Updated: Jul 7, 2020
I’ve left the theater disappointed with the creative decisions in a Star Wars film before but, invariably, I always enjoyed my time in front of the big screen and the movies always ended up getting better and better with repeat viewings. It breaks my heart to say that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t live up to this legacy of excellence.
This film is packed to the gills with a lot of action but little substance in story or character development. Its moments of fan service feel less earned than those of previous films in this trilogy. While it’s technologically adept, it’s clear that this installment mostly became a vehicle for people’s sense of betrayal over The Last Jedi (2017), which flew in the face of some of the ideas being set up in this trilogy. While it’s somewhat fitting that all this amounted to was a pissing match between one sect of fans who loved the previous film and the other sect that hated it, that should never have been what this franchise was about.
That’s why I always push myself to find several things I like AND dislike about every film I review. Nothing is perfect, and nothing that’s flawed is totally without merit. It’s why I’ll stick up for George Lucas’ prequel trilogy until the day I die (if enough people want to read them, I could be convinced to do reviews of the earlier films, too). I wish more people were willing to do this kind of nuanced viewing with big blockbuster franchises, because it would drown out the loud voices with ones that are at least willing to give these things we love the benefit of the doubt. When we as fans fail to do this, we’re left with results like this movie: a story that never fully pursues one idea for fear of being bullied out of existence. We have to ask ourselves: is that what fandom is now?
But! There’s been plenty of buildup to this film already (over four decades worth!), so let’s get into the list of things I liked and didn’t like about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It should go without saying, but major spoilers and fanboy rants ahead!
1) Leia’s Legacy
Leia Organa Solo died a Jedi Master. Of all the arcs in this saga, hers might be the most interesting and satisfying. Orphaned at birth. Royal by adoption. Forced to watch her whole planet destroyed. Senator and military hero during a life of determination and bravery. All this happens before she even finds out that she’s part of the most powerful Force dynasty in the galaxy. But yeah, Luke’s character is sooo interesting with his childhood of farming… moisture.
Anyway, I was so hesitant when this trilogy decided not to end Leia’s character along with the life of the beloved actor who portrayed her, Carrie Fisher. I’m happy to say that my fears were largely misplaced. I’m not thrilled with every moment they’ve used Leia in these new films (more on that later) but I’m so glad I got to see her become a mentor to new Jedi. It not only solidifies her role as a Jedi in her own right, but it leaves a lasting mark on Rey, the future heroine of the franchise. It’s a wonderful passing of the torch from a treasure of Old Hollywood to the spotlit women of the future.
2) Core Characters Together
JJ Abrams criticized the previous film in this trilogy, The Last Jedi, for not showcasing the main characters together enough in the story. While this doesn’t make much sense coming from the guy who split up those very characters at the end of his own film, The Force Awakens (2015), Abrams certainly didn’t split our protagonists apart this time. The Rise of Skywalker sees Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca and our favorite droids all on a treasure hunt to the darkest corners of the galaxy. There’s a moment where C-3PO even sucks us all into the feels by, “Taking one last look… at my friends.” Is it cheesy? Sure. Did I tear up a bit? No, you did!
While I really wish that these relationships were given a chance to be explored more in this plot, we do get peeks of the deeper connections that have been formed within this group. Finn is the peacekeeper between Rey and Poe, who bicker every time the group needs them to come to a decision. R2-D2 and Threepio are the wizened, old droids who’ve seen a thing or two, while BB-8 and newcomer D-0 are the young scamps eager to lend a hand. If you look hard enough at this frankly overstuffed plot, you’ll find some cool character moments hidden there.
3) Phantom Fight
The main aspect of this movie that feels connected to the one that came before it is the exploration of the Force capabilities between Rey and Kylo Ren. In The Last Jedi, we saw how they can drop in on one another, speaking to and even seeing the other person via a telepathic Force connection. It was a really cool mechanism that showed something new with the lore of Star Wars and allowed these characters to interact more. This movie builds upon that by showing how they can actually interact physically across this connection, culminating in a cool and cinematically impressive lightsaber fight. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the later lightsaber trade-off moment, with all it’s magicky sleight of hand, it was at least another form of development for this interesting plot device.
