Everybody has had that one coworker who dramatically flings and flangs about, causing a commotion to create the illusion that they are doing something complicated and important. Welcome to Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker!
Edited to suit our President’s attention span, in open rebellion against the far superior Last Jedi, and crammed with half-baked ideas poached from Reddit fan theory boards, it is a cake made entirely of frosting, a pretty-looking sugar rush with absolutely nothing substantial to hold it together. It is, at best, “fine.” And that’s really what you want in a conclusion to a beloved, sometimes personality-defining series that has spanned more than 40 years, right? “Fine.”
Due to insecurity, stubborn foolishness, or fear of a vocal and toxic subset of fans, Rise of Skywalker immediately sets out to undo Last Jedi. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is training to be a Jedi, somehow reading the religious texts that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) literally watched Yoda burn to ashes in the previous film. Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is somehow mostly not-dead and somehow magically generated a vast fleet of ships that all have planet-killing guns on them. He is hiding on the planet Exegol, which is somehow pronounced to rhyme with “testicle.”
To get to Exegol, you have to find a magic space triangle. Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Rey, and Chewbacca hop in the Millennium Falcon to hunt for said magic space triangle. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is in hot pursuit, hoping to convince Rey to make a heel turn and go super space naughty, joining him on the throne of the Sith. Stitched together with scenes that last no longer than three minutes each, the whole thing feels like someone threw notes from a brainstorming session in a blender. Reminder: Whoever says “there are no bad ideas in a brainstorming session” is either a filthy liar, JJ Abrams, or both.
Here’s the thing about Abrams as a writer/director. His whole schtick is the “mystery box” approach. This holds that getting an audience hooked on questions and the anticipation of answers is more important than whatever answers are actually in that “mystery box.” As the concluding ninth film in the franchise, Rise of Skywalker is literally only about what is in the box. This is akin to asking Smokey the Bear to direct a forest fire.
The set pieces look incredible, the cast is charming as hell, and it is relentless in terms of action and spectacle. It’s just all so very hollow. Whereas Last Jedi elevated women, argued about the dangers inherent to blind religious devotion, and suggested that one’s importance is not linked to genetics or a family name, Rise of Skywalker does the exact opposite. Rey is the only non-dude of importance in the film, spiritual dogma is resurrected (literally), and only white people born to powerful families are given anything close to a resolved story arc.
The film cowers behind a nebulous, meaningless message that says “the good will always outnumber the bad” and that “the people we love are what really matters.” That last one is hilarious because the movie totally benches Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who ended the last film by professing her love to Finn. Here, the characters behave like terse work colleagues. This is likely because of the fan backlash against Tran. Although it’s very, very good that she likely won’t be subjected to the kind of hate leveled against her after the last installment, it is vastly disappointing to see one of the best new Star Wars characters chased off the screen by gross dudebros.
Force Awakens rekindled a specific kind of magic that only Star Wars can generate. Last Jedi was a bold vision of where that magic could be directed. Rise of Skywalker is a tepid, calculated blockbuster designed to be maximally inoffensive. It feels as if Abrams and company were saying “This is what you want, right? Sith stuff? Look at how cool these background characters look!” It’s not bad. Hell, it’s not even in the top three worst Star Wars movies. It’s just disappointing. But hey, at least we have The Mandalorian, right?
Grade = C