This article contains discusses multiple plot elements
I love Star Wars. I hugely enjoy The Force Awakens and adore The Last Jedi. That’s why it hurts every bone in my body to say that The Rise of Skywalker left me frustrated. Despite having undeniable fun points, it’s a chaotic mess. Even if the film has great little moments, that doesn’t make it a cohesive whole, and it’s so sad to see a film with so much promise be a bit regressive.
The Rise of Skywalker sees the return of J.J. Abrams as director after Rian Johnson (Looper, Knives Out) helmed the second entry—The Last Jedi. I’ve always been for Abrams and Johnson being able to create their own respective films despite a lack of planning, but this film makes me go back on that defence. It should’ve been all planned out or a completely new director should’ve come in who wasn’t already attached to the material. Abrams was brought in to direct and co-write alongside Chris Terrio (Argo, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) in September 2017 after Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was fired. Terrio and Abrams had less than a year to produce a story, and it shows.
Firstly, this film’s pacing is just way too fast for its own good. Abrams’ films have all been fast-paced adventures—including The Force Awakens—but there was streamlined finesse to the adventure. It didn’t stop, but there was that breathing room. The Rise of Skywalker has little of such. While The Last Jedi was cross-cutting over many different plot threads, those threads all had thematic resonance and advanced character. The first half of this film is so incredibly choppy and I’m not sure whether Abrams just wanted a frenetic pace to the film or whether it’s just been too streamlined in the edit.
The actual plot of this film feels like an endless series of MacGuffin fetch quests. The main MacGuffin of the film is the Sith Wayfinder which will help direct the Jedi to the location of the somehow resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). It’s basically a fancy GPS they have to find. So to get this thing which will get you to the place, you have to find a thing. But to translate the text on the thing, you have to find a person to help get you to the person who will help translate the text to get you the thing…to go to the place. It’s just lazy from Terrio and Abrams. I’d be more forgiving of this if there was a lot of character and thematic heft but unlike The Last Jedi, there’s not much. It’s all fun and adventure without that much substance. If the predecessor was a buffet, this is fast food.
I loved the way Abrams set up the new characters in The Force Awakens and controversially, I loved the way Johnson progressed them in The Last Jedi. It’s frustrating that Finn has little character in this film. Yes, John Boyega is a charismatic presence, but he has no real arc. He’s just along for the ride. People criticised his part in The Last Jedi for not having any bearing on the plot but that’s the point! While Finn does fail in his quest, he learns about the darker underbelly of the galaxy and does decide that fighting for Resistance is something he has to do. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t have anything as interesting as this amongst all of the adventure.
The same can be said for Poe. His arc surrounding leadership in The Last Jedi was fantastic. We find out some backstory, but other than that, his struggle with leadership is only relegated to two small moments—one of which involving Leia is fantastic and it hints of what I wanted out of this story. I still adore Isaac in this role and he’s the comedic highlight of the film, managing to deliver comedic excellence often with a simple glance. Carrie Fisher is actually woven into the story well enough considering Terrio and Abrams had to reverse engineer new scenes around The Force Awakens’ deleted scenes. Billy Dee Williams is still charming as Lando but it’s disappointing to find out his emotional character beats had been cut.
The revelations surrounding Rey’s character will be divisive. So much of the mystery around her character was her ancestry and The Last Jedi answered them brilliantly. I can’t say the story developments worked for me because it outright retcons an essential theme of The Last Jedi. However, I still love Rey as a character and Daisy Ridley is still absolutely fantastic once again; she deserves to be a megastar outside of this franchise. There’s just something taken away from her in this that felt a bit problematic.
Adam Driver does such a brilliant job playing Kylo Ren. He’s easily one of the best actors to ever be in a Star Wars film and while he’s not as brilliant as he was in The Last Jedi, he is still fantastic despite having minimal dialogue. Ren is such a complex character and his conflict really drove the first two films of the trilogy. His psychological pull to the dark and light is less fleshed out in this; however, I was still content with his story and he’s still one of my favourite characters in the saga.
But The Rise of Skywalker isn’t completely loaded with irredeemable elements. As much as the film wants to push back from the decisions of The Last Jedi, I’m glad Abrams and Terrio at least ran with the force connection established by Johnson. The Last Jedi was lauded for being a bold, risky and daring take on the property, introducing a meta element regarding letting the past die. This was Kylo’s philosophy and with balance being a huge theme in that film, Johnson’s thesis was that the series needed to evolve while still embracing the old. There was one really interesting development which could’ve been very fun but was immediately disregarded straight away. It was disappointing because it was one of few semi-surprising plot beats Terrio and Abrams actually put forward. The Force Awakens was criticised for being a bit too much like A New Hope but it was Abrams’ job to bring back the classic adventure feeling of Star Wars. I was nervous that he would lean into that safe, nostalgic, fan service heavy space again…and my fears were confirmed. I felt pandered to and I could sense the boxes Terrio and Abrams were trying to tick. They also deliver so many death fake outs that it became exhausting, and again, cheap.
If there’s something you can count on for an Abrams film is that it’s going to be visually spectacular. He’s a kinetic director who brings pop and energy to each of his films. Unfortunately, as much as there’s some fantastically grand visual moments, it doesn’t have the visual impact of the last two films. It’s hard to fully decipher why, but there’s a lot of murky visuals which didn’t really make an impact. The third act of a Star Wars film should be grand—and this is—but it felt like a cluttered cacophony of spectacle. There’s always going to be a grandiosity to Abrams’ work visually and it definitely comes through at many points—despite how rapid the editing was. I’ve really enjoyed Abrams’ directorial work up to this point, but his critics have often pointed to his films containing style and flash over real substance. This felt like the kind of film Abrams’ critics have always accused him of making. It’s filled with his worst tendencies turned up to 11. It’s all flash and hijinks with little substance, and while he can get away with that when starting a story; he can’t while ending one.
Palpatine’s return was a big drawcard when the teaser was released, and straight from the crawl—he’s back. Ian McDiarmid is still fantastic as the character and he clearly still knows how to chew the scenery, but the way Palpatine is thrust straight back into this narrative without question felt a bit cheap. Even the new characters don’t make a big impact. Jannah (Naomi Ackie) was billed as a big new ally for Finn but it feels like she was created just so Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) couldn’t be in the film as much due to racist fan backlash from The Last Jedi. Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) comes in as a deus ex machina which was so frustrating because Keri Russell is great and deserved stronger material.
With The Rise of Skywalker, it feels like Abrams was trying to make a sequel to his Star Wars film while taking a few elements of Johnson’s film, along with back-pedalling on many elements. As a lover of Star Wars and someone who has vehemently defended the last two episodic films, what could’ve been a classic trilogy feels a bit more fractured as a result.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas now.