This is a mostly SPOILER FREE review, in that I’m going to do my best to share less specifics than you’ve probably already seen on Twitter, or limit my discussion to ways in which this movie copied events from movies that have been out for years.
Hey! Remember when Weezer put out that cover of “No Scrubs” that nobody asked for, and it was hollow and pointless but we all listened to it anyway because it was there, and “No Scrubs” is a helluva song no matter what, even though we’d rather have listened to the TLC version? I thought about that a lot while watching The Rise of Skywalker, the last of the latest Star Wars trilogy. I shouldn’t have, because technically Rise of Skywalker isn’t supposed to be a “cover” but an original entry in the franchise, but you wouldn’t know that from the thick layer of nostalgia smeared all over the whole thing. This is not a movie, much less a conclusion to a new story arc. This is a remix that fails to add anything new to that galaxy far, far away.
That’s not to say that the result isn’t enjoyable, because of course it’s enjoyable! It’s Star Wars! There are several outstanding action set pieces and some gorgeously realized worlds. There’s plenty of quippy banter between Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Kylo/Ben (Adam Driver) is a master of reaction shots. Then there’s the steady return of familiar faces that we’ve come to expect from this new trilogy. Some, like Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, were announced ahead of time, while others came as pleasant surprises. The predictability of these returns doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing them, because we are not monsters. We loved those characters before, and we can’t help but love them now. The problem is that the entire movie seems to be based on the expectation that giving the audience measured helpings of exactly — word for word, shot for shot in some cases — what we loved before is enough.
This is not a problem solely for The Rise of Skywalker, of course. If you’ve been following along, then you likely already know that J.J. Abrams returned to helm this final chapter after kickstarting the trilogy with The Force Awakens (there was another movie in between — The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson — but since TROS does its damndest to ignore or overwrite everything that happened in that installment, I feel comfortable setting it aside for the time being). I’ll be honest, a lot of my issues with The Rise of Skywalker are the same ones I had with The Force Awakens back when it came out. The difference is that when this trilogy started, I was able to forgive a lot of things that didn’t make sense just because I was so happy to be back in this world. After the messy exercise in anticlimax that was the prequel trilogy, striking fresh ground was enough! So what if Rey, Finn and Poe were just hybrid characters clearly built out of elements of Luke, Leia and Han? So what if the ship Rey and Finn stole on Jakku JUST HAPPENED to be the Millennium Falcon, and so what if that ship was almost immediately boarded by, OF ALL THE PEOPLE IN SPACE, Han f*cking Solo? The implication that the Star Wars galaxy was apparently the size of a postage stamp didn’t grate so much, because it was what we wanted, on some level. Give us the new, please, but if we can have it with a dose of the old — hey, that’s a great deal. Just like the Force, it’s all about balance. Besides, that was just the beginning of the saga, and what matters is where it lands.
That frustrating smallness and failure of vision grates worse this go around because, with this landing, The Rise of Skywalker proved that it had nothing new to say at all, really. All it had was callbacks to stuff you remember and plot lines you know by instinct. In the end, the fact that Rey’s bloodline is revealed (and that the twist is both familiar and yet unexpected, kind of) isn’t as disappointing as the fact that her character arc is, beat for beat, exactly like Luke Skywalker’s: A commoner from a desert planet finds a droid with an important bit of information meant for a
Jedi General, then gets mixed up with the Rebellion Resistance because of it. He She also happens to be strong with the Force — very strong, in fact — and the truth of her parentage will reveal the reason for that, as well as the source of her connections to the Dark Side. She trains in the use of her powers but is unable to complete her training before another galactic threat draws her away to join the fight. In the end, she ultimately has to choose whether or not to surrender to the Dark Side in order to save her friends, though at the last moment help arrives from the redemption of an unlikely ally. Ultimately there is no twist on this hero’s journey that makes it anything other than a retread, to the point where Rey’s actions along the way have less to do with her character motivation and more to do with whatever will justify her standing before that double-moon vista, because hey — viewers will recognize that shot!
