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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is probably the weakest live action theatrical Star Wars film, which is quite something in a world where Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones exist.

To be fair, some of the problems with The Rise of Skywalker are forced by external events. Carrie Fisher passed away early during production, and there was always a sense that the third film in the trilogy would focus on Leia in the same way that Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens had focused on Han and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi focused on Luke. As a result, the film’s consciously flailing around how best to fill that void is understandable.

Similarly, director JJ Abrams arrived on the project at the last minute, after Colin Trevorrow was removed from the project. The new Star Wars trilogy has an abridged production cycle to begin with, but The Rise of Skywalker had to switch hands midstream. As a result, it makes sense that there is a certain rough quality to the storytelling, with Abrams inheriting a film that was not designed for him and trying to impose himself upon it.

These are serious and credible challenges facing The Rise of Skywalker, and it would take an impressive film to overcome these logistical hurdles. As much as Han Solo might not like to hear the odds, those odds have been stacked against The Rise of Skywalker from very early in the production process. The film seems keenly aware of this. At one point, Poe crash lands the Millennium Falcon on the forest moon of Endor. When Jannah comments on the rough landing, Poe replies, “I’ve seen worse.” Jannah replies, “I’ve seen better.”

However, while that failure to stick the landing might be forgivable – if disappointing in its own terms – The Rise of Skywalker is most severely undermined by unforced errors. The film makes any number of catastrophic storytelling choices, both in the story that it decides to tell and the way that it ultimately opts to tell it. Whenever The Rise of Skywalker reaches a narrative crossroads, it never fails to pick the weakest of the options in front of it. This is bad of itself, even without the sense that these choices are being driven by the most craven of motivations.

As with films like Justice League, it often feels like The Rise of Skywalker has been shaped and informed by listening to the loudest voices raging on the internet and tailoring a film to appease their aesthetic sensibilities. The grand tragedy of The Rise of Skywalker is that the kind of fans that it is intended to appease are well past being appeased. More than that, these cynical efforts to appease those fans serve to alienate the actual audience. The Rise of Skywalker is everything certain fans wanted from The Last Jedi. Not uncoincidentally, it is nigh unwatchable.

Early in the film, The Rise of Skywalker juxtaposes its two leads. Rey is training in the forest, but consulting with Leia. Holding her close, Leia whispers in her ear, “Always be yourself, Rey.” Meanwhile, Kylo Ren has embarked upon a mission to find the mortal remains of the Sith Emperor Palpatine. He hears the dark lord’s cynical voice whispering in his ear. “I’ve been every voice you ever heard inside your head.” It is strange that The Rise of Skywalker opts to listen to the dark voices inside its head as opposed to just being itself.

There’s an understandable anxiety around The Rise of Skywalker, with the film serving as the capstone to a nine-film saga and an expanded universe. Fans are understandably anxious about having the experience ruined or undercut for them, about stumbling across some detail of the narrative that might possibly give away a key detail or plot twist that would diminish their enjoyment of the movie as the culmination of a journey.

This gets at the paradox of The Rise of Skywalker. Like so many modern blockbusters, the film is filled to the brim with plot that is designed to make it difficult to discuss the film without being accused of spoiling it – look at the plotting of Captain Marvel or Avengers: Infinity War. Indeed, The Rise of Skywalker is full of stuff happening. It would take several paragraphs to lay out all of the stuff, which often plays as a chain of special effects sequences.

This emphasis on plot serves the handy secondary function of crowding out other narrative elements like theme or character, the “big ideas” that traditionally underscore science-fiction or fantasy films. This is one of the key narrative tricks of modern blockbusters wary of grappling with big or uncomfortable ideas, like Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Reducing the plot to a series of interlocking events that unfold in rapid succession leaves little room for the kind of stuff that people might get angry at on the internet.

It spoils little to describe The Rise of Skywalker as a “fetch quest” narrative. The opening scroll defines the film in those terms. Both the Resistance and the First Order are racing against time (and each other) to unravel a series of clues that will take them across the galaxy and into a gigantic spectacle-driven climax. There are lots of chases. There is a lot of running. There are even stormtroopers with jet packs. “They can fly now?” C-3PO asks. “They can fly now?” Finn repeats. “They can fly now,” Poe states. There’s no time to think about it. Just go with it.

