We already offered our spoiler-lite Rise of Skywalker discussion. Today, we talk spoilers.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the franchise’s worst-reviewed installment since The Phantom Menace. (Right now, for me it ranks just above the prequels but trails everything else.) It’s the first Star Wars film since Disney took over to score lower than an “A” from opening-night audiences surveyed by CinemaScore. J.J. Abrams has already told disappointed fans he respects their opinion just as much as he does those who loved the film but he hopes both sides can be civil. The industry trades are whispering this might be the thing that finally pushes Kathleen Kennedy out the door at LucasFilm since firing half the directors she’s hired – including Colin Trevorrow, the man originally picked to helm Rise – didn’t already do the trick.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is also a movie I saw with my entire family this weekend only to sit stunned afterward as they all told me how much they loved or at least thoroughly enjoyed it. The kids who only know Star Wars through Rey, Finn and Poe? Plenty to like, although my nephew wondered why there weren’t more Force ghosts at the end. The adults who grew up with Luke as their hero and would rather forget the prequels? Sure, Rise has its problems, but aren’t all Hollywood blockbusters just muddled messes these days? At least this one has sweet lightsaber fights, great Rey and Kylo scenes, and, of course, an adorable little alien named Babu Frik. “All those people complaining online,” I was told, “should quit their bellyaching. We’ve seen far, far worse from Star Wars.”
I was also asked, “So, are Palpatine and Anakin, like, the same person?” Again, my nieces couldn’t care less about anything before Force Awakens. The Star Wars sun – or two suns, if you’re on Tatooine – rises and sets on Rey for them.
It’s all made me acutely aware of the following: Rise of Skywalker is a patchwork of retconned plotting, pointless fetch-quests, overly repetitive dialogue, play-it-safe storytelling (oh, no, that character died – just kidding, no they didnt!), and enough exposition to fill two films, but some people just don’t care. Seeing Rey Skywalker – a name I feel J.J. Abrams was always building toward – and Ben Solo defeat the zombie Palpatine while an armada of completely random ships – as well as the Millennium Falcon with Lando and Chewie in the cockpit – takes down the First Order is all they needed from this film. I guess I just wanted more, though. Here comes my bellyaching.
Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams Finish Each Other’s Sandwiches
There’s this trope that pops up quite a bit in sitcoms and rom-coms. It’s the “we finish each other’s sentences” joke. The premise is simple: sometimes people are so compatible they can guess what their spouse or friend is going to say next without even really having to think about. You turn that into a joke by giving the characters really weird sentences to finish, or you go meta and have characters fail to even get the “we finish each other’s sentences” part of it right.
Perfect example: Arrested Development’s Michael Bluth talking to his sister Lyndsay about his new girlfriend.
In this scenario, if you follow why I am even talking about this in an article about Star Wars, Michael is Rian Johnson, Lyndsay is J.J. Abrams, and they’re talking about how to finish the story from The Last Jedi. That makes Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker the “it’s like we finish each other’s sandwiches” of franchise sequels, a three-hundred million dollar blockbuster that feels not only completely incompatible with what came before but also sometimes outright hostile toward it. Johnson, through Last Jedi, started a sentence about burning down the past, and Abrams finished it by, well, slavishly resurrecting the past. It’s like they weren’t even speaking the same language.
The sad thing, however, is this was pretty much inevitable. You don’t take a traditionalist like Abrams and experimenter like Johnson and put them through a high stakes game of Madlib – Abrams started the story (Force Awakens), Johnson continued it (Last Jedi), and now Abrams has finished it (Rise) – and expect a coherent result. Not surprisingly, Abrams treats Rise more like a Force Awakens sequel than Last Jedi, but he also really wants to answer all of those questions Johnson already answered in Last Jedi.
Rise of Skywalker: All the Movies at the Same Time
And that is Rise’s central problem – it doesn’t content itself with being the third part of a three-act story; it tries to be both the second and third acts, sometimes at the same time. As a result, it is completely overstuffed with incident and MacGuffins, like the worst version of a Marvel movie, turning it into the kind of film that can be summarized as follows:
They go from one place to the next in search of that thing that will get them to Palpatine – who is back, btw, don’t aks how other than “Siths always be doing dark magic, amiright” – who wants to kill Rey but secretly doesn’t and is ultimately found when Rey realizes she could have always just stolen Kylo’s ship since it had another one of those things that would lead her to Palpatine.
