It was late on a warm Thursday night in December, not long after its global premier that I sat in a theatre ready to watch the new Star Wars movie when I felt something wasn't right. Something was missing. Enthusiasm.
Yes, of course I wanted to see it, however as I starred blankly at my phone whilst waiting for the film to begin, a sad realisation dawned on me. I wasn't watching Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker because I was eager to spend time with the characters or to find out how they would topple The First Order once and for all.
No, I was watching it so that I could be part of the conversation or at the very least freely watch my favourite YouTubers, scroll down my Twitter feed and listen to podcasts without fear of spoilers and have the context required to understand the various discussions which would permeate pop culture for the next few days, weeks, months...
Just like that, watching a new Star Wars movie had become everything entertainment shouldn't be; life-admin. It was a strange feeling because on the other hand, I was eagerly awaiting the final episode of The Mandalorian, a Star Wars show also produced by Disney and made by LucasFilm. A show that had me interested in and eager to find out what would happen to the characters, good and bad, in its finale. Yet, here I was about to watch the show piece Star Wars film; the big saga ending epic and it wasn't grabbing me in the same way as the smaller screen show.
Why wasn't I hyped about the film? Perhaps because, unlike The Mandalorian, the sequel trilogy has lacked a clear narrative, compelling character development and singular overall vision. The return of JJ Abrams to write and direct had also failed to give me any confidence it would fulfil my expectations, as I had no faith in his ability to deliver anything satisfying based on his previous genre work.
Finally, the lights dimmed and those famous words appeared on the silver screen;
"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...."
*** SPOILERS ***
"The Dead Speak!" Proclaims the opening crawl of Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker as it introduces us to the new (old) threat our heroes in The Resistance will face. None other than Emperor Palpatine whose demise at the end of The Return of The Jedi at the hands of a redeemed Darth Vader is completely ret-conned to give fans something to get excited about in the film's trailors.
While it is understandable that bringing an iconic villain back would be easier than fleshing out a new threat in the final part of the trilogy, the fact that his return is explained in the crawl rather than in an actual scene speaks volumes about the writing in general. An immediate reminded of why I had had "a bad feeling about this" when it was announced JJ Abrams was returning to helm and co-write.
I was no fan of The Force Awakens and felt it was the film equivilant of a television pilot, a heap of set-up that doesn't stand on its own, ending with a cliff-hanger there was clearly no considered resolution for. This was validated by the departure of everything it sets up in The Last Jedi, which in-turn set up a clean slate for the next instalment with Luke's final words to Kylo Ren;
"The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi."
However, JJ Abrams never had any intention of progressing the Star Wars narrative. Much like he did in echoing A New Hope in The Force Awakens, in The Rise of Skywalker, he borrows much from Return of The Jedi.
The Rise of Skywalker is peak JJ Abrams and the epitome of the modern. Spectacle without substance, nostalgia devoid of memory and a brand play lacking purpose. It's a film so condensed and compressed that you'd find more room to breathe in a trash compactor. The pace is always in fifth gear; from the montage opener, to the very loud, yet empty in-atmosphere "space" battle resolution.
Oozing the visual identity of Star Wars and a greatest hits approach to a score, the film has none of the basic story telling tenants that made Star Wars a classic in the first place and ushered in a new era of film-making. It suffers from a heavy reliance on McGuffins and other plot contrivances as it attempts to engage the audience with winks and nods while striving to bring some sort of cohesion to a trilogy that had no outline at its inception.
Act I: Exposition
Emperor Palpatine has sent broadcasts throughout the galaxy which Supreme Leader Kylo Ren is obsessed with. He tracks them and murders his way through anything and everyone that stands between him and finding the source of the transmissions so that he can destroy Palpatine. It's not clear who or why he's fighting in a montage other than that it makes for some lightsaber action.
When he arrives at the hidden Sith planet of Exogol, He encounters a decrepit Darth Sidious who recounts the line, "The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural," which he once said to Anakin Skywalker (Revenge of The Sith).
This is one of the many—if less egregious—examples of a JJ Abrams trope littered throughout the film. He'll often break the forth wall with beats and dialogue that the characters have no real relation to but tonally impress upon the audience something that really doesn't exist in the story. For example, later on, he includes a scene where Maz Kanada gives Chewbacca Han's medal from the ending of A New Hope as a shout out to the fact he isn't given one himself. While a cute scene, it isn't set up and carries no real emotional weight within the actual narrative. It's a wink to internet discussions about how he was overlooked.
