Spoiler Review (you’ve been warned!)
There’s not much I liked about “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Before you even get into the problems with the story and the characters, there are structural problems galore. These problems tend to get a passing mention by most, but rarely seem to make or break a movie for far too many generous viewers.
You know how trailers tend to feature quick cuts of fast action and brief bits of characters saying things that hint at what the story, universe and characters are like without giving too much away? “The Rise of Skywalker” is basically that but for two and a half hours.
Yes, I mean that to suggest that the action is fast and nonstop. The characters and story are so sloppily thrown together that it’s almost a tease to a longer more fully fleshed out version that we never actually get to see.
Much has been said about the fact that Abrams gave notes to Rian Johnson about where he thought his mystery box plot threads established in “The Force Awakens” were going only for Johnson to throw them in the trash and do whatever he wanted with the second film of this trilogy. Our initial mistake was in thinking that Johnson made an error in not continuing those threads and that that decision made the two films feel disjointed at best. Yet now that we likely know the direction Abrams planned to go with those threads, we have to think about the fact that maybe Rian Johnson was right.
The first half of “Rise of Skywalker” feels like Abrams dug those notes out of the trash and gave us the cliff’s notes version of what he would have done with Episode 8 before proceeding to the main point of the new movie. Part of that involved retconning a good number of the decisions Johnson made in “The Last Jedi,” which you may or may not be a fan of. I disliked “The Last Jedi” and a lot of the decisions Johnson made in that film. Yet I can’t help feeling that once those decisions were made, it was a mistake to flip flop on them the way Abrams’ does in this film.
“The Rise of Skywalker,” I assure you, makes a good defense for Johnson’s decision to scrap Abram’s ideas, if indeed my suspicion is right.
Much of the first half of “The Rise of Skywalker” is action sequence after action sequence strung together by the loosest of video game plots. The main trio of characters, finally allowed to be together after having been separated for much of “The Last Jedi,” must find a MacGuffin in order to find another MacGuffin in order to translate another MacGuffin in order to find a secret location.
This chain of MacGuffin chases involve a Sith artifact – a dagger that when held in just the right position, while standing in just the right spot, on just the right planet, while looking in just the right direction, reveals the location of the wayfinder (could you think of a more on-the-nose name for a device?) so they can figure out how to navigate to Palpatine – who is inexplicably back (the film doesn’t explain it so much as brush past it) despite what looked to be certain death at the end of “Return of the Jedi.”
I can’t imagine it’s possible to make characters locating another character more complicated and convoluted and any less interesting. And yet Rey does find the dagger and just so happens, perhaps by accident, to stand in the exact right spot to use the dagger to reveal the location of the wayfinder. I assure you, these sorts of plot conveniences abound in this mess of a film.
But it isn’t just a lot of plot conveniences that hurt the film, it’s an overall lack of consequence. Abrams tries to fake out the audience by making it look like Chewbacca is dead, only to have him appear safe and sound moments later while the main characters mourn his loss.
A similar thing happens with C-3PO. He is the only character with a living memory of the events from the original trilogy. If the message had been, “let the past die, kill it if you have to,” Abrams might have literally killed the memory of the events of the original trilogy. It might have been a moving message about how heroism and doing what must be done sometimes involves great sacrifice. Nevertheless, Abrams doesn’t have the guts to follow through on it. Instead, R2-D2 restores his memory later on in the film.
There’s next to no consequence in this movie.
Nevertheless, trying to track down all the MacGuffins is made harder by the fact that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still out there trying to figure out whether he wants to serve Palpatine or kill him, or team up with Rey or kill her. His struggle to decide who he wants to be is a clear manifestation of the struggle the writers had when trying to decide what sort of character he should be – this indecision lasted well into the final film of the trilogy.
Where this film should have spent much of its runtime devoted to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo’s journey and ultimate transformation, he becomes a side character while Rey deals with a new villainous threat that hasn’t been present in previous films (retconning or not).
In general, it’s a mistake mechanically in the storytelling to introduce a new villain in the final third of your story – even if it’s one that has previously existed in the franchise. The main villain of your story needs to be there operating counter to the heroes from the beginning. It’s why Palpatine was present in “A New Hope,” and why he feels so awkwardly shoehorned into this trilogy at the very end – not to mention that he pulls a lot of attention away from Kylo Ren/Ben Solo.
