THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Could Have Risen Much Higher

A writer friend of mine once told me, “Anyone can start a story.” It’s fun to put pieces on the table, set them up how you like them, then run off to do it again. But what do you do with the pieces you have, on the board you positioned? If you’re J.J. Abrams, you usually hand it off to other people. Until you can’t. After much behind-the-scenes turmoil, Abrams returned to co-write and direct Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; he himself in the press lead-up said how he isn’t any good at endings. We should have heeded his warning.

Following the divisiveness of The Last Jedi, and the pre-production of Rise, when they fired director Colin Trevorrow, Disney wanted a safe pair of hands. After all, Abrams brought Star Wars back to the big screen following years in prequel purgatory. But The Force Awakens needed to re-establish the status quo, the characters, and feel of the original trilogy. Fans needed to feel the sigh of relief that we are indeed back. Like or dislike The Last Jedi, it took risks, and attempted to blaze its own trail with the new characters Abrams established. The Rise of Skywalker mostly reverts back to playing it impossibly safe, to the detriment of the new characters.

Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca, Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, Daisy Ridley is Rey and John Boyega is Finn in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER.

The plot to The Rise of Skywalker is exceedingly messy, but we begin with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), now in complete control of the First Order, searching for ancient Force artifacts. (Trying not to spoil anything here!) Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training, now with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) embark on a mission to meet with a First Order spy in an attempt to finally gain a foothold for the Resistance.

The lack of specifics has more to do with disinterest in the movie’s set-up than deliberate avoidance of key details. The opening act is the most cluttered in its attempt to set our three new lead heroes on their path along with Chewie and the droids. There’s a threat, they have to fight against it, it takes them to various planets where they meet various people; it all feels very rote and perfunctory. These things need to happen in a Star Wars movie, so they do. At the same time, Abrams tries to neatly tie up threads from the previous two movies quickly so he can get to the self-imposed problem of wrapping up 42 years of Star Wars movies.

Rey and Kylo Ren meet in The Rise of Skywalker

The only thing that kept me invested for most of the run time was the interaction of the characters. Rey and Kylo continue their Force-flirtation, regarding one another as adversaries inextricably drawn together. Finn seems at all times about to say something to Rey but doesn’t quite find the words. Poe and Rey don’t see eye-to-eye on how best to serve the Resistance, and Poe and Finn are bros. These are nice moments, when we get them. They further the relationships fans of the new trilogy care about most. It’s nice that we got Han and Luke and Leia in these movies, but they got their trilogy.

But sadly, Abrams backslides to a rather silly degree with The Rise of Skywalker. Nothing is allowed to breathe, even the nice moments, because he’s packed it so full of nostalgia and would-be damage control that there’s little room for anything else. It chokes the narrative in ways I didn’t expect. The First Order seems, well, secondary this time around, when it powers should be reaching their peak. Kylo and his Knights of Ren seem impossible to overcome, but they take a backseat to another threat—you know if you’ve seen the trailers—and then, inexplicably, even that threat takes a backseat for good portions of the movie.

Carrie Fisher's final performance as Leia Organa.

No one gets out of this movie unscathed. With so many abandoned plot threats and evident reshoots, not to mention constructing whole scenes out of footage of Carrie Fisher from 2015, it’d be impossible for anyone to come out clean. Rather than try to tie up this trilogy, Abrams focused on making The Rise of Skywalker act as a final bow on the Skywalker Saga. Whether or not it could have succeeded at all, he seemingly sets himself up to fail.

While it’s nice to see Finn and Poe go on missions together, there’s not much there to further their bond. We learn a bit about Poe’s roguish past, though the information feels more like an advertisement for a spin-off than an essential moment in this movie. The same holds true for Finn’s sudden connection to Jannah (Naomi Ackie), another victim of There’ll Probably Be a Comic About This Syndrome. Finn really has next to nothing to do here. He’s involved in the action, but he doesn’t have the arc he had in either of the last two movies. Remember in The Force Awakens when Maz Kanata says “That’s a story for another time”? That’s what every plot thread in The Rise of Skywalker feels like – oh, thanks for teasing something else that won’t pay off any time soon, if ever.

Rey flips over Kylo Ren's TIE Fighter.

The only plot thread that feels like it gets the time it should is Rey and Kylo. Their relationship is this trilogy’s most fascinating, and weird. And horny – holy crap is this movie horny. But rather than really engaging in philosophical discussions or melding minds, they primarily resort to inconclusive lightsaber battles. It’s the actors’ ferocity that makes these scenes work. There’s nothing in The Rise of Skywalker to further examine their connection that rivals the substance of the Snoke throne room scene in The Last Jedi.

That’s not to say there’s nothing worthwhile here. There’s some nice beats that tugged at my Star Wars fan heart, evoking the ideas and themes that connected these movies so powerfully to fans. Star Wars is at its very core a myth about good and evil, and friendship above all else. People love those elements, and for better or worse it’s what makes them feel like their time spent in this world and with these characters was worthwhile.

Gif of Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewie, and the droids looking at the wreck of the Death Star.

But The Rise of Skywalker just doesn’t deliver, beyond that superficial sheen of momentary fulfillment. It does a disservice to almost all of its new characters. It dismisses or retcons major plot points. One “revelation” is so clumsy and uninspired—and unnecessary—that it’ll probably make people’s eyes roll out of their heads. I had fun enough while watching it, but like spending too much time on a moisture farm, the whole thing starts to seem flat, meandering, and endless. Anybody can start a story. Too bad this is how it all ends.
2.5 out of 5

Featured Image: Lucasfilm

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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