(And when The Rise of Skywalker stops plundering the original trilogy and starts stealing directly from The Force Awakens, I felt like I was standing in the dumbest hall of mirrors ever.)
Another thing you probably know is that The Rise of Skywalker was intended to be a tribute to Leia (Carrie Fisher), the same way The Force Awakens was Han’s swan song and The Last Jedi was Luke’s — which is why it’s hard to unpack the failings of the plot without acknowledging the impact that Fisher’s passing may have had. It’s certainly felt, despite the fact that Leia still has a surprising amount of screen time built entirely out of unused footage Fisher had shot for the previous two installments. Abrams does a lot with what he had to work with, and where it’s clear that where Leia was supposed to drive the story along he found other characters to do the lifting for her. Still, having more Leia would not have made up for the sequences of absurd MacGuffins (a Sith dagger that leads to a Sith doohickey that leads to a hidden Sith planet where there are — wait for it — MOAR PLANET-KILLING THINGYS WAITING) or the weirdest Deus Ex Machina of them all: The Force. Forget what you thought you knew about the Force prior to The Rise of Skywalker, because this movie takes the already retconned understanding of how it all functions, established over the course of 8 movies, and turns it into the emoji-shrug of plot-hole fillers. Need to wave away a series of lazy coincidences, or resurrect someone, or make your Force Ghost a little less ghosty? Oh, the Force’ll make it happen ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
While The Last Jedi was, shall we say, contentious, it understood that Star Wars is a franchise built on an entire history of mythology, of archetypes and messages that resound with audiences — and it sought to ADD to it. After all, there was no Star Wars for A New Hope to reference when George Lucas made it. With The Last Jedi we got fascinating and unexpected new characters, from Rose to Holdo, and we got a version of the Resistance/First Order struggle that didn’t fall back on yet another planet-killing device to be thwarted. Evil can take a lot of forms, and so can good, and hope can be found in the complexity of the shared struggle we all face to choose a path and stay on it. Instead The Rise of Skywalker, and even The Force Awakens, mistakes the power of mythology for the power of the Star Wars mythology solely, and fails to look beyond it. Yes, Skywalkers and Kenobis, Jedis and Siths, Rebels and Empires, they are all important to the Star Wars story — but Lucas laid the groundwork for an entire GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY, and there’s got to be more there there. There’s a moment when Finn, a former Stormtrooper, talks with a new character named Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who also was a former Stormtrooper, and you realize that actually Stormtroopers have been defecting (rebelling) all along — because they’re all kidnapped children who have been reprogrammed to be cannon fodder. Now, I’m not saying that watching a planet blow up is a bad way to convey evilness, but isn’t stealing and brainwashing kids also evil, and also worth exploring? Why tell us the same story we’ve seen before, over and over again, when you’ve got new ones waiting to be told?
So yes, The Rise of Skywalker is disappointing — not because it’s bad, but because it could have been great, and not because I hate Star Wars but because I’ve loved it my whole life. I loved it the first time it told me this story, and I love it enough to want it to tell me MORE stories, not THE SAME stories. I love Han, and Luke, and Leia, and that will never change — but I also fell in love with the unique trajectories this trilogy’s new characters had, until they were forced back into boxes determined by the franchise’s past (and don’t even get me started on poor, wasted Rose, who does return… and that’s about it). This final chapter gave me plenty of familiar pleasures, but it didn’t give me a single thing I haven’t seen before — and just when it almost seemed like it was going to trip into something unexpected, a hint of romantic tension or of conflict or a Keri Russell all dressed up like a Space Power Ranger, it pulled back so fast it gave me whiplash. The movie is about as emotionally resonant as an underwater tambourine.
Except for Chewbacca, who absolutely carries the heart and soul of this film. Yup, the goddamn Wookiee stole the show. That’s where we’re at.