Abrams did something similar when he introduced Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness in a scene that was meant to be a big reveal, however it was only revelatory to the audience, provided they understood Star Trek lore from a different canon. The characters in the film, rebooted versions of Kirk and Spock were like, "who?" They didn't know Khan because they were playing younger versions of the characters who had met him in the original show.
Moving on... Palpatine spews up a load of exposition about how he's secretly amassed a Sith Army, built a fleet of Star Destroyers and was behind everything we saw in the previous two films, including Snoke. We see copies of Snoke in bits and pieces in some sort of breeding tube however it's not made clear if Snoke was a clone of Palpatine or if he had existed independently. We are only given enough to know he was a puppet. Yet another thinly drawn character.
Palpatine's resurrection is a testament to the failure of the creators to imagine a decent villain or threat for the sequels. We got a better addition to the Skywalker saga in the extended universe sequel novels when Timothy Zhan gave us Admiral Thrawn, a new character that become a fan favourite and was a real menace to the new republic.
None of the villains presented in the sequels have permeated through pop culture; Snoke, General Hux and Captain Phasma are thinly drawn and forgettable. They look and sound like Star Wars villains, but have no charm, depth or clear motivations. Even the turn of General Hux as a spy for The Resistance in The Rise of Skywalker is played as a goof, "I only care that Kylo Ren loses" he explains. Yet another missed opportunity for character development in the series.
Kylo Ren is the only antagonistic character of any substance and his relationship with Rey is the most interesting dynamic between characters in the whole trilogy. It continues via the ForceSkype conversations introduced in The Last Jedi, and the only thing of consequence that carries on from that instalment. Just as Rian Johnson simply dismissed a bunch of mystery box baggage with a meta narrative of, "Let the past die", JJ Abrams brings it all right back; making a sequel to The Force Awakens, as much as a sequel to The Last Jedi.
While Kylo Ren is teaming up The Last Order with this newly discovered and extremely convenient Sith army, Rey is continuing her Jedi training by taking lessons from a Princess Leia (a composite performance from old footage and CGI to awkwardly involve Carrie Fischer).
The rest of The Resistance is clinging on to threads of hope as they are still wounded by the fact no one came to help them at the end of The Last Jedi. Finn, Po and Chewbacca soon join Rey as she decides she also needs to find Exogol. Further exposition explains why and they set out on an adventure, leaving everyone behind, including the sidelined Rose Tico.
Act II: Grand Theft Auto
Where act one is all exposition, act two plays out like a series of computer game cut scenes to drive along the main plot thread. The adventure is sequence after sequence of; get the knife, so we can get the map, so we can find the place, etc. None of it adds any real stakes to the threat and simply drives the plot along at light speed. Along the way we are introduced to some new characters who are nothing more than plot devices, such as Zorii Bliss.
Throughout these "quests", I found myself scratchy my head or shaking it, depending on whether something didn't make sense, or if the script began to deteriorate into something akin to fan fiction. A knife overlaid over the ruins of the Death Star to reveal the way finder's location (which will get them to Exogol) is an example of the former. The later, when it's revealed the entire fleet of Sith Star Destroyers has a planet killing weapon mounted to their hulls.
We also get another unearned emotional beat along the way when it is contrived that C3PO's memory must be wiped so he can translate some Sith scripture. Before proceeding, he tells Po that he's, "taking one last look at my... friends." Friends? We hadn't seen him have any real interaction with the new characters which would justify this level of emotion, but again, as he says it, we get a close up shot of his face. Again, JJ is having a character converse with the audience, not the other characters.
During these missions, Kylo Ren appears and disappears, just like a boss in a video game. Sometimes he's there for real, other times as Skypo Ren. During these interactions with Rey where they are each trying to pull the other to the dark or light side we get an answer to the most boring question in fiction, "Who are Rey's parents?"
The linage question regarding Rey is one no one would have had had Rey simply been given a surname. This may have actually set up an interesting reveal; but by NOT giving her a surname, we are presented a mystery that no reveal would be adequate to justify, and again, calls back to the, "I am your father" moment in The Empire Strike Back as a way to excite audiences, rather than creating a mythology for this group of characters outright.