If Kylo Ren/Ben Solo’s journey in “The Force Awakens” was to waver until becoming resolutely evil, he repeated that journey in “The Last Jedi,” yet “The Rise of Skywalker” version of the character finally makes the inevitable switch to the light side. And worse yet, he seems to do so simply because the writers knew this was the last movie and it needed to happen, not because the character’s arc naturally arrived at that decision.
Abrams is clearly trying to echo “Return of the Jedi,” but he struggles to make it work here. Firstly, he sets up a similar familial relationship to the one Luke had struggled to come to terms with, but he also has to have a character turn from dark to light. In “Return of the Jedi” all of that is focused on one character. Here it’s separate characters and that difference turns out to be a big one. It contributes to how unfocused the film feels.
We do learn more about Rey here than we have in the previous two films, but it’s the sort of development that should have been so core to character that it informed everything they did for the remainder of the series. It’s the kind of revelation that should have been the penultimate twist of the previous film so she’d have this entire third film to reckon with it.
The reveal that Rey is a Palpatine, aside from clearly being a retcon, is unmistakably an attempt to copy the idea from George Lucas’ original trilogy that the hero was the descendant of the main villain. It’s also an obvious attempt to connect this trilogy with the previous six films, where it previously felt like a different journey altogether. How can you call this the conclusion of the Skywalker story if the hero is no one and the Skywalkers are all gone?
The problem with this clunky approach is that where Luke’s journey was to save his father, not kill the emperor, Rey’s journey (rather suddenly, as it is not present in any way shape or form in the previous films) is to destroy Palpatine. She is not a young hopeful Jedi finding the good in a relative and reminding them of who they used to be. She is literally there to destroy a bad guy.
One of these character arcs and storylines is compelling, the other is bland and generic.
From the moment the trailers for this film made it clear that the long presumed dead Palpatine was coming back, it was clear that this film (and the trilogy as a whole) would ruin the hard won victory Luke and the Rebels had won at the end of the original trilogy – including the sacrifice Anakin had made. In an attempt to connect the Disney trilogy to the original films and echo “Return of the Jedi” (each of the Disney trilogy movies have been clear echoes of the original films) “The Rise of Skywalker” undoes the ending of “Return of the Jedi,” and with it, the entire journey of Anakin Skywalker (George Lucas himself has referred to his 6 Star Wars movies as the Darth Vader story).
That’s why it has always seemed like a bizarre argument from so many critics – who have, for reasons unknown, made defending Rian Johnson and “The Last Jedi” their hill to die on – to say that “The Last Jedi” was great because it was a bold new direction for “Star Wars.” It was itself an echo of “Empire Strikes Back,” stuck within the confines of a trilogy built on a foundation that was the furthest thing from “a bold new direction.”
The advertising continues to pitch “The Rise of Skywalker” as finally ending the Skywalker storyline that began so many years ago. Yet I reject that the series had been left in an unfinished state in the first place. Who, in their right mind, saw “Return of the Jedi” in 1983 and has been sitting on pins and needles ever since, waiting for someone to finally come along and provide more closure the story? Did it really need more closure? Was there anything the new movies did that the expanded universe didn’t already do better?
In many ways “Rise of Skywalker” feels like an obvious desperation play from a filmmaker press ganged into completing a trilogy that had no outline or predetermined character arcs. Worse yet, it’s a trilogy that only in its final film remembered that it was film 7, 8 and 9 of a long running series with pre-established characters and situations, and not films 1, 2 and 3 of a new stand alone series following new heroes.
The new series failed from the beginning to do two crucial things: sell us on the simple idea that this was, in any way, a continuation of the Skywalker storyline from the first 6 films, and that it was, in any way, necessary. The answers it tries to clumsily throw together at the last second here simply don’t feel like they’ve been properly set up by the previous movies.