This crowding of the narrative plays very much as a response to The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson’s middle installment of the trilogy is probably the most visually beautiful and most ambitious film in the franchise, but did have some significant pacing issues. However, the film’s willingness to slow itself down allowed for Johnson to explore a number of big ideas, most notably those around the core assumptions of the larger Star Wars franchise. It was a relatively bold franchise film, even if it was still fairly tame.

Of course, The Last Jedi was a success by any measure. It earned well over a billion dollars, and more than each of the two Star Wars films either side of it. It earned overwhelmingly positive reviews according to aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. It even scored well with audiences according to CinemaScore. However, certain fans took exception to some of the film’s ambitions, and launched a high-profile campaign against the film that involved producing “men only” edits, writing manifestos and bullying actors off social media.

These fans were a minority, but they were very loud. More than that, following on from the success of campaigns like GamerGate and the 2016 election, they were organised. They spammed user ratings on various sites. They built up their own self-reinforcing YouTube communities. They made sure that almost anybody who mentioned enjoying The Last Jedi on social media knew how they felt about it while inventing nicknames like “Ruin” Johnson or “Jar Jar” Abrams.

This sort of behaviour is standard on franchise films. Star Trek fans famously took out full-page advertisements protesting Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even the official novelisation voiced fan displeasure with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Certain fans have very particular views of what they expect a franchise to be, and so complain about anything that doesn’t match those expectations. However, instead of drifting off like fans used to do, that vocal minority of fans fixated on The Last Jedi and that anger festered.

The Rise of Skywalker often feels like an act of appeasement, designed to appeal to that small but vocal minority of fans who were so aggressively antagonised by the seemingly radical suggestions in The Last Jedi that maybe women in positions of authority are worth listening to, or that maybe a character like Luke Skywalker might reflect on his life and consider himself a failure for not making the world a substantially better place, or for daring to suggest that a hero in a science-fiction and fantasy narrative might not need to be from an established “bloodline.”

The Rise of Skywalker works quickly and furiously to “correct” plot points and narrative choices within The Last Jedi that didn’t actually need correcting. It often feels like the world’s angriest shopping list of plot points. To pick a few small – but terrible – examples: The Rise of Skywalker makes sure to give the audience a belated back story for Supreme Leader Snoke, it works very hard very early on to put Kylo Ren back in his Darth Vader cosplay, it even opens with an extended sequence of Rey training so the audience knows she isn’t a “Mary Sue.”

The Rise of Skywalker works hard to marginalise the women who defined The Last Jedi. Rose Tico appears in the film, but primarily so that the other characters can tell her that she is surplus to requirements – twice. During one staff meeting of the rebel command, a character suggests that their only option against the First Order is to try “the Holdo Manoeuvre.” Poe rejects it immediately, stating, “That’s one in a million.” Instead, the Resistance opts for Poe’s separate and distinct one-in-a-million plan.

This marginalisation of women within the film is juxtaposed with a bizarre fixation on affirming the virility of the male characters, as if worried that some of the young (and perhaps even older) male audience were uncomfortable with the idea of the assertive female characters introduced in The Last Jedi. One of the strangest recurring preoccupations within The Rise of Skywalker is its fixation on reassuring you that its male leads are vigourously capable of having sex, but always with women and mostly of the same ethnic background.

This is most obvious with the two male leads. Fans have long shipped Finn and Poe together, likely because of the intense charismatic chemistry between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. However, The Rise of Skywalker goes out of its way to assure the audience that Finn is straight; the film reaffirms (but refuses to develop) his attraction to Rey, and introduces the character of Jannah as a scene partner. The film also introduces Keri Russell as Zorri Bliss, a former partner of Poe’s who wears a skintight catsuit and who flirts heavily with him.

However, it isn’t just the younger generation that proves itself virile and heterosexual. The closing moments of the film make sure to suggest that Lando is still capable of seducing a woman less than half his age. More than that, the entire plot of The Rise of Skywalker hinges on the importance of the audience knowing that Emperor Palpatine has totally had sex. Indeed, one of the more absurdly ridiculous sequences at the climax of the film has an older character cackling orgasmically while firing bolts of force lightning from his crotch into the heavens.