4) Ben Solo Reborn
The only core character who got a satisfying ending (kissing cousins aside, I guess) was Ben Solo. This film (really, this whole trilogy) focuses on his torment and the inner struggle between the good and evil that have pulled him in two different directions his whole life. I especially loved how BOTH of his parents got to be a part of pulling him back from the brink of being just another helmeted Sith Lord. Han Solo visits him from beyond the grave to absolve Ben’s guilt, and his mother, Leia, bestows upon him the last of her strength as the final Force push he needed to cast off his villainous ways.
It took longer than I hoped but we finally got a wholly satisfying and well-shot lightsaber fight out of this trilogy. The at-times uninspired choreography of Force Awakens and the too-inspired clunkiness of the fights in The Last Jedi left me hankering for a lightsaber duel that was just right. The fight between Kylo Ren and Rey in the oceanic storm of Endor’s moon, literally dueling it out atop the rubble of the old Empire, was just what I was waiting for. It utilizes set pieces, allowing the actors and their doubles to jump around the space and making for some visually interesting choreography. It’s also just a lovely callback/reversal of one of the most famous duels in the franchise: the one between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker on the lava planet Mustafar. Rather than fiery volcanoes and smoke, we have splashing waves and misty sprays, but the shots and planning of this scene clearly hearken back to that older fight in ways that make for nice thematic similarities. It clues us into the fact that, once again, this is a battle for the soul, not just a battle of swords.
1) Zombie Palpatine
Where do I even begin? In recent graphic novels and video games, it’s been made clear that Emperor Palpatine had set things in motion in the event of his death. The assumption was that he’d recorded some old orders for the remaining sects of Imperial forces. This would explain the quick rise of the First Order and, most importantly, the old broadcasts of his voice that the opening crawl of this very film uses as a setup for what’s about to unfold. I never took any of it, not even the trailers containing Ian McDiarmid’s voice, as a sign that the dude was actually going to be coming back to life -- and I was excited about that! It’s way cooler to me to have a ghostly recording of a long-dead villain playing out into the void of space than to sloppily force the concept of zombie Sith Lords into the final film of the saga.
There’s an attempt to explain all this, by calling back to the “unnatural” powers of the Dark Side that Palpatine had already been experimenting with. This film even confirms (albeit at lightspeed) that Palpatine was the “father” of Anakin Skywalker, by essentially creating a child of the Force through his uncanny abilities. I understand and approve of the fact that Palpatine has had too much influence on this story to suddenly not be a part of this last trilogy. By all means make Palpatine a part of this somehow. But to have him literally come back as a gray-eyed corpse thing and never really explain that save for a line of dialogue? That’s lazy storytelling at it’s finest.
If they’d done the legwork, I might be willing to at least accept this creative choice, though I doubt you could ever convince me to like it. It’s not like it’s without thematic merit, since the overarching struggle between Sith and Jedi is in the ways each order views power and death.
And there are other elements of it that don’t seem far-fetched at all: Palpatine being the puppeteer of Snoke? Fine. Him somehow having a plan, carried out by the red-clad royals of the Old Empire and a cult of Sith-worshippers? I buy it. It all could even have even been a cool third-party enemy to have Kylo Ren contend with in order to solidify his role as Supreme Leader (a role he seems to have for all of three seconds). We’ve already seen him haunted by the legacy of Darth Vader, so it would have fit nicely to have him at odds with the legacy (not the personage) of Darth Sidious.
Instead, this is a hasty reversal of the trajectory of this trilogy just so that we can have a scary undead villain and cash in on that sweet zombie craze. Also, like, why does Palpatine get a sudden wardrobe change when he sucks the Force essence out of Rey? Was that not super distracting to everyone else? Every part of this plot choice comes across like the filmmakers were saying, “I dunno, I guess THIS happens next?” -- which is, obviously, not ideal.
2) Rey’s Reveal
By far the worst plot development and character interaction in this movie happens when Kylo Ren tells Rey that she’s actually Palpatine’s granddaughter. He goes, “I’ve never lied to you… you parents were nobody (referencing his line in the previous film). Because that’s who they were trying to be.” Okay… that’s not how truth-telling works, and it’s the moment in Rise of Skywalker it became apparent to me that JJ Abrams and Company wanted nothing to do with the creative decisions of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (more on that in a second).