Poe, ex-spice runner, is the type of General who goes into battle hoping reinforcements will appear out of the thin air since they have so many friends in the galaxy even though there’s been precious little time spent on establishing who those friends are, Finn is force-sensitive now mostly because John Boyega wanted more to do this time, and Rose…who’s that? Never heard of her. There are new characters – Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) – to abruptly introduce. Leia just said some things to some people, but does it oddly feel like she wasn’t really talking to them? Maybe if they re-state what she just told them it’ll sound better.
Also, Hux is a spy! Wait, Hux is dead. Bye-bye Hux. The Knights of Ren are finally here, though, and … oh, never mind. Ben killed them. Speaking of which…
Kylo is Ben again because his ghost-dad who isn’t actually a ghost got through to him after his mom died, but then he becomes a ghost too when he gives all of his lifeforce to save Rey who used the power of every Jedi ever -several of whom talk to her through the stars like It’s a Wonderful Life, including several previously cartoon-only characters and a couple who didn’t even have any speaking lines in the prequels – to beat good ole’ Palps.
Of course, that might be a bit unfair. A LOT of Hollywood blockbusters sound insane when you try to summarize them like that, Rise of Skywalker more so than usual, though, because it is trying so very hard to be everything to everyone and it shows. It’s Flop Sweat: The Star Wars Movie.
Some Sympathy for J.J.
I keep trying to put myself in Abrams’ shoes and truly ponder the challenge he had in front of him when he agreed to direct Rise:
Carrie Fisher had just died, leaving behind scant footage to be repurposed for the next film. Say goodbye to any grand plans you had for Leia. Last Jedi was deeply divisive and had killed off Luke and Snoke, leaving you without an obvious Big Bad. The central trio you helped create in Force Awakens – Rey, Finn, and Poe – spent the sequel completely separated, to the point that Rey and Poe don’t even share their first meeting until the final scene of the film. Disney is telling you this needs to be an ending for the entire Skywalker saga, and Rian Johnson went a completely different direction than you would have. He basically said “fuck the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, let’s do something new,” and, um, you happen to think the hero’s journey is a foundational part of Star Wars. Oh, so much to do, so much to undo.
So, yeah, broom boy stays broom boy, Palpatine was secretly behind everything (he literally created Snoke as some sort of clone, we think), Rey is a Palpatine, Rey, Finn, and Poe are BFFS and always have been, Luke saves his old lightsaber from destruction instead of throwing it over a cliff, and everything really does boil down to an epic fight of good vs. evil.
It’s not like J.J. is some hack director, though. He will forever be discounted by some fans as a purveyor of wholly unoriginal ideas, but the man can direct a camera as effectively as a Jedi can a lightsaber. He’s come a long way from the days of lens flare overload. As a result, Rise has several truly breathtaking sequences of cinematic spectacle, particularly when Rey and Kylo leap over waves like they’re characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The money is clearly up there on the screen, and the constant forward momentum certainly staves off boredom. Spend any time with the prequels and you will appreciate that Rise is at least watchable and Rey and Ben are iconic characters now, but that feels like such a low bar, way too low for the film that’s meant to be the end of the whole saga. There is one way, however, that Rise does what the prequels did as well: it cheapens what came before. This story deserved a better ending.
Baby Yoda Reminds Us Of All That Once Was Good, and It Could Be Again. Ohhhh, People Will Come, Rey.
There is one more thing my nieces and nephew mentioned when we talked about Rise of Skywalker: where was Baby Yoda? Half of them haven’t even seen The Mandalorian, but they are all kids of the internet. They live and breathe social media and Youtuber culture, and the Baby Yoda memes have been everywhere. As a result, they all agreed that however highly they rated Rise it would have been that much higher if Baby Yoda had popped up, even if just for a single scene.
Timeline wise, I don’t know that such a cameo would have made sense, but the mere fact that they all wanted to see Baby Yoda reminds me there are still some Star Wars things we can agree on. We’re still drawn to this galaxy far, far away. The lightsaber is still one of the iconic movie props of all time. I can’t stop watching that video from the Youtuber who created his own functional lightsaber in his garage. And the moment I find some actually good Baby Yoda merch I’m going to buy it because, OMG, so cute.
We love Star Wars. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t have to ruin that. For many, in fact, Rise is actually quite amazing and emotionally satisfying. I disagree. Julianne, in her spoiler-lite review, eloquently explained how the film put the logical and emotional sides of her brain in direct conflict and the emotional side ultimately won out. I’m having a harder time getting to that same place, but enough with my bellyaching – I have some third party Baby Yoda merch to go find.
What’s your take on Rise of Skywalker? Let me know in the comments.