I consider myself a big Star Wars fan. George Lucas’ Original Trilogy was on constant repeat in our house growing up. And when he released the Prequel Trilogy years later, along with the first two installments of Disney’s post-Lucas “final” sequel trilogy, I became an apologist for the films at a time when other disenchanted fans became vocal about their resentment. Sometimes I could see where they were coming from, but I love this film universe too much to just write off attempts at expanding it beyond the original vision.
Unfortunately, I think I just may have reached my breaking point with the ninth and supposed “finale” to the Original, Prequel and more recent Sequel trilogies: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Episode IX (let’s call it what it is) concludes a three story arc that began with 2015’s The Force Awakens, followed by 2017’s The Last Jedi. These films, at least originally, seemed to loosely follow the trajectory of the Original Trilogy. So when you think about it, this particular episode could really only have had one possible outcome. But it also attempts to conclude story arcs from both previous trilogies as well, a task that neither this movie – or the creative forces behind it – seem up to the task. But the duplicated themes aren’t what I have the biggest problem with.
No, my issues lie in how the overall story has been executed and realized across these newer filmes. Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, who also helmed The Force Awakens and serves as one of the overseers on this new trilogy as a whole, might not have been the right man for the job. Rooted in TV (Lost) and action movies (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek), he fails to recognize that Star Wars, at its core, is really about people and overarching themes that carry throughout.
Instead, we get a movie with way too many battle sequences and contrived plot points, and not nearly enough character development or natural narrative flow. In fact, many of the setups from the previous two films regarding specific relationships and character background are neglectfully ignored here. In many ways Rise of Skywalker feels like a haphazard attempt to course-correct and reorient the franchise as a whole after the negative reactions from The Last Jedi.
The story takes place a year after the events of The Last Jedi as the surviving members of the Resistance (the good guys) are still on their mission to take down the First Order (the bad guys) and bring peace to the galaxy once and for all. Our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her quest to discover her mysterious past while being pursued by Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to join him on the Dark Side. It’s a simple, yet effective premise that’s proved to be enormously satisfying when handled correctly in other films.
And speaking of the Dark Side, none other than Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who we *all* thought dead after Darth Vader threw him into the abyss before the Death Star exploded at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, is alive and somewhat well. He’s on some pseudo version of life support on the hidden Sith planet of Exegol. I won’t spoil how this happens here. Mostly because we never find out.
Rey, along with her team consisting of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) must find and decode an ancient Sith dagger to find Exegol and defeat Palpatine again. This summary makes Episode IX sound exciting, if improbable. Unfortunately, this potentially fun adventure is continuously halted by muddled details and haphazard occurrences.
You’d never know the plotting was this straightforward because a simple premise is made much more complicated than it needs to be. Instead of proceeding from point A to point B, we have each and every possible conflict and resolution thrown at us along the way to make us think this overstuffed story is more eventful than it really is. You can almost see the dots connected between the seemingly random series of plot points. If you look back to the films from the Original Trilogy, not much actually happens, yet the stories feel so full, and by extension fulfilling.
But Rise of Skywalker is bloated and overstuffed without warranting nearly as much investment from the audience, trying to make each and every plot point as significant as the last. Each beat is constantly being scanned over so quickly – no matter how big or small – that we soon lose the ability to prioritize what’s important in the story. One scene in particular features one of the biggest twists in the movie, yet moves on so quickly that I had to remind myself a few minutes later what had happened. This is a reveal that should have been treated with as much weight in this trilogy as when we learned that Leia is Luke’s twin sister in Return of the Jedi. When you over-explain everything, the events that are actually important don’t get the attention they deserve.
I know I’ve talked about issues with story and characters, but my bigger disappointment stems from something much larger, something tying every Star Wars movie together that allows us to connect to them so easily. It’s that intangible sense of wonder and the magic of possibilities. The Rise of Skywalker is the first Star Wars film where I really didn’t feel any of that. No excitement about the expansive galaxy being revealed to me, the world-building relegated to the back burner. We’re never taken to a new planet just for the heck of it and given the grand tour. In A New Hope, when we visit the cantina, we live among the scum and villainy for awhile, immersed in our surroundings and becoming part of that universe.
In Rise of the Skywalker we visit a few new planets, but moments are fleeting. And while we’re there, the cameras never pan out so we can see the world around us. Instead, we’re suffocated with close up shots and quick camera work. The sets and backdrops themselves are so busy and over-saturated with meaningless props, trying so hard to be like the cantina, that we long for the simple, yet effective sameness of Endor or Hoth. You never knew you’d miss the Ewoks so much.
Star Wars should be enjoyed regardless of the overarching story. There’s a reason why even the youngest kids can watch these movies and still be entranced by the spectacle, even if they didn’t know what was happening. The Rise of Skywalker loses much of that. More interested in the minute details of its convoluted premise, the film becomes less about the world itself and more about concluding a story that has always played second fiddle to the infinite universe it’s placed inside.
I never minded this new trilogy rehashing the Original Trilogy’s overall story arc, but here it feels like there’s too many cooks in the kitchen, too many competing flavors.
We’re dealing with those original characters as well as having a tons of new ones forced upon us. The newbies were likable at first, but three films in, most proved to be underdeveloped and uninteresting. Past favorites, including Luke, Han, and Leia, were brought back throughout the new films, reviving a storyline that had already perfectly concluded back in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. But now we get to conclude it again while at the same time attempting to find closure with these new characters as well, an emotional mismatch that renders neither conclusion satisfying.
What Abrams and company wanted to accomplish here proved to be too big for just one movie. Maybe sticking to the trilogy formula was too constricting for this new endeavor. Maybe if we had one more film to sort things out then perhaps Rise of Skywalker wouldn’t have felt so messy and rushed. Not only does it lack any tonal consistency, there’s no cohesiveness with the rest of the series, either.
Instead of moving forward with the groundwork laid by the previous two episodes, Abrams appears to be reacting to certain fan complaints from The Last Jedi. As a result, characters end up becoming controlled by a completely different force. Their decisions don’t seem to flow organically within this film and its story. The conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren is intriguing, but never progresses far beyond what we’ve seen already. And just as the filmmakers wanted us to forget all about Ren’s actual motive for turning to the Dark Side in the first place, so has the character, himself.
With all of my nerd rage, I don’t mean to bury the positive aspects of this film (although there aren’t many). It’s great seeing the old gang again. The OG Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) makes his long-awaited appearance, and he delivers. Princess Leia gets the sendoff she deserves (using unused footage from The Force Awakens), and there are several other genuine surprises throughout that make this movie at least worth watching if you’re a Star Wars fan.
You could say many of the problems with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker are a result of fan service. Perhaps social media has influenced these films to veer from their creative direction. I’m not saying critics shouldn’t have a right to speak up, which they should (with valid criticisms), but filmmakers should have confidence in their own artistic decisions to follow through on their own visions and ideas rather than try to please everybody. After all, George Lucas famously helped finance his original films himself to retain creative control and suppress outside influence, to the point he was ostracized by most of mainstream Hollywood. This movie is the exact opposite of that.