Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio
Starring: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, and Billy Dee Williams
One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing the massive forms of the AT-AT walkers stomping across the tundras of Hoth. I didn’t have the word for it then, but what I felt at the time was awe. Awe that something like this could exist and feel so real. It was the first time, but certainly not the last, that I fell in love with a movie’s world. Which is what makes the ninth film of the Star Wars franchise, The Rise of Skywalker, so very disappointing.
Following a Star Wars film is always a difficult task. Following a Star Wars film like The Last Jedi, a film so divisive that two of its lead actors were driven off of social media, was gargantuan. After director Colin Trevorrow was fired, returning director J.J. Abrams was a sensible choice. Though it faced criticism for essentially being a retelling of A New Hope, The Force Awakens was a generally well-liked crowd pleaser that did little to upset the Star Wars formula. The Rise of Skywalker is an attempt to win over fans, end the sequel trilogy in a satisfying way, and retroactively undo some of the more controversial choices made with The Last Jedi, and what results is a repetitive mess.
And repetition comes in many, many forms in The Rise of Skywalker. It comes in story repetition with the unexplained return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). It comes with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) reforming the mask he dramatically smashed to pieces in The Last Jedi. It comes in the frequency with which Rey (Daisy Ridley) activates her lightsaber. In Star Wars, the ignition and hum of a lightsaber was once something that could instill awe and wonder. Here, lightsabers are ignited so frequently that I began to sigh. And Rey’s skill with a lightsaber is such that I wondered just what Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) were even doing traveling alongside her.
No two characters have suffered from the sequel trilogy’s lack of narrative focus like those two. Boyega and Isaac are charming, charismatic actors, and the initial arc they shared in The Force Awakens (as a stormtrooper who develops a conscience and the pilot who helps him defect) was one of the most intriguing left in that film. By The Rise of Skywalker, we find we have known these characters for four years and have little to show for it. The reasons for Finn’s defection are given a brief token explanation, as are Poe’s for helping a fugitive, but it’s not nearly enough for us to forge a connection with them. Instead, they wind up feeling less like characters and more like observers for the story of Rey and Kylo Ren.
That’s not to say the film is a total wash. Boyega and Isaac’s chemistry was mentioned, and Ridley and Driver’s performances are still the strongest in the trilogy. And the battle sequences, worlds, and alien species of Star Wars continue to dazzle.
But it’s the combination of the unsatisfying conclusion and untapped potential of The Rise of Skywalker that will remain with me the longest. It’s the fact that, whatever my misgivings with The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker undoes its boldest creative choices in favor of moving back to safety. What we are left with are three films all seemingly at war with one another, with no thematic cohesion between any of them. One may feel delight at the end of the original Star Wars trilogy. But by the end of this one, we only feel exhausted.