Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — our spoiler-free review
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — our spoiler-free review
I thought a lot about Rey’s bread while I was watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The weird green food is a completely extraneous detail from Rey’s life as a desperate scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, where she began her journey in The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams’ first entry in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. But it’s the kind of memorable quirk that makes Star Wars feel like a fantastical world still inhabited by real human beings.
The characters in Rise of Skywalker don’t have time to bake bread, which is understandable for a third-act finale involving a galaxy-spanning war. Unfortunately, they don’t really have time to be human either. Abrams has assembled a sweeping conclusion to Star Wars, pulling together stories that span both real and fictional decades. He’s guiding a deeply nostalgic series past an entry that decried nostalgia: Rian Johnson’s ambitious and polarizing The Last Jedi. It’s a vision that’s far too big for one movie, though — and the resulting film is permanently on fast-forward, too busy ticking off boxes to let audiences revel in its world-shifting twists.
The Last Jedi often felt more like a conclusion to the Star Wars sequel trilogy than a midpoint, either resolving or short-circuiting The Force Awakens’ biggest mysteries. It took a harsh look at the Jedi, the Resistance freedom fighters, and the monstrous Sith, suggesting that these institutions might be fundamentally broken and potentially clearing the way for something new. But Abrams has criticized Last Jedi’s deconstruction-focused approach, and he spends a lot of Rise of Skywalker’s 141 minutes walking those choices back.
This doesn’t mean that Rise of Skywalker simply rehashes earlier Star Wars installments. The film complicates the series’s long-standing alliances between noble Jedi and scrappy rebels on one side and evil empires and monstrous Sith lords on the other. It reveals plot twists that recast major figures’ origins in unexpected ways. It uses a new (to the films, at least) Force power from The Last Jedi to great aesthetic and narrative effect. It’s just determined to deliver as many answers and as much plot momentum as possible, even when slowing down or holding back would give its revelations far more weight.
The Rise of Skywalker retcons a few particularly controversial points from The Last Jedi, and it starts with just enough distance to let that film’s brutal conflict fade into the background. Instead of being split across several interlocking plots, the three protagonists — Resistance leader Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and scavenger-turned-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) — are facing down a familiar threat that’s linked to villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his quasi-fascist First Order. This fight leads them on a long, planet-hopping adventure that doubles as a cat-and-mouse game between Kylo Ren and Rey, who share a mysterious connection with each other.
A lot of the film amounts to an interplanetary scavenger hunt, and a lot of its stopovers evoke familiar Star Wars settings. But the best vignettes also capture the feeling that this world is bigger than any single story, no matter how high its stakes.
That single story, unfortunately, sweeps the characters along in ways that range from clumsy to downright unsettling. The moment-to-moment banter between Rey, Finn, and Poe (as well as supporting players like C-3PO) can easily carry a scene. But beyond that, most of the conversations are bluntly expository, designed to arrange everyone in the right place at the right time with the right justification.
The film introduces new supporting figures like the criminal Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) who has a snazzy crimson jumpsuit and a long-buried connection to Poe, and the freedom fighter Jannah (Naomi Ackie) who shares some important background with Finn. But Zorii, in particular, is more of a narrative device than a person because, in general, characters’ convictions and motivations matter far less than their utility to the plot. At multiple points, they exclaim that they have no idea why they’re making some horribly risky decision, which feels almost like a metatextual cry for help. And Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who could be the heart of the film, is ill-served by the snippets of footage that could be shot before Fisher’s death — consisting almost entirely of vague, contextless platitudes.
The Rise of Skywalker plays with the expectations set by series like The Avengers where a final installment is a sign that all bets are off and anyone can die. The film feints at darkness more than it actually plumbs it, but it builds on The Last Jedi’s exploration of guilt and sacrifice. Its protagonists are determined to defeat the First Order, but after their earlier bitter defeats, they’re aware that heroes don’t always triumph.
Or at least… they should be. The story delivers a few moments that should be heart-wrenching for its protagonists, putting beloved characters at risk. They’re passed over so quickly, though, that there’s no time for anyone to react. Star Wars has long struggled to categorize exactly which lives matter; the sequel trilogy asks us to care for individual stormtroopers like Finn but still cheer their deaths as brainwashed mooks, for example, and it depicts droids as fully sentient entities while still casually accepting them as property. But The Rise of Skywalker pushes this to the breaking point, depicting what could be one of the most painful personal sacrifices in the entire nonology — and then bizarrely playing it for laughs before taking the whole thing back.
The exception to all of these problems is Rey’s ambivalent antagonism with Kylo Ren, which provides some of the film’s most fleshed-out and engaging scenes — as well as a series of complex lightsaber battles that rival anything in the earlier sequel films. The Star Wars sequels have always centered on the idea that both characters are struggling with their own personal light and dark sides, even as they’re attempting to turn the other toward good or evil. In earlier films, this conflict has been filtered through larger battles between the First Order and the Resistance, as well as secondary villains like Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren’s partner General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). In The Rise of Skywalker, the pair finally get a chance to confront each other as individuals.
But The Rise of Skywalker too rarely connects its big plot reveals to their human consequences. Abrams delivers answers to some of The Force Awakens’ biggest questions. Critics of The Last Jedi were upset with Rian Johnson for evading these same questions, but the answers are almost more confounding than silence. They raise possibilities that could keep Star Wars fans busy for years because they cut so close to so many of the entire series’s big relationship dynamics. It’s frustrating that the film doesn’t acknowledge this better. Instead, once the puzzle box has been opened, its contents are no longer treated as interesting.
There’s plenty of spectacle and space-fighting to keep The Rise of Skywalker entertaining. Minute to minute, it’s an enjoyable movie. And at its brightest points, it captures Star Wars at its best. But Abrams just hasn’t pared down the bombast enough to keep his story grounded — and with the trilogy at its end, it’s strange to be left with as many new questions as resolutions.