To be fair, The Rise of Skywalker stops just short of delving into (or asserting the existence of) Luke’s sex life. It does, however, go out of its way to have the character return in a manner that is designed to appease those fans who got irrationally angry about his portrayal in The Last Jedi. After all, Luke’s entire arc in The Last Jedi was about him realising that he was wrong. However, there is something very calculated – even in allowing for that context – in having Luke literally appear to Rey and say, “I was wrong.”

More than that, even though Luke completed his arc in The Last Jedi and has no reason to appear in The Rise of Skywalker, the film keeps finding things for Luke to do in order to assert how awesome the character is. The Rise of Skywalker retroactively reveals that Luke was actually hunting the Sith with Lando, which seems an odd combination of characters. He also catches a light sabre and levitates an X-Wing.

Nostalgia obviously runs through the entire sequel trilogy, but it builds to a head in The Rise of Skywalker. Luke’s X-Wing was buried underwater in The Last Jedi, but becomes crucial to the climax of The Rise of Skywalker. At one point at the climax, Poe prepares to actually accomplish a meaningful task, only for a character from the original trilogy to awkwardly insist that he needs to take a breather so that the older veterans can show him how it’s done. Even Kylo Ren is supplanted from his role of antagonist by an original trilogy character.

There is no sense in which The Rise of Skywalker allows its characters any meaningful agency. Rey and Ren are defined solely by their relationship to existing characters. After The Last Jedi worked so hard to reject the idea of bloodlines as being important, The Rise of Skywalker doubles down. There is a sense in which Abrams technically tries to avoid openly contradicting The Last Jedi, but this all feels very cynical and weasily.

The Rise of Skywalker completely ignores any remotely interesting ideas within The Last Jedi. After all, The Last Jedi did the sequel trilogy the favour of burning through the Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi homage in a subversive way, offering Abrams a blank slate for The Rise of Skywalker. In contrasts, Abrams can’t think of anything better to do in The Rise of Skywalker but to replay the climax of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back with a character receiving identity-shattering news while dangling from a height to be rescued by the Millennium Falcon.

This is a lot of baggage for a single film, and this is only scratching the surface. The Rise of Skywalker isn’t just reacting to fans who hated The Last Jedi, it is consciously tailoring itself in a preemptive response to potential fan rage against it. Early in The Rise of Skywalker, a major legacy character is killed off. However, that death is revealed to be a fake-out in the very next scene, as if wary of the inevitable internet backlash. Another character undergoes plot-mandated amnesia, but that is also reset; although the events of The Last Jedi are pointedly still wiped.

This is all cynical nonsense, but it fits with the film’s abstract political arguments. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were both films that were – to varying degrees of success – concerned with the ascent of fascism in contemporary culture. The Rise of Skywalker seems to have awkwardly reached the conclusion that being opposed to modern fascism is not a smart business decision, and so very quickly (and very clumsily) erases a lot of the central readings of characters like Kylo Ren and General Hux.

There is a sense in which The Rise of Skywalker is brushing aside anything that might be read as a commentary on modern political culture. General Hux worked as a stand-in for the modern pasty angry young Neo-Nazi, but he finds himself supplanted by Richard E. Grant as the Allegiant General Pride. Pride is very pointedly not a modern fascist. Instead, he makes a point to stress that he had served with the Empire during the original trilogy, and so cannot really be read as an allegory in the same way that Kylo Ren or General Hux might be.

Instead of that fairly inoffensive “fascism and misogyny are bad” message that runs through The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the moral of The Rise of Skywalker is closer to a generic “one-size-fits-all” centrism. The villains in this film aren’t really fascists. They are just angry. Indeed, the central political thesis of The Rise of Skywalker is facile “bothsideism.” People should just learn to be less angry, no matter what views they hold. People who want to impose fascistic order on the universe need to be less angry. People who want to stop those people should also be less angry.

