Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is finally out; it’s the end of 40 years of fandom. The completion of a story arc that has captivated the hearts and minds of moviegoers around the world and the definitive ending to one of the world’s most lucrative cinematic trilogies. The world of Star Wars has expanded beyond the original trilogy to include an expanded universe of comics and books, animated content like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, multiple video games, one of 2019’s best TV shows (The Mandalorian, now streaming on Disney+), innumerable toys and action figures, and of course, a theme park at the headquarters of the saga’s new overseers. With all of those forces buttressing the Star Wars machine, it would seem that the franchise is far too big to fail.
But fail it has.
This failure is not of the box office variety (reports claim over 800 million in receipts at the time of this publication), neither is it a failure of fan appreciation. Cinescore and Rotten Tomatoes rank The Rise of Skywalker a B+ and 86%, respectively. Its failure is something far deeper. The failure of The Rise of Skywalker is a failure of ideas, themes and characterization. In other words, a failure of nearly every segment that constitutes filmmaking. If that sounds grim, it is. The Rise of Skywalker may be the most misconceived event movie of the last decade. But that doesn’t mean TRoS is awful, there are many things for discerning fans to appreciate.
For one, all of the performances were rock solid. Every member of the all-star cast delivered, and not a single person phoned it in. Even in the midst of uniformly good performances, there were standouts: Adam Driver was immensely compelling as Kylo Ren, Billy Dee Williams was electric reprising Lando Calrissian, Carrie Fisher shone in her few moments and Oscar Isaac (who is good in everything) got the most out of Poe Dameron’s script. Additionally, the cinematography and visuals were both well done, managing to avoid Disney’s recent dull and grey phenomenon. The worlds (for the most part) felt lived in and diverse enough to represent galaxies.
Kylo Ren’s arc is another great segment. Without going into spoiler territory, the events of his storyline were emotionally satisfying even if the actual execution left much to be desired. Driver imbues Ren with a perfect millennial brew of self-confidence, privilege and inner turmoil, and this commitment gives the character a realness that rings true to audiences, even in the midst of lightsaber battles, alien creatures, and star destroyers. Also to the movies’ credit is the resolution of several major character arcs and answers to questions that have plagued fans since The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Abrams and company make sure to tick the boxes.
Of course, it isn’t really a Star Wars film without a John Williams score; and frankly, it is one of the few elements of this film that is consistently stellar. Williams’ score adds life and vitality even to the drabbest moments.
One of the biggest surprises in The Rise of Skywalker was Abrams’ inclusion of horror elements. It really felt like Abrams’ brief forays into horror movie tropes and camera angles was a nod to the adulthood of his main audience (the children in my screening were visibly uncomfortable). And it was thoroughly enjoyable to the point where I’d love to see some fantasy/sci-fi horror in the Star Wars universe one day. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as the horror moments were, they contributed to the tonal unevenness of the film.
During the course of its 2hr30m runtime, TRoS struck several different tones with varying degrees of success. The end result is a hopeful monster of a movie that disconcerts viewers by veering wildly between disparate tones (this is to say nothing about the repeated and criminal use of bathos to lessen the power of serious moments).
A second criticism is that for its length, TRoS felt rushed. The need to wrap up story beats, themes, and arcs while still giving characterization to old and new characters led to a movie that felt oddly mechanistic. One almost imagines the creative minds behind this film checking off a series of boxes by rote in order to ensure that every plot thread was followed through. Further, everything happens at lightspeed and few moments are left to breathe. Written over 100 years ago, Mark Twain said: “Life is just one damn thing after another.” With this quote, he could have been describing TRoS. A mechanical narrative unfolding at warp speed leads to an uncomfortable theater experience, almost like watching a movie at 1.5x the speed.
