Film Review | Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

The Force Awakens is about Star Wars as a feeling. It’s a loving recreation of everything that once captured the imagination, dusting off the old iconography in an attempt to evoke those same emotions again. The Force Awakens is about hearing the stir of a John Williams score, watching a battered X-Wing take on the Death Star, seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon. “We’re home”, says The Force Awakens, nostalgia writ large.

The Last Jedi, meanwhile, is about Star Wars as a set of ideas. It interrogates what Star Wars is, taking it apart before putting it back together again – while, yes, subverting expectations along the way. It was a visually striking, thematically engaging attempt to grapple not just with what you love about Star Wars, but why it’s worth loving it – and how anyone can be the hero. “This isn’t going to go the way you think”, says The Last Jedi, willing to try and steer Star Wars somewhere new, ending on perhaps one of the most romantic images of the saga.

The Rise of Skywalker, then, is about Star Wars as a set of internet comments and forum posts. It’s a hollow, anodyne film, constructed by committee and lacking any real vision. In fact, it’s scarcely a film at all; rather, it’s an inexplicable act of cowardice, a conscious attempt to avoid any creative decisions that might be considered brave or interesting – or, in fact, any creative decisions at all, so frequently are choices made then quickly walked back. Quite why this proved the case is difficult to ascertain; it’s not like the quality of these films particularly correlates with their profitability, after all.

If the much-maligned Star Wars prequels had any cinematic merit or cultural weight – and they do – it is for their eccentricities, the sheer idiosyncratic oddity of a trilogy of films so entirely shaped by and beholden to the vision of one man. They’re not “good” films, no. But they all are worthwhile in ways that The Rise of Skywalker could never be: the prequels, at least, have an identity, have a personality. With its frantic recitation of Wookiepedia trivia and producer mandated plot points, The Rise of Skywalker is an exercise in artifice. It’s hard to imagine a more soulless, glum piece of work – made all the worse by how it positions itself as the ultimate conclusion to and final word on a series that, even at its nadir, could at least lay claim to its own set of distinctive quirks. At one point, Star Wars was a risky venture from a bold young filmmaker; now, it’s just one of several managed assets, another intellectual property mined by a monopolistic mega-corporation for maximum profit.

There will be spoilers in the following review; it’s difficult to avoid a detailed discussion of the plot of The Rise of Skywalker, if only because – somehow – JJ Abrams has managed to create a film that is almost entirely exposition, while still needing more exposition. Given that the plot is more or less all the film has to offer, efforts have been taken to obscure any big revelations from herein on – that said, if you’d rather not know about Jar Jar’s cameo, probably best to stop here.

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What’s most striking about The Rise of Skywalker is how deeply, deeply cynical it is. As already noted here and elsewhere, it feels like it was written by reddit comments, micromanaged long past the point any individual artistic notion might survive. At times, this is simply patronising and awkward. For example, the film ends with Maz Kanata, for some inexplicable reason, giving Chewbacca a medal. Diegetically inexplicable, anyway: if you’re in the know, it clearly references a longrunning meme about the original Star Wars, where both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo receive medals from Princess Leia at the end, but Chewbacca doesn’t. In The Rise of Skywalker, this is presented entirely devoid of any context, a symptom of a wider obsession with solving plotholes that don’t really exist and providing an answer to every question everyone ever posed about Star Wars online. It’s genuinely quite difficult to tell how the scene would play to someone without that depth of immersion in the paratext – and it’s not the only scene like that. The Rise of Skywalker has very little trust in its audience, offering not exciting new ideas, but instead only the dim pleasure of recognition.

That would be one thing if, say, an over signified cameo from Denis Lawson was the extent of the film’s cynicism – if it began and ended with a jaundiced litany of corporate artefacts, getting all the toys briefly out of the box before putting them right back where they belonged, it’d be a lot more palatable. No, The Rise of Skywalker is instead altogether more feeble, making lamentable concessions to the worst type of fan by sidelining Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico. After being introduced in The Last Jedi, Tran received intense racist abuse, essentially for the crime of being an Asian woman in Star Wars. Tran is in The Rise of Skywalker, yes, but only nominally – her role is limited mainly to brief chunks of exposition, and a scene at the beginning, heartbreaking for what it represents, where Rose says that she’d rather not take part in this film’s adventure, actually, because she’s got some star charts to read instead.

