Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it all over again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. Star Wars may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring.

-Pauline Kael, 1977

This review contains SPOILERS.

Star Wars becomes more than itself in the mind of its audience. It’s based on so much cultural upbringing, so many toys that are familiar to us before we’ve even seen them, that it barely has to try. Darth Vader boards Leia’s shuttle and instantly becomes towering: a figure of power, and of pain. Luke stands beneath two sunsets and wonders where to go from here; a movie later, a master of the force will tell him that it’s the act of wondering that he has to grow out of to achieve true enlightenment.

What would that master tell us, now? He told Luke to stop craving “adventure and excitement,” and yet the people who are his biggest fans want nothing else from their beloved movie series, nothing more substantial, nothing that lasts longer than a car crash. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker uses Star Wars to drive its blasts of energy, but it doesn’t understand it; asking this movie about the subtleties of this saga would be like asking an explosion how it feels about its fumes. This movie fails, more than any Star Wars film has ever failed, to go beyond its moving parts and become that thing that Star Wars always becomes, that dense, towering collection of tiny stories and larger-than-life personality that’s as much fun to take too seriously as it is to laugh at.

Episode IX is barely a film at all: it’s a baby mobile, a spinning blur of toys and color that doesn’t explain itself more than a child that wet the bed. Imagine asking this child: “Why did you do that?” What’s the best answer you could hope for? Surely you don’t want to hear that they did this to you on purpose. You want to hear that they’re innocent in it: “I couldn’t help it.” The creatives behind this movie were given the task of finishing a story that no one planned, and now almost all of them are trying to blame someone else’s influence on the result. They don’t want us to think they did it to us on purpose. Like a disappointed parent, I’ll hope for the best possible answer: I’ll assume they couldn’t help it. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy to clean it up.

At the end of a lot of magic, for light and for dark, the conclusion of George Lucas’ Skywalker saga ultimately comes down to information: how we are told what we are told. Even with ten films as the wind in its sails, this final episode’s plot is based almost entirely on information that is new to us. It connects with and concludes almost nothing in the entire Star Wars universe: it is basically a standalone film. The presence of old friends and little faces doesn’t save the experience; in fact, they’re the engine that powers its destruction. They take a standalone adventure and turn it into a burden.

The first burden put on the audience almost seems personal: the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) seems like J.J. Abrams glove-slapping Rian Johnson at our expense, after The Last Jedi got rid of his big villain and asked what would be left if we did so. Where would Star Wars go without a bad guy to defeat? To be fair, I don’t know if Johnson knew either: he had the much more luxurious position of making those changes without being responsible for them. But even so, destroying the villain early was a matter of trusting the audience to move on; creating a “new” villain is oppositely a matter left up to the audience’s good faith since it is never explained to us, or passed off as a subject in need of explanation. It’s just what has to happen for this to be a “Star Wars” movie, as Abrams sees it. And this is so much worse! It is a feat of marketing taking over the writing of the film, which alters the audience’s mind to accept the story in preparation for the movie they know they’re going to get (were you surprised by Palpatine’s re-entrance into this universe? Or would you say you were reassured?).

I understand that by the time we’re in our seats, we all know that Palpatine is back, that having it explained to us would be more like a luxury at this point. But The Rise of Skywalker, armed with Abrams’ infuriatingly passive cynicism for every franchise he ruins, knows this as well as we do and that’s the element that really makes watching this movie feel like you were mugged by Wookiepedia. It doesn’t just employ lazy writing: it’s in on it.

Before I really get into my case  of why this plot doesn’t work, it’s worth mentioning that at no point is this movie brought down by any of its aspects other than that plot. The performers, while not as energetic as in previous films, do a fine job with the signature Abrams bounciness in the tone of the scenes (he’s much better at writing a feeling than a story), Dan Mindel shoots the film well, and the lightsaber battles particularly are some of the series’ best: they are when the film is most honest with itself. John Williams is always a joy and here he’s at his most satisfyingly manipulative, dropping in riffs from previous movies at moments that are made over-literal, again, only by the script (hearing a couple notes from the throne room score of Return of the Jedi is one thing: hearing it when we slowly zoom in on the actual throne in the wreckage of the actual room is another).

