This post is full of spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.
While I was psyching myself up for seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I said I was bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the disappointment of The Last Jedi. As it turns out, I didn’t really feel either.
I definitely felt none of the exhilaration of the first movie. The Force Awakens felt like the gasp of new life after someone plunged a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the franchise — (Note: I don’t know if that is actually a thing outside of Pulp Fiction. Please consult your doctor) — but this story was full of bad decisions that they couldn’t just lightspeed-skip over (like, say, an over-long discussion of thermal oscillators or a weird repetition of “kanjiclub”).
At the same time, even as I was shaking my head and mouthing the word “no” over and over, I didn’t feel the miserable deflation I did while watching the bad decisions play out in The Last Jedi. I’ve grown into a begrudging acceptance of that movie — and honestly, it’s a more ambitious and more daring movie than The Rise of Skywalker — but watching it felt like the cold touch of a Dementor was draining me of my renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars.
I think ultimately, JJ Abrams is too talented a filmmaker to make something I can’t enjoy in the moment. I’m hesitant to assign authorship to something as complex as a feature film — especially a blockbuster with as many invested parties as this one — to one person, but the constant through every JJ Abrams project I’ve seen is that they’re all full of charm, momentum, and seemingly boundless potential. Beautiful, charismatic people exchanging snappy dialogue while doing intriguing things. The stories rarely end on a satisfying note, though: starting with the mindset that the story can go anywhere and literally anything could happen means that all that potential energy gets used up quickly. Once it’s run out, the end result tends to either evaporate into meaninglessness, or land with a baffling thud.
Maybe it’s appropriate that watching The Rise of Skywalker felt to me like watching The Return of the Jedi. I left that movie feeling like they’d taken something great and somehow made it silly, overwrought, and nonsensical, to the point of making me wonder whether I’d “grown out” of the franchise altogether. But then I remembered how rad the speeder bikes were!
The Rise of Skywalker is like that, multiplied by ten. I started Return of the Jedi disappointed that they’d only made two movies and were already repeating themselves with Tatooine and another Death Star; this movie brings back a dead villain with no explanation, and then he also has 1000 Death Stars!
To be clear: I’m still 100% on board with the idea of bringing back the Emperor. He’s a great, over-the-top bad guy who could’ve served as the source of all evil across all nine movies. And I still think it could’ve worked, had it been made the driving force of the plot of the last movie, built up to a climactic reveal and final showdown, and tied into all of the events that led up to it. But here, it was introduced in the first line of the opening crawl. And of all the hundreds of questions that could come from that reveal, the least interesting one to explore was “Okay, how do we get there?” But that’s what they chose to focus on.
It’s so bafflingly arbitrary that it retroactively makes the rest of the final trilogy seem smaller and sillier. I’d been able to justify the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke as building on the idea that The Return of the Jedi was a conclusive happy ending for the galaxy. I thought that The Last Jedi gave it weight by asserting that restoring the Old Republic without fixing its problems would just cause the cycle to continue indefinitely. Now, suddenly re-introducing Palpatine with little convincing explanation just makes it seem like they simply didn’t think you could tell a Star Wars story without bringing back the Empire and the Emperor. (I want to be charitable and use the common defense of repetition in the Star Wars movies by saying “it rhymes,” but there’s a part of me that only thinks this rhymes with “schmack of schmimagination.”)
I was left wondering whether the stable boy shown at the end of The Last Jedi now has to be revealed to be a long-lost grandson of Obi-Wan or something. Most disappointing is that Rey’s story has been robbed of all its potential energy built into the last two movies: the focus shifted from “who are you?” entirely to “who were your grandparents and the long line of now-dead heroes who are entirely responsible for your importance in this story?”
Ever since The Last Jedi came out, people have been calling it a case of filmmakers petulantly refusing to “yes, and…” each other. I never bought it, before. Despite my problems with the movie, The Last Jedi didn’t feel like it was arbitrarily throwing away ideas built up in The Force Awakens, so much as turning the story in a new direction to give a counterpoint to the previous two trilogies. But many of the changes in The Rise of Skywalker feel so arbitrary, even petty, that it just makes it feel like watching a bunch of preposterously rich people fighting over a box of Star Wars toys and refusing to share.