All of this is pure and unfiltered nonsense. The Rise of Skywalker is so busy overreacting to the absurd response to The Last Jedi that it barely has time to form its own coherent vision of what it is supposed to be about. The Rise of Skywalker is a collection of stuff happening with increasing intensity. The films covers so much ground so quickly that there’s never really any time for emotional engagement, and that details like the extent of the villains’ escalation of the franchise’s Death-Star-driven economy just breeze by.

The Rise of Skywalker is so clear about what it isn’t that it struggles to articulate what it is. Abrams is one of the most reliable blockbuster directors of the twenty-first century, but he seems lost at sea with everything that is going on. The film’s climax is essentially an escalating series of deus ex machina, with both heroes and villains continuously drawing trump cards from out of thin air. The villains reveal they have a plan, the heroes somehow counter, but the villains happen to have another secret plan, but the heroes have more secret back-up.

With all of this going on, characterisation is a mess. Characters are captured and rescued within a quarter of an hour. Rey gets an arc, but one entirely at odds with what came before. Poe and Finn just wander around the plot, occasionally articulating the bullet point summary of character arcs, but never acting them out. Kylo Ren actually manages to hit a few of those bullet points, but rarely in a line. The Rise of Skywalker always seems anxious about how far it can or can’t push Kylo Ren in a given direction, and so opts for the path of least resistance.

The irony is that none of this will actually manage to satisfy those angry fans complaining about Star Wars on the internet. Nothing will satisfy those angry fans. They would never accept any film that featured Rey and Kylo Ren, and would be openly hostile to any effort to aggressively tie them into the franchise mythology. So all of this seems pointless, even beyond the other ways in which it plays like a severe miscalculation.

However, in trying to win those fans back, The Rise of Skywalker alienates those fans who were originally drawn to characters like Rey and Kylo Ren because of what they represented and what they meant, because of what made them unique. So much of The Rise of Skywalker is about the older and established generations conferring legitimacy on their children, as if validating the next generation. It is cynical pandering, which misses the fact that Star Wars is supposed to be a fantasy for children rather than for angry adults.

The Rise of Skywalker is a spectacular misfire, arriving as one of the most misbegotten blockbusters of the decade.

17 Responses

  1. With the chaos that is going on in the Star Wars division of Disney, I am totally not surprised this movie sounds like garbage … well, at least there is the Mandalorian which is Star Wars at it’s best.

  2. Personally, I think Kathleen Kennedy should be fired and Filoni and the rest of the people behind The Mandolorian should take over.

    • Eh, it’s hard to know who is to blame. There’s a lot of speculation that Kennedy was overruled by Iger, who also arguably overruled Abrams as well. There’s a lot of blame to go around, and I suspect it goes all the way to the top.

  3. Let Genndy Tartakovsky make an animated trilogy please.

    The Last Jedi was ultimately mediocre despite its grand ambitions due to an extremely messy script that really could have been tightened up and the fact that it walked back on its best ideas by the time the film was over. I think there was a great movie in there with better execution. Probably would have been better if the worldbuilding in The Force Awakens wasn’t so awful and murky. This just sounds ill-conceived.

  4. Ugh, it all sounds like such a terrible waste of potential. I’m used to this kind of dysfunction from Star Trek, where each series has its own distinct identity (often defined in conflict with the previous series) and needs to re-learn how to make a series work in the first 2 seasons of every show. But I simply can’t fathom how Disney, which is so incredibly protective of its IP and risk-adverse, somehow let Star Wars get away from it to this point.

    I feel like there is tremendous pressure to blame Rian Johnson for pivoting so drastically from Abrams’ plot points, but they literally gave him a blank slate and said ‘do whatever you want’, so it’s hardly his fault that he chose to tell a story that didn’t match Abrams’ story, which in all honesty was largely a trite rehash of the same story SW had already told in Ep. IV. I didn’t even like Last Jedi very much, which is too bad, because honestly I hate to agree with the rabid Gamergate segment of the fanbase.

    It’s no surprise to me at all that Abrams would spend so much time counter-punching to Johnson to re-assert his vision of the story, which is basically that the fans demand a rehash of the originals, and by God he will give it to them. Guess for the last movie I’ll just have to drink heavily beforehand, enjoy the music and special effects, and turn my brain off for 2 hours.

