You know, there’s a reason Hollywood hires screenwriters to craft their films. Despite Reddit, fanfic forums, and Twitter convincing fans that they are capable of creating their own stories, it still takes years of practice and skill to craft a worthwhile story that will challenge and entertain an audience. When studios let audiences control the narrative, you get the silliness of Game of Thrones’ eighth season, or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Unfortunately, after two films that properly committed to its audience and balanced art with entertainment, the team at Lucasfilms and J.J. Abrams has caved to the pressures of the world around him and delivered an effective, but unremarkable final film with Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.
One year after the events of The Last Jedi, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back, somehow, I guess. His mission is to bring himself back to full power so he can lead an army to create the Final Order. Both the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), her Jedi Apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley), and soldiers Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), are determined to find and defeat the Sith master once and for all – Ren to cement his legacy as the greatest Sith of all time, the Resistance because, well, Palpatine is evil. The groups engage in a series of treasure hunts that will reveal Palpatine’s location, as well as secrets about both Kylo Ren and Rey that may determine the fate of the Galaxy.
The Rise of Skywalker’s greatest enemy is its own screenplay. Abrams and Chris Terrio seem to possess a fundamental misunderstanding of everything that makes Star Wars fun. This is rather surprising, considering Abrams gave us one of the series’ best films in 2015’s The Force Awakens, but here we are. Perhaps Michael Arndt did the heavy lifting last time around. For much of the film’s first hour and a half, Skywalker overloads audiences with excessive plot details, twists, and obstacles. It essentially plays out as an extended scavenger hunt – first you gotta find the magic dagger, then you gotta decode the magic dagger, then the magic dagger will unlock the magic door, and the magic door will give you the first clue, and so on. If you cut out about three of those steps, you have a tauter, looser film that wears its runtime well. Meanwhile, as for those “twists” I mentioned, they are so painfully audience I whispered half of them to my brother a full forty minutes before the payoff. Characters are lazily or hastily introduced, often dropping the ball on major moments, from Lando Calrissian’s (Billy Dee Williams) return to the reveal that Leia has become Rey’s new Jedi Master (how Leia herself became a Jedi, despite the series’ insistence that she was the most powerful Force user because she rejected such teachings, I don’t know). And the less said about the Emperor’s return, the better. I don’t know exactly why the deceased villain of the earlier entries has returned now, for the finale. The film doesn’t quite know, either. It is casually explained with a good old-fashioned “Oh, let’s say clones.” And I couldn’t begin to explain his master plan, which I can only describe as “Voldemort-esque.” Interspersed throughout the film, where previous films had included intelligent, entertaining moments of world building, we are now greeted with random dance sequences, bad jokes, and terrible dialogue. The most egregious offender here is C-3PO, although I am fairly certain I heard a Stormtrooper at one point say, “You got it, dude.” In fact, some of the dialogue is so atrocious it’s enough to demand that Chris Terrio give back his Academy Award. Between this, Batman v Superman, and Justice League, it is surely justified by this point. All of this builds up to an ending that drops a series of threads designed to, I swear to God, set up for a sequel. A sequel. To the last film in a series. The sheer audacity of these actions serves as a stain to the entire saga. The entire film feels like it was written by a group of fans that wrote their own ending to the series based on what they wanted to see. And that’s all well and good – I know I’ve done the same thing. But when you are paying professional writers to come up with a proper ending to a beloved franchise, you’d better hope their dialogue, stories, and execution will far surpass that of the average Tumblr post.
However, what may be even more infuriating about the film is the general sense of disrespect laid at the feet of its predecessor, The Last Jedi. Now, I understand backtracking on a few key decisions, or misdirecting along the way. Return of the Jedi did so with Boba Fett, Darth Vader’s characterization, and more. However, there is a clear, insidious obnoxious attempt in The Rise of Skywalker to erase everything about Rian Johnson’s previous film, including some of the more impressive sequences in the saga, just to appease the toxic minority in the fanboy community. Remember how the previous film criticized the Jedi’s shortcomings? Well, that gets written away here, as Rey just happened to find new Jedi texts to study from with a new Master, who already happened to be trained in the Force. Remember Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), the representation of Star Wars’ influence on fans who will grow up and fight for what is right? Well, because a group of assh*les found her “annoying” and too feminine, she now just says “Nah, I’m good” to the adventures and sits out the rest of the film (perhaps one of the most egregious moments I’ve ever seen in a film). Remember Rey’s…you know what, we’ll leave that alone. You already know where I’m going with this, and if you don’t, you certainly won’t want me mentioning it. Hell, even things that have no reason to be rewritten or removed are desecrated. The impressive Holdo Maneuver sequence from The Last Jedi is mentioned here before being brushed off as “a one-in-a-million piece of nonsense.” None of this is necessary, and it makes the decision all the more insufferable. And if that wasn’t enough, Abrams and Skywalker go excessively overboard in destroying anything fun about the fandom, just to appease this group of fun-killers. The female characters who have been dubbed “Mary Sue” by the worst corners of the Internet are now explained to have had Lots Of Male Help. Classic characters show up to serve as deus ex machina because the new characters “can’t hack it on their own.” Oh, and remember the cute, fun fan fictions that came out of FinnPoe thanks to the chemistry between Boyega and Isaac? Abrams won’t even let that open for the fans – he spends every waking minute demonstrating that these two are Definitely Straight, to an uncomfortable level. Oh, and don’t worry – they introduce another black character for Finn to fall in love with, because according to Disney, No Interracial Dating. I’m not saying that the two had to actually be a couple. But rubbing audiences’ faces in it just seems aggressively against a fun joke in the community. The only thing he didn’t cut was a few references to the Reylo fandom, and even that’s more fleeting homages than anything else. Not only does backtracking the film this much to appease a small group of fans damage the film, but it hurts the narrative – it now stands in the timeline that these films will not mesh, and it will drive future fans further away due to the lazy flow.
