FILM REVIEW – STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. With Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Ian McDiarmid. Written by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action. 141 minutes.
There’s a story my mother loves to tell about when I was eight years old, coming home from a breathlessly anticipated outing with the neighborhood kids to see “Return of the Jedi.” Everyone else burst out of the station wagon, running around mimicking lightsaber fights and making pew-pew blaster noises while according to legend I glumly shrugged and said, “It was pretty good, I guess.” Looking back I think the then-final chapter of George Lucas’ beloved space opera was probably the first time I’d ever been disappointed in a movie, a feeling that as a “Star Wars” fan would grow to become something of a constant over the years.
J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is yet another final installment of the Skywalker saga, by my count the third “last Star Wars movie” I’ve gone to see and this one’s not so much disappointing as it is actively, outright terrible. Nothing in this picture makes any sense. It’s got one of those insanely over-convoluted plots where everybody’s running to get a thing they need that tells them where to go to get some other thing they need (in this case, one of those glowing doohickeys apparently on loan from Disney’s Marvel division) and then when they get there somebody explains why what they were doing isn’t working so they have to go get something else– and it just all makes you long for clean lines, cause and effect, characters going from A to B. Like maybe, go rescue the princess from the space fortress and blow it up? Or perhaps, go to a planet full of teddy bears and turn off the deflector shield so you can blow up the replacement space fortress?
I really can’t explain what anybody was doing most of the time during “The Rise of Skywalker,” but we learn in the opening crawl that the ugly Emperor who Darth Vader threw down a hole in the Death Star right before it exploded 36 years and seven “Star Wars” movies ago is somehow still alive and well and also secretly responsible for the events of the previous two sequels. He instructs Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren to go kill Daisy Ridley’s fetching Jedi-in-training Rey, but the Emperor doesn’t really want him to kill her and anyway Kylo’s had kind of a crush on Rey ever since she slashed his face with a lightsaber a couple movies ago so this all gets pretty complicated, if not particularly edifying.
Meanwhile, what’s left of the Rebel Alliance (or the Resistance, as they’re now called) learns of an even bigger, crazier threat to the fate of the universe than anything they faced in the last two movies, so there’s a lot of running around and forced conviviality between Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. The screenplay constantly makes a huge deal about what close friends these three have become over the course of all their exciting adventures together even though two of them didn’t meet until the final scene of the previous picture.
Competing for screen time are our old pals C-3P0, R2-D2, BB-8 and even Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is back for this round. There are also several deeply unsettling scenes featuring the late Carrie Fisher, creepily cobbled together with digital trickery and unused footage from the earlier films. (Remember in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” when Carl Reiner edited Steve Martin into scenes from old Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney movies? It’s something like that, only less convincing.) It grossed me out, to be honest, cutting and pasting lines Fisher delivered out of context and slapping them into scenes written years after her death. It feels to me like a violation of her integrity as an actress, inventing in the editing room a performance she never would have delivered in such a flat, disjointed fashion. (The eyelines don’t even match.)
As we’re watching a J.J. Abrams movie, all of this happens in an incredible hurry. The first hour of “The Rise of Skywalker” feels like it’s being played on fast-forward, our characters racing from planet to planet so quickly while randomly running into old friends so often that this galaxy far, far away feels smaller than the suburb I grew up in. Abrams can’t even be bothered with establishing shots, slamming you from one scene to the next in medium close-up medias res. The film boasts some fine production design and never once slows down for long enough to let you look at it. A lightsaber battle on a sea of roaring waves is the lone moment of visual grandeur, and even that’s cut far too quickly to appreciate the choreography.
The elephant in the room here is that they accidentally made a real movie last time. Say what you will about Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” – and if you spend any time online you know people haven’t shut up about it for the past two years – the movie took some big swings at challenging a viewer’s preconceptions and the subtext carried with it a sharp level of autocritique with regard to “the sacred Jedi texts,” et al. I think it’s a great work of popular art and one of the few franchise blockbusters worth taking seriously. So of course J.J. Abrams was brought back on board to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.
Just as Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” was a beat-for-beat remake of the 1977 “Star Wars” (we refuse to call it “A New Hope” in this household), “The Rise of Skywalker” eventually settles into such a “Return of the Jedi” redux it might as well end with cheap firecrackers and “Yub Nub,” plus the the added insult of walking back or outright erasing pretty much everything fanboys found threatening about Johnson’s film.
There’s a palpable petulance with which Abrams brings back that stupid “Spaceballs” helmet Kylo Ren smashed in his first scene of “The Last Jedi,” and the film’s dismissive sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico feels particularly egregious given the way racist hordes of young male “fans” chased her off social media. Worst is that Abrams fatally undoes Johnson’s most promising revelation regarding Rey’s parentage, negating his idea that the Force belongs to everyone and not just semi-incestuous members of dynastic bloodlines. Alas we’re back to the monomyth again and old, tiresome prophecies about chosen ones who will bring balance and everyone in this entire universe is fucking related.
“The Last Jedi” tried to open up the world a little bit. However you may feel about the casino sequence – and I go back and forth on it—Johnson was at least trying to show us something new instead of just slavishly reenacting your favorite scenes from a movie you loved when you were a little kid. Following “The Last Jedi” by bringing back the Emperor is like when Sylvester Stallone looked at the miracle Ryan Coogler made with “Creed” and said, “Yo, let’s do it again with Dolph Lundgren!”
“The Rise of Skywalker” is a work of creative stasis and profoundly limited imagination. Eight-year-old future critics will probably spend the holidays smiling weakly and telling their moms “it was pretty good, I guess,” while the rest of us consider that it might finally be time to put away these childish things.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.