Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Written by J.J. Abrams & Chris Terrio
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Let’s just get this out of the way. I hated this movie. It’s everything I hate about fan culture & the bloated cinematic universe fad that is currently what theatrical release films have become. I say this as someone who was so delightfully surprised by The Last Jedi. I appreciated the new directions that film was taking Star Wars thematically, opening the Force up into a more egalitarian essence. I saw it in-universe as a course correction, the Force realizing that it’s existence between two eternally warring factions wasn’t bringing the balance it sought. Instead, we closed The Last Jedi on a moment that reminded the audience of both the young Luke Skywalker and ourselves, dreaming that we too can be the hero, that anyone can.
The Rise of Skywalker is very concerned about reassuring fans that the Force only exists in a handful of people, and they are super unique, and you can’t be one of them. Yes, there are shallow platitudes paid towards community and fighting against more immense powers as a collective. It feels like the neoliberal depth of “the resistance” in our modern politics, a movement that can’t concern itself with intersectional politics or meaningful change. We simply get “Fight the bad guys” without any sort of examination of how we know who the bad guys are. But, as has been argued on the internet, these are movies about space wizards for children. I know that in the back of my head, but I would still like to go deeper because this film series is such a significant cultural touchstone. We need to think about what lessons we are teaching children.
We open with the crawl and then…a montage? This was very off-putting and served to rush through chunks of the plot so that the Emperor can be back. We never have a scene of anyone learning this, that all happened off-screen. Kylo Ren has found, within thirty seconds, a Sith artifact that leads him to Exegol, where Emperor Palpatine is alive though kept that way through complicated technology. How is he alive after the end of Return of the Jedi? The film never explains this, he just is because he’s Palpatine. Fine. We immediately undermine The Last Jedi’s emphasis on the “chosen ones” being random people by revealing that Snoke was a clone created by Palpatine. There are vats of Snokes in various states of development. Who did the Emperor clone? Never explained. But know that Palpatine was really the one guiding everything behind the scenes.
Palpatine wants Kylo to kill Rey because she’s not who he thinks. Her parents are important, which makes her the “chosen one.” Yawn. It is vastly more interesting to have someone outside this unending family feud become the person who breaks the cycle. Rey has spent the last two films constructing her family, not being told she’s secretly part of this lineage; thus, it is why the Force flows through her. My personal belief is that the Force becoming egalitarian and awakening in swaths of people sends a more hopeful message.
The rest of the film is a non-stop visual assault. Everything looks gorgeous, it is Disney, they have more money than many small countries. If they made a bad looking film, they should be ashamed of themselves. It’s the script and the pacing that ravage this picture. You never get time to react to anything, have a single quiet moment, be contemplative. By the end of the film, we have visited eight different planets, in two and a half hours. Along the way, we have Lando Calrissian returning, the Knights of Ren lingering in the background, multiple new supporting characters introduced so that our male characters can have hetero love interests. The supporting characters we have get short shrift, especially Rose Tico, who is all but written out of the film.
My suspicion is that Kathleen Kennedy allowed the online vitriol in reaction to The Last Jedi to shape what this movie would. You can see the list of things Abrams was likely handed and told had to be somewhere in the story. Lots of ships going to different planets. The Millenium Falcon flying into battle. Old faces returning (they literally give Wicket the Ewok a ten-second cameo). Lightsabers flashing on and wielded in battle. Star Destroyer & Tie Fighters. Force ghosts. Han Solo & Luke Skywalker. The voice of Darth Vader. Faking us out on a character “death” only to have they fixed in the final scene so it never really mattered in the first place. If you are expecting to see something in a Star Wars movie you will see it here. I mean, everything you would expect to see will show up in this movie. It will not be explained satisfyingly, but by god, it will be in this movie.
This is probably my least favorite Star Wars movie, and that is saying a lot because I hate the prequels. But at least they were doing something different. This is furthers nothing, it has nothing to say about Star Wars or what this all means. As much as they were billing this as the significant conclusion to the saga, it exists only as a greatest hits collection of moments. Martin Scorsese was right when he said that superhero movies (and this is essentially a Marvel movie in terms of style and tone) are amusement park rides. I love amusement park rides, but I never try to sell the idea that I have had a rich emotional experience or learned something when I get off of the Spider-Man ride at Universal. If these films sold themselves as stupid fun, like Fast & Furious, I could respect that. But the marketing holds them up as some seminal spiritual experience that you need to complete your childhood. There is nothing in this movie that speaks to the spirit, it is the most heartless Star Wars picture to date.
I am not a Star Wars fan, but I have a passing appreciation for some of the movies (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Last Jedi). I can see the cultural significance of the films, how they have carved out a major path in media. You would think that when you have so much of them that there would be a tiny desire to take some risks and try something new. But then I forget how much money empty nostalgia brings to big corporations like Disney. By feeding you the things that give you a dopamine rush, they stay rich. But I just can’t see the money train continuing forever. Star Wars, as it currently stands, is the most shallow film IP of the moment. Marvel has depth in terms of tone and genre. Star Wars doesn’t seem to know how to be anything other than what it was 42 years ago. You see the occasional attempt, The Last Jedi, or the overhauled Lord & Miller Solo film that sounded like it would have been something fresh. But Kathleen Kennedy and Disney seem to have decided that presenting us with things we have seen before is the way forward.
I hope that you enjoy The Rise of Skywalker if you love Star Wars. I don’t go to the movies to just escape. I always like some thought and exploration of characters & themes in what I see. It’s good to have slow, quiet moments, letting the audience and characters pause to take in what is going to think about the future. My favorite scene in The Last Jedi is the conversation between Luke & Yoda, where the deceased Jedi master tells his former student that as a teacher, you know have succeeded when your student grows beyond you. He emphasizes that teachers & students learn best from failure. It’s a beautiful quiet moment that resonates with the theme of that film so wonderfully. Not once does The Rise of Skywalker allow its audience to contemplate a single thing.