  5. So. I watched it and it felt like doing chores. As „The last Jedi“ was very good in my opinion, I felt cheated when everything became „No one‘s ever really gone“ – The Movie instead of something new and exciting, especially considering the Force. Instead of a clear sequence of things happening logically, stuff just happened, because there was a new planet or landscape to show.
    Of course, Rey had to have a fated blood line, and could not have been some person which made use of the new anti-elitist Force of Episode 8. So all I got was a mivie best described as „Lord of the Rings in Space“ enacted by your favourite characters from 30 years ago.
    Cool looking but bad movie.

    • Really? Cos when I saw this film I was ready to hate it, but someway in, I had to admit myself yeah I’m enjoying this

  6. I hemmed and hawed a lot over posting this comment. I admit I’ve stayed away from this blog due to political disagreements, but I do still have a lot of respect for your reviews Darren and wanted to hear your thoughts.

    I’m not blind to this films flaws. It is kind of a mess, both internally and as part of a trilogy. The tragic circumstances with Carrie Fisher you’ve already alluded to. The return of Palpatine, a figure not so much as hinted at in the past two films. The sidelining of some of the supporting cast from TFA and/or TLJ. We also have JJ Arbams quirks that irritated me even in TFA – the ridiculous approach to scale and indifference to worldbuilding. Honestly I still think Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston wrote far better Star Wars sequels than anyone at Disney.

    Objectively yes this probably is a worse film than TLJ.

    But I still enjoyed much more TLJ. It was exciting and often beautiful and as a life long fan of the saga often moving. Sometimes there is more to enjoy in a film that the level of pure craftsmanship.

    I don’t think I’m one of the angry fans you mentioned in your review, but I was someone who wasn’t thrilled by a lot of the choices Rian Johnson made and there are quite a few of us who don’t harass people on social media or sign petitions. What you see as the strengths of TLJ – its willingness to ask big questions was an approach I found self indulgent and rapidly predictable. Not everything needs to have the rug pulled out beneath it and I thought then and still think that Johnson overcompsenated for the perhaps too safe TFA, which in turn was overcompsensating for the mixed reception of the Prequels.

    As for the political angle, well I am more politically conservative so I don’t think we’d see eye to eye there, but I think you might be reading certain aspects in the least favourable light possible. We are after all still talking about the movie in which the main character is a heroic woman, the villain (and his main underlings) are old dudes, a beloved in-universe and out- minority character returns and the the two new heroic characters introduced are both women. (I’d also reiterate about Abrams and his indifference to worldbuilding.)

    I think if you (the general you, not you in particular) really loved TLJ then yes this is going to be a disappointment. But if you are a Star Wars fan that didn’t love that film – and we do exist outside of vocal hatedoms – this was a clumsy, not entirely successful but still welcome reinterpretation.

  7. So in sum, the American film industry has already radically altered a Red Dawn remake – of all things – to avoid offending some communists, and is now following up on that by radically altering a Star Wars trilogy – of all things – to avoid offending some fascists.

    Yeah. That sounds just about right, actually.

    I wonder what the hat trick will be? Maybe they can remake “The Patriot” and make General Cornwallis a Frenchman.

    • Interestingly, in the months since the release, it’s been suggested that the film was also altered for China. The climax was originally supposed to feature a big force ghost moment, but that was reportedly vetoed because the Chinese market doesn’t like ghosts. So the rumour goes.

  8. I think the film is very watchable, and theres more good than bad aspects. But the pacing is not that good ; but I enjoyed Rey and Kylo’s arc a lot. So 3 or 3.5 out of 5 for me, after one viewing

  9. after one viewing I saw more good than bad stuff, but there are problems. I quite liked Rey and Kylo’s arcs as a whole.

  10. I was so disappointed. I have never seen a movie with such a reactionary outlook, completely undoing a lot of the previous movie for… what? Pleasing fans? As a movie it’s a mixed bag at best and as conclusion to the so called Skywalker Saga it was nowhere near as good as it needed to be.

    Only nice thing is that The Last Jedi didn’t end on a cliffhanger so I could always pretend that was the real end and wonder where the third movie went.

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