It’s impossible to watch a main series Star Wars film without the outside world creeping in. Any decisions the writers and directors made in the last film of the main-series (for now) would inevitably be debated, nitpicked, and analyzed by a legion of fans, YouTube critics, and dudes with movie blogs.
So my review of Rise of Skywalker is in a way a review of the entire sequel trilogy, and also a review of what Star Wars became after George Lucas sold the rights to Disney.
I enjoyed Episode IX! I thought it was basically the best product J.J. Abrams could recently deliver that could accomplish all of the following necessary goals: Tie together the storylines of Episodes 7 and 8 in a way that makes sense, re-introduce and justify Sheev Palpatine as a villain, give the old cast of the original films a satisfying send off, and cram in the board of directors-mandated amount of space battles, lightsaber ignitions, cool planets and quippy lines.
But I end the series with the feeling that I never came to care much about these characters, or their struggles, because the people and the societies in the sequel trilogy were never given time to sit and develop.
And Episode 9 felt rushed, in large part because, much like Episode 3 before it, it had the unenviable task of squeezing an entire galactic conflict and a couple of total character arcs into one film.
The Force Awakens was fine, but it gave us a painted-over facsimile of the story from A New Hope without any greater context about what the conflict meant for the greater galaxy. I didn’t understand who Snoke was or how the First Order started or came to power, but that was acceptable as part of a greater mystery the films would tell.
Unfortunately, The Last Jedi took that story and spun its wheels, developing characters like Kylo Ren and Luke a bit more but also unceremoniously killing off Snoke, resetting the series’ momentum and leaving us in IX where we’ve started in half of the Star Wars movies: A brave band of rebels faces overwhelming odds from an evil empire.
I had flashes of joy in TLJ, like Luke’s musings on the complexity of the force and failure of the old Jedi order, but there were more missed opportunities than anything. Criticism of a binary view of light-and-dark went nowhere. Rey, like Luke, was never really tempted to the dark side but was instead just angry at the bad guy (Anakin at least had a clear motivation to go bad). A possible alliance between her and Kylo didn’t pan out — Kylo just broke good on a dime at the end of the trilogy.
So to me, TLJ, heralded and derided for its risk-taking, didn’t really take any risks of consequence. Like a choose-your-own adventure book, its story advancements were designed to be as open-ended as TFA’s. Rose kisses Finn — but he doesn’t react! So the team behind the next movie can nix that plot point if it doesn’t test well with audiences (and it didn’t, so I guess that was a smart decision if gutless.) Rey teeters on whether to join Kylo, characters like Leia and Finn have fake-out deaths … and ultimately whoever gets handed the bag with Episode IX doesn’t have much to work with.
(Anakin slaughtered a room full of defenseless children in Revenge of The Sith. That’s what I’d call taking a risk with your extremely popular movie franchise.)
I appreciate that Abrams had to then squeeze what should have been three movies of storytelling into one. Most of my criticisms against this movie are softened by that fact. In Rise of Skywalker, we still have no sense of stakes outside our main cast — who remain underwritten and difficult to connect with — and we have army and nation sizes that magically grow or shrink to fit what the plot needs. You can’t blame all of that on the rush.
So, I have three main criticisms: The movie had unclear stakes, difficult-to-care-about characters and it couldn’t commit to the consequences it foreshadowed. At the same time, I thought it got much better in the second and third acts, I thought Kylo / Ben Solo continued to be one of the best characters in the entire Star Wars series, and I thought the reprisal of Palpatine as a villain was so much fun that I could overlook the story problems it raises.
First, the stakes: The resistance end with about three dozen or so people in The Last Jedi, but Lando was able to pull in seemingly thousands of friendly military trained-and-ready attack teams to face off against Palapatine’s convenient ultramega stardestroyer army. I guess I can accept that two hours of schmoozing brought in a force that large — the Galaxy is a big place and presumably the First Order doesn’t have military control over all of it — but watching this movie felt like that game I played as a kid where we each try to think of the biggest number. “A million.” “A trillion.” “Infinity.” “Infinity plus one.” “Infinity times infinity.” Or Qui-Gon’s quote about there always being a bigger fish, I guess.
Does it even matter that we never know how Palpatine constructed such a ridiculously powerful fleet, how he got to Exegol or why defeat only ever seems to make him stronger? Do we ever have a clear idea of the relative power dynamic between the First Order and the Resistance through this trilogy?
These questions matter because when the state of the universe around the character’s stories are unclear, it cheapens the sacrifices taken by those characters. I don’t need or even want answers to all of them. But I need some of this stuff to be grounded and explained so I understand why it matters that Ben and others die for the cause. When it moves as fast as this film, there’s no time to establish these big reveals.
