This review contains extensive spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.
At the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Luke and Anakin Skywalker kill Emperor Palpatine, restore the Jedi Order, and liberate the galaxy from the Empire’s oppression. The entire purpose of Disney’s new trilogy appears to have been to walk all of that back as slowly and sloppily as possible so that they could recapitulate every bit of it with new characters, a disjointed plot, and a stupefyingly bland design sensibility. After four years The Rise of Skywalker joylessly closes the narrative loop The Force Awakens appears to have opened with no particular goal in mind. It’s a flat, dull note on which to end a trilogy.
The Rise of Skywalker splits the difference between the by-the-book drudgery of The Force Awakens and the occasionally interesting but badly scattered The Last Jedi by being both extremely bad to look at/listen to and fundamentally nonsensical. It dredges up an endless parade of crowd pleasers from the Stars War of yesteryear without even the technical mastery to capture their original appeal, much less expand on it. The Emperor! Lando! Jawas! Revelations about ancestry! An Imperial conference room session! It feels less like a movie than an exhausting guided tour of some rich dimwit’s collection of commemorative Star Wars PEZ dispensers.
The connection between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) is the closest thing The Rise of Skywalker has to a central relationship. Its early scenes in which the late Carrie Fisher appears as Princess Leia via heavily edited footage cut from The Force Awakens are just awkwardly executed enough to prevent her bond with Rey from landing, and the rest of the movie spends so much time flinging everyone to the far corners of the galaxy and introducing new characters that it leaves virtually no time at all for developing established dynamics. With nothing else cohering, the perfectly serviceable onscreen chemistry between Ridley and Driver just can’t carry the strain.
It doesn’t help that the two have little to do with one another but claim they’re going to bring the other over to their respective side and spout exposition about being a “dyad in the Force,” mystically connected figures who share a preternatural bond. This latter is a good example of one of the film’s most pronounced narrative flaws, a need to literalize its emotional hooks and plot points by inventing new mythology to explain them. Rey and Kylo Ren can’t just be in love, they have to be bound to one another by destiny. The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) can’t just want Rey to kill him as he once urged Luke to do because he believes goading others into committing murder ultimately serves his religious beliefs; instead it’s revealed as a way for him to carry on as a literal part of his killer.
It isn’t the corniness of it that deflates the movie. Star Wars has always, for better and for worse, been corny. No, what takes the wind out of The Rise of Skywalker’s sails is that it’s not inventing wild bullshit out of thin air and then running with it; it’s making needless rules to explain pre-existing things. The movie spends all its narrative force creeping inward, which in uninspired hands like Abrams’ inevitably reveals the hollowness of the material. Its sole full-throated moment comes and goes in the space of a second when the decaying Palpatine reveals to Rey that she’s standing not in an empty throne room but a vast coliseum, its stands packed with tens of thousands of chanting devotees of the Sith.
The rest is half-assed and relentlessly dreary. The space battles are visually incomprehensible, the last-minute arrival of a vast fleet of civilians to oppose Palpatine’s “Final Order” armada completely ignored after its establishment. We ping-pong between objectives and characters without any kind of narrative or locational cohesion. In the midst of it Finn’s (John Boyega) romance with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is inexplicably discarded, never so much as mentioned. It’s not that these characters are particularly interesting, but jettisoning their previous arcs and reducing Rose to a bit player feels perplexing. That every action scene in the movie looks like a dingy PS3 God of War level doesn’t help much. Exegal is one big bluish-black blur, Endor washed out and (almost) Ewok-free, and all the starship interiors tediously same-y.
Better Star Wars:
- How Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II Made The Force Interesting
- Prauf, the Real Hero Of Jedi: Fallen Order, Deserves His Own Game
- Star Wars and the Pitfalls of Telling Adult Stories in a World Built For Children
A (Death) Star Is Born
Nothing exemplifies the creative rot of the new trilogy so well as its continual return to planet-destroying superweapons, each time with a mounting lack of interest. The first time we saw a world die, way back in 1977 with A New Hope, we had Leia’s anguish and Tarkin’s cold, smug indifference to reflect the tragedy back at us. Return of the Jedi gave us a Death Star still under construction, a ghoulishly incomplete image around which the entire film revolved. By contrast The Force Awakens almost offhandedly introduces its planet-sized mega Death Star and then blows up a handful of worlds we’ve never seen or heard of and to which the movie’s characters have no personal connections. The Rise of Skywalker takes it further, revealing that the Emperor’s vast fleet of star destroyers are all armed with planet-killing lasers in its final forty-five minutes.
The lasers themselves are sort of a perfect metaphor for Abrams’ movies: unwieldy, silhouette-wrecking big boy toys welded crudely to iconic imagery. When a star destroyer blows up Poe’s homeworld we don’t even see the man react to it. Later his love interest shows up unscathed before walking right back out of the movie. The Rise of Skywalker’s aversion to ever letting anything stick, from its 90-second fakeout over Chewbacca’s death to its repeated Force Healing hijinks, cuts the movie off at the knees the second anything genuine gets rolling. Daisy Ridley’s scream of “Chewie!” when the transport she believes her Wookiee friend has boarded explodes is maybe the most genuine piece of acting in the movie (Lando’s almost deifically smooth “Please, send Leia my love” is a close second), and it comes to nothing.
There are bright spots in the long, gray expanse of The Rise of Skywalker’s two hour and twenty-minute runtime. Palm-sized alien droid hacker Babu Frik is a funky little delight. The aforementioned Sith arena reveal. A colorful alien festival. But the rest? The rest is boilerplate Disney blockbuster, chaste and tepid with precious little interest in the world it establishes or the themes around which it ostensibly orbits. People run back and forth across the galaxy to grab things that will them let grab other things, then have a series of dull lightsaber fights about it. We learn a few secrets (Palpatine grows Snokes in little vats, like Kombucha scobies) which don’t so much explain things as paper over holes left by the previous movies. It’s lazy, boring, and mediocre to the core.