Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac
Like piloting a plane, the trickiest part of steering a story after takeoff is sticking the landing. So imagine the Herculean task before J.J. Abrams: crafting a satisfying conclusion to an epic that spans three trilogies. And if Disney and president of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy wanted a safe finale that services fans worldwide, then they couldn’t have picked a better steward than Abrams, who is nothing if not an astute student of pop culture and taker of the pulse of mass taste. So, yeah, you could call Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker satisfying. It’s just not very adventurous.
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A lot of this criticism has its roots in Rian Johnson’s contentious entry, The Last Jedi. Anyone who caught Knives Out during its woefully unheralded local run has realized by now that Johnson is in the business of infiltrating genre movies and deftly sidestepping audience expectations. Some of Johnson’s machinations in The Last Jedi has the for-the-hell-of-it feel of someone gleefully gumming up the works, as when grizzled and self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) chucks his mythical lightsaber behind his back. And some of them have the impulse of genuine iconoclasm, as when new-generation Darth Vader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tells Rey (Daisy Ridley) that her emergent Jedi abilities are apropos of nothing because her parents were drunk nobodies. Johnson’s innovations were met with gasps, laughter, or outright derision—and oftentimes, all three—but they were borne of a deep desire to shake up a calcifying institution of a franchise. And for that reason, for the first time since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, I started paying attention to Star Wars again.
None of that let’s-see-where-this-goes spirit is evident in Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker, and you could argue that aimless wandering is not called for when you’re docking a mighty narrative ship. Except if you take a really close look at the plot, you’ll find a lot of aimlessness hidden beneath all the audience-pleasing, whiz-bang lightsaber duels, and space skirmishes. After an opening crawl that blares the resurrection of a long-dead villain from its very first sentence—wait, what?—Rey, ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are told that they must journey to a hitherto unknown realm of the villainous Sith, where an attack that threatens to pulverize worlds is being mounted. The central trio then hopscotches around the galaxy, pursuing missions that tease delicious complication (the quest for and loss of a map to the Sith stronghold) and potential upheavals in the Force of fan adulation (such as the potential death of a beloved sidekick), but which then get resolved through disappointing deus ex machina. The result is a curious stop-and-start quality to the narrative, with Abrams relying on his rocket fuel-powered set pieces to glide through the juddering creakiness of his script (co-written with Chris Terrio).
He also leans on fan service—a lot of fan service—whether by orchestrating the big reveal of favorite, long-absent characters or by setting central events in locales that are sacred to the canon. This gives The Rise of Skywalker a cloying bouquet of nostalgia, a sense that the movie is already a relic just a month after its release. The Rise of Skywalker seems hellbent on tamping down everything that makes it new, in the service of squeezing it into the existing mythos set by George Lucas. Which is a shame, because this concluding chapter never feels more alive than when Ridley and Driver engage in one of the telepathic squabbles introduced in The Last Jedi, plumbing the depths of their conflicted chemistry, carrying the core of Lucas’ dysfunctional-family space soap on their capable shoulders.
Maybe you’ll feel tears coming on at the roll call of some dearly departed characters. Maybe you’ll ooh at all the callbacks. Maybe you’ll leave the theater satisfied, sated the way you’d feel after walking away from a buffet of your favorites. But what you won’t be doing is debating where the saga goes from here—Abrams has been so busy looking behind him and covering his tracks that he’s barely charted a path forward. (According to Disney calculus, a multimillion investment like this cannot afford to end.) The Rise of Skywalker is safe and solid, but it’s one of those fan movies that make you wonder if there is such a thing as too much fan service. Personally, this fan likes to get his expectations challenged; I’m a fan who likes adventure in my adventure movies.
Photographs from TM Lucasfilm Ltd.