Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker by J. J. Abrams
Regardless of whether you liked it or not, there’s no denying that The Rise of Skywalker is essentially a corrective to the most divisive Star Wars movie to date: 2017’s The Last Jedi. I have friends who still castigate me for liking Rian Johnson’s movie. And though I understand their critiques of Johnson’s decisions (e.g., making Luke Skywalker a bitter, disillusioned old man rather than the inspiring hero that the galaxy needs), I ultimately appreciated Johnson’s ambitious (if flawed) attempt to do something different with that galaxy far, far away. As I wrote in my review:
The Last Jedi builds on The Force Awakens in order to tell Star Wars fans something different: Star Wars has been the world’s greatest pop culture mythology for four decades but unless it discards slavish fixation with the past — unless it’s freed from blind adherence to nostalgia and tradition — we’ll keep seeing the same old stories again and again, and Star Wars will become boring and irrelevant.
But with The Rise of Skywalker, director J. J. Abrams — who also co-wrote the script — walks back some of The Last Jedi’s most intriguing decisions. The result is not a bad or irrelevant Star Wars movie. It is, however, a Star Wars movie that’s not as interesting as it could’ve been, one that relies on sheer spectacle and visual pizzazz instead of any meaningful myth-making.
The following contains potential spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.
The opening moments of The Rise of Skywalker reveal that — surprise! — Emperor Palpatine survived his trip down a Death Star shaft. He’s alive and well, and sending out a mysterious signal across the galaxy. And so begins a wild chase from star system to star system as our intrepid heroes (Rey, Finn, Poe, Chewbacce, BB‑8, etc.) try to find the Emperor, who is lurking somewhere in the galaxy’s furthest and most remote reaches.
Unfortunately for them, Kylo Ren has found Palpatine first with the aid of a Sith artifact, and the Emperor has given him possession of a massive fleet that will help the First Order (now called the Final Order) crush the Resistance and subdue the galaxy once and for all. In exchange, Kylo must find and destroy Rey, with whom he still shares the mysterious Force bond that emerged in The Last Jedi.
As for Rey, she’s grown frustrated with her Jedi training, feeling incapable of living up to Luke Skywalker’s legacy. It doesn’t help that her bond with Kylo means that he keeps appearing at the most inopportune moments, especially when he reveals a shocking secret concerning her origins. (More on that in a moment.)
For most of its length, The Rise of Skywalker is a chase movie, and as such, it maintains an inexorable pace as our heroes seek out the Emperor’s location while staying ahead of the Final Order. I’m sure Abrams intended it to be action-packed, but it soon becomes pretty exhausting. Indeed, “exhausting” might be the word that best describes The Rise of Skywalker. As Germain Lussier writes his review:
[Their] journey takes the crew to several new planets, all of which are bustling with life, aliens, droids, and all sorts of awesome Star Wars background material. Each time the heroes arrive on a planet, something exciting happens — we meet a new character, there’s a battle, a mystery is uncovered, etc. But the repetition is incessant. They’re on one planet, then another. Now a ship. Now a speeder. Now Rey’s off. Now Rey’s back. Now someone is in peril. Now they’re OK. The film moves at a breakneck speed and, as a result, never spends enough time at any of these places or with any of the people. It’s all incredibly rushed and mind-bogglingly cluttered. You almost feel like two movies’ worth of story are forced in, pun intended.
There’s no denying that The Rise of Skywalker is packed with eye-popping visuals; Abrams is nothing if not an extremely skilled visual filmmaker who knows how to make great spectacle. (And massive kudos to the countless special effects artists who obviously labored over every frame of this thing.) The foreboding Sith Temple on the planet of Exegol, the ocean-logged ruins of the second Death Star, hundreds of ships emerging from hyperspace to do battle — these sights and more fill the screen and at their best, make the galaxy seem like a vast, immersive place in true Star Wars fashion.
Indeed, the aforementioned Sith Temple might be one of my new favorite Star Wars locations period. It’s a barren, storm-ridden place that makes Mordor look downright cozy, and above it hovers a massive structure filled with huge statues from Sith history, arcane devices in service of the Emperor’s profane research, and the Sith throne room. It’s both completely ridiculous in its scope and also quite appropriate for the holy place of an ancient, galaxy-spanning evil. (That it also scratches my itch for Lovecraftian cosmic horror doesn’t hurt, either.)
But as Lussier points out, The Rise of Skywalker throws a lot of these sights at you — too many and too fast, in fact. The movie operates in only one mode — “overwhelm” — and ironically, so much overwhelmingness can actually start to feel tedious and underwhelming after awhile. In other words, if everything is massive spectacle, then nothing is massive spectacle.
Which brings us to the case of Rey, and the most egregious example of Abrams’ undoing of The Last Jedi. In The Last Jedi, Kylo revealed that Rey’s parents were nobodies, “filthy junk traders” who sold her on Jakku for drinking money. But The Rise of Skywalker retcons all of that. As it turns out, Rey’s parents weren’t really nobodies after all; they were just pretending to be nobodies in order to protect Rey because she is — double surprise! — Palpatine’s granddaughter. (There were more than just a few gasps in my theater at that particular revelation.)