The dialogue was awful in places, and several moments intended to work as comedy were merely cringe-worthy (I find it difficult to imagine Oscar Winner Chris Terrio penning this). There is a speech intended to be rousing that falls completely flat and in a film universe replete with quotable lines “May the Force be with you,” “I am the Senate,” “Everything you just said was wrong” and even “I hate sand,” I can’t think of any line from this movie that I care to hear repeated. It almost goes without saying that two actors that should have become breakout stars after The Force Awakens are woefully underutilized (Poe and Finn haven’t been interesting since TFA).
TRoS is also filled with cheap nostalgia in ways that seem equal parts cynical and overly solicitous. Abrams and company seem to be parading events and arcs in front of fans to hide weak plotting and poor characterization while transparently hoping to mitigate the outrage that The Last Jedi inspired. Cynicism and obsequiousness conspire to create a film that is uncomfortably meta. The concerns of fandom and blockbuster filmmaking appear to be of more significance than story and theme and TRoS cannot help but suffer. Curiously enough, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker share this same flaw of self-referentiality. The methods of their self-consciousness are different – The Last Jedi and its ballyhooed subversion of expectations is different from The Rise of Skywalker’s deferential nostalgic referentialism – but the outcome is the same: Two event films that are ultimately about themselves (with the negative critical response to TRoS one might contend that the critics have finally caught up to the fans) one could also argue that this was also the case with The Force Awakens and that sheer excitement has blinded critical judgment.
Worth mentioning too is the complete lack of grandeur and awe from TRoS. Even moments meant to rouse fall flat for a myriad of reasons (lack of set up, bathos, poor delivery, and pacing).
Ultimately, a project that purports to tell the stories of galaxies far, far away ends up feeling far too concerned with the intra-fan nostalgia wars on earth (or more cynically, profit margins for large corporations). Tragic. There is a fine line between “intimate” and “small” and The Rise of Skywalker goes way over it. Slavering attention to nostalgia restricts the universe of storytelling that the artist is able to enter, whether she intends to boldly upend expectations or mollify the survivors of the former’s attempts at innovation. At its best TRoS is an epic chronicling the titanic struggle of believable characters to come to grips with destiny, family and death. Unfortunately, TRoS is rarely at it’s best. Too often the film comes off as perfunctory when it should be profound, flippant when it could be expansive and nostalgic when it could be original. It is for these reasons I consider The Rise of Skywalker to ultimately be a disappointment.
And it’s this disappointment that gives rise to the subtitle of this piece: The Final Reckoning for Star Wars Fans. The Rise of Skywalker serves as a peek into the machinations of blockbuster franchise filmmaking. The cogs and wheels that comprised this story are plainly visible to any observer and this is a truer picture of the film’s vision than any amount of conciliatory interviews, glossy magazine spreads or on set rumors. Nearly every misshapen, mechanistic or deformed story moment in TRoS is directly culled from what Disney believed that Star Wars fans demanded and it is the reaction to this notion – just give the fans what they want and profit! – that will be the final reckoning for Star Wars fans. Unlike TFA, The Rise of Skywalker‘s failures are not of imagination, unlike The Last Jedi, its failures are not about execution. Instead, the failures of TRoS are systemic and thoroughgoing and related to the cinema as concierge concept plaguing so much of franchise filmmaking today.
Here’s the choice facing Star Wars fans: press for originality and artistry in these films or endure an insular universe with stories primarily centered around meta conversations about who is watching and what they want. All protestations aside, it seems that the loudest and most negative voices of Disney Star Wars have won a pyrrhic victory. These fans have eliminated the threat to lore at the price of a distilled, cynical nostalgia trip that blends corporate cynicism and disdain into a witches brew of mockery and condescending noblesse oblige. Moves made to placate the angriest fans backfire frequently… who could have guessed?
Perhaps it would have been wiser for those guardians of Star Wars lore to have focused more on uplifting and preserving the things they loved instead of destroying things they loathed (perhaps a Star Wars character could put it differently).
Fans have wrested control of Star Wars away from Disney… How will they do with it? The Rise of Skywalker does not portend well.
2 out of 5 Stars