Directed by: J. J. Abrams || Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams, Michelle Rejwan
Screenplay 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, Billy Dee Williams
Music by: John Williams || Cinematography: Dan Mindel || Edited by: Maryann Brandon, Stefan Grube || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 142 minutes
“This entire trilogy has… been a waste of potential,” Rich Evans remarked on Red Letter Media‘s 70-minute review of
The Phantom Menace (1999) The Rise of Skywalker. Like most people who came of age in the 1990s-2000s, those of us raised by our parents on the original Star Wars Trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) rejected the forgettable characters and pervasive blue-screen scenery of George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005). I find those films, to this day, some of the most remarkable blockbuster disappointments and misguided storytelling in popular culture, with cringe-worthy lines, bad acting, and already dated special FX; they seemed more interested in providing frivolous details about “the Star Wars universe” than developing a cohesive story with likable, or at least relatable characters.
Similar phenomena have occurred with other jaded creators of pop culture icons given the increasing prevalence of intellectual property (IP) remakes and franchise reboots. J. K. Rowling, for example, has long wallowed in “George Lucas-mode” since the conclusion of her Harry Potter (1997-2007) novels, writing and producing various media (e.g. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them [2016, 2019]) that serve as visual encyclopedias to elaborate upon minor plot devices or throwaway lines in previous installments. The idea of creating a standalone story with new, complete characters that happens to operate within the world of an established, popular IP feels secondary.
That is the most enduring legacy of Lucas’ Star Wars Prequels: The popularization and commercialization of diegetic minutia as a replacement for, rather than in addition to, standalone films with structured narratives and developed characters. Whether you’re a Prequel-apologist or a hater like I am, the Prequels are little more than complicated, verbose backstory and computer generated imagery (CGI) filler to a diegesis that functions without them. Hayden Christensen’s laughable performance and Samuel L. Jackson’s boring character are almost superfluous next to that structural, or rather philosophical flaw.
What made the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy (2015, 2017, 2019) such a “waste of potential” from my point of view, in contrast with Lucas’ Prequels, was its squandering of well casted, well acted, likable characters, not to mention jaw-dropping special FX. Unlike the Prequels, characters like Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Fin (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) had great chemistry with one another in both The Force Awakens (TFA, 2015) and The Last Jedi (TLJ, 2017), regardless of your particular assessments of those movies as films first (I liked both of them, for the record). One can describe their archetypal characters with broad yet not reductive adjectives without cringing at every line of dialogue. To that end, TFA and TLJ (… and yes, The Rise of Skywalker, or TRS) were never blocked like their actors had only twenty feet of blue-screen against which to film.
This basic level of filmmaking competence allowed by the purchase of the Star Wars IP from Lucas by Walt Disney was wasted by a lack of planning. If the whiplash reactions to TLJ and TRS are any indication, Kathleen Kennedy et al. undercut their box office profits and merchandising by not at least outlining their franchise reboot beforehand a la Kevin Feige and The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-present). It goes without saying that all master strategies can fall apart (see Warner Bros.’ DCEU and Dawn of Justice , Justice League , etc.), and I’m not the biggest fan of the MCU’s emphasis on brand recognition over cohesive standalone movies; yet, from a broader franchise perspective — or viewing the series as a long-format television show, as I’ve noted before — the MCU works.
One can’t say the same for the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy after TRS. Most of the weaknesses of TLJ (e.g. its inconsistent subplots, its meta-critique of Star Wars themes writ large) are overcompensated to the extreme, as well as exacerbated by unrelated problems. With regards to the former, TRS goes into overdrive “correcting” the narrative implications of TLJ by packing so many action sequences, so many MacGuffins, and so much exposition into its 142 minute running time that its pacing feels choppy and its story, overstuffed a la Suicide Squad (2016). One struggles to understand half the plot development of TRS as characters jump from one location to the next, exchanging one MacGuffin for another and flying through expository dialogue as if the cast are on speed. The movie’s hypercharged pacing contains plenty of what I shall now coin as “plot-spackling,” contrived or rushed explanations — often articulated through dialogue but sometimes represented by physical props — for nonsensical plot-holes that leave much to be desired, much like how one applies spackling to conceal damage to their apartment wall after punching it.
Regardless of TRS‘ rush to undo TLJ and setup and pay off new conflicts in the same movie, TRS furthermore struggles in areas largely unrelated to TLJ. The biggest example of this for me is the return of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine. I did not find the use of his character satisfying even in isolation from the events of previous films, and his relationship with principle characters Rey and Ren fell flat for me. To that end, the entire finale that revolves around his character in the film’s third act is a generic CGI shitstorm where character geography is incoherent, another blue laser shoots into the sky, and Palpatine’s character abilities are unclear. New (e.g. Kerri Russell, Naomi Ackie, Richard E. Grant) and returning (Billy Dee Williams, Lupita Nyong’o) minor characters also fit into this category of problems unrelated to TLJ-counter reactions, whose performances are forgettable and roles in this story, pointless.
The strengths of TRS involve the main cast’s performances and the characters of Rey and Ren in particular. Driver’s tortured, aggressive performance and his chemistry with Ridley have carried this sequel franchise through all its weak spots. Like the previous two films, I loved every moment Driver was on screen and appreciated the return of his psychic connection with Rey, which is elaborated to the point where they duel across disconnected settings and Driver uses context clues to determine Rey’s location in reality. Whenever TRS, and this greater Sequel Trilogy in general, focuses on these two characters’ relationship, the story recalls the strongest elements of The Original Trilogy: Familial drama between relatable heroes and fearsome yet sympathetic villains.
The Rise of Skywalker, in the end, reminds me of not only Suicide Squad for its incoherent plotting, but also The Predator (2018) for what it represents as the end of my emotional investment in a franchise. I enjoyed these Disney era films as much as anybody — and revisit The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Solo (2018) more than most, I assume — but this final episodic installment is such a mess that I’ve come to terms with the Star Wars theatrical experience concluding. I’m grateful, as corny as it sounds, for J. J. Abrams et al. producing additional old-school Star Wars movies after the complete disregard for sensible characterizations in the Prequels. The Prequels have not aged well since their release despite contrarian apologists and the inevitable backlash to these newer films, but surpassing such low bars as those is not enough to praise The Rise of Skywalker. This supposed final installment in the franchise suffocates its likable, well acted central characters with incoherent subplots, extraneous MacGuffins, and a CGI clusterfuck of a finale to the point where I struggle to recommend it.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Despite avoiding the encyclopedic backstory and diegetic nonsense of the Prequels, The Rise of Skywalker succumbs to a peculiar combination of sloppy pacing, overstuffed subplots, superfluous minor castmembers, and desperate attempts to retcon The Last Jedi, all of which overwhelm a likable protagonist (Ridley) and a fascinating antagonist (Driver). Major supporting characters (e.g. Isaac, Boyega, Domnhall Gleeson, etc.) are sidelined in favor of a comical guest appearance by Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine and a boring CGI mess of a finale.
— However… Ridley and Driver continue their great chemistry and creative psychic connection from previous installments. The production values and overall artistic design of this series equal any blockbuster franchise the world over.
—> ON THE FENCE