Even with Williams though, there’s an issue involving the characters’ music themes: this movie uses them comically often, seemingly as shorthand to get us back in the mood when we cut to each individual story for a minute. (Kylo has a theme of four notes that plays every time, no matter how briefly or in what context, he appears on screen. It’s straight out of parody; it turns a beautiful piece of music into the “Frau Blücher” bit from Young Frankenstein.) Lastly, the use of Carrie Fisher’s existing footage to stitch together her part in this film feels tactful where it could have felt desperate and cheap. We’ll never know what had to be forcibly changed around it to make it fit as well as it does, but future audiences probably won’t even know the story behind it.

On the level of technicals, of its humans and sparklies, this is a quality production; the lightsaber fight on the derelict Death Star stands out and Adam Driver still carries the cast from the wrong side of the force with his signature wistful ugliness that is so easily mistakable as charm. But when we actually visit the world of this movie, and take a look around at its story, it falls apart on every other possible level.

Every square inch of this movie, every particle of space, is filled with information. Information covers the seats and falls from the trees; it’s waiting in rooms when people enter and it’s shouting out rebuttals as they leave. It’s in cars shooting at us as we drive by and winking at us as it swims around in our soup; it’s crawling out of people’s mouths and dripping from their hair and shot directly into our eyes with a needle two hours and twenty-two minutes long. There’s hardly a second of breath in this movie, hardly a scene where the characters take stock or become for even one moment living people in a universe that has any beauty in it at all, hardly any interaction whatsoever that could not be classified as “plot.” What if they did take stock? They’d realize that the stock is falling! Why? Because we’ve already been here too long! (Perhaps only Ford’s reluctant appearance, finally as scruffy-looking as he has previously been accused of being and all the more heartful for it, is an exception.)

In the village of a snowy mountain town that looks like a place the Nazis would be looking for runaways, the main characters meet new characters, some of whom they have a past with. These relationships are set up and resolved in their entirety in one scene, two if we’re lucky; as our heroes arrive, they are already leaving. Imagine how it would happen in another movie: meeting old acquaintances, getting invited into the village, exploring a history, seeing the condition of the people, building up emotion. The Rise of Skywalker involves Indiana Jones-esque universe-trotting and ancient mystical items that reveal the locations of treasure and there’s nothing especially wrong with that, but imagine if Raiders of the Lost Ark was handled the way this movie handles that stuff: imagine if Indy met Sallah outside his shop, asked him for money, and then got back in his car and drove off. Imagine if Indy met Marion, took the medallion, and turned around and left and we didn’t see her again until the end.

The cast of Episode IX not only arrives at and leaves these places within a scene or two, but this planet is blown up a few scenes later. What was down there? Nothing we’d be interested in, I guess.

On the windy shores of a planet all grasslands and overcast skies that Dreyer or Bergman would have been thrilled to have at their disposal, the heroes look out at the wreckage of the old Death Star. They use a mystic object to show the location of another mystic object that they need to find the location of the film’s finale. How does this item with carven ancient runes relate to a wreckage no more than forty years old? How does Rey know where to stand to see the exact thing she needs to see, or where it is exactly in a wreckage miles long? I don’t know, but the thing is, there might have been an explanation that I just missed. Someone may comment about it below this article. But just because some of these things are technically explained, does not mean that these explanations are productive to the audience: a throwaway line about how such and such is possible or not worth explaining further is Abrams’ and Chris Terrio’s luxurious con art, recruiting die-hard fans to defend, in the name of information, this script’s own inability to cohesively build a universe in favor of drive-by explanations for each thing individually.

There are many examples. Someone asks why the “Holdo maneuver” that solved the previous film won’t work in this one and the answer is matter of fact: “That move’s one in a million.” Moving on. The best instance of this writing is how the characters realize that Emperor Palpatine has returned. Someone says: “Somehow, Palpatine has returned.” Moving on. Other times, this kind of writing is used just as distractingly to linger on something nostalgic, such as when Chewie gets the medal that fans have wanted him to get since 1977. Even though this has never been a subject of any interest for Chewbacca, it has been one for the most rabid fans.

The film spends as long on this moment as it spends on literally anything else, despite the fact that it completes absolutely nothing for the character it concerns; it’s the tradeoff that becomes signature of The Rise of Skywalker, of story in exchange for a feeling. We are told these people are best friends, though they do nothing but bicker and some of them (Rey and Poe, specifically), have barely interacted before now. But we don't have time to develop them: instead, we have to devote time to give Chewbacca the fan-fiction he's earned after fighting all these wars. Reddit seems to be more instrumental in deciding this movie’s emotional beats than any planning by a professional writer.