The answer of course is that Rey is Palpatine's granddaughter, and that her parents abandoned her to "protect her". Hardly original and very clunkily presented throughout the series giving it was in no way planned. We aren't really explained how exactly she is his granddaughter; Was her father or mother the child of Palpatine? Who cares? Next scene.
This reveal creates a nature versus nurture dynamic for Rey, similar to Luke's temptation to join the dark side along with his father in Return of The Jedi, however it isn't fully realised or resolved as she'll simply take on the "Skywalker" name, rather than embrace "Palpatine". While this allows her to break the bond of an evil bloodline, it also means that the whole, "leave the past behind" thing, is indeed, the only thing left behind. The narrative choice means that Rey can't be someone in the Star Wars universe without either being a Palpatine or a Skywalker. Further to that, making it a big mystery until mid-way into the final part meant that we never got to see any real struggle on-screen regarding her linage. We spent more time with Rey as someone who was trying to uncover her identity rather than grapple with it and this again felt like another lost opportunity to take things in a fresh direction.
A final showdown between Kylo and Rey leads to an impressive lightsaber dual and Kylo's death. After the swashbuckling, Rey strikes down Kylo (with a little help from Leia) and uses her new found "Force Healing" power to resurrect him, or rather Ben Solo. Resurrection is another key theme throughout the film and further illustrates the insistence to fuel the franchise on nostalgia. Kylo/Ben is not only resurrected, he is also redeemed by Han Solo in a memory or force ghost vision? It's unclear. The scene is reminiscent of Jonathan Kent's appearance in Batman v Superman.
This brings us to act three, where our heroes find Exegol and deploy one last ditch effort to take down The First Order/Sith Army.
Act III: Re-run of The Jedi
While Po leads a "space battle" in the lower atmosphere of Exegol, Finn leads a charge along the "surface" of a Star Destroyer to take out a dish or something, and Rey joins Kylo and Palpatine in his new throne room, surrounded by a faceless crowd of hooded... Sith? It's not clear who they are.
Palpatine is baiting Rey to strike him down so that he can take her body. Again, there is heavy reliance on telling the audience what is going on because it's impossible to show them coherently.
Meanwhile, Ben Solo destroys the Knights of Ren; a group of dudes wearing black that we only know about because of external sources rather than from the actual films series. When joining Rey to fight Palpatine the two are struck down, however he uses his own Force Healing power to sacrifice himself and save her.
Rey is finally able to take down Palpatine with his own Force Lightning, inspired by the voices of familiar Jedi, including Anakin Skywalker who tells her that she can bring balance to the force, like he once did. Again, the audience can relate to the orchestra of familiar voices, but they mean nothing to Rey the character as presented in the films. She has no relationship with any of them. The moment is a far cry from the much simpler, "Use the force, Luke" moment in A New Hope.
Meanwhile, in the sky, The Resistance is able to destroy the fleet, helped by a last minute turn-up by Lando Calrissian. He has amassed a massive fleet of every model spaceship ever presented in Star Wars. The battle is very underwhelming when compared to those of previous instalment such as Rogue One, let alone Return of The Jedi.
After the celebratory scenes Rey completes her arc (or rather circle) by going to Tatooine, another baron desert planet like the Jakku (where her story began). It looks like she's ready to live in Uncle Owen's deserted moisture farm; which has somehow remained untouched despite being abandoned for 30 years on a planet full of scavengers, criminals and raiders.
When asked by an old passer-by what her name is, Rey pronounces herself "Rey Skywalker" before turning to stare at Tatooine's twin suns through the force ghosts of Luke and Leia. John Williams crescendo; the Saga swipes to an end.
As the credits roll, I was left to feel that ultimately these Star Wars movies are first and foremost corporate franchise products produced to make money on a safe bet. They offer new packets but no new sustenance. They are derivative, shiny and loud; a lesser copy of a document that requires its audiences to have seen the original in order to understand them. As a result, they are appreciated less than they might, had they given us something new.
Brand relevance for Star Wars is still huge, and this movie will make plenty of money (and has already at time of writing) but I can't see these films creating the sort of cultural zeitgeist relevance the originals did. Time will tell.
In the meantime, we can enjoy The Rise of Skywalker as a roller coaster ride with the Star Wars logo slapped on it and hope that Disney and LucasFilm provide more stories like they have done in The Mandalorian going forward. An in-universe Star Wars story which has had a more positive impact on pop-culture with Baby Yoda than anything which has come out of its sequel trilogy.