Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a big middle finger to its predecessor, The Last Jedi. Seeing as I loved Jedi and its willingness to subvert the conventions of the franchise rather than slavishly imitate what’s come before (like its forbearer, the meek and mawkish echo that is The Force Awakens), I loathed this final entry in the Skywalker saga. Thus, I raise a hearty middle finger in return to the sloppy fan service that is Rise of Skywalker, and to its returning director/co-writer J.J. Abrams, the wannabe blockbuster filmmaker who kicked off this new trilogy with Awakens.
The movie, and its problems, begin with that famous title crawl. You know the one: big, tilted, bold yellow letters filling up the screen, bringing us up to date with our characters. Major information is tossed off in this written exposition without a second thought: an old villain is introduced out of nowhere with breathless text that does nothing to minimize a feeling of, “huh?! Where did THAT come from!?” You know it from the trailers, so it’s not really a spoiler but I’ll warn you anyway, SPOILER: the Emperor is back, and his return is not a slow reveal. He’s in the first scene, grousing and scheming. What’s not revealed is how, exactly, he’s back, or how he survived all this time.
But we know the real reason he’s returned: this movie needed a villain and Abrams, ever the worshipper of what’s come before, is reluctant to create and chooses, instead, to resurrect. So here we go again with our intrepid heroes, Jedi-in-training Rey, reformed Storm Trooper Finn, and rebellious pilot Poe, tracking down the returning Phantom Menace before he unleashes some promised destruction on the universe. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, the is-he/isn’t-he villain of the previous films, and the will they/won’t they pseudo-love-interest to Rey, has already found the Emperor and is working with him/against him.
Instead of building on the story turns of The Last Jedi, Rise sidesteps it completely and ends up going right off a cliff (…or into a Sarlacc Pit, if you will). Opting for fan service, it becomes Fan Fiction: The Movie. It goes too far with everything, seems to make things up as it goes along, and tosses in cameo after cameo just to get a rise out of the audience rather than considering how this final installment serves that larger story to which it belongs.
Jedi are basically gods now, more akin to unbeatable superheroes or video game characters than the force-attuned monk-like figures that could do cool stuff with their minds. And (spoiler) one character’s change of heart comes so quickly and without warning, it’s almost comical.
Is it rushed and illogical? You bet.
But who cares, right? As long as it’s bitchin’! As long as it’s what the fans want. That seems to be Abrams’ M.O. here. The director is serving a new master, a Sith Lord who only asks one question: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
Cool is great, but Rise fails to consider what the story needs, and sacrifices it for what it thinks the fans hope to see. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want; but, sometimes, you get what you need. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio (whose previous credits include the Justice League movie. Oy vey!) are intent on force-feeding us want and ignoring need. And in doing so, they basically undo all of the intriguing and surprising reveals of the last film just to give us a thoughtless callback to what’s come before.
Rian Johnson, the director of Last Jedi, challenged us with that film and almost dared the next filmmaker in line to build on the path he set out. Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, we get reheated leftovers and endless action scenes that look expensive but have no emotion invested in them. They’re just boring. Jedi had less action, but what was there was memorable, striking even. Remember when that space ship jumped into light speed through a Star Destroyer? We gasped at my screening. Remember that fight scene in the throne room? It was a little arch, the fighters moved a little slowly, prepared for their moves, but the way it was filmed, in long takes with intricate choreography, felt like something was actually happening. Here, it’s all so busy and impersonal, it bypasses the brain completely, barely leaving a trace in your memory.
That’s something that’s missing from most J.J. Abrams joints. Emotion. They’re mentioned a lot in Skywalker, but the characters interactions and dialogue run counter to the supposed mushy stuff, trading on emotions that are never earned. C-3PO looks at the three protagonists and says, “I’m taking a last look at my friends,” but never do we get the sense that this group is in any way shape or form, friends, or even that friendly. Especially when Poe keeps callously going on about “cracking” C-3PO’s head open so they can get some important information out, a move by the way, that the film establishes could very well erase all of the robot’s memories completely. What a jerk.
This Star Wars did something none of the other films in the series ever did, even the crummy prequels: it left me completely exhausted. Skywalker is a nadir for the franchise, a brainless slog that gives in to its worst impulses in a desperate attempt to win over “fans” that turned their backs on The Last Jedi.
If this is what it takes, you can keep it.