Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise of Skywalker has a lot to live up to. It is simultaneously the finale of the new trilogy of Star Wars films and the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga, one of the most beloved and culturally important film franchises of all time. It’s also the sequel to the fandom-dividing Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and the franchise follow-up to box office bomb Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). It needs to provide a conclusion to both its immediate and decades-spanning cinematic story, regain the support of its volatile fanbase, reassure worried Disney executives that the franchise is still profitable, and, ideally, be a captivating movie in its own right. Sadly, that last point gets mostly forgotten in the effort to live up to everyone’s expectations.
Technically speaking, The Rise of Skywalker is amazing. Breathtaking vistas of waves crashing against wreckage of The Death Star or a fleet of Star Destroyers hovering above the lightning-struck surface of a planet exemplify gorgeous cinematography. The film’s lighting is especially impressive, as sequences lit by flickering lightning strikes, or duels swirling between brightly lit and shadowy spaces sell the onscreen drama far more than the script. The music is also incredible, with John Williams reprising his role as composer of one of the best film scores of all time. The use of certain themes occasionally feels a bit manipulative, but when the music is as good as it is, it’s hard to complain.
Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t hold up to the technical standard set on screen. The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) has returned from the dead (not a spoiler, it’s the first line of the opening crawl), and wants to give Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) fascistic First Order a massive galaxy-conquering fleet of Star Destroyers. In return, Kylo has to kill Rey (Daisy Ridley), the last Jedi and best hope for the Resistance. Rey, along with friends Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), wants to find the Emperor before he can deploy his army, so they set out to find clues leading to his location. For the first time in the franchise, the three leads go on an adventure together. Their chemistry and interactions are a high point in the film, but that can’t quite cover up how messy their quest is. Nearly two hours of Rise of Skywalker are devoted to hopping between planets, finding artifacts/gadgets/plot contrivances, meeting new people and then running away from the First Order. So many things happen with so little explanation or development that it’s hard to keep track of why any of it is happening or why the audience should care.
The chaotic plot would be forgivable if it somehow helped the characters grow, but it doesn’t. The film doesn’t give either Finn or Poe any character development, diminishing them to generic brave rebel stereotypes. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is barely in the movie, a choice that feels scummy in the wake of toxic backlash against the actor. Rey and Kylo Ren are given more involved stories, but even their personal plots are disappointing. Rey has been haunted by visions of an evil version of herself and is afraid she might actually be a Sith, but although the film keeps telling us she could turn evil, it is never very convincing. Stripped of the confusion and childish rage that made him such a compelling character in the earlier films, Kylo Ren is reduced to a brooding imitation of Darth Vader. Unlike the other characters, Rey and Ren get some emotional payoffs to their character arcs, but it’s far too predictable to be truly moving.
The film as a whole stinks with a faint whiff of desperation, as if director J.J. Abrams recognized that the whole spectacle isn’t quite as exciting as it purports to be. A ticking clock element is mentioned early on, only to have no tangible effect on the plot. Mysteries are teased only to be solved less than 15 minutes later. One character says he has a secret and then never reveals what it is. New characters (or old characters from the original trilogy) are introduced in each location the heroes visit. Every one of them claims they can’t join the rebellion, which would only be convincing if you’ve never seen a movie before. All of this feels like a lazy attempt to keep the audience engaged, and for a while the sheer volume of information does. Eventually, it stops working, leaving the sense that the filmmakers didn’t have any faith in the story they were actually telling.
There’s also a lot of transparent corporate meddling going on in the film. After the divided response to The Last Jedi, Disney seems desperate to win back the fanbase, both through pandering fan service and apologizing for the most controversial aspects of the previous film. The cameos from characters/voices/props/story beats from earlier films occur about once every five minutes, as if the audience needs constant reminders why they like this franchise. The effect is initially enjoyable, but the pleasure gained from these easter eggs starts to wane once it becomes obvious they’re a replacement for innovation in the new movie. The Last Jedi retconning is more odious, providing an obnoxious meta-textual commentary that doesn’t need to be in the movie. The Rise of Skywalker as a whole is almost a cinematic apology for the The Last Jedi’s perceived failings, a safe return to old concepts and ideas while its predecessor tried to push the franchise in a new direction. When combined with a couple of painfully obvious spinoff setups and eye-rollingly safe tokenizing moments, it’s clear that Disney execs were hovering over the entire production of The Rise of Skywalker, making sure it couldn’t offend anyone and risk hurting Star Wars as a cash cow franchise.
On the whole, The Rise of Skywalker represents the wasted potential of the new Star Wars trilogy. The Force Awakens was almost a remake of the original Star Wars (1977), but its creative safety was excusable because it was supposed to represent a passing of the torch to new, exciting characters. Only, the torch never passed. The old characters and their stories didn’t fade away to let new ideas shine through. Kylo Ren, supposed villain of the new trilogy ultimately plays second fiddle to Emperor Palpatine. Poe barely gets to develop into a leader because he’s always in the shadow of Princess Leah (Carrie Fisher). Rey can’t get her own story because she’s still rehashing Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill). This trilogy had interesting characters and the potential for new stories to be told, but the narrative between films felt so disjointed and nostalgia-driven that the whole project ultimately felt inessential to the overall Star Wars franchise.
All of that being said, The Rise of Skywalker isn’t really a bad movie. It’s a perfectly enjoyable adventure movie that should pleasantly entertain audiences for a couple of hours. The action sequences are exciting, the humor is amusing, and the endless stream of cameos is kind of fun. The problem is that it’s just enjoyable, and that’s all it seems to aspire to. The Star Wars of the past has been thrilling, moving, intriguing, ambitious, and innovative, so to see this current installment only aspiring to be a parade of references is disappointing. If the franchise continues down this safe and controlled path, it will quickly become predictable and boring. The one ray of hope is that Rise of Skywalker is allegedly the end of the Skywalker saga. If that’s true, maybe the next Star Wars movie will be able to do something different and allow a new character to rise.