It’s possible to view this cynically as yet another example of Abrams just recycling past movies (e.g., the revelation of Luke’s parentage). But I think there’s a deeper problem with such a reveal — not for Rey but rather, for the broader Star Wars universe.
One of The Last Jedi’s central themes was that anyone — even a nobody like Rey — could be powerful in the Force, and rise up to fight evil. Though not a totally new concept in Star Wars, The Last Jedi made its case particularly forcefully (npi), which culminated in a poignant final scene: a group of child slaves listen, enthralled, to the retelling of Luke Skywalker’s final stand against the First Order before one of them is subtly revealed to be Force sensitive.
It was a reminder that the Force and the legacy of the Jedi were far bigger than a single family’s tragedies and triumphs. Anyone, even a nameless slave, had the potential to become a hero, a Jedi. Put another way, that seemingly throwaway scene made the universe of Star Wars a little bigger than before.
But in making Rey the Emperor’s granddaughter, Abrams undermines that concept, to the film’s detriment. Rey is no longer a nobody, she’s somebody — a really big somebody. While the movie does include a line or two about how bloodlines aren’t what really matters, Palpatine’s grand plan — he wants Rey to strike him down so that the Sith will be reborn in her, something that’s possible only because she’s of his bloodline — clearly shows that bloodlines do matter. It’s a seemingly minor, yet problematic point, as Steven Greydanus explains:
Two ideas wrestle in Rise: Does good triumph over evil through the power of friendship or does everything come down to the awesomeness of special people from special families? I’m not saying it can’t be both, but Abrams trips over his two ideas and one of them falls flat before being crushed by the other one.
The wrong one, in my opinion. The Star Wars saga has become too long and too vast for such a small set of closely related characters to exert such hegemony. At some point Shrinking World Syndrome becomes a moral problem, no matter how large or diverse the supporting cast is made.
To her credit, Daisy Ridley gives it her all with Rey, outshining everyone with whom she shares a scene. Rey is the movie’s heart and soul, and Ridley does an excellent job communicating her internal struggle. To quote Lussier again:
The character has to endure a lot here — physically, mentally, spiritually — but Daisy Ridley continues to make it look all too easy. Close-ups of her reactions to some of the film’s bigger moments are heartbreakingly beautiful and a reminder of what Star Wars can be at its best. Some of her moments are so beautiful, in fact, that the tears in your eyes may make you forget the bumpy ride it took to get there.
On a related note, we see Rey doing things in her Jedi training that Luke Skywalker never accomplished. Not only does she lift stones, she sends them flying in intricate patterns while levitating 20 feet off the ground. For all of the criticism that The Rise of Skywalker is mere capitulation to fan complaints, it’s worth noting that Abrams doubles down on Rey’s considerable Force skills, which were heavily criticized by some fans in The Force Awakens. (I’m sure that those who accused Rey of being a “Mary Sue” will be totally fine with everything she does in this movie.)
I might’ve breathed a sigh of relief when The Rise of Skywalker’s credits began to roll, for two reasons.
First, the movie wasn’t as terrible as I’d feared it might be. Yes, I was hoping for something that would follow in The Last Jedi’s footsteps and continue to be a bit more daring and subversive (or at least as subversive as a multi-billion dollar pop culture juggernaut can be). And yes, I was disappointed when J. J. Abrams was announced as the director following Colin Trevorrow’s departure (for “creative differences”). For all of his competence, Abrams is more skilled at recycling what has worked before than dreaming up something truly fresh and original.
My various criticisms and concerns notwithstanding, the fact is that The Rise of Skywalker is still a Star Wars movie in the broadest strokes that ultimately count — but that’s about it. As exhausting as I found the non-stop pacing and visual onslaught, I won’t deny feeling a little thrill every time John Williams’ iconic score came over the sound system or the Millennium Falcon made yet another physics-defying maneuver to save the day. (Really, though, how much of that is due to Abrams’ talents as a writer/director in this particular movie, and how much is due to Star Wars’ decades-old iconic standing in our collective cultural memory?)
But secondly, and more importantly, I felt like I could now finally get my life back from Star Wars, or at least this particular phase of it. (Thanks to Disney’s corporate clout and considerable coffers, Star Wars as a franchise will live on indefinitely. Almost like a certain imperial personage. Make of that what you will.) Put simply, I’m ready to be done with the Skywalkers and their saga. Their time has come and gone, their story has been told through and through.
Though The Rise of Skywalker could certainly have left the franchise at a much more interesting transitional point, I take comfort in the fact that the galaxy is a very big and very old place — one that can’t really be destroyed by a single movie’s shortcomings. There are more stories to tell, more places to explore, and more strange phenomena to experience, regardless of their relationship to the Force, the Jedi, and the Sith. As The Mandalorian’s runaway success has shown, the galaxy has more than enough room for exciting and skillfully told stories, and I look forward to seeing many more of them.
And yes, for the record, I’m fully on board with Rian Johnson’s upcoming trilogy — whenever it comes out.