As Star Wars concludes Luke Skywalker’s historic Lucasfilm storyline (for now), Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker confirms an odd trilogy takeaway: these three chapters do not play well together. J.J. Abrams once again embraces his safety netted desire to retrofit “new” explorations of galaxies far, far away around rehashed nostalgia frameworks. Where Rian Johnson challenged audiences in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Abrams retcons and cameos his way into a fan-servicing whirlwind that mistakes copious callbacks with having an identity. It’s still an expansive sci-fi blockbuster with intergalactic dogfights, space cowboy resilience, and fights against oppression, but I’m left feeling the same kind of brand-recognition entertainment much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
This is going to be a challenging spoiler-free review given how ninety-nine percent of The Rise Of Skywalker is spoilers, so plot recapping will remain scant. The Resistance is scrambling under Leia Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) command, Rey (Daisy Ridley) must protect the Jedi Order from extinction, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) only has eyes for universal domination. Everyone’s back, too, from Finn (John Boyega) to Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Poe (Oscar Isaac) to Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Are reports of Emperor Palpatine’s survival true? Has the Resistance lost all its allies due to fear of the First Order’s power? HOW MANY DEATH STARS HAVE BEEN BUILT THIS TIME?!
Most frustratingly, The Rise Of Skywalker relies on familiarity over risks. Character arcs devolve with furious whiplash thanks to bland-as-Banthas-droppings finishes. Abrams understands how legacy Star Wars characters mean everything to the fanbase and his manipulation of iconic faces and quotes recalls the words “cheap” or “cheating.” One character in particular, of the First Order, is mishandled with such glorious injustice that I’m ready to start my own “#JusticeForHan” (Fast & Furious) equivalent hashtag. Between Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio, so much time is spent scrambling to disassemble The Last Jedi that you can’t possibly squeeze an entire space opera into whatever’s left over.
Even still, the dizzying amount of placation that sneakily strives to erase The Last Jedi is an issue no matter how unambitious. The Rise Of Skywalker was always going to be a team-up film uniting major players – Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewy – while others become background props. Kelly Marie Tran, for example, seems to have fewer lines as Rose Tico than sidekick pilot Snap Wexely (Greg Grunberg) or a new unnamed monitor reader played by Dominic Monaghan. That said, there’s still plenty of time to introduce a new droid with social anxiety (D-O), a romantic rival for Poe (Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell), and Richard E. Grant as “Allegiant General Pryde” who embodies vile First Order sophistication.
Abrams tries to “fix” Star Wars by tossing more and more ingredients into an already overspilling pot, hoping to punch up the flavor to levels that mask the incomprehensible madness still not mixing together. Yet, we’re talking about a Star Wars film backed by Disney-sized budgets. For every throwaway moment that fails to resonate with conveyed cinematic emotion, there’s a destroyed TIE Fighter or transformative Star Destroyer production design. I’ll admit, The Rise Of Skywalker learns from Johnson’s more “artistic” approach to Star Wars in how cinematographer Dan Mindel captures cosmic warfare.
A particular battle that involves an endless fleet of First Order destroyers and energy beams zipping through the sky is a breathtaking sight, as well as some darkened horror elements. Wild beasts being ridden by Finn’s platoon, bounding across a Star Destroyer’s steel exoskeleton (don’t ask). Narratives may remain beyond clunky, but one can’t help but marvel at some of the interplanetary photography.
Getting into action mindsets, nothing ever reaches the heights of Johnson’s “Red Room Battle” from The Last Jedi – but this is coming from someone who admittedly adored The Last Jedi. Take that comment how you will. You’ll get Poe’s flyboy blasting and plenty of lightspeed chases, but again, that creeping sense of “we’ve seen this before” can’t be shaken.
Abrams delivers serviceable amounts of lightsaber duels that blend colors and go energy swords akimbo, and it’s never outright boring. I’m just left trying to connect all the conflicting subplots in my head like an old-timey switchboard operator while truly standout fight sequences escape recollection. Lasting impressions? Not here. The Rise Of Skywalker only delivers what Abrams believes Star Wars audiences want to see, nary original conceptualization.
In the end, our generation’s Star Wars triumvirate (spinoffs not included) completes with a sloppy, overwhelming, maybe capable enough saga that’s more a continuation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens than anything. Even so, J.J. Abrams still tries to ape the most widely fan-appreciated aspects of The Last Jedi (a master robotics hacker creature is Abrams’ Porg, humor lands flat where Rian Johnson dished wit), yet jettisons so much else into a Sarlacc pit.
Is it the ending audiences deserve? Not in my opinion. Is it one that’s palatable and easily digested? Without investing in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker past glancing blows of something meaningful, sure enough. Just don’t try and unravel that tangled ball of yarn that Abrams calls storytelling, because there’ll be no cleaning up such a futile Cat’s Cradle mess.
Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker suffers the misfortune of having a director who cares more about digging up a franchise's past than moving forward with an original story.