There is a lot in The Rise of Skywalker that reads like giving up, an attempt to iron out any distinctive wrinkles Rian Johnson might’ve left behind him. If this attitude was limited to plot details, that’d be one thing – disappointing for some, perhaps, but on the whole basically forgivable, simply a by-product of serial storytelling with multiple authors. That it extended also to an open attempt, on behalf of the most powerful entertainment monolith around, to appease a group of internet racists? That is genuinely quite pathetic, and all involved should be deeply embarrassed.

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Also disappointing is the sheer paucity of imagination. Abrams’ previous effort, The Force Awakens, was oft accused of hewing too closely to the structure of the original Star Wars. It wasn’t an unreasonable criticism, though the film perhaps deserved a degree more leeway; it at least tried to recontextualise those familiar plot beats, to fashion something that, if not entirely new, at least offered a different spin on things.

The Rise of Skywalker makes no such effort. It feels like the very worst of fanfiction – or, actually, the very worst of licensed tie-in fiction – entirely unable to step out of the shadow of what came before. There’s no effort to widen the scope of what Star Wars can be, to move beyond fetishistic reverence for Lucas’ original films (or, at least, the ones that a very narrow stratum of vocal fandom approve of anyway). For all that everyone relentless mocked the campaign to remake The Last Jedi, clearly they needn’t have bothered: here is The Rise of Skywalker, ready to retcon and refute anything anyone ever complained about in the YouTube comments section. In fact, the whole film seems paralysed by a lack of confidence, hedging against every choice it makes – The Rise of Skywalker ends up as though caught in a loop, repeating itself over and over again, taking two steps back with each one forward to make sure nothing really changes.

Ostensibly, this is about tying up loose ends. That is basically nonsense. Setting aside the fact that The Last Jedi actually closes in a far neater position than The Force Awakens did – the latter ended on a cliffhanger with the three leads separated, after all – The Rise of Skywalker manages to create more questions than it actually answers. Part of this is down to its hectic pace and convoluted plotting; it’s difficult to succinctly explain, for example, quite how sloppily it’s revealed that Leia once trained to be a Jedi and had a lightsabre of her own, kept hidden for someone who might later prove worthy. Suffice to say, it’s an awkward beat, easy to forget, and ultimately only a contrivance to give Rey another lightsabre. Questions about how Palpatine survived Return of the Jedi, how he found the time to raise a family, somehow still everything about Snoke – there’s plenty that, strictly speaking, doesn’t make sense, even by the already loose standards Star Wars is held to. Whether Abrams et al thought they’d delivered a watertight script, or, less charitably, if the film was written with one eye on later Disney+ releases filling in the gaps remains to be seen.

But it’s not just an issue of pacing. Rather, the problem comes because the film seems to be built around ‘moments’, around set-pieces strung together as a MacGuffin quest not a million miles away from a video game. The Rise of Skywalker feels perfunctory, like a contractual obligation – the point at which stories from a galaxy far far away might finally have been exhausted.

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Admittedly, yes, the film started from a difficult position. While it’s been debated exactly how much the trilogy was planned ahead of time, and how much leeway individual directors were given, one thing seems basically clear enough: the plan, originally, was for each episode to focus on a different member of the original trio. Episode VII was about Han Solo; Episode VIII was about Luke Skywalker; Episode XI was meant to be about Leia Organa, but for Carrie Fisher’s tragic, untimely death.

