With the release of The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars saga as we knew it draws to a close, having stretched over 42 years, 12 canonical films (yes, 12 – everyone forgets the animated Clone Wars), and an entire discarded continuity. And in the end, the Empire won.
That’s not a spoiler for the film – though beware, actual, *major spoilers lie ahead* – but rather a condemnation of the capitulations Disney and director JJ Abrams appear to have made in the latest entry, almost all seemingly in reaction to the loud few who spent the last two years screaming about The Last Jedi with the worst motivations.
The result is a disjointed film that scrambles to appease “fans”, ignores its own groundwork, and struggles to script a cohesive ending. It’s filmmaking by committee, when the committee is a braying mob that doesn’t know what it wants, only that it’s angry about whatever it’s presented with.
The problems with The Rise of Skywalker begin, troublingly enough, in the opening crawl. Declared in almost fourth wall-breaking clarity, people across the galaxy have heard broadcasts from the long-dead Emperor Palpatine – presumably, they all saw the same trailer for this film that we did, the one that teased Palpatine’s return with an ethereal cackle. It’s about as good an explanation as any for the malevolent overlord’s inclusion here, and about as much of one as we’re given, beyond some discussion of illicit cloning operations.
Abrams struggles to justify Palpatine’s presence in the film, beyond being a ‘classic’ figure from the Holy Trilogy shoehorned in to placate people whose ability to enjoy pop culture hasn’t evolved in decades. Installing him as the arch-villain behind everything would only work if the groundwork had been laid in the preceding two films, which it wasn’t.
Bar a throwaway line about Palpatine “creating” Supreme Leader Snoke (remember him?), the audience is just meant to accept that he’s been the big bad all along, despite being incinerated in Return of the Jedi. It’s messy, and feels like a last minute change to appease those who see the classic films as scripture; Space Satan returns for the final battle; thus it was once, so must it ever be.
A similar fate awaits Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian, ignored for the first two films in the modern trilogy only to show up here to… well, to be on screen for a bit. It’s fan service, an appearance for the sake of it, and betrays a great character and actor who arguably did have reason to return before now, but was left out in the cold. Here, he pulls a too-convenient save, then all but disappears, ostensibly gathering allies off-camera because the script has nothing else for him to do.
It’s not just the characters returning from George Lucas’ original trilogy that get short shrift though. The core cast of the new films – Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe – often feel like passersby in their own finale. Character work is, like Palpatine’s presence, pre-supposed, with the trio acting like best friends despite Rey and Poe in particular only meeting for the first time at The Last Jedi’s denouement. While the time gap between the films is currently indeterminate, viewers shouldn’t have to chase down whatever comics or books the three bonded in order for this film to make sense. In essence, Abrams took the lazy route, relying on decades of media tropes rather than showing how these characters actually gel.
Abrams’ greatest cinematic sin in The Rise of Skywalker though may be in the callous erasing of some of The Last Jedi’s boldest and most interesting additions to the saga. Whether it’s reducing Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico to a background character with the occasional line, or undoing the deeper, philosophical changes the last film wrought, the whole Star Wars universe feels weaker for it.
Rian Johnson’s 2017 film skewered the hypocrisy of war and the military industrial complex that feeds both sides, and even tried to address how the broken Empire evolved into the even more powerful First Order. Here, we end with a final battle that comes down to a clichéd rallying of the cavalry. It even directly undoes what is arguably the central message of The Last Jedi – that the identity of Rey’s parents doesn’t matter, that defining ourselves by our lineage is a toxic and damaging approach – and replaces it with yet another crowbarred-in link to the Lucas films and overly convenient genealogy.
Perhaps the biggest retcon though is undoing how The Last Jedi established the cold, emotionless detachment of the Jedi as being just as bad as the rage and hatred of the Sith. It seeded a new path, a new way for Rey and others to use the Force, to achieve true balance. Here, that’s all washed away. A returning Force ghost of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill, as ever) even says “I was wrong” about his previous advice to Rey. It’s a canvas wipe of what came before, replacing nuance and complexity with moral simplicity, a lame battle of blunt opposing forces.
What little is new is left unexplored. The Knights of Ren, teased since The Force Awakens, are finally onscreen, but like Lando, that’s about it – they may as well be a group of creepy Kylo Ren cosplayers for all the relevance they serve to the plot. Which brings us to one of The Rise of Skywalker’s most uncomfortable points – the attempted redemption arc of Adam Driver’s Kylo. It’s a mirror of Darth Vader’s return to the Light Side in Return of the Jedi but with an unearned and incredibly uncomfortable romantic connection to Rey tacked on. The neo-Nazi fanboy who creeped around in his bedroom coveting his fascist grandfather’s war relics not only gets to make good, but almost “gets the girl” too – not what you’d call a “cute look”.
Then there’s the quiet homophobia. There appears to be such a desperation to paint Finn and Poe as straight that they both get new female love interests (one of whom never actually shows her face, mind) introduced here, despite spending the whole film bickering like a long-term couple. Elsewhere, the much-hyped “first LGBTQ representation in Star Wars!” is a blink-and-miss-it kiss between two women who are never named.
The one guiding thread through all of The Rise of Skywalker’s problems is that each and every one of them seems to be reactionary, a rushed counterbalance to everything a particular contingent of so-called fans complained about in the last film. Too many women? Background ’em. A complex approach to the ethics of war? Goodies versus baddies! A deeper consideration of the Force? Nah, Jedi good, Sith bad. Kylo Ren is a repudiation of obsessive fan culture? Nope, think you’ll find the angry white boy was secretly the hero all along.
All of this shows a greater problem with Star Wars since Disney acquired the property – the new owners really don’t know what they want it to be. Campy sci-fi action? Colourful moral philosophy? Gritty war stories? Space westerns? Star Wars is big enough to touch on all of those genres and more, but it still needs to have some consistency in tone and direction, even as it evolves.
For all its many flaws, The Rise of Skywalker does impress in places. It’s brilliantly shot, with Abrams all but abandoning his signature overuse of lens flare, and there are still some truly great moments of pathos and humour and grandeur. Unfortunately, it’s all swallowed by a drive to please the worst elements of Star Wars’ fanbase. If whatever comes next for the wider universe keeps crowdsourcing opinion from Reddit, then this film won’t just have been the end of the Skywalker Saga, but also the end of the line for anyone sick of the toxicity of the audience – and of seeing that toxicity rewarded.
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