Moving on. They’re on a windy shore; the sea is angry and the sky is grey. They need the object in the wreckage (most of this movie’s plot unfolds like a side quest in a video game, filled with NPCs and quest markers and objects used to get other objects to get to the next level). It’s too stormy to get to it; a new character named Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a former stormtrooper, suggests they wait till morning. Another movie would send them back to town to see the state of the former troopers, to build on that thread of the First Order’s indoctrination program and the possibility of escaping it, amplifying Finn’s (John Boyega) journey, ingratiating the audience to a new face, and building a relationship with lore, with time, and with the universe. I’m thinking of wind coming through wooden doors, a stone fireplace, a worried band of adventurers impatient to complete their quest but forced to face the choices they’ve made in their own pasts. Rey stands in the wind questioning the consequences of having so much power. Finn fails to consul her with a story of his stormtrooper days.

But of course, this is not what The Rise of Skywalker does. Rey is down on the sea before it’s even been fully explained that they should wait till morning; she paddles to the wreck, slips eagerly into a swordfight, and boards a ship without her friends; she's off the planet before the scene ends. Sure, Jannah comes with them when they go after her, and her worried face can be seen on the field of battle in the finale, bantering with Finn, and her final moment with Lando (Billy Dee Williams) seems to imply a future. But are we really supposed to care about this tagalong, whose biggest scene in the film is an insistence that the movie slow down and be more reasonable about all this running around? She’s one of those characters that Star Wars fanatics will forever refer to by name (“Jannah”), to which everyone else will forever respond, “Who?” which will be answered like a file designation, with the name of the film and a physical description of the person.

Speaking of characters introduced and not utilized, let me backtrack to that mountain town where we meet Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), Poe’s (Oscar Isaac) old flame. She’s emblematic of something truly astounding about The Rise of Skywalker’s pacing of information, something that not even movies far worse than it will ever do. It’s actually kind of hard to explain.

We’re introduced to Bliss in combat: Rey takes down her guards and they have a moment of mutual female toughness approval. Standard stuff. Bliss and Poe trade dialogue made of very movie-specific tropes, things that I didn’t write down but which sound like, “It’s been a long time,” “You haven’t changed a bit,” etc. We learn that Bliss wants to get off this planet. She tells Poe that she’s stolen a First Order captain’s medallion to get through blockades and escape to her new life. And now the heroes need to leave! Bliss gives Poe the medallion, hoping that it comes in handy for him sometime. This is fortuitous: very soon, the heroes rescue a friend from a Star Destroyer and retrieve their missing mystical object that they need to complete their quest and get enough experience points to level up in a scene that requires this medallion (at this point in time, they don’t realize that they still need this object, but they will). They use the medallion at the beginning of the scene to initiate the action; it’s never needed again.

The complexity of the badness of this situation is completely new to me; maybe you don’t even know what I’m talking about. See, the normal thing to do in any movie would be to have Poe steal the medallion from Bliss during their heart-to-heart conversation. She hopes they’re reconnecting and that he’s changed from his shifty old ways; even though he wants it to be that way, circumstances require him to still be the bad guy. This would make a lot more sense in the script: not only is Poe’s shadier past established in a line earlier in the film, but at the end when Zorii and Poe lock eyes (and visors), she dismisses him as though this is what he did, like he’ll never change. Despite the fact that earlier in the film, she asked him to go with her, at the end she brushes him off even though he’s more redeemed at this point than when she first asked. They’re being puppeteered by tropes at that point that the script doesn’t even have.

The movie doesn’t use this situation as an opportunity to inform us about Poe at all: she gives him the medallion, as though she’s reformed by this situation; ultimately her entire emotional context is barely even a plot device. An entire character arc – a loner and former flame learning to re-accept her feelings for the hero and give up her own freedom in exchange for a nobler goal – is in the content of mere minutes of film, resolved by an object willfully changing hands but in no context more significant than giving the writers another convenient way of giving us the entire story between two characters in a single bite of movie. It's the Go-Gurt version of Casablanca.

This blistering pace of emotional tropes in The Rise of Skywalker is what makes watching it feel like trying to read the license plates off of time lapse footage of turnpike traffic. Even small exchanges feel meta, like it’s commenting on the “get an object, go to a place, get another object, go to another place” structure that other movies have on accident. But even though it’s doing it on purpose, it’s doing it without irony. This is just the only thing it could think to do.

By criticizing the logic of these exchanges, I’m sure people will recoil from me: it’s Star Wars! What did you expect from Star Wars? Are you really nitpicking the plot of a movie about wizards and robots? That’s what half the responses will be like. The other half will be telling me what I missed, what nuance of intentions makes this scene alright from any perspective of lore or information, any at all, except basic emotional pacing. Understand that my issue is not with believability but with the process of getting and giving information.

In another movie, it would be completely ludicrous and everyone would know it: the twelve-step acquirement of this map would be treated with the same distant lack of basic movie enjoyment that people have for the acquirement of the coveted hickory honey ham in Christmas with the Kranks. People in The Rise of Skywalker receive things they need to complete the next scene before they even get there; they risk their lives to retrieve them before they know that they need them. They’re at the end of their character arc as we’re learning that such an arc exists in the first place. I used Zorii’s scene as the example; in this movie, most of them will do.

A character dies in order to show another character that their great power might cost them something. This is a situation that might have worked if it lingered, if it’s dealt with, but we find out that this character is not dead in minutes, and the heroes do soon after. “They must have been on another transport!” is a line that comes up to explain the inconsistency between that “twist” and what the character who says it thought they saw (and, if you think about it, must have seen). This line is spoken barely in frame and barely heard. But who needs to hear it? We know they have no explanation. We see this character in the film's finale in shots from the trailer. That's how little they're invested in this feint. In a scene that tries to be touching in the same way that a jackhammer tries to dig a hole, a character loses their memory. It’s a big deal that the characters take way too lightly, almost as though they know that in a few scenes, this character’s memory will be restored, at least partly: their memory now starts right at the beginning of this new trilogy. Talk about living the dream.

It’s hard to separate the details from the big picture when everything is moving so fast, but the story of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is clearly meant to be the focus, and no less subject to the emotional whirlwind of the script. These two characters pass through phases of understanding in a flash; they develop in seconds, like the film is a clone altered to age quickly. Dialogue pushes so hard to complete the tasks set for it by the story that it defeats itself, like when Kylo pretends that retconning twists from the previous film is a matter of fact (almost coming out and saying, "You didn't really believe that other guy's movie, did you?"), or when the balance between the bad stuff he’s done and the love that the fanbase has for him writes his ending automatically, like it’s a fan-fic and Abrams/Terrio merely edited it.

Consider how the characters treat information in their fight on the wreck of the Death Star, which is visually the best scene in the film. Kylo wants Rey to join him on the Sith planet to kill Palpatine, but he destroys the map she just went to six other planets to find so that she has to take him there with her, instead of just waiting for her on the Sith planet in the first place. But then, even knowing that he’s the only way to get there, she stabs and kills him; now, because of information that he gives her, she doesn’t want to go there anymore anyway. She flies away, only to find Luke (Mark Hamill) to give her information that makes her want to go there again. But this is only after she destroys her spaceship and loses the map that would allow her to do so. He tells her that she has “Everything she needs” to continue her journey. Normally, this advice would imply that the hero should look within themselves to find answers to a complex problem, but what it actually means in this case is that there’s another spaceship right over there, and another of those maps right over there too. This is all in the span of minutes.

Luke is just deflecting us from this ridiculous conga line of conveniences with movie lines; Abrams and Terrio have recruited him to be a Zoltar machine whose tickets they’ve already read. Did this entire exchange really require so many steps? Here’s one more example of the movie talking itself into things that “must” happen, even if they make no logical sense: Sidious tells Rey that if she kills him, he will enter her body and she will become the vessel for a thousand generations of Sith lords. He tells her over and over to kill him so that this will happen. But she didn’t know this would happen before he told her. She came there specifically to kill him; only his dialogue makes her reconsider it. Why? Because even after all that, the motivations led us to a place where without more information, things wouldn’t have worked out right.

Then what happens? Every Jedi master enters her body, and she blasts the emperor away Black Cauldron-style with the tacit blessing of an entire franchise’s worth of heroes. This is fan-service on another level, the equivalent in movie director form of believing that wearing Nikes gives you the right to sign Michael Jordan's name on posters. These are actors and directors from other trilogies, some of them no longer living, whose souls are being recruited to endorse this, as though Disney has been on a path towards a tribute this whole time. Make no mistake: The Rise of Skywalker undoes the other two trilogies; it robs them of their prophecy, their resolution, and their meaning. I'm willing to forgive some things in the name of space adventure -- the lightsaber battles are still really cool -- but this is one thing that I seriously doubt they "couldn't help." To destroy the history of Star Wars, the Emperor himself couldn't have done it better.