Carrie Fisher’s role here – insofar as this slightly ghoulish, digital resurrection can be dubbed a “role” – is… awkward at best. It was always going to be, of course. A script clearly written backwards from the dialogue they had available was never going to feel especially naturalistic: it most closely resembles, as others have pointed out, that one episode of Community where they stitch together a Star Wars knockoff from a few unfinished clips of a crime drama. There’s something quite sad about the whole affair, really. Every moment Carrie Fisher, or the approximation of her they built, is on screen serves only as a reminder of who we lost; that she gets top billing at the end is nice, for a moment, until it quickly isn’t. It’s hard to earnestly suggest this was an adequate solution; sacrilege though it might’ve been, there’s perhaps an argument to be made that Leia should’ve been recast, that Meryl Streep or Stevie Nicks should’ve fulfilled the role and let the trilogy end as originally planned. (Or even, perhaps, the movie should’ve started with Leia’s funeral – and Palpatine’s apparent return from the dead been more closely tied to this, questions of life and death proving the motivation for Kylo Ren as it once was the motivation for his grandfather in Revenge of the Sith.)

Even outside of that, though, The Rise of Skywalker faced a troubled production. Colin Trevorrow was let go from the project early on; the script was rewritten many times by many different writers. (It’d be interesting to know exactly when Palpatine’s return was decided on – it seems like it’s got Jack Thorne’s fingerprints all over it, given the similarities to his stageplay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, though admittedly could just as easily have been Abrams’ idea.) In the end, Abrams came to the film late, and had less time to work on this than he did on The Force Awakens. More likely than not, the film would’ve benefitted if held to December 2020; as ever, though, commitment to shareholders supersedes commitment to making good art, and the deadline was met.

That, perhaps, might explain why even the things Abrams is usually good at falter here – in contrast to the often-vibrant direction of The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker offers a decidedly more muted world. For whatever reason, Abrams’ visual stylings aren’t up to his usual standards; grand space battles struggle to cohere, new planets fail to make an impact, and the final battle with the Emperor quickly devolves into a CGI mess. There’s a sense that a lot of shortcuts were taken across The Rise of Skywalker, and the film suffers for it.

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What’s more aggravating, though, is that this lack of ambition extends too to the characters. For all that The Force Awakens relied a little too heavily on nostalgia, it was, to its credit, conscious about not letting the legacy characters overshadow its new heroes too heavily.

Here… less so. That pervasive, fawning adoration for the original trilogy often undercuts the characters themselves – when C3PO has a more coherent emotional arc than leads Finn or Poe, something has gone quite wrong. It’s frankly fascinating that John Boyega seems to think Finn was better served by The Rise of Skywalker than The Last Jedi – certainly, the promise the character held in The Force Awakens is squandered here, despite briefly touching on his origins as an imperial defector once again. It’s much the same for Poe, too, whose plotline here serves only as a suffocating attempt to make sure everyone in the audience knows he definitely did have a girlfriend at one point.

That said, the character most let down by The Rise of Skywalker is Rey. Or, rather, Rey Palpatine. Surely the most compelling idea in The Last Jedi was that Rey was simply Rey; special because anyone can be, not because of who her family was. There was something quite profound to the idea that a hero could come from anywhere: there’s nothing profound about this. As Lindsey Romain has pointed out, “making Rey a Palpatine is more in service to the plot hole crowd than to the character herself” – somewhere along the line, Abrams et al lost interest in their main character, instead much more focused on imitating the Star Wars we’ve already seen before. Indeed, even if nothing else, The Last Jedi at least proved a decisive break from repeating the beats of George Lucas’ work – surely no one would earnestly argue that The Rise of Skywalker compares to The Empire Strikes Back? As it is, this final act in the story is confused at best, and incoherent at worst – not a million miles away from, say, Return of the Jedi seeing Yoda explain to Luke that, actually, his father Anakin Skywalker was still alive, and Darth Vader had in fact been lying. Admittedly, the final line, where Rey chooses to become Rey Skywalker, is nice: if The Last Jedi says anyone can be the hero, then The Rise of Skywalker is saying anyone can be a Skywalker, anyone can pick up that legacy, even if they weren’t born to it. Yes, it’s a weak echo of Steven Moffat’s Extremis, but then quite a lot of The Rise of Skywalker seems to be an effort to remind people that Moffat is quite a good writer anyway.

