In one of the very few moments in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker where the action slows down for a second, the beloved droid C-3PO pauses to appreciate the heroic ensemble. “I’m just taking one last look at my friends,” he says. That kind of naked nostalgia is on display for every frantic minute of J. J. Abrams’s new film, the ninth and supposedly conclusive entry in the newly dubbed “Skywalker Saga” that George Lucas began with the first Star Wars in 1977. The gang’s all here—every new and old favorite character one could imagine—for an experience so convoluted and overstuffed that I wondered whether the whole cast would board a flying kitchen sink for the final battle.
Abrams has long been a connoisseur of nostalgia, a director who blends viewers’ childhood pop-culture obsessions with just enough contemporary flavor to appeal to multigenerational audiences. His first Star Wars film, 2015’s The Force Awakens, was a splendid piece of mythmaking, a rewriting of the original film that washed away the sour taste left by Lucas’s bizarre (if memorable) prequel trilogy. Abrams has always excelled at origin stories, so while he was an ideal choice to launch the narratives of the new heroes Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), and the antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), he does a much sloppier job of finishing their arcs.
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.
That comes at the cost of the kinds of quieter character moments that remain lodged in my memory, such as Rey cheerfully donning a pilot’s helmet after she eats a lonely dinner in The Force Awakens, or Rose silently stroking her dead sister’s pendant in The Last Jedi. There simply isn’t time for much rumination in The Rise of Skywalker, even though the main plot amounts to little more than a video-gamey fetch quest that hops from planet to planet in search of magic doohickeys that will plot a course to the next set piece. New characters such as Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) get lost in the shuffle, although Richard E. Grant has as much fun as he can playing the First Order’s latest sneering general.
Barring an apocalyptic event, The Rise of Skywalker won’t be the last Star Wars movie to grace the big screen. But it has the chance to be the last that’s really burdened by the legacy of George Lucas’s family-friendly adventure that took the world by surprise, a Flash Gordon revival that essentially invented a new kind of pop-culture blockbuster. The legacy and myth of the Skywalkers, the Vaders, and the Palpatines are in desperate need of retirement, and directors like Johnson have found a new way forward for this messy but lovable galaxy far, far away. The Rise of Skywalker is a fitting epitaph for the thrills and limits of repetition; may it be the last episode of a saga that should’ve ended long ago.
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