Much will likely be said on how The Rise of Skywalker ditches The Last Jedi and how it does it almost impudently, in some cases referencing this hostile relationship directly, such as when Luke catches the lightsaber that he tossed away in the last film: that’s Abrams hocking a loogie into Johnson’s latte (though, I think Luke would actually do this after his arc in Episode VIII; even though the sarcasm of the retort is obvious, it does work in context). Understand that I’m not a diehard lover or hater of Johnson’s film, but I do care about the consistency of the series. Abrams’ relentless retcons are much more jarring when they concern the background characters, as when Finn firmly friend-zones Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) after the previous film showed them together so much, or when General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) simply stops existing as the character that had been established. To replace them, a new love interest and new evil general is hastily established, again reinforcing the feeling that Episode IX might as well be a standalone film.

And of course, Rey finds the important parents that Johnson denied her. Though the specific lineage of this is still very hazy to me (and was the subject of some lively post-movie dinner conversation), none of Abrams' changes are more egregious than this: it shifts the emotional momentum of the entire trilogy, and writes the whole thing into a cul-de-sac.

Sometimes, the script has the gall to undo things without explaining them at all, not even in a throwaway line. Unless I missed it (which is possible), I couldn’t figure out how Rey still has the blue lightsaber at the beginning of the film, even after it was blown up at the end of The Last Jedi. I supposed while I was watching the film that she must have repaired it at some point, and I want you to really think about that phrasing: “she must have.” Often, instead of explaining how things happened, Abrams simply tells the audience that the thing happened, and therefore it must have an explanation. Palpatine has returned, somehow. The climactic and heavily symbolic destruction of Luke’s blue lightsaber at the end of the previous film is undone, without explanation, and we just have to assume that it must have happened, somehow.

In fact, we never even knew how Rey got this lightsaber in the first place: it belonged to Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) in The Force Awakens, who must have retrieved it from Bespin at some point between the time Luke lost it in The Empire Strikes Back and then, but we never knew how. Han asked her once and she said, “A good question. For another time.” That brings me to my ultimate point about The Rise of Skywalker and this whole Disney trilogy.

At no point was Disney ever focused on where they were with this series, or what they were doing. They told this entire trilogy as though all of it was “a question for another time,” never buckling down and planning ahead or trying to find the meaning or logic in the adventure they wanted to have. They were absolutely obsessed with the bottom line, with looking at the horizon, and every scene has been a course correction for the previous scene since the first film’s debut. This final movie is not a movie: it is a conglomerate of polled responses, Reddit threads, Twitter rants, directorial spatting, company initiatives, and passive progressive (Red Letter Media coined this term recently and I plan on using it) politics designed to bait news articles into sucking the air out of the room when discussing this movie.

But will it matter? The fans love this movie, in that way that fans think their way out of any possible criticism of their Star Wars (I posed the question on Twitter about how Rey still has the destroyed blue lightsaber and someone sent me a picture from a phone of something called “The Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary,” specifically, a diagram of Rey’s lightsaber with an arrow pointing to the middle of it under the words, “Weld marks.” Well I guess that settles it, huh). But no matter how much can be explained by retroactive details or dismissive single lines, no matter how much you can think your way out of it, this movie was made in a hurry, and the hurry was with the intention of making the money and skipping town, and the hurry completely robs the screen of any emotional impact that is not based on the ruthless manipulation of the nostalgia of desperate fans.

I’ve been a fan of this saga for decades, but Disney didn’t prove me right to love it so much. They didn’t prove Lucas right for his attempt to make a series of connecting trilogies, which now do not connect, or to start this dream by bringing it out of the toybox and into the movies. The only one they proved right, at the end of all these screenings and model-buildings and arguments and devotionals and costumes and brand deals and visual dictionaries, is Pauline Kael.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams (screenplay and story)

Chris Terrio (screenplay and story)

Derek Connolly (story)

Colin Trevorrow (story)

George Lucas (characters)

Rey Daisy Ridley
Ben Solo/Kylo Ren Adam Driver
Finn John Boyega
Poe Dameron Oscar Isaac
Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid
Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill
Leia Organa Carrie Fisher
C-3PO Anthony Daniels
Jannah Naomi Ackie

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