(While I won’t be actively discussing the biggest story points here, lets just assume that minor SPOILERS about basic details of the plot will be present in this review)
Over 40 years after Star Wars entered and dominated large segments of popular culture Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker comes with the promise of finally bringing the core “Skywalker” saga to a close. In many ways Episode IX succeeds in giving us a satisfying conclusion, but only in the same way that finishing a grueling and exhausting marathon is satisfying: you are glad to have done it, but you certainly don’t care to do that again anytime soon.
The chief problem with The Rise of Skywalker becomes clearly apparent within the first twenty minutes. After the traditional opening crawl the movie quickly races across the galaxy to catch us up with the exploits of all the major characters including Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Leia (Carrie Fisher), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) at such a frenetic inter-cutting pace that it feels almost like a montage scene than anything resembling a traditional narrative opening. Within this opening scene some new and fairly major developments gets dropped into the viewer’s laps in between some loud action scenes, with any character moments relegated to lightning-quick jokes and asides that actively depends on our prior knowledge of who these characters are to make any sense.
Even once the movie seems to settle down after its sprint of an opening, it still carries on at a frighteningly quick pace. To try and describe the plot of The Rise of Skywalker would be futile because so much happens within its 140 minute runtime – director J. J. Abrams stuffs enough interweaving plot lines into the movie to easily fit several movies that I had to work hard just to even keep track of what was happening, let alone finding space to contemplate why. New characters are introduced, old characters are brought back, and some fairly important narrative developments – that on the surface should feel satisfying – happen, but we are so quickly on to the next thing that none of the moments are allowed to have any emotional weight and instead add to the sense that the story is quickly passing us by. The last time I remember watching a movie run through the paces of its plot so quickly was the first Harry Potter movie, and at least Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had some source material for the viewer to fall back on; The Rise of Skywalker presents itself like a Cliff Notes version of its own story. In its worst sections it feels like an annoying video game in which our heroes have to perform a bunch of inconsequential side-mission tasks that force our characters into a narrative cul-de-sac before the game allows us to progress further.
Perhaps more disappointing is that just like the The Force Awakens was a soft “remake” of A New Hope, J. J. Abrams basically resorts to recreating The Return of the Jedi for the final chapter. No matter how you may personally feel about The Last Jedi (I am on record as being a huge fan) what was most exciting about that installment was the possibility that the final chapter could literally go anywhere and land us somewhere entirely new. Part of the joy of this new trilogy has been the ways both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi work within but playfully subvert our expectations of what a Star Wars story is. To see Abrams instead choose to play it safe simply rehash a previous movie’s plot with a shiny new coat of paint – and throw some negging criticism of The Last Jedi along the way – is indicative that the saga as it stands right now has exhausted its creativity.
What also becomes clearly apparent is that The Rise of Skywalker in its presented form is not what the original incarnation of the final chapter looked like. Between the hiring and dismissal of original director Colin Trevorrow, the untimely and extremely saddening passing away of Carrie Fisher, and the wonderful curveball that was Rian Johnson’s vision thrown into the mix, Abrams clearly had to work hard to craft a new conclusion. The sheer density of the plot shows that there were many great ideas at work in crafting a solution, but the fact that so many of them ended in there speaks to the lack of an overall plan and overarching vision for the shape not only of this final installment but the new trilogy as a whole. One can’t help but compare this particular Disney franchise to its capes-and-cowl cousin Marvel in which its Avengers: Endgame managed to tie almost all of its loose ends in its sprawling cinematic universe neatly in a satisfying bow; the irony that Avengers: Endgame did so by following The Last Jedi’s advice to “let the past die” should not be lost when watching this conclusion to the Skywalker saga.
This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t on some level enjoyable. It is still a Star Wars movie, and still showcases some of the best the franchise has to offer. Every world that our heroes explore is in its own way magical and while I might gripe that we hop to too many of them and never spend enough time in any one of them, they are all worlds I am desperate to explore more. The action sequences, whether in space or on the ground, continue to provide a visceral childlike thrill in me. Almost every character – whether from the original trilogy or introduced here, or is a major character or shows up in one scene – comes to us so fully formed that we are left wondering what makes them tick and longing to learn more (I would not be opposed to a movie short where we simply get to see Babu Frick go through his wake-up routine). Combined with the ever solid score by John Williams which grounds the series in its traditions and the visual styles of the new trilogy which propel the series forward, The Rise of Skywalker certainly stands as a mostly adequate conclusion to the series.
Unfortunately there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment with The Rise of Skywalker. With just about every previous Star Wars movie (even the prequels) I have always left each movie with a greater level of curiosity about this fictional universe and specifically the main characters who occupied its narrative center. The Rise of Skywalker is the first time where its conclusion left me feeling sated in such a way that I simply wanted to move on, completely at peace with the idea that this version of Star Wars is over; the saga only barely ending before it had completely worn out its welcome. Of course, it helps that the end of the “Skywalker” saga coincides with the release of The Mandalorian, a Star Wars series that dares explore the rougher edges of the universe while almost completely ignoring anyone connected to the core saga. That series, and the possibility of a new trilogy unconnected to the “Skywalker’ saga, shows that there is still life in this rich universe and that there are many more stories to be told within its realm. And that, as this franchise has always taught me, is reason to hope.
Runtime: 142 minutes
Directed by J. J. Abrams
Written by J. J. Abrams and Chris Terrio
Starring Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomie Ackie, Domhnall Gleason, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams