“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”, the “final” chapter in the “Skywalker Saga”, and…oh boy. When I think of what makes a great “Star Wars” film, I don’t think. I feel, I remember. I remember what it was first like watching Luke Skywalker race through the Death Star’s trench in his X-Wing. I remember seeing a wrinkly Muppet on a log blabbering about the Force, and genuinely feeling like he was real. I remember the feeling I had while watching Han Solo being frozen in carbonite after a princess told him she loved him. Now, “The Rise of Skywalker” has made me feel something entirely different. Empty. As I sat in the theater watching this behemoth of a franchise conclude, I, for the first time, watched a “Star Wars” film that was completely soulless.
Taking place a year after Rian Johnson’s vastly superior “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, we find Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tracking down Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has secretly been orchestrating the First Order the whole time. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the other members of the Resistance, race to find Palpatine and bring an end to the First Order once and for all.
Director and writer J. J. Abrams has returned to the franchise after directing 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and I can’t help but feel like he didn’t really want to. Whereas in “The Force Awakens” his direction was compelling and gave us a familiar but mostly enjoyable experience, “The Rise of Skywalker” doubles down on the familiarity and, even worse, fan service. Nearly everything that I loved about “The Last Jedi” was retconned in this final installment, in what I can only guess would be to appease the angry internet detractors of Johnson’s film. The whole purpose of “The Last Jedi” was to show that things will not go the way we think, to subvert our expectations. Rey didn’t have to be a Skywalker or a Kenobi, evil overlords don’t have to have a rich backstory or explanation, and sometimes fans could gain a new perspective to a franchise they love instead of merely retreading the same ground. Abrams’ message, however, is the opposite. Rey must be a Palpatine, Snoke must be one of Palpatine’s puppets, and fans can always count on him to tell the same story over and over again, so they don’t have to risk experiencing something new, or, God forbid, think.
The movie begins by throwing the audience right into a scene with Kylo Ren slaughtering some group of people, and then he goes somewhere, and then something else happens, and more and more happens very quickly. The whole first twenty minute spends its time jumping from place to place, never taking it slow, like it’s trying to finish the movie as quickly as possible. Then, all at once, the brakes are slammed on, and you’ll get some truly dull scenes, some beautifully shot, but dull none the less. It just feels like the filmmakers ran out of time and delivered an unpolished, disjointed film.
“The Force Awakens” was mostly well received, but it did have its critics. This was mainly due to its familiarity and echoing of the original film’s plot. “The Last Jedi” managed to leave the franchise with the potential to deliver something that has never been done before in a “Star Wars” film. There was no reason for “The Rise of Skywalker” to repeat the original franchise’s third installment “The Return of the Jedi”, but it did. Anything could have happened to the characters, the story, you name it, but Abrams made sure to avoid any risk, and literally resurrected the main antagonist of “Return of the Jedi”, giving us a nearly identical climax to the original trilogy, while bringing a whole new form of predictability with it. A painfully obvious waste of potential that could have been so much better, but instead, we got and empty shell with a nice coat of paint. Everything felt so forced and handed to us fans, that it didn’t really feel like anything at all, just soulless.
Even though this film is heavily flawed, there are some genuinely great moments, because fan service, even when heavily applied, can still bring some joy to even the most nitpicky people. There are many call back to the original trilogy, and even a few to the prequels and expanded universe. Some will make you laugh, and a few may even make you cry, but it hardly justifies this film. Fortunately, the cast is able to help it stay afloat.
The cast does the best they can, but they can only make this film watchable, and not much more. Ridley and Driver dazzle as the leads, and their chemistry is top-notch once more. Joh Boyega and Oscar Isaac also reprise their roles of Finn and Poe and the “bromance” is just as nice as fans have come to expect. One of the highlights of the film is Billy Dee Williams’ long-awaited return as Lando Calrissian, and he manages to bring the same suave and charm as he did back in 1980. However, some of the cast just aren’t going to be remembered as fondly, through no fault of their own. Newcomers Richard E. Grant, Kerri Russell, and Naomi Ackie all suffer because of this. Each three play characters that could have been more interesting, but the limitations of the runtime just don’t allow them to shine. At 142 minutes of runtime, and what is supposedly the last installment in the saga, there’s just no room for introducing compelling and well-developed characters while also wrapping up the stories of those already established.
One of my biggest complaints with the writing and the cast is the unforgivable sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico. The internet and world were racist and sexist to Tran in real life after the release of “The Last Jedi”, and it seems at best, “misguided” that Abrams pushed her character down as far as he did, presumably just to appease this awful group of haters. Tran’s character is almost non existent, and does virtually nothing for the plot. A waste of a character and a waste of a great actress who deserved so much more than she got.
Even in 1999’s somewhat reviled “Phantom Menace”, John Williams’ score was a highlight and unfortunately, he plays the same role twenty years later in “The Rise of Skywalker”; a diamond in the rough. Williams is one of the franchises most important elements and one of cinema’s biggest players, and it is on a bittersweet note that we say goodbye to his involvement with “Star Wars” , but we will never forget the way he shaped the fictitious universe we love.
There’s not much more that I can say about this film, other than echoing my dissatisfaction for it. Abrams is a proven talent, but his grotesque retcons of “The Last Jedi” and apparent fear to take any real risk has delivered something I never wanted to see, a Star Wars film I didn’t like. The only thing I’ll remember about “The Rise of Skywalker” is my sense of emptiness and realization that Abrams and Disney truly wouldn’t deliver a great conclusion to one of cinema’s most beloved franchises, my favorite franchise. Despite a few laughs, a great score, and some fine performances, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is a crushing disappointment that can barely keep its overinflated head afloat the once pristine waters of a galaxy far, far away.