Read: The nostalgia debate around ‘The Force Awakens’
The Rise of Skywalker is, for want of a better word, completely manic: It leaps from plot point to plot point, from location to location, with little regard for logic or mood. The script, credited to Abrams and Chris Terrio, tries to tie up every dangling thread from The Force Awakens, delving into the origins of the villainous First Order, Rey’s mysterious background as an orphan on the planet Jakku, and even Poe’s occupation before signing up for the noble Resistance. The answer to a lot of these questions involves the ultra-villainous Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the cackling, robed wizard-fascist behind the nefariousness of the first six films.
I wish I could tell you every answer is satisfying, and that Abrams weaves the competing story interests of nine very different movies into one grand narrative, but he doesn’t even come close. As The Rise of Skywalker strives to explain just how the emperor, who died with explosive finality in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, is involved in this new saga, it neglects to do any work to ground its story in a more compelling and modern context. By contrast, The Force Awakens had the storytelling bones of the original Star Wars, but a cast of heroes who felt entirely unlike those who had come before; its follow-up, 2017’s The Last Jedi, did extraordinary work finding new angles on the themes of rebellion, oppression, and spiritual evolution in Lucas’s text.
The Last Jedi, which was written and directed by Rian Johnson, surprised viewers partly because of how boldly it upended the narrative preconditions of Star Wars’ heroes and villains. It turned Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) into a grouchy wretch, had the brave Resistance fail every mission rather than stumble into a lifesaving deus ex machina, and yet it somehow managed to convey a tone of optimism for future generations of rebels. The Rise of Skywalker, conversely, is overly obsessed with the past, with Abrams perhaps thinking that tying the arcs of its heroes to decades-old films will somehow increase their significance. Instead, it heightens the incoherence.
One prior film that The Rise of Skywalker seems keen to ignore is The Last Jedi, which is perhaps inevitable because Abrams is more invested in continuing the story he started with The Force Awakens. Charming characters from the last installment, such as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), are sadly sidelined, and Johnson’s core argument about the irrelevance of the past has been swiftly forgotten. Instead, the new film features many monologues from the zombified emperor and an agreeable drop-in from one of the remaining unseen heroes of the original trilogy, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
Abrams’s focus on those hallowed veterans extends to Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who is a significant presence in the film thanks to deleted scenes and movie trickery (Fisher, who is first-billed in the movie, died in 2016). As a longtime Star Wars devotee, I must admit that some of The Rise of Skywalker’s parade of reminiscence works its magic despite the mostly unintelligible plot. There are dancing light sabers and X-wings aplenty, with more sword battles and space dogfights than the last two films combined.