In the end the sense I’m left with, as this Disney trilogy is now complete, is that it was a poorly planned and executed, tug of war, argument between two filmmakers who had starkly different visions for how the story should play out and what the overall tone should be. Yet they were, at every turn, hamstrung by the decisions made by the other filmmaker. So they both worked independently to undo what the other had done while also trying to push forward the narrative as they saw fit, regardless of how that would affect the next film.
I cannot imagine a worse way to try to tell a coherent and cohesive story. The result was not a success. It is unconscionable to me that this would be the approach to building a trilogy of films, let alone a trilogy set in a franchise with a fanbase as ardent and sizable as that of “Star Wars.”
Fans and critics have been, rightly, divided by these films, but the reasoning is now made more obvious with the knowledge of how divided the people in charge were. If “ The Rise of Skywalker” accomplishes anything, it’s casting an illuminating light on that division.
In the end, Disney’s new “Star Wars” films will likely be remembered, at best, as bad fan fiction awkwardly tacked on to a series that had already come to a satisfying conclusion nearly 40 years ago, and at worst, as blatant cash grabs that actively do damage to George Lucas’ original trilogy and the “Star Wars” brand as a whole.
And as a fan of the original movies, that hurts, because the stakes are higher with “Star Wars.” It’s not Batman, it’s not Superman, it’s not Spider-Man, and it’s not James Bond. If Joel Schumacher messes up Batman, it’s fine, Christopher Nolan will come along a decade later to give a different take on the character. Now that Disney has messed up “Star Wars,” where else is there for it to go? And how badly will it hurt your appreciation of the original trilogy next time you watch it?
The Fundamental Flaws:
Why do characters in the Disney “Star Wars” series sense someone in their future may turn evil, and thus give up on the force altogether? Three characters make that choice in this trilogy, and it’s a choice that runs counter to the way a Jedi would actually think and act. Mark Hamill himself, even said many times in interviews that he fundamentally disagreed with the idea that his character would make that decision. But here’s “The Rise of Skywalker” with two other characters also making that same decision.
Another fundamental flaw in the Disney trilogy’s understanding of the force is that force ghosts are capable of interacting with the physical world. Introduce an element like this and suddenly we all wonder why force ghosts aren’t taking a more active role in the plot of the movie. And because force ghosts can’t die, why aren’t they on the front lines striking the enemy with lightning and swinging lightsabers at everyone?
In the original trilogy during times of either great duress or joy a force ghost could speak to a living force user, either by voice alone or by appearing to them as an apparition. Living force users could sense each other from afar. The Disney trilogy pushes those concepts to 11 because bigger is better in their minds, regardless of how badly going bigger in these cases breaks the rules of the established universe.
Now, instead of just sensing each other, two force users can not only communicate, but have a full on lightsaber duel during one of these video chat sessions. But whether or not the person has actually teleported, or why they couldn’t just pop up behind their foe and stab them in the back and flee again is never established. These sorts of evolutions of George Lucas’ version of the force raises questions that I’m sure the filmmakers themselves couldn’t answer if someone pressed them on it.
And much like the film’s new force healing power, these new powers might have been more acceptable had they been properly established. If we learned that a discovery of a new power had occurred and Rey had practiced it, and it was only now possible, maybe it wouldn’t have raised questions about why it had never been used previously.
This is how careful you need to tread when operating within someone else’s pre-established fiction. To not abide by the established rules, is to disrespect that fiction, its creator and the fans who have become invested in it.
Speaking of not respecting the established fiction. Palpatine is back! If the victory of “Return of the Jedi” weren’t completely undone by “The Force Awakens” – insisting that just a few years later the heroes have failed to rebuild the Republic and the Jedi, and the universe has more or less reverted back to where it was at the beginning of “A New Hope” (with no explanation as to how it got that way) – here’s “The Rise of Skywalker” to bring back the main baddie we thought the main character of the first 6 films had sacrificed himself to overcome.
Remember when Abrams said, “I don’t think that people go to ‘Star Wars’ to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’” Yet his films “The Force Awakens” and “The Rise of Skywalker” basically say, Anakin’s sacrifice and the rebellion’s victory over the empire don’t matter. So apparently if you’re going to be hypocritical, you at least do it in service of destroying the “Star Wars” universe?