So many stories ended this year. Game of Thrones ended, and so did the Marvel Cinematic Universe (more or less). You’re the Worst, Catastrophe, Fleabag, Silicon Valley, and Veep also wrapped up this year. There are franchises and stories I’m forgetting, I’m sure of it. The point is that we have had ample time to think about endings, and what they mean to us. Good endings are rarely what we imagine because, well, our imaginations are rarely as rich as the people who create stories. As Joss Whedon famously quipped, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” Still, the biggest story that ends this year is Star Wars, and the new film The Rise of Skywalker is full of what we think we want. In the years ahead, however, we will come to resent the implied insult.
Before I continue, I should note that this review will be spoiler free. I will only talk about the conflict in general terms. If you’ve seen the trailers, you have seen as much as I will reveal.
The funny thing about Star Wars is how its plot is impervious to spoilers. As Maz Kanata remarks in The Force Awakens, the good guys against the bad is, “The only fight.” The significant change in The Rise of Skywalker is how Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the arch-villain of the original trilogy, somehow still lives. He has a plan to vanquish the rebels once and for all, so there is a race against time. Unlike The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, this film focuses on the new heroes as one unit: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac spend a significant chunk of the film together as Rey, Finn, and Poe (respectively). They’re constantly being chased by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the only new character who is given any dimension.
Many beats repeat themselves in The Rise of Skywalker. The heroes reach a new planet, find themselves in a conflict, and narrowly escape. Beloved characters are vanquished, but not really. Narrow escapes are a hallmark of Star Wars, except here they are so close together they lose all meaning. Both Rey and Kylo Ren know how to use the force, for example, and their force powers are relegated to a plot convenience, thereby erasing any emotional connection to what happens. This would not necessarily be a problem, except JJ Abrams and his co-screenwriter Chris Terrio have little trust in their fans. When we see the force or the big twists, they lack narrative context and only exist in dialogue with the original films. Not even the prequels were this timid.
Still, the most egregious issue in The Rise of Skywalker is how it pretends The Last Jedi does not exist. Rian Johnson’s film took these characters and this story and tried to make sense of it, putting emotional realism and genuine stakes into ideas JJ Abrams introduced. The opening scenes here are erasures of the last Star Wars film, and there are lines assuring Last Jedi haters those “mistakes” will not be repeated (Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose Tico, should be outraged). The controversy over the The Last Jedi has always been overblown – it was a massive critical and commercial success – and yet The Rise of Skywalker placates a small minority whose dislike was mostly borne out of misogyny and racism. They deserve zero consideration, and yet this film apologizes for everything that moved the franchise forward.
Some of you may be thinking, “It’s not high art, it’s Star Wars. I just want the laser swords and dogfights in space.” On those terms, this film is also lousy. The big set pieces unfold without any excitement. There is an important, supposedly climatic light saber duel between Kylo Ren and Rey on a planet with massive tidal wives. It should be exciting, and yet it is somehow perfunctory. The problem is the choreography – it is clumsy and hurried – and the repeated issue there are no real stakes. Starting with Palpatine and throughout the film, multiple characters disappear and are brought back. If there is nothing that can be lost, then there is little that can be gained. As this duel unfolded, I thought back to the terrific fight in Snoke’s throne room. Star Wars should be synonymous with joy, a feeling the throne sequence invokes, and yet Abrams returns to storytelling fulcrums where it is painfully clear how the conflict resolves.
The Rise of Skywalker reveals JJ Abrams’ limits as a filmmaker. He has made great movies – Star Trek and Mission Impossible 3 are among the best blockbusters of this century – and yet here he reveals a dearth of imagination. World-building, the force, and twists have never been the core of Star Wars. At its best, this franchise is about using a space opera framework where you can feel big, melodramatic feelings. The worst thing about this finale is that I felt nothing. When important characters have big moments, there is no acknowledgment or relief. Just tedium, or a depiction of cynical, weaponized nostalgia. I cannot deny there is the occasional clever moment, or scene acknowledges the preceding eight films thoughtfully. But The Rise of Skywalker “corrects” its course in a deeply fearful way, to the point it distrusts the audience.
Moviegoers deserve better, and so do characters we have loved for generations.