Johnson himself said two years ago that Rey not being intrinsically connected to the Skywalker saga by blood is more interesting for her character, which I could get on board with. But I will also say I never really bought that Kylo was telling her the full truth in that moment from the previous film anyway. But for TROS to act like he wasn’t saying the EXACT OPPOSITE is just more lazy writing. And why, if this is the decision we’re making, isn’t it actually explored? It’s barely even clear which of Rey’s parents is a Palpatine, or when they were born or… well, anything. This movie is less concerned with exploring the twists in its plot than it is with just getting to the next big space scene or lightsaber fight (I like them, too, but seriously!) “Show don’t tell,” is the first rule of filmmaking and this movie fails in almost every notable sense. So many huge plot reveals are made with a spoken word and then we move right along.
3) I guess… fuck Rian Johnson?
The last Star Wars film, directed by Rian Johnson, was the most polarizing one in the franchise it seemed. I doubt anyone can ever know what true percentage of fans hated it or liked it, what with online trolls spamming every message board you can find with negative reviews. Suffice it to say that I know many lifelong fans of the franchise who either vividly hated or emphatically loved it. I fall firmly into the “loved it” category, and you can read my review of that film here if you’d like.
But love or hate it, The Last Jedi is a part of this story. It took all of ten minutes into this latest film for it to become apparent that Disney/Lucasfilm were going to simply leave Johnson in the dust and squander the potential for the franchise that he built up with his previous film. This new movie makes a whole point out of commenting on the things it’s undoing about the previous chapter. Exhibit A: Forging Kylo Ren’s helmet back together (a thing that Johnson destroyed in the first five minutes of his film) just so he could wear it, like, twice. If that isn’t a big enough clue that this movie was mostly going to be a pissing match over who could undo the most creative decisions of the other, maybe that whole, “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect” line from Luke could serve as surer evidence…
I grant you that Johnson did it first by actively undoing (or at least undercutting) some of the things that Abrams set up with his Force Awakens reboot. But the job of any sequel is to run with the baton that the previous film passes so that the whole trilogy (nay, the whole franchise!) feels cohesive and relative to one another. One could argue that Johnson’s film didn’t do that well, either, but this successive movie fails in almost every measure when we don’t have anymore story left to play around with. Finn and Rose Tico as a romantic interest? Who cares, Abrams wanted to do this whole Finn-Rey non-thing instead. Luke’s curmudgeonly persona in old age? Nah, people didn’t like that so we’ll just turn him into a campy ghost wizard instead. Kylo Ren as the main baddy for the final movie? Nah, we should revive the old, dead villain rather than hit that ball off the tee.
Lazy and uninspired storytelling is bad on its own, but the fact that there’s this whole petty, personal feel to it just makes it that much worse. The whole trilogy feels hijacked now by a pointless battle to make TLJ not matter. That, ultimately, should rile fans’ feathers more than whatever creative decisions they did or didn’t like.
I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time the public was assured by Disney/LucasFilm execs that they weren’t going to CGI Carrie Fisher’s face again (following the heretical use of this technology in 2016’s Rogue One). JJ Abrams even said, let’s just say a thousand times, during press for this movie, “We weren’t interested in recreating Carrie’s likeness.” I’ll give you one guess what they do in this very movie…
Yeah, sure they accomplish it using a cool rotoscoping effect with old archival footage, putting Carrie Fisher's face on her daughter, Billie Lourd's, body, but still, I just don't see why movies are forcing de-aging effects into everything nowadays. It comes at an otherwise cool moment in the film, when Luke is explaining how Leia trained as a Jedi following the events of 1983’s The Return of the Jedi. Problem is, the moment definitely doesn’t warrant a flashback in order to impart that piece of lore, especially if it’s to completely undo everything that fans are being told to expect.
I know I literally JUST criticized the film for telling rather than showing, so I guess my main critique here is just that they sullied an otherwise cool moment of siblings training together just to make a big reveal out of Fisher and Mark Hamill’s youthified faces. And, yeah, throw fans off the scent all you want but don’t just straight up lie about shit.
5) The Knights of… Ah, who cares!
I’m soooooo glad we waited four years to watch the infamous Knights of Ren do fuckall for an entire movie. These baddies, first teased in Force Awakens and Last Jedi as a cohort of failed Jedi apprentices who were buddies with Kylo, were supposed to be a cool franchise element that we finally explore in this film. Instead, well… they literally stand there watching things happen for most of the movie. Then, in the penultimate moments of the film, when we think we’ll be treated to a glorious battle between them and Ben Solo, it’s just a bland game of whack-a-mole instead. They easily overpower Ben when he’s weaponless but the second he gets a lightsaber they go down like a sack of so many unfulfilled expectations.
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