By his own admission, director J.J. Abrams is bad at endings. “I’ve never been great at endings,” Abrams told The New York Times. “I don’t actually think I’m good at anything, but I know how to begin a story. Ending a story is tough.” So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Abrams’ grand conclusion to the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, is a failure. The nature of the failure is also not entirely unexpected if you look at Abrams’ filmography. A skilled mimic, Abrams has trouble drilling down on the finer aspects of stories, relying more on nostalgia and recognition rather than surprising story turns. He’s able to paper over this weakness with endearing characters and breakneck pacing. He got away with it before with the charming-yet-safe The Force Awakens, but with The Rise of Skywalker, his weaknesses get the better of him resulting in a film with poor plotting, shallow character development, and underwhelming revelations.
[Note: Since the marketing has endeavored to avoid spoilers, I will attempt to follow suit. There will be some minor revelations related to the plot, so if you wish to remain completely spoiler-free, please stop reading and come back after you’ve seen the movie.]
Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) lives. Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has sought out the Emperor because he represents a challenge to Kylo’s power, but Palpatine offers Kylo Ren the power of the Final Order, a fleet of Star Destroyers that will allow Kylo Ren to dominate the galaxy. In exchange, Kylo Ren must kill Rey (Daisy Ridley). Meanwhile, Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are tasked with finding a special artifact that will lead them to the Emperor so they can stop him and the threat he presents to the galaxy. However, along the way, as Rey repeatedly confronts Kylo Ren, she begins to learn the truth about her parentage (again).
Even from this brief synopsis, you can probably spot the myriad of problems that Rise of Skywalker presents. Since Palpatine isn’t dead, it means Darth Vader’s sacrifice in Return of the Jedi was pointless. Additionally, if Palpatine isn’t dead, it means he’s just been sitting around for a generation with a fleet of powerful ships waiting for someone to do him a solid (why he’s waited so long to send out his message is never explained). Furthermore, The Last Jedi ends with the First Order in a fairly dominant position, so why we need the Final Order more than the First Order doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But the larger problem with the movie is that Abrams is terrified of originality or doing anything bold that might be interpreted as unpopular. Again, he was able to get away with that in The Force Awakens, but here his reliance on nostalgia proves his undoing. You have a movie where the bad guy is Palpatine again. The characters have to go to the ruins of the Death Star. There are other things that I won’t spoil here, but at one point I threw up my hands in frustration and wished Abrams would stop digging through the past and try something new and daring. I don’t know if this movie was made in response to appease everyone who hated the fact that The Last Jedi made bold choices, but those folks can rest easy with a safe movie that makes no sense and has no character arcs. If all you desire is “I recognize the thing!” then Rise of Skywalker is the movie for you.
For all of its world-building, the Star Wars movies live and die by their characters, and despite casting winning actors, Abrams doesn’t seem to know what to do with them beyond Rey, who’s still wrestling with her parentage as well as the potential darkness inside her (a darkness that has never really appeared until this movie, although I’m sure apologists will now attempt to recast her prior actions in a new light). I really couldn’t tell you what Finn or Poe are dealing with in this movie and how they’re being challenged. Poe meets an old flame at one point and Finn makes a new friend, but there’s no attempt to build on these relationships or add another dimension to the characters.
Instead, a large portion of The Rise of Skywalker, which has some real ramshackle plotting and stumbles around uncertain of where to go next, feels reminiscent of the weakest moments from Return of the Jedi. In the weakest parts of that movie, beloved characters are tossed together and they’re going on an adventure, but the action doesn’t add any depth or challenge our protagonists in any meaningful way. The rampant timidity of The Rise of Skywalker leads to our characters going somewhere, the story advances for Rey, and everyone else is just along for the ride, which leads to a disappointing lack of payoff at the film’s climax.
I wish I could say The Rise of Skywalker was even moderately exciting in these set pieces, but even here, the action feels limp and stale. To compare Abrams to Abrams, there’s nothing here even half as exhilarating as the Millennium Falcon chase from The Force Awakens. It feels like we’re going through the motions of a Star Wars movie, but with a complete unwillingness to take any chances there’s nothing surprising or exciting. The only spark of life is when the movie stumbles into yet another idiotic reveal.
I’ll save commentary on those reveals for another article that contains major spoilers. However, I will say that when you have no vision for your movie other than to give the people what they want, then there’s really not going to be much in the way of thematic impact. Rise of Skywalker isn’t really about anything because it just wants to feed you back the things you already liked. You’ve already accepted Palpatine as a villain, so accept him again. You’ve already accepted nonstop iconography, so let’s have a set piece in the ruins of the Death Star. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker offers the warm embrace of a dancing corpse.
I don’t hate The Rise of Skywalker as much as I’m consistently disappointed by it. There are the occasional bright spots like what the film does with the character of Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) as well as a couple other nice surprises, but even here, it feels like Abrams doesn’t want to challenge his audiences as much as provide a constant stream of fan service. That bodes ill for the future of Star Wars as it takes the story away from grand mythology and reduces it to an easily packaged product that can be constantly resold to people who have already purchased a lifetime membership.
Fandom being what it is, there will be inevitable comparison between Rise of Skywalker and The Last Jedi, and I presently have no interest in such a comparison. Each film had to do different things and handles a different part of the story. I understand that for Abrams, there’s an incredible burden in concluding a story that’s been running since 1977 and is one of the most popular franchises of all time. And yet it appears that he chose to shirk that responsibility frequently with narrative dead-ends and cheap reveals. Star Wars isn’t just iconography or junk you liked from your childhood. It can be so much more than that, and it means so much more to countless people. The Rise of Skywalker renders the Skywalker Saga into something cheap, frail, and easily disposable.