In my review for The Force Awakens I concluded by saying that the film was a strong blend of nostalgia and modernity, mixing our love for the original trilogy with a host of new characters and ideas. My concern then was that Disney would not let go of that nostalgia and instead continue to play to it. The film was a passing of the baton, I had hoped.
When The Last Jedi landed, I thought that had actually happened. The movie was a smart and thrilling deconstruction of the franchise itself — not to mention stunningly shot and full of some of the best performances the series has seen. It seemed to be setting us up for something different, pulling us away from what we knew and into a Star Wars that was challenging and fresh. Some fans balked, of course.
Well, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is what you get when you complain about change. It is Disney running back to the safety of nostalgia, capitulating to those who didn’t like the new, and releasing a movie that could only be made in a unruly attempt to please everyone. The sad thing is, they didn’t even make that movie all that well.
Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker
Director: J.J. Abrams
Release Date: December 20, 2019
The opening scrawl introduces us to the fact that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is still alive, having sent out some sort of broadcast to get the attention of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who instantly goes searching for him to kill him. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is training to be a Jedi with Leia (a digitally inserted Carrie Fisher taken from previous films) as the Resistance attempts to figure out a way to stop the super secret army the Emperor has been building on a super secret Sith planet. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are running spy missions but get pulled out of them to help Rey. The gangs all back together — except they were never really together all that long in the first place so their friendship feels a little forced.
That’s a bit odd since nothing should feel forced in a movie that is this paint-by-numbers. There’s a new cute droid, the team has to find a magical map to get them to victory, Kylo could be good, Rey could be evil, but neither is really going to make you doubt the final outcome of the story. Nothing will surprise you or make you angry or give you doubt or joy. You won’t love this movie or despise it because it only is. It is simply the story that was going to happen.
Yet at the same time it feels entirely unplanned. A mess of moments devoted to undoing TLJ, bringing in as many past characters as possible and setting up space battles and showdowns with hooded evil doers. Where TLJ defied expectations, TROS plays into them at every turn. The screenplay, at times clunky and awkward, telegraphs every moment before the actors can even say their lines. It is the opposite of TLJ and undoes any and all good that movie did both in terms of tone and plot.
However, there are those who think TLJ did no good at all. Even those folks aren’t going to find much to love here. The story is just one McGuffin after another, offering an overly complex tale that seems to lose the thread of the fact that, at its core, Star Wars is about good versus evil. There’s little moral quandary for these characters as the depth is sucked slowly out of them so that the ending we all could see coming a mile away can come, except in a manner that’s worse than you expected. The film seems so desperate to distance itself from its predecessor and remind us all about the original trilogy that it forgets to make its characters interesting or its tone anything but deaf. It ends up feeling like a massive fan film made for YouTube, replete with cheesy dialog and cameos. It is less a conclusion to an epic Skywalker saga and more of a desperate attempt to make us remember the good times.
Abrams’ direction is lackluster at best. He seems to have forgotten how to shoot a lightsaber battle, wasting some truly prolific set pieces by cutting them to pieces or making odd choices. Compared to Johnson’s stunningly shot TLJ, especially the final dual in Snoke’s throne room, this movie’s action feels pedestrian and at times illogical. He has no feel for the pace of the movie, flinging characters around into unearned moments simply because he can. At one point, one character solves a crucial issue in the middle of an action sequence simply by stating “I have a feeling.” And, no, this is not a character we’ve been told can use the force.
Speaking of the Force, if you thought Johnson took liberties with its mythical powers, be prepared to stare in slack-jawed horror as we’re introduced to a whole host of new abilities including the power to heal deadly wounds and bring people back to life. I’m fine with expanding the capabilities of a fictional super power, especially if its in support of creating a better story, but when it turns characters into would-be gods, it becomes problematic. In line with that, if your biggest argument for hating TLJ was the the plot holes (General Holdo should have told Poe her plan, I agree), then be prepared to fly a Death Star through the ones in TROS. J.J. Abrams tries to perform plotting acrobatics that retcon TLJ out of existence, bring in every character ever, and deliver a conclusion so messy you can’t even feel excited when the cavalry arrives. He fails, only heaping new issues onto the film.
It also feels like he just doesn’t understand the very characters he created. The dynamics between Kylo Ren and Rey were some of the best aspects of the first two films but here they often feel trite and forced as the story desperately tries to weave them into some sort of happy pair instead of conflicting and conflicted opposites. It sucks the layered dark vs. light struggle out their relationship. Instead is delivers a near remake of the conclusion of The Return of the Jedi, except with none of the emotional impact and a tone deaf moment that left the entire audience groaning and me scratching my head as to how the people who created these characters in the first place could misunderstand them so horribly.
They aren’t the only ones that get the shaft. No one in this entire trilogy seems to know what to do with Finn as the series once again completely drops the ball on the idea of a Stormtrooper turned good and Poe is shoehorned into being a Han Solo replacement instead of his own person. As if that weren’t enough, Abrams seems to actively hate a few of the characters now. Poor Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico gets shunted to the side to give Finn yet another platonic-ish lady friend. This isn’t to mention the fact that no one actually feels like a team yet. The camaraderie found in the original trilogy isn’t something that’s a given, yet TROS assumes we’re already there.
In possibly the most criminal aspect of this film, Domhnall Gleeson’s wonderfully over-the-top General Hux is reduced to a third string villain for absolutely no reason whatsoever other than fan service. It seems like a small thing given he’s not truly a main character but it speaks to the general disregard that Abrams seemed to have for characters he himself helped create. The movie is so twisted in its own confusion of what it is and what it wants to do that it leaves everything built up by its predecessors on the wayside.
In fairness, a lot of issues like that stem from the fact that the first two movies feel completely detached from it. There’s an argument to be made that as the conclusion of a nine part series of films, Emperor Palpatine should return as he’s been head villain throughout. However, Disney never set this up in the first two movies. He, like much of the plot points and characters, simply comes out of nowhere making this film feel completely separate from its predecessors (all eight of them) and turning what could have felt like an extended story arch into a piece of cheap fan service. That’s not entirely TROS’ fault, yet one wonders why Disney didn’t plan this all out a bit better.
That highlights the most concerning aspect of TROS. It’s not just that the film feels like they made random decisions with no planning based solely on what would get them from point A to point B, but the fact that they needed to do that in the first place. What is the future of Star Wars if the people in charge of it are this bad at planning and are so obviously willing to steer the ship based on fan reaction? I’m not about to defend the prequels but at least George Lucas had a vision and followed through on it. Maybe you hate Rian Johnson but at least he did something. Hell, even The Force Awakens felt like a beginning that was moving forward.
Despite all this, there are parts of this film that are enjoyable. The latter third, once the film turns into a giant action sequence and flat out copies the structure of Return is fine to watch, even if its mired in bad plot choices and campy writing. There’s still lightsabers and space ships going “pew pew” and a touch of that weird comedy that makes Star Wars its own thing. It’s a big budget movie and as such, it can’t help but look good at times. It tries.
The Rise of Skywalker tries is the nicest thing I can say about it because I think it does want to make fans happy. It tries to do it so hard that it can’t help but fail. It doesn’t commit to any ideas or push any boundaries but it simply tries to be a Star Wars movie. The problem is that by trying so hard to be everything, it ends up being nothing. It didn’t learn the greatest lesson that Star Wars has taught us: Do. Or do not. There is no try.