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STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
Note: this review talks about the first ten minutes of the movie. It features nothing that hasn’t already been shown in the trailers. If you’re avoiding all spoilers, it is recommended to skip to the end for now.
THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is a film devoid of progress because progress requires looking ahead. Instead it gazes longingly into the past, unable to process what to learn from it, and chooses to stay put rather than risk a mistake by moving forward on its own.
It’s beholden to a legacy so enormous that it overburdens any joy and revelation. What’s left is a checklist of fan-service for the most toxic elements of STAR WARS fandom that have overtaken the public conversation in the last few years.
Two years ago THE LAST JEDI, written and directed by Rian Johnson, ended with a universe encompassing statement about STAR WARS: Anyone can be a part of this. Anyone can make a difference and experience a galaxy of adventures. THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, directed by a returning J.J. Abrams, goes the other way. Legacy is all that matters. Lineage is gold, and an oligarchy must survive to ensure balance and righteousness. It feels constricting, archaic, and exclusionary.
Picking up an indeterminate time after the previous film, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER sees Emperor Palpatine returned back to life, swearing vengeance from the far reaches of galactic space. This is revealed through the opening crawl and left mostly at that. Palpatine has also built a new Galactic Empire, complete with thousands of ships in the brand of Destroyer, because of course he has. In just sixteen hours he will launch an attack on the galaxy to establish dominance once and for all. There’s no particular reason for that time frame, except that it gives the film a false sense of urgency that only works counter to the story. In those sixteen hours our heroes travel not just across the known galaxy, but experience more major events than any other STAR WARS film to date. It feels rushed and needlessly hectic, making the entire finale feel like a desperate sprint just to get things over with.
Not that any of it matters, as the introduction of Palpatine isn’t actually important to the story. He serves as nothing more than a boogeyman of the past, something brought up to remind audiences of a character that found popularity through memes. Ian McDiarmid clearly relishes his return to the part, and there is a certain joy to be found in hearing his cackle once again, but it is nothing that couldn’t have been experienced by just re-watching the old films. The same can be said for Carrie Fisher, brought back through CGI-trickery and inserting her deleted scenes from THE FORCE AWAKENS into the film. Her presence feels exactly as it is; a cut-out recreation, repeating out of place lines that others are reacting to in an effort to never truly let go of someone we had grown to love. At first it’s heartbreaking, but after some consideration it feels exploitative and downright cruel.
A lot of fuss has been made about our heroes getting to travel together for the first time in this film, and that is certainly true. But does that actually amount to anything? Not one bit. There is no growth and nothing new is learned. Where THE LAST JEDI allowed these characters to explore new facets of tired tropes, RISE reels every one of these past revelations back into a timid status quo. Poe; the loose cannon who had to learn from his toxic masculinity is now a big strong smuggler, replacing Han Solo, whose influence over women is strong that even past girlfriends swoon at his smile. Finn; the former soldier learning of a larger world and the consequences of their decades long war now returns as a trigger happy military leader who kicks ass with Poe. Rey; after learning that her heritage is meaningless compared to her power to carve out her own path is reduced once again to searching for patriarchal blessings and lineage without any agency of her own. Her big moments all come with the caveat that whatever she can do, she does with the blessing of tradition and destiny. No other outcome could have happened, which means her actions have no weight of their own.
New characters are introduced left and right, often with little relevance to what the story requires. Zori Bliss, a rogue smuggler yearning to escape from the dead end she’s in, is essentially there to prop up Poe as a dashing ladies man. Another former stormtrooper is introduced, now working in the resistance like Finn, but the revelation that any choice they made in the past is quickly reduced to the most inane possible outcome: The Force made them do it. The new droid, D-O, flirts with a heartbreaking storyline about how droids are living and feeling creatures, much in the same way that the underrated SOLO did, but he too is discarded quickly as another tool in the service of plot.
That plot is a scattershot mess of three films in one. There’s an adventure in search of Sith artifacts that could lead our heroes to the Unknown Regions; another sees Kylo Ren wrestle with his ambition that exceeds being a lapdog to Palpatine; a third deals with a mole within the First Order, and a nefarious new leader (played by a sneering Richard E. Grant) with plans of his own. On their own each of these could be a fine adventure, but mixed together the result is hectic and convoluted. No plot twist is given room to breathe and major revelations are thrown at the viewer so fast that nothing has any impact. A major goodbye is handled such a tone deaf manner it’s a wonder it was ever seriously considered good enough to be left in the film.
There are elements that do work. Most of them are the very few survivors from Rian Johnson’s film. An early exploration of Sith lore wades tentatively into the waters of myth and iconography, questioning our own needs and desires to create meaning in images of the past. There’s a tease into the very possibility that the icons we choose for ourselves are nothing more than amalgamations of past glories, as useful and concrete as we give them a right to be. For a brief moment, it feels like Abrams has taken a note from Johnson, and we are in for a story that truly breaks away from blind devotion and into an exploration of what we can achieve when freed from our past selves. A character loses a major part of themselves midway through the story, and the potential rises to discuss our place in grand events when we lose memory of our achievements.
This is, sadly, short-lived. These are beautiful ideas that the film has no interest in looking into. Instead, everything is explained. Every mystery of the galaxy, every tentative question left unexplored in the previous episodes, all are laid bare without nuance. If you thought Midichlorians were bad, you’re in for a rough ride. Characters who previously carved themselves a role in the larger story are now shoehorned into Force sensitivity. As if to say they were never enough to begin with. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to please a crowd steadfast in their refusal to accept mystery or self-reliance, who require everything to be binary. The Force, once again, is binary. In one of the worst fan-service moments of the film, a character returns only to re-establish physical dominance in a feat so undeserved it could only be there to try and calm the angry internet masses at the cost of story.
Not everything is bad. Abrams is still a fine director who understands how to move a story along just fine. Every cast member is comfortable and fine in their roles, with Adam Driver being once again the standout. His performance as the torn apart Kylo Ren, who has begun to understand the weight of his actions, is a highlight that never fails to impress. There is also a joy in seeing Billy-Dee Williams return to the screen in an extended cameo, even if he is there to establish legacy presence in a story that should be about the future.
That is at the heart of what’s wrong with THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. It is terrified of the future, horrified by the idea of going on its own without parental figures. When A NEW HOPE was released, the image of Luke Skywalker gazing into the horizon under a binary sunset encompassed the yearning of an entire generation to leave their known world behind. In RISE, everything returns back to that sunset, only now with our backs turned to it.
The future doesn’t belong to us, we cannot make our own adventures, and everything we can do is predetermined by our family history. The galaxy has never felt so small before.