In a way, you almost have to feel sorry for The Rise of Skywalker. Yes, this is a guaranteed blockbuster, the very opposite of an underdog, the latest entry in one the most popular media franchises in human history. It will make a billion dollars, and you will like it. Yet the movie, the final chapter in a new trilogy of Star Wars sequels done by Disney without George Lucas’ involvement, is so freighted with obligation that it almost folds under all the weight, but it does make sure it flashes a weak smile as it vaguely resembles the appearance of a zippy good time. Returning to direct this third installment, J.J. Abrams has delivered a film with a reverse-engineered payoff for anyone invested in these movie but is wary whenever they actually take risks. His new work is spectacular and uninspired all at once. After Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi shrewdly attempted to deepen the trilogy’s arc with provocative implications about individuality and psychological conflict, The Rise of Skywalker brings the third cycle of galactic warfare to a close by reverting to nostalgia and regurgitating the same old bag of tricks. That hardly makes it a total loss: there’s some solid performances, some very nice set pieces, and some stunning makeup and visual effects work. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t squander every opportunity to dial up the thrilling nature of the epic at hand, but all the shiny, razzle-dazzle can’t obscure its hollow core.
In fact, The Rise of Skywalker isn’t even a movie in the traditional sense so much as it’s a Jedi mind trick in the form of a blockbuster — a hodgepodge of cameos and callbacks, snazzy lightsaber fights and soaring TIE fighters — everything melded together by John Williams’ exuberant score and calibrated to make sure no one can hate this movie. From Star Trek to Star Wars, Abrams excels at transforming established pop culture into a greatest-hits showcase and pretty early on watching The Rise of Skywalker, you realize that Abrams has been hired to do the same thing he did last time; practically making what feels like a glorified apology for his successor’s choices. Remember in The Last Jedi when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) smashed his Vader-esque helmet to bits as a symbolic rejection to the past? It takes him all of fifteen minutes to weld it back together in The Rise of Skywalker, the little red cracks across its surface evidence of a “mistake” that’s been mended. In other words, the thing’s still a metaphor.
In the first of Abrams’ many supposed course corrections, The Rise of Skywalker inserts Kylo right back into the Empire chain of command he left in The Last Jedi. He may have killed the wannabe Snoke, but he’s not impervious to the offers of his replacement: the real emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), raised from the grave to pull some dark strings. Literally: “He’s been pulling the strings the whole time!” someone actually says, as if they missed the dead giveaway in countless trailers. But… how? You might ask. Don’t worry it’s revealed pretty quickly. But part of what made Kylo such an interesting villain was that his ambitions weren’t strictly based in Sith; caught in the shadow of his famous family, he reached for an alternative to the series’ good-evil dichotomy. But, instead, The Rise of Skywalker wants him back in the familiar tug of war, his soul the stake in another battle between the light and dark sides of the Force. It’s all very Return of the Jedi. And having made seducitve appeals to Rey (Daisy Ridley) for her to join him last time around, Kylo simplifies his pickup line: “I’m going to find you and turn you to the dark side.” (Yeah, that’s the type of dialogue were working with this time around.)
The plot is a busy (and messy) thing throughout, especially during Abrams’ heavily expositional (and convoluted) first act, as he keeps leaping across the usual stock library of planet types. Rey, tormented by visions of herself in a black robe, goes looking for one of the film’s many MacGuffins. Along for the ride is reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), flyboy Poe (Oscar Isaac), and ageless fuzzball Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Addressing another item from the fanboy’s complaint box, Abrams doesn’t split up the gang like Johnson did, instead sending them on bantering group expeditions. The new class of this trilogy still remains likeable this time around, with the movie getting some occasional light ensemble fun out of their misadventures. But not everyone has an equal role. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, introduced in Johnson’s film, has been largely sidelined by popular/toxic demand. And the late Carrie Fisher has only a few scenes, thanks to some somewhat awkwardly integrated unused footage from the previous two installments
Even with a good amount of negative qualities, there’s still a collage of amusements that creep into this particular journey, most notably there’s some pretty good action sequences that utilize the full scope of the technological wizardry in play. One chase scene involving “light-skipping” ranks among some of the best set pieces in the saga. As well, The Rise of Skywalker continues this new trilogies gorgeous, almost painterly aesthetic. From the blue-hued lightsaber battles to some of sprawling outer space showdowns, cinematographer Dan Mindel makes The Rise of Skywalker a visual marvel. When Rey and Kylo face off with lightsabers atop a watery wreckage as waves crash around them, the movie assembles the kind of sci-fi/fantasy marvel that only cinema of this scale can pull off. The script, written by Abrams and Chris Terrio, stands on sturdiest ground when it plays up the conflict between its two central characters: one descended from the series most iconic characters, the other uncertain of her origins (at least until a very questionable reveal), Rey and Kylo engage in a constant sense of uncertainty about each other’s allegiances that remains engaging until their final scene (and said final scene… man… it sure is something). The writers, at least, utilize a brilliant device engineered in Johnson’s film in which they often speak telepathically from separate locations but manage to interact physically through well-timed edits; it’s this sort of ingenuity that the movie lacks throughout the rest of its bloated runtime.
But, hey: If you pay for more Star Wars, Disney will get you some Star Wars, and even the slightest investment in the power of these movies can lead to certain euphoric highs. And knowing as much, Abrams and company push the innate power of the material to its breaking point, with a ludicrous closing battle in which virtually every facet of the series careens into the frame, with enormous space fleets and intergalactic horses and a whole lot of yelling from every direction. It’s sound and fury signifying a desperate bid to ensure that something, anything, hell, everything sinks in for the viewers keen on getting their maximalist fix. Lucas’ original Star Wars did plenty of imitating on its own: the spirit of classic fantasy and samurai epics folded into a Flash Gordan formula made all of those ingredients feel new and fresh. Now, over forty years later, The Rise of Skywalker operates as if the only tradition at its disposal hails from a galaxy far, far away. At one point, a major character suffers from amnesia; by the end, the movie aims to make the audiences feel the same way so it can go through the motions and act like you haven’t seen so much of this before. The opening crawl even warns that “the dead speak!” And indeed they do, the ensuing one-hundred-and-forty-two-minutes encapsulate a franchise eager to resurrect ideas that should have died a long time ago. There’s positives to The Rise of Skywalker, but they’re all drowned in a messy structure, egregious, empty fan service, and cheap twists, ultimately playing things so safe that the entire endeavor is nearly soulless.