Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
A lot of pixels have been created and consumed about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Reviews covered the gamut of disappointment and joy, ambivalence and disavowal, frustration and release.
Skywalker is not without its moments, but those moments get short shrift from director JJ Abrams in what seems to be a race to get film number nine into the can so he can return to Cloverfield Lane.
It’s a huge film. A diversity of planets, alternative realms, epic space battles—and moments of potential loss. The moments of loss never seem inevitable—but what does seem inevitable is that any reference expected, and some not expected (we saw you Johnny Williams) were plugged in. I imagine a giant board full of references googled from all over the galaxy and writers furiously seeing how they could shoehorn a quip into the flash flowing stream of narrative.
Beyond the rapid pacing that begins breathlessly from the first scene, the editorial choices appear contrived. I’m sure they are not. I’m sure hours were spent discussing the plot points designed to tie the franchise up in a neat bow. Many of the choices probably sounded good in meetings, entertaining and certainly surprising, and most were executed technically well. But their foundation in story, in lore, seemed lazy and undercooked. It was like raw vegetables poured into a rapidly boiling soup just before serving. No time allowed for flavors to develop, individual pieces still a bit too crunchy, and hopes for complementary tastes left embryonic.
At the core, Starwalker, and the entire franchise after episode III, lacked a cohesive vision. The conclusion to the final series wasn’t known as The Force Awakens concluded. Years of filming loomed on the horizon, but the details were vague. The failures of episodes I-III were creative, not narrative. The stories made sense considering what was already known about the future. (for the most part that is, save things like Obi-Wan’s droid amnesia). These stories existed in some form as contemporaries of the later episodes. And they all belonged to the mind of George Lucas.
The last three films may have received some inspiration from Lucas outlines, but the writers and directors didn’t have Lucas in the moment-to-moment decisions made during production. A lot of verdicts were pronounced to introduce technology like the Wayfinder (very creative name, not) and planets like the uncharted Exegol (is a planet with people on it who were not born there really uncharted? The Sith seem to know where to find it), characters and plot points. Some of the ideas could have been powerful, but in the end, they too looked like to-do bucketed items ticked off a Trello board in the writer’s room. The Knights of Ren, for instance, could have deepened Kylo’s character and history by demonstrating the complexity of his conflicted soul. But no, dispatched with nary a “hey guys, what’s up!”
A visual medium still requires the telling of a worthwhile story. I remain unconvinced if this is the worthy story. Sometimes legacy overwhelms flaws, and the admiration for characters drives more emotional connections that may be present in the moment. Flaws and legacy, memory and hope certainty make Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker more than it actually is. Fans went to the film in hope of connecting to the characters they love. For the most part, Skywalker succeeded on that level. For many, that was perhaps the only place it needed to succeed.
However, as a film of intricate plot and real emotion that ties up loose ends with logical conclusions but leaves room for characters to breathe and evolve, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker fails. There is too much fan service and not enough creativity. Abrams fell into the same trap with Star Trek: Into Darkness. Clever references to the past, even encyclopedic in scope and perfectly placed don’t make a workable script. And in Skywalker, as in Darkness, stupid choices (like the abbreviated death of Chewie—she could not sense him?? Or the resurrection of Kirk from Kahn and Tribble alchemy) distance viewers that want to get close. If the writing team, the producers and the directors don’t care enough to look a the plot enough to have it make sense, then why should I?
Abrams and team need to learn to let go of their previous success with first-generation reboots (Star Trek, The Force Awakens). They need to let their creative freak flags fly. Fans do not need to hear quotes and shout outs and experience cameos that turn a huge budget film into an experience not just subtly but explicitly tied so tightly to its past it can’t find its own identity. They need to create new moments, special moments that feel right (not Leia, regardless of training, flying through the quantum soup of the interstellar vacuum to live another day)—but perhaps a bit more of the Romeo and Juliet of Ben and Rey built into the narrative rather than a climactic, but ultimately unsatisfying scene.
That past weighed down the entire Skywalker enterprise. JJ Abrams couldn’t win, though, no matter what he did.
From the moment Star Wars appeared on the big screen people started writing their own endings to the Skywalker saga. Some of them became novels. Some of them still live in drawers and boxes of fans around the world. The biggest disappointment for those fans was this film had nothing to do with anything imagined back in 1977 or since. And it had no way of living up to our expectations. I’m not even sure this is the ending the Abrams imagined when he was a kid, or when he took up the reigns back in 2014.
Perhaps the best thing about Skywalker not being great is the closure. I remain happy to see other Star Wars-inspired stories like The Mandalorian—but I no longer need to see or hear about the Skywalker clan and their future. Skywalker was in its own way a reboot that left a blank canvas for that galaxy far far away to fill with new stories. Stop looking in the review mirror of the Millennium Falcon. Look ahead and see what else is out there among that stars that populate galaxy that George Lucas imagined.