The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with co-writer Chris Terrio that makes me think it maybe wasn’t as clear-cut or arbitrary. (Or petty). Perhaps the major problems that I had with the story weren’t ones of intent, but of execution. They were trying to build on ideas from The Last Jedi, for the most part. But it sounds as if they had a very narrow interpretation of what The Last Jedi was trying to say, felt an obligation to honor a bunch of other people’s interpretation of the franchise (including George Lucas), and then had to deal with the thousands of things that always happen over the course of making any blockbuster, especially such a high-profile one that has to act as the conclusion of nine movies.
The biggest difference between my experience watching The Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is that this time, I knew that Star Wars isn’t over. There’s no sense that it’s time for me to put away childish things, since I’ve got a huge media company pumping out millions of dollars worth of more stuff or me to enjoy at a steady clip.
If you’d told me that my favorite interpretation of Star Wars would be by the guy who was largely responsible for Swingers, I — well, to be honest, I probably would’ve said, “yeah, that checks out.” But it’s still great to see that Disney seems to have taken the best part of the MCU model — giving creators who grew up loving the material the chance and the resources to realize their own interpretation of it —and applied it to Star Wars. I don’t love the extended comedy beat at the beginning of the last episode of The Mandalorian, for instance, but I do love that it was instantly recognizable as Taika Waititi’s unique contribution.
That allows me to focus on The Rise of Skywalker’s speeder bike moments, the parts that it does well:
- It was great that they put so much focus on having all the main characters going on an adventure together.
- Although the story felt overstuffed with characters, I did like that their presence was kept character-driven — hinting at a stormtrooper revolt with Jannah, and the scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold story for Zorii Bliss, to emphasize the idea of “regular people” across the galaxy all standing up to the new Empire.
- I loved the propulsive energy of the first act that kept things moving (even if I felt they were chasing after the wrong things).
- I still love the inherent charisma of Daisy Ridley, who manages to make an unwaveringly good character still seem interesting and relatable.
- I loved the scene with Han Solo and the clever repeat of “I know.”
- I appreciated that they kept at least a trace of the “democratization of the Force” idea alive, with Finn’s growing awareness that he’s Force-sensitive.
- I loved Adam Driver’s performance after his transformation back to Ben Solo — after two and a half movies with not much to work with other than “really intense,” he made that character so appealing, with relatively limited screen time and just an “ouch” and a perfectly-delivered, Han Solo-esque shrug.
- And I loved that they did build on the idea of a unique connection between Rey and Ben, incorporating it into two key moments in the plot. It was a great counterpoint to the iconic moment in The Force Awakens in which she takes the light saber from him, to see her give it back.
Ultimately, I just can’t see the point in getting too upset about the disappointing parts of a movie that was this entertaining. That doesn’t mean I’ve “outgrown” Star Wars, or that I need to retroactively dismiss or downplay its importance to me — I’m still one of the guys who got engaged in Galaxy’s Edge this year, and I’m still considering the feasibility of having a wedding ceremony inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It just means we no longer have to settle for what one person’s interpretation of what Star Wars “is.”
While we’ve spent the last decade or so besieged by reboots and re-interpretations and re-imaginings, it’s often seemed like we’re in a cultural death spiral: everyone lacks imagination or ambition, and they’d rather play to nostalgia instead of creating something new. But there’s something uniquely wonderful about the thrill I felt seeing The Force Awakens, or even seeing The Mandalorian deliver a live-action version of a forgotten toy. Dismissing it as nothing more than nostalgia makes it sound completely selfish, instead of acknowledging that it’s more like a shared cultural moment. They’re not simply showing me the things that I used to love; they’re acknowledging “I understand why you love this, because I grew up loving it, too.”
There’s value in telling stories in these shared universes. And of course, there’s nothing stopping creators from using the money and/or industry clout from these shared universes and applying them to make their own original murder mysteries. I can put references to Harry Potter and Pulp Fiction into my opinions about a Star Wars movie, and we all get it because they’re all cultural touchstones that we share. Not narrow-minded fandoms that we’ve got exclusive ownership over. Take the parts of it that you love, don’t get too upset over the parts you don’t, and go on to enjoy — or make — new stories.
Back in middle school, I heard that Star Wars was planned as an epic trilogy of trilogies, and I tried to imagine all the different ways that such a long, huge story could play out. Now, though, limiting it to only nine stories seems remarkably unambitious.