A few lines in A New Hope were all that was needed: The emperor has dissolved the senate, and regional governors will control star systems now.
If Palpatine could survive being vaporized in the exhaust shaft of a super weapon that imploded in a giant fireball in the vacuum of space, should I really believe that he couldn’t handle getting some lightning on his face? Why doesn’t his force specter just fly off to Malachor V and use ancient Sith alchemy to construct a fleet a ten thousand ultra star destroyers that can lazer nuke every rogue planet in one fell swoop?
On a thematic level, there’s also the concern that bringing Palpy back cheapen’s Vader’s sacrifice in Return of The Jedi. This doesn’t bother me much because the prequels laid groundwork about his quest for immortality, but it does bother me that his defeat in that movie basically put him in a vastly better position with no real consequences.
Next, characters. As a trio, Rey and Finn and Poe have been a lot of fun to watch. The actors clearly have chemistry, and once ROS slowed down about 45 minutes in, their search for the way finder McMuffin with Chewie and C3PO got fun. Some dialogue moments really bothered me early on, like the constant call-and-response references and jokes like “They fly now!?”, but those mercifully ended as the movie found its footing.
(Also, ever since the prequels, it seems that no one in these movies understands what “I have a bad feeling about this” means. It’s not a phrase used to indicate obvious danger — it means you’re worried about some unforeseen danger or complication.)
But Rey especially never got the chance in this entire trilogy to develop her character. “My parentage is a mystery” is not a replacement for a personality, and while Luke wasn’t really Mr. Colorful himself, he at least had the emotional struggle of confronting and trying to redeem his father. Similarly, Rey finally does start to get interesting — in Act 3 of this movie — when she struggles over Palpatine’s surprisingly well-conceived plot and the horrifying reality that she’s the grandkid of space Hitler.
Finn and Poe were great in The Force Awakens, but their b-plots in The Last Jedi kept them separated. These characters could have been the emotional core of the trilogy (Oscar Isaac has even expressed that he would have liked seeing them get involved romantically, which would have been great), but there’s just no time for that in Rise of Skywalker. Instead the movie introduces two new characters for each of them to befriend and beflirt, ultimately to no real end.
The missed opportunity for these three characters is to me the biggest disappointment of the trilogy. I didn’t expect Disney to try a weird, high-philosophy and avant garde story with these movies, but well-written and emotionally vital characters would have only benefited the films.
The other major problem I have is the slippery consequences in this movie. Rey accidentally kills Chewbacca when she gives into the dark side — except no, I guess he was on a different ship and they rescue him without losing anything. C3P0 can only lead them to Exegol through a procedure that wipes his memory — except no, R2 had made an iTunes cloud backup like a week ago to bring C3P0 back up to speed.
It felt shocking and disturbing when Chewie “died,” and I was intrigued by how that trauma and guilt could affect Rey. But … we’ll never know. We’ll never get to see how her character could grow organically from failure and consequences, only how she can grow from believing in herself extra-hard and hearing the voices of Jedi past in her head. That’s plot-driven growth, not character-driven growth.
It’s not all bad. Hux has a genuinely funny and fitting end. Ben Solo dies, even if it’s in a pretty cheesy way. But these are noble sacrifices and punchline deaths. You can build a lot more emotion on shocking, tragic, avoidable deaths. You can have Chewie’s annihilation spur Rey into a rage that leads to her giving into the dark side to kill Ben. It just gives characters more interesting things to do than hearing Samuel Jackson in their heads and blasting Palpy’ with his own lightning.
On a positive note: Palpatine’s plans in this trilogy and the prequels make so much more sense than in Jedi. Luring Rey and Ben to him under the guise of powering down his super weapons or sharing his power worked, and brought him back to full power briefly. But again, slippery consequences meant Rey just had to believe in herself even harder to really beat him for good this time.
It’s worth repeating that Ian McDiarmid has been absolutely delightful as Palpatine in every film he’s been in, and I would have totally accepted him as a villain had he simply been foreshadowed in any way in Episodes 7 or 8.
In the end, Rise of Skywalker was packed with oddball characters and cool visuals and sound design. Like always, the human beings working on the sets, props, special effects, makeup and more are the real geniuses behind the Star Wars films. But for the story to engage me, I need it to be more than just a well-oiled Disneyland ride.
For what it’s worth, here’s my ranking of all the Star Wars films I’ve seen based on how much I would enjoy re-watching them, not necessarily how ‘good’ they are.
A New Hope
The Empire Strikes Back
Revenge of The Sith
Return of The Jedi
The Force Awakens (Mostly for the first 45 minutes)
The Phantom Menace
The Rise of Skywalker (Mostly for the last 45 minutes)
Attack of The Clones / The Last Jedi
The Star Wars Holiday Special (sorry Lumpy)