Force ghosts, parental legacies, devotion to prophecy—“Star Wars” has always been a story influenced by specters of the past. It’s also true in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the historic franchise’s ninth episodic entry – and, if the marketing is to be believed, the surefire finale to the Skywalker saga (anyone ready to take bets on that?) – that revisits old locales, revives long-thought-dead space dictators and echoes the conservative approach to character-building that was tossed out with Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in the early moments of “The Last Jedi.” There’s no extinction in the galaxy far, far away, apparently; only hibernation. (It’s quite literally stated in the very first words of Episode IX’s crawl.)
But “Rise of Skywalker” – a triumphant finale, so long as you’re content with emotional complacency, raw visual bombast and general lack of ambition – is also stalled by specters of the future, and an unshakeable feeling that the movie is doing little more than rocketing toward inevitable showdowns you could predict from several parsecs away, as if rushing to get the fall’s most anticipated film over with.
Rian Johnson’s distinctly complex and character-focused “The Last Jedi” this is not, but J.J. Abrams isn’t just taking back the baton after directing 2015’s “The Force Awakens”—he’s grabbing the pilot’s stick and jumping into hyperspeed in the opposite direction. The last movie broke new thematic ground for the series with its ruminations on how we view our heroes, but that direction is largely neutered for “Rise’s” mind-numbingly typical comforts of big-budget sound and fury, by and large signifying nothing. Everything old is typically new again in an Abrams flick, but this is a space opera that devolves into a go-for-broke mosh pit of tropes and revelations that not even the filmmaker seems to believe stand on firm ground.
The opening half-hour of the movie pulses with a frenetic catch-up pace, beginning with carnage at the hand of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren angrily seeking out a zombified Emperor Palpatine – a threat to his newfound position following the betrayal of Snoke – re-amassing his power on a distant planet caught in a perpetual lightning storm (subtle, “Rise of Skywalker” is not). On another, lusher world, Daisy Ridley’s Rey is fine-tuning her powers as apprentice to Carrie Fisher’s General Organa (archival footage is to thank for Fisher’s all-too-brief involvement in “Rise”) when our heroes also catch wind of Palpatine’s return.
Has the eternal “Star Wars” puppeteer been resurrected, or has he simply re-emerged? Don’t expect any details. Everyone is motivated to snuff him out, though, and after a derivative exposition dump involving hidden planets, forbidden deserts and rumors of “a Final Order,” the reunited gang of Rey, Finn and Poe set out on a planet-hopping adventure that prioritizes an apathetic approach to narrative over any semblance of character growth or agency. Despite the villainous Kylo’s meta insistence in “Last Jedi” that the franchise “kill the past” and move on to fresher pastures, “Rise” relies too broadly and frustratingly on what’s come before that it only feels fair George Lucas gets a 50/50 cut of the box office.
That “Rise of Skywalker” dubiously feels like it’s playing at 1.5x speed speaks to base faults that splinter throughout, dulling its mysteries – the biggest reveal is practically shrugged off – as well as its intention for a cataclysmic and grandiose finale—everything feels a bit too silly, a bit too pre-ordained or a bit of both for the movie to reach those kinds of heights. Even in terms of spectacle, the set pieces of “Rise” don’t rise above being an explosion of aesthetic chaos (even the respectable Abrams, it turns out, can’t resist a big ol’ sky beam of light). Nothing in the movie comes within a lightsaber swing’s reach of meeting “Last Jedi’s” breath-snatching hyperspeed kamikaze, the visceral choreography of the throne room scrimmage or the visual seductiveness of the Battle of Crait.
It should be considered that for how much clout Abrams – who wrote the screenplay with “Justice League” scribe Chris Terrio – has amassed in a franchise-obsessed Hollywood, he’s only ever been charged with reviving beloved cinematic properties after making the leap from the small screen to the big, including applying a layer of sheen to the “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek” series. “Rise of Skywalker,” however, is his first attempt at culminating one, and it suggests ample room for him to grow into as a storyteller, and story-finisher. “The Last Jedi” thrillingly resisted the temptation to continue the Sequel Trilogy in the narrative footsteps of the original three movies, side-stepping expected story convention, presumably for Abrams to do the same.
He doesn’t. “Rise” – in the aftermath of polarized fan reaction to Johnson’s “Star Wars” entry – feels compelled to echo the narratives of both “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” instead of following its predecessor into a brave new world of sci-fi storytelling. Returning characters are balanced out only by the occasional serotonin hit of a new cutesy creature. The influence of the Sith lingers as buried armadas are raised. And the movie tries to have it both ways by anchoring a progressive message about identity into what’s already been repeatedly hammered home about about the “Star Wars” hierarchy.
Narrative inconsistencies aside, whenever Abrams’s movie suggests a slower moment is coming – a chance to re-establish where the protagonists stand outside of the plot’s binary confines – a new set piece interferes, with exuberant cheers and anguished yelps standing in for growth. And unlike “The Force Awakens” – which managed to deftly merge character introduction with sleek, restrained action – “Rise” approaches its characters with a strange unfamiliarity, a byproduct perhaps of the director hop-scotching of this trilogy. Abrams seems hesitant to engage with or test his heroes in new ways—Rey’s final arc in particular is largely dependent on what she’s told she’s destined to do, despite coming into her own in the final moments of “The Last Jedi.” The ever-evolving relationship between her and Kylo – fueled at different points by antagonism, desperation, sympathy and familiarity – remains the most interesting part of “Rise” mostly because it’s a product of this trilogy that still stands alone.
But even then, Abrams uses the specters of the past to prod them into action, as if admitting the characters he created in “The Force Awakens” ultimately lack in their own agency. An eventual coda between the two most interesting characters of the Sequel Trilogy would like to think it’s the stuff of Shakespeare in Space, but its attempts to scratch pathos out of unexplained Force lore will more likely leave you scratching your head.
“The Rise of Skywalker” represents the most hypocritical kind of blockbuster filmmaking, dutiful to the storytelling priorities of the Disney machine in its mining for nostalgia and familiarity to reach solidarity with fans’ expectations. The film is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars – and Disney knows this – but it’s destined to have less cultural impact than Jar Jar Binks’s meme-worthy dialect. If you’re pining for something straightforward and surface-level, that’s fine—the problem isn’t that “Rise of Skywalker” chooses to go the fill-out-your-Bingo-card route with its plot twists. The problem is how painfully evident it is that the film feels so unsure about the path it has chosen to go down. Breadth of story means very little when there’s no depth of story, and Abrams’s most acute accomplishment is his managing to make one of our most robust stories feel constrained and restrictive, even as this entry visits a different planet for every third letter of the alphabet.
One of the most telling scenes in “The Rise of Skywalker” comes when Rey, at a moment of anger surrounding her place in the universe, tries to get rid of her trusty lightsaber. What happens next is something Abrams seems to believe is a moment of compromise—of uniting generations and blending chapters as the ending comes into view. Instead, it functions as a selective rebuke to portions of that history. The magic of these stories, at their height, can make you believe there’s something ethereal and unseen that unites us as the audience—let’s call it the Force. But the sensation is fractured when the stories’ authors let slip that imagination has its limits, a word that has no place in the fairy tale of “Star Wars.” Whose story, exactly, has this saga told at its ostensible end? The answer has never been more unclear.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Directed by J.J. Abrams