The structure of the new trilogy of Star Wars films has been a bit wonky from the start. The Force Awakens introduced great new characters, albeit in a narrative that bears more than a little resemblance to A New Hope. Writer/director Rian Johnson took over for J.J. Abrams with The Last Jedi, which challenges everything that came before it and dares to tell a new story. Now, Abrams returns to the director’s chair to bring resolution to not only this new trilogy, but the entire nine-film, four-decade-spanning saga with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
And the biggest question heading into The Rise of Skywalker is whether J.J. Abrams and his creative team will follow Rian Johnson’s lead into a bold ending for the franchise, or regress back into the spirited homage and recycled ideas of The Force Awakens. I’m sad to report that they settle for the latter, only this time the strain of the dissonance from The Last Jedi and the weight of ending an entire saga of films makes the “fan service” ring hollow and nearly every safe creative decision loses its intended nostalgic impact. What we are left with is a messy film and a story that buckles under the weight of its purpose.
The Rise of Skywalker begins with Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (also Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia) learning the truth about a dark force that has been secretly pulling the strings for The First Order; and with this revelation, the threat to our heroes has become greater than they could ever anticipate. And when The Resistance learns about the emergence of this galaxy-ending threat, it’s up to Rey, Finn, and Poe to embark on a planet-hopping, MacGuffin-filled mission in search of the birthplace of this new Final Order.
Along the way, Rey learns more about herself than she knows what to do with, while Finn and Poe ever-so-briefly reconcile with their own pasts and the new positions they’ve found themselves in. All the while, Kylo tracks their every move, convinced that he can turn Rey to the Dark Side.
And on top of all of this, Abrams and screenwriter Chris Terrio (with whom Abrams co-wrote the script) try and bring new and familiar faces into the fold, most of whom don’t hold that much weight, because the story is so plot-heavy. Keri Russell appears as Zorii Bliss, an old comrade of Poe’s; Naomi Ackie becomes a new, relatable ally for Finn. Billy Dee Williams reprises his role as Lando, because, well, the script doesn’t really make significant use of him beyond just having him show up.
From the marketing material, it is clear that the Emperor looms large in The Rise of Skywalker. And his presence in the film narratively and thematically tethers this new trilogy even closer to the stories that preceded it. But it does so in the laziest and safest of ways, reminding me of the half-hearted culminating narrative of Spectre, of all things. In the end, everything circles back to characters and themes we already know.
And the story tying it all together jumps from planet to planet, with our heroes finding an object here that will be used over there, which will lead them somewhere else, and so on. There’s at least two or three MacGuffins being shuffled around. And thankfully the camaraderie of Rey, Finn, and Poe (along with some genuinely great humor from C-3PO) makes the exposition-heavy first hour bearable and intermittently enjoyable. But the plotting feels both rudimentary and overstuffed, to the point that the characters can’t fully register. And as a result, moments that should have immense dramatic weight don’t.
Adam Driver definitely gets the most to work with as Kylo, and his dynamic with Daisy Ridley’s Rey has been the one consistently intriguing aspect of this new Star Wars trilogy. These two characters, both burdened by their respective lineage and constantly struggling between the light and the dark, are far more interesting than any “remember this?” callback. And while The Rise of Skywalker handles their resolution clunkily, Driver and Ridley’s performances continue to make their tension compelling.
The way they position Leia in Kylo’s journey also works rather well. Abrams famously had to re-contextualize unused Carrie Fisher footage from The Force Awakens, and it’s impressive how they were able to give her a pivotal role with such limiting material. She has a real presence, and she prompts some of the film’s most moving moments.
There are more than a couple of shocks and surprises, with effectiveness ranging from “all right, I guess” to “um…I’m sorry, what?” A couple of choice fake-outs and not going all the way with certain characters end up feeling like cheap jabs at triggering emotions. But the film can’t dawdle too long on its questionable reveals, because the filmmakers give themselves far too much ground to cover. And that insurmountable weight begins to put strain on their ability togive adequate development and depth to several key characters, while practically shunning others (like Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose) into the periphery. And Rose isn’t the only aspect of The Last Jedi that gets done away with.
As an ardent fan of The Last Jedi, it’s disheartening to see Abrams and Terrio double down on reverting back to playing things very safe. There are more than a couple lines and moments in The Rise of Skywalker that are in direct conversation with deliberately unconventional and downright risky choices Rian Johnson made in the previous film.
Actually, less in conversation with and more in argument with, acknowledging what Johnson did before promptly redefining or scoffing at those decisions. I assume they hope that these efforts will please the vocal minority of people who believe The Last Jedi ruined Star Wars. All it’s really doing is making it abundantly clear that Abrams and the producers would rather settle for familiarity than be bold, and further emphasizing the whiplash-inducing inconsistency of this new trilogy’s overarching narrative.
And nearly every big creative decision in The Rise of Skywalker is a rehashed one borne out of trying to please the fans of the original trilogy by giving them more of the same, instead of telling a cohesive new story. Entertaining in spurts but decidedly unengaging for how much stuff happens in it, the finale of the Skywalker saga fails to bring the iconic series of films to a satisfying close. The Force can’t even hold this thing together.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is rated PG-13, and hits theaters this Friday. All images courtesy of Disney.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
- Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley still make their characters and dynamic compelling
- Leia's presence and role
- Enjoyable camaraderie between Rey, Finn, and Poe
- MacGuffin-heavy, overstuffed story
- Settling for the safe and familiar
- Jettisoning the bold narrative path set by The Last Jedi