In the summer of 1977, my brother and I rushed out of the Roxy Theater in Tacoma, Washington. We had just seen Star Wars for the first time, mock-light-saber-battling all the way to the car. I cajoled my parents into taking me 7 more times in the next few months, and so a Star Wars fan was born. Some version of my story has been told a million times over and, like so many other Star Wars fans, my relationship with the many sequels, prequels, and stand-alone films in the series, has been complicated. But, no matter what, when the first words of the crawl appear on-screen, and the John Williams score swells, I can’t help but get chills.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is burdened with a nearly impossible weight. It has to act as the finale of a beloved series as well as the finale of the new Sequel Trilogy. It also follows the divisive film in Star Wars history ( The Last Jedi). J.J. Abrams is tasked with this thankless job, logically, since he began the newest trilogy with The Force Awakens.
The Force Awakens acted as a soft reboot of A New Hope, hitting all the familiar narrative beats while introducing us to new characters (Finn, Poe, Rey, Kylo). Fans loved returning to a Star Wars that “felt” like Star Wars, didn’t rely solely on green screen CGI, and gave us a few moments with our old favorites (Han, Luke, Leia). Most importantly, The Force Awakens set up interesting story-arc potential for all of the new characters, mysteries to be solved, revelations to be discovered, as the trilogy progressed.
The Last Jedi, love it or hate it, nearly destroys every story arc set up by the The Force Awakens. Some laud Rian Johnson for his bold vision, for visuals and flair unmatched in the entire Star Wars series, while others screamed to the heavens that their Star Wars, their Luke, was dead. The truth probably fell somewhere in the middle. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, it is undeniable that The Last Jedi set real story-arc issues for The Rise of Skywalker.
It is very difficult to discuss The Rise of Skywalker without spoilers, but I will do my best. That said, Palpatine is back. If you’ve seen any TV spots, trailers, or even the movie poster, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but if it is, don’t worry, you find out during the opening crawl. The bigger question is, how did he get back? Like so many things in this movie, he’s back because the movie needs him to be back. Johnson killed the supreme bad guy (Snoke) in the last movie, so they need a new villain. Who better than Palpatine?
From the introduction of Palpatine, the viewers are sent on a breakneck series of scenes where we catch up with all our major characters. It is dizzying, and frankly, confusing. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is honing her Jedi skills. Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are getting spy secrets to fight The First Order. Kylo (Adam Driver) continues to try to snuff out his daddy issues and attain total control of the empire. Palpatine’s Final Order is assembling to take over everything in the universe. Confused yet? Don’t worry, the film will give you many, many, many exposition dumps to try to explain things.
If endless exposition dumps aren’t enough to annoy you, maybe the overall plot tactics will do the job. Like the disappointing sequel It: Chapter 2, The Rise of Skywalker relies on a Mcguffin-rich, video game type of plot structure. Poe meets a character from his past who just happens to have an object that allows them access to a location that the plot needs them to access. This is writing using figurative and literal plot devices.This is just one of at least 3 objects that our heroes must retrieve to continue forward in the story. I’m being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers, but the trope of having to find “magical” objects, heretofore unmentioned in the saga, to achieve the next level, er, location in the movie, is more fitting for the newest Resident Evil game than a Star Wars movie.
Finally, what are the limits of The Force? Rey, according to the opening of this movie, is still undergoing her Jedi training, but at other points in the movie, she seems to have nearly God-like abilities. Force-users in this movie can have Force cell phone calls with each other where they can exchange objects. Force Ghosts can manipulate objects in the physical world. There is another key ability that Rey and Kylo both use in this movie that I won’t spoil, but has never been shown as a Force ability. Once again, many of these moments come across as handy plot devices as opposed to an organic and earned part of the universe.
So, after all of this criticism, it might sound like this movie is all-bad. It isn’t. The visuals and action are often breathtaking and fun. Some of the story arcs, Leia and Kylo especially, are respectful and generally satisfying. There are even a few moments where we feel that old Star Wars sense of wonder and magic.
A late sequence in a familiar location definitely tugs on the nostalgia cords, but, ultimately, it makes me think about what could have been. I wonder what this final trilogy could’ve been if there had been an overarching plan for all of our characters and for the story in-general. The production design, the acting, the music all deliver what fans want of Star Wars, but the story and characters, the core of any great movie, are ultimately lacking.
Way back in 1977, I was 12 and my brother was 8. Last night, I watched this movie with my two boys. They are 15 and 10. So, as we walked out, I asked, what would you guys rate this, on a scale from 1-5 stars? My 15 year old son gave it 3 stars. My 10 year old gave it 5. If only I could return to the world-view of a 10 year old. Sadly, this is only a mediocre installment in the series.
Final score 3 out of 5 stars.