Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the final chapter in the third trilogy of Star Wars films. Director J.J. Abrams kicked off this recent cycle with The Force Awakens, before the reins were passed to Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi. After kicking Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) from the project, Abrams was brought in to finish off the series and resolve a 40-year narrative in a satisfactory way. Fandom outcry around The Last Jedi led to a perception that the series had lost its way. Abrams was clearly tasked with sticking the landing on the multi-decade story of the Skywalker family.
The Rise of Skywalker picks up shortly after the events of The Last Jedi. An obliterated Resistance dreams of destroying the remainder of the First Order (itself the resurrected ashes of the Empire from the first trilogy). Unfortunately, bad guy Kylo Ren has been offered a deal with the devil. He can inherit the largest fleet of ships and soldiers in the history of the universe. He just needs to kill the up-and-coming Jedi named Rey. After two films of prodding each other and attempting to form a mutual bond, the two most powerful people in the galaxy must determine what prices they are willing to pay.
Minor spoilers to follow. I promise I’m trying my best to keep them limited. But if any detail at all will ruin the experience for you, please turn away now.
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Christ, what a shitshow.
I don’t want to impart more plot specifics at this point. What I want to focus on is the experience of Star Wars IX and what being in the room with it will convey. A large percentage of my time, this review notwithstanding, was embedded in trying to think of how to explain what I saw. Here’s my best shot at that.
Imagine that a person had never seen Star Wars — any Star Wars. Imagine they had only absorbed the sort of large-scale elements that bleed across pop culture. They’d know what a lightsaber is, and what a Darth Vader is, and maybe what a Death Star does. Imagine that person with only that minimal level of investment was handed a billion-dollar franchise. Then they were tasked with wrapping up the story in not just a satisfying way, but a meaningful one. Picture a kid handed a box of action figures, and then the Disney Corporation filmed how they made the action figures slam into each other. Then they made it into a Final Draft document and shot the whole thing.
The Rise of Skywalker is a film that doesn’t just ignore what actually happened in what came before it; it spits in the face of that history.
Look: I’m a Star Wars fan. I’m just not the guy to get mad about Star Wars online. I think most dispatches from this universe are “fine” to “great,” but when something is lacking I can always remind myself that dozens of new entries are coming in the next few years. This is the inner monologue I recited when walking out of Solo.
“Eh, whatever,” I thought. “There will be more next Christmas.” But here, within the main and numbered saga, such mistakes are more tragic. And tragedy is just about the only way I can describe what this semi-final installment exudes.
I took an extra 24 hours before turning my review in for this. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being hyperbolic. When I left the theater I said to my wife that I have never hated a movie experience more. I experienced zero moments of joy across the more than two-hour run time of The Rise of Skywalker. I didn’t want to state these facts into a vacuum and have it sound like the sort of exaggerated Star Wars fanboy nonsense that we’ve all come to recognize and despise. But I am truly certain that I am here, at my desk and with the benefit of extra time to cool down, utterly disappointed.
I have seen worse movies than The Rise of Skywalker. Troll 2, much like a whole host of good Star Wars movies will always exist. It will always be there for me. But I’ve never seen a worse movie attempt to stand and meet a half-century of expectation — totally convinced of itself that it was nailing it the whole way through. It fails itself. It fails history. It is truly embarrassing to witness.
The Rise of Skywalker is difficult to break down into component parts. Lemme give it a shot, though.
It takes a very Abrams approach to burying the first hour under meaningless action sequences. Everyone you know and love is running, shooting, screaming, or all three, but nobody ever stops to explain why they’re running, shooting, and/or screaming. It’s just this element you come to expect. because you’re in a movie, and that’s what Abrams thinks movies are. The editing wrapped around these sequences doesn’t help. Even as self-contained shots of adrenaline, they are completely nonsensical and impossible to follow.
The end result is this paradox. The movie has so much action that audiences can’t follow what’s happening. At the same time, the overwhelming amount of action makes the action itself boring. Your mind puts up barriers around the fire and noise because it can’t process it. That’s fine, though. It’s fine because every fight is just a redone version of something you’ve seen before — of action figures bashing into each other. Not only that, but you will likely see them again, because that’s what Star Wars is now. Much like Abrams thinks movies are a lot of people running, Disney thinks Star Wars needs to be Episodes IV-VI, regurgitated back to us until the sun goes out, spooked as the corporation is by 37 angry libertarians on Twitter.
Rey and Kylo Ren match lightsabers a half dozen times across this film alone. Nothing ever looks different than any fight they or their predecessors had in previous films. Nothing ever turns out differently. It is as if every 10 minutes a timer goes off and announces that it is Jedi time. And if nothing ever changes, then who cares?
The dialogue of the film has shifted squarely into that perfect, late Marvel Cinematic Universe nothingness point. It is the autocorrect filler of seeming pithiness. If you know the format, you can beat every other character to their next line. The entirety of the movie is structured like this:
“Wow, I think things are looking good for the good guys!”
“I think things are looking good for the bad guys!”
“You’d think you’d be better at this by now!”
“I am better at this by now!”
“He’s not better at this by now!”
*droid yells in a wacky octave*
“See, I’m better at this by now!”
It’s the predictive text of how a bad, PG-13 action movie should go.
The Last Jedi, by comparison, was a film that many people had many strong opinions about. My strong opinion is that it is quite good and I like so much of it, despite acknowledging its flaws. That’s a pretty lukewarm take, I know. I’m left of center on it, but I feel very secure in that position. But here’s one undeniable edge to The Last Jedi: nobody felt the need to pull all the same references back into play, time and time again, for over two hours.
I like The Force Awakens, too, despite acknowledging it needed a Death Star and a Darth Vader and all the same plot points from earlier films. I excused that because it was an intro into a new trilogy for new fans. I accepted that and found it to be fine. But even that — the “doing a thing again” — has been done yet again. The Rise of Skywalker feels like everyone involved just… panicked. It shrieked and ran and hid under a bed, not just made of touchstones hit in The Force Awakens, but from every fan reference imaginable. It results in an ending so tepid and bland that it doesn’t feel like any ending at all. It barely feels like a stepping stone, either. It’s just a parallel nothingness.
As part of that paralleling, everything that The Last Jedi setup is nullified from the start. It is exquisitely on display the degree to which no one had an outline going into this final trilogy. Hence the handing back and forth of the reins results in an agonizing battle between Johnson’s gestures towards something new, and Abrams’ attempt to appease fandom.
Appeasing the fandom — or at least some perceived slice of it — won out in the end. But to what end? It’s another Death Star. It’s another copy of the same bad guy? It’s many of the same sequences (I’m not joking) shot-for-shot from the original trilogy. They’re nostalgia, but they cannot recreate the feelings that said fandom desires to experience anew. For the regulars, there exist facsimiles. For the newcomers, there exist a stark void where the film is instructs “You should feel something.” I didn’t. The Rise of Skywalker is defined by its disconnection from anything that might be a “feeling.”
Abrams, meanwhile, is a director defined by inheritance. Earned or not — deserved or not — he constantly seems to inherit well-liked things, because he has a reputation for liking those things, too. In this case, he inherited a story he didn’t particularly want to tell. He was left with all these characters, in all these states of flux (Rose Tico especially) that he seemed annoyed to have to acknowledge. This is like watching a kid finish the book report for a book he didn’t read, extrapolated over an audience of billions. That it should end this way is a disservice to any viewer who ever bought in on a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t outright suck. It’s too boring to suck. It requires your attention to slowly pick apart how uncaring it truly is. That’s what exists at the end of a 40-year hope to do right by some characters. Nobody got what they want. It’s simply an embarrassment.