the action figures go on sale. (You might say it begins in medias Ren. Not me though. I would never say that.)
Ren recovers a thingamabob that will direct him to the home planet of the Sith, and thither he hyperspaces to encounter who else but the believed-dead once-Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). As the trailers had foretold, that melty faced cackler cowled like a demonic Jawa has indeed risen, though of course he’s eviler and more powerful. In the tradition of “Sure we already had a Death Star but what if we had a bigger Death Star?” welcome to “Sure we know this guy can shoot murderous blue energy bolts but what if he could shoot murderous blue energy bolts into space?”
Palpatine promises to raise a fleet of Star Destroyers capable of obliterating planets, but only if Ren first offs that troublesome remaining Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Once the Resistance learns that Palpatine is alive, they race off to find a McGuffin of their own so they can stop the restoration of the Empire, and encounter many an alien and unexpected ally along the way. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the whole shebang culminates, like Return of the Jedi, with the regular folks saving the galaxy by blowing stuff up while the weirdos with Force powers play mind games with each other off in the corner.
Along the way Oscar Isaac’s Poe and John Boyega’s Finn have several opportunities to project their single defining characteristic (sarcasm and earnestness, respectively) and receive targets to explode so they can prove their heroism. As for C-3PO, he was already getting on my nerves when I was still a kid and at this point I think Anakin Skywalker should have been much more ashamed of building that complaintbot then of massacring those Tusken Raider babies. On the plus side… hmm, Keri Russell dresses like a Power Ranger, the new droid is cute, and maybe this’ll get Naomi Ackie more work.
Nearly all the movie’s emotional resonance is unearned, derived secondhand from how we imprinted upon the original trilogy as kids or, in the case of the late Carrie Fisher, whose performance as Leia was edited together from scraps of The Last Jedi, from our feelings for the loss of a beloved actor. Daisy Ridley does gamely generate a semblance of humanity here, as Rey alternates between moments of tenderness and of rage—though ultimately that all leads up to her facing the only moral quandary that ever arises in the Star Wars universe: “Do I kill this bad guy and become the bad guy myself? Or not?”
The Rise of Skywalker is an ugly, clumsy movie, with moments that should dazzle framed awkwardly or hurried past and no rhythm ever established—things just keep happening, and characters keep saying stuff like “If this mission fails, we lose everything we fought for.” Dude, I would very much not be in this theater if I hadn’t seen eight other versions of this same movie already, please trust that I GET IT.
Because the frenetic action is so hard to immerse in, and because there’s so much external noise surrounding the production—the fanboy rage against The Last Jedi, Abrams’ disavowal of Rian Johnson’s decisions, the feeling that Star Wars is more a valuable piece of intellectual property than art or even entertainment—it’s hard not to view The Rise of Skywalker as less a film than a series of directorial and corporate choices. Essentially, it’s two and a half hours of J.J. Abrams frantically tying up loose ends that were perfectly secure before he started tugging at the strings.
The new Star Wars trilogy has always been about how to shoulder the burden of the past—an unsurprising obsession for anyone entrusted by Disney with the reboot of a beloved film franchise. The Force Awakens essentially turned its very existence into its premise: What if you were born into a world where the adventures of the original trilogy were just legends, and the detritus of that epic conflict was scattered for you to discover and make your own? In other words, what if someone hired you to make a 21st-century Star Wars movie?
Ultimately, though, all Abrams could think to do was have the heroes destroy a (I know it wasn’t called that but c’mon) Death Star because the narrative logic of Star Wars demands that the same stories be told and retold. The new trilogy even had to roll back the Rebel Alliance’s victory and reinstitute interstellar fascism because Star Wars movies are incapable of imagining a galaxy where the good guys hold power instead of struggle against it.
(The prequels tried, and look what happened there.)
Then Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (which, like all pop culture anyone notices these days, was both overrated and over-hated) floated the heretical notion that the past could be left behind. What if a hero could rise who was free of the familial psychodrama of the Lucas era, a true nobody (yes, one with immense mystical powers, but stay with me here) who could make her own way in the galaxy? What stories could be told if Star Wars finally said to hell with Joseph Campbell and this damn quasi-aristocratic cadre of genetically blessed superhumans trapped in their never-ending cycle of betrayal and redemption?
We’ll never know. Abrams backtracks shamelessly (imagine if we’d learned in Return of the Jedi that Darth Vader had lied and wasn’t really Luke’s father) and reasserts that there is but one Star Wars story. By resurrecting Palpatine, the movie acknowledges that the past is a source of elemental evil, but primarily as a means for us to discover that tradition can bestow wonderfully redemptive powers as well. The system works.
What The Rise of Skywalker really celebrates is itself, as well as Abrams’ completion of his difficult mission in a way that will satisfy true Star Wars believers and his bosses. When the film closes with Rey choosing to name herself after the heroes who preceded her, the film’s capitulation to Star Wars tradition feels so craven yet smug that I’m surprised Abrams didn’t list himself in the credits as J.J. Lucas.