Kylo Ren fares somewhat better – though this, largely, is down to Adam Driver’s own skill, elevating the rough material he’s given. Where he’s even given material at all, that is: for the last twenty minutes of the film, Driver actually has no dialogue at all, instead creating the Ben Solo character from small gestures and irreverent expressions alone. In the end, it doesn’t quite live up to the potential Kylo Ren represented in 2015, hewing a little too closely to the story of Darth Vader’s own redemption. Although, even on that level, it doesn’t quite work – more a Damascene conversion than anything borne of real conflict. That angsty, toxic masculinity washes away: The Force Awakens’ modern villain now instead a more familiar archetype. As with much of this film, there’s a sense that another, more interesting interpretation was lying just out of reach.

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Is there anything worthwhile to The Rise of Skywalker?

In fairness, some things do shine through. The ruins of the Death Star are a neat location; a fight on an ocean moon forms a clever parallel to the iconic duel on Mustafar. Rey gets a yellow lightsaber; that’s pretty cool. Particularly striking, albeit brief, is a shot of a star destroyer falling on Jakku, not far from the wreckage of another – the one Rey called home in The Force Awakens, itself a remnant of the original trilogy. Admittedly it makes little sense, but that doesn’t matter, instead neatly underscoring the cyclical, generational nature of it all. Still at the end, it’s like poetry: it rhymes. No doubt on repeated viewings, more details would reveal themselves; a certain shot, a particular inflection, a piece of design, all increasingly worth of appreciation. Much as it struggles under the weight of ‘Star Wars’ the idea, The Rise of Skywalker will likely ultimately benefit from the fact that it will always have someone willing to revisit it, willing to find something worth celebrating.

On first watch, though, the film eventually becomes entirely unmoored from questions of “quality” – it’s just pure, unrepentant nonsense. There’s some enjoyment to be had from that, certainly; this film is no doubt going to be a fixture of internet memes much like the prequels. It is, in a way, the Riverdale of Star Wars movies (although Riverdale at least has a degree of self-awareness that this lacks). By the time of the Reylo kiss, all that’s really left is to admire the film for so unwittingly stumbling into a surely endless discourse cycle that’s unlikely to leave anyone happy. With regards to the kiss itself, it’s an odd artefact; in isolation, it feels strange, somehow both inevitable and not anywhere near as electrifying as it could’ve been. Taken alongside the rest of the film, though, and it’s clearly another concession to internet fandom – albeit without realising that it’s an appeal to an entirely different group, a compromise surely neither will be pleased with.

That, in the end, is The Rise of Skywalker: a cloying, even sycophantic corporate product, so desperate to be liked it never really stops to tell a story. Yes, some people will enjoy it, and honestly, genuinely: good for them. Surely one of the best defences of the prequel films – setting aside everything that might be said about their auteurist idiosyncrasies – is that the children who grew up with them really did love them, and many still do. For what are, in essence, family films, it’s hard to really begrudge anyone that. Much the same is true of The Rise of Skywalker, whatever faults it might have. At the end of the day, it’s just a movie.

What is altogether more troubling, though, as a note to end on, is this.

Disney, at this stage, isn’t so much a corporation as it is a cultural monolith. It has a monopoly on the zeitgeist. If any film franchise is too big to fail, it’s Star Wars: their quality and content ultimately has very little correlation to their profitability. Yes, dedicated fans will squabble online, but they’ll still watch it no matter what – and so will the other hundred percent of the audience. Disney didn’t need to make these concessions; Disney didn’t need to almost entirely excise Kelly Marie Tran as a gesture towards a group of vocal racists. Obviously, Disney is not and has never been a bastion of progressive values, and expecting otherwise from any company is naïve at best, but this feels rather different.

So. If a company that wields as much influence as Disney feels the need to bow down to what is, essentially, the latest iteration of Gamergate… what does that mean next?

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