And yet – and yet – despite how negative I’ve been up until this point, there’s still a lot I really like in this film. It is, after all, a Star Wars movie, and I love Star Wars movies. Abrams knows how to write for Rey, and her arc is refreshingly complex from beginning to end. I’m particularly fond of her Force abilities manifesting not in lightsaber fights or Force jumps (anytime someone jumps in this film, it looks kinda bad), but instead through the power of healing. Despite insisting for nine films that The Force is the all-healing balance in the universe that works towards peace, we’ve really only seen it used for violence. It appears that Leia and Rey are the only two characters that ever understood its power, and that is a detail I love. Meanwhile, Abrams still knows how to stage a scene – the effects work is still pretty strong, and the lightsaber duels are all effectively shot, even if none of the duels match up to the samurai-esque work of The Last Jedi. John Williams’ score, meanwhile, is consistently solid, and can still make audiences emotional with the haunting “Luke Theme,” “Leia Theme,” and opening crawl. And because it is J.J. Abrams, and callbacks and parallels are all he’s really good at, I will say some of my favorite moments come in the form of love letters to the Original Trilogy. Sunsets are always a perfect moment in the Star Wars films, and I love when the dialogue peppers in lines about the Millennium Falcon’s abilities. It is pure nostalgia. It’s worth noting a key moment in the film is stolen from Avengers: Endgame, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. And I want to give the film a special shout out for giving Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) his due. As the last character from the Original Trilogy alive at this point, he’s deserved more focus for quite some time, and here he gets a chance to not only comedically steal the show, but emote. It’s more powerful than it sounds. It’s not perfect, but there’s more than enough classic Star Wars fun here to entertain the average audience member.
When it comes to the cast, if oftentimes feels like the performers are in a battle for the fate of their characters with a team of sadistic writers, with only a few emerging unscathed. Honestly, the best performance of the film comes from Oscar Isaac. Isaac’s character may be the only consistent performance between Jedi and Skywalker. His character maintains that sarcastic charm that he’s always possessed, but has clearly grown thanks to the hard lessons he learned from Leia the last time about. Meanwhile, Ridley and Driver are solid as Rey and Ren, the Diad that serve as the driving force of this new series. They possess a wide emotional range that can sell any dialogue, no matter how terrible. Boyega is mostly sidelined as Finn, although he deserves a medal for making his character work. Domhnall Gleeson also stands out amongst the cast for finally managing to balance his character’s menace with his comedic personality – it’s been the new series’ greatest tonal whiplash. In terms of the Original Cast, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO finds himself in a sad quandary – it is clearly the most he’s had to do since Return of the Jedi, and a few of his lines are pretty funny. It’s just a shame that most of them are an insult to the character – it’s almost like the writers know C-3PO is supposed to be annoying, but don’t know how to make that trait funny. Billy Dee Williams is still smooth as Lando, but he’s only around for about three minutes of screentime, so it’s pretty hard to judge. Still, he’s better off than Ian McDiarmid, once considered the best part of the Prequels and iconic in Return, who is left to snarl and groan throughout most of the film. Keri Russell shows up for five minutes, but you’d never know it – she’s under a mask the entire time. And Richard E. Grant somehow makes looking glum seem like the time of his life as Allegiant General Pryde, the newest commander in the First Order. Oh, and while I would never dream of spoiling a film like this, I will say that there are a variety of faces old and new that show up at various times throughout the film, and each one is exciting to see or hear. This team is yet another in a long line of fantastic actors somehow making terrible dialogue work to their advantage, and I hope that gift serves them well long into the future.
At the end of the day, I err on the side of positivity for The Rise of Skywalker. I do so based on the audience sitting behind me audibly cooing, cheering, and crying throughout: thirteen-year-old girls. At the end of the day, Star Wars is a series designed for and appreciated by the children of the world, dazzling them with fun, poppy, uncomplicated stories. It always has been for kids, and always will be for kids. That being said, the 25-year-old in me wishes for…more. It just didn’t do enough to overwhelm the BS sensors in my brain. Maybe Star Wars won’t be able to again. The battle between my childlike innocence and my adult-like cynicism will likely wage for years to come. You can consider The Rise of Skywalker yet another casualty of the battle – or perhaps it’s the very war itself.