In “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”, the Emperor Has No Clothes

Star Wars the Rise of Skywalker Daisy Ridley is Rey and Adam Driver is Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

J.J. Abrams closes out the Star Wars saga by walking back its more interesting middle chapter and drowning itself in fanservice.

Has The Rise of Skywalker been five years in the making, or 35? At this point, Star Wars is baked into our cultural fabric, a fundamental tenet of people’s childhoods, with strong opinions all around. It’s hard to even evaluate them as stories; they’re myths, legends, inextricably tied to the egos and identities of many a purveyor of nerd culture (which, of course, is now mainstream culture in all the good and bad ways that entails).

With the end movie of a trilogy of trilogies that have proven so important to, let’s face it, most people around the world, how do you even go out? For people who live and breathe Star Wars trivia, who eat up Extended Universe novels like nobody’s business and know who Dash Rendar is, The Rise of Skywalker might serve as a warm, fuzzy blanket filled with continuity porn and all the callbacks you could possibly ask for. But its desperate, almost pathological desire to cater to the broadest common denominator of Star Wars fans is also its biggest downfall.

The furor over 2017’s The Last Jedi has been raging on longer than this website has been alive, so I’ll spare the details. But suffice to say, everyone who held hatred for Rian Johnson’s more deconstructionist take on the universe (rational or no) will likely be pleased with J.J. Abrams‘ return to the pilot’s chair. Virtually everything Jedi dared to do different is ignored or outright apologized for — Rey’s potential parentage is more important than ever, Kylo’s helmet is back, and characters who learned from failure walked back from those perspectives.

Hate Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)? Don’t worry, we’ll Jar Jar her this time around, relegating her to background exposition as a Resistance flunky. Crave a deeper dive into the emotional underpinnings of its characters, or the sociopolitics of one of the most vibrant science fiction universes in fiction? Too bad; settle for two and a half hours of dreadfully straightforward exposition and paint-by-numbers plotting.

Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca, Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, Daisy Ridley is Rey and John Boyega is Finn in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

So much of the story feels like a deliberate response to the divisive reaction of The Last Jedi, a good deal of which (though not all) was due to the more toxic elements of the fandom. As such, a lot of the verve and personality of the new trilogy feels lost: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) feel less like new characters forging their own destiny than action figures being bounced through decades-old playsets. That sense of grave-digging through the past extends to the story too, a multi-part chase along multiple planets to track down a series of MacGuffins that might lead to a secret Imperial fleet, and the key to winning the war against intergalactic sadboi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order.

To say more would spoil things, but suffice to say the only major things I could be spoiling are things you’ve seen, in some form or another, in the original trilogy. Old planets, obscure characters, and specific moments from the OT are cribbed wholesale, and not even in that Force Awakens-style homage kind of way: the film practically winks at you, jabs you in the ribs, and says “hey… remember this? We promise we won’t take risks again. We know how much you hate that.”

If it sounds like I’m being hard on the movie, it’s because I am. Like Force Awakens, a good deal of Rise of Skywalker works in that slapdash, energy-of-the-moment J.J. Abrams way. Characters shout, quip, talk over each other and run from setpiece to setpiece with reckless abandon (in the first act, especially, the pacing might even be too quick), and the action is occasionally handsomely presented. It lacks the visual punch of The Last Jedi (Abrams’ compositions veer perilously close to TV-show territory), but it gets the job done. And John Williams‘ score is as iconic as ever, even if it gets too self-consciously callback-y in that bloated final act.

Virtually everything Jedi dared to do different is ignored or outright apologized for.

But the key to it all, like it was in Force Awakens, is the essential chemistry of its young cast, Rise of Skywalker working best when it zeroes in on the central Finn-Poe-Rey dynamic the previous two films lacked. While the last two films got their fair share of character mileage out of their separate journeys, it’s a delight to see them as a fully-formed team, bouncing off each other with winsome energy. Isaac remains a capable lead, and Boyega finally gets to shine as well now that Finn’s character is a bit more established.

But it’s Ridley who feels most fully formed here, even as revised plot revelations turn her into more of a tool for franchise-building than a three-dimensional character of her own. As for Driver, he feels a bit more reined in here (mostly due to their decision to keep him in the mask), but his concluding moments as a character offer the closest thing this film gets to true risktaking.

Scene from STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

There’s a lot more I could include in this review, like how the film doesn’t truly have time for its bevy of new supporting characters, like Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie and Richard E. Grant, or even the old ones like Billy Dee Williams and the late Carrie Fisher (her role cobbled together from unused Force Awakens clips, and boy does it show). Sure, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) comes closest to a kind of character arc, but don’t expect many seemingly-permanent sacrifices to truly stick for long.

I could also go on about the film’s transparent, cynical pandering to a fanbase that cares more about cataloging Wookieepedia minutiae than trying something new with their toys. And who knows? Maybe my opinion on it will even soften after a second viewing.

But as it currently stands, The Rise of Skywalker feels like a coward’s move — a refusal to double down on more audacious storytelling ideas in exchange for dipping into the warm, empty embrace of familiarity. It ties up the franchise in a neat, tidy bow, to be sure. But it does so at the cost of its personality.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker flicks on its lightsaber and force-leaps into theaters December 20th.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Trailer:

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