If the “Star Wars” prequels have taught us anything, it’s that near-universally reviled trilogies will only be reconsidered and re-evaluated once there is a new trilogy to strike down with all of the hatred. With “The Rise Of Skywalker” closing out not only the sequel trilogy but also, apparently, the whole Skywalker Saga, that redemption may never come for Abrams’ fun but deeply flawed additions to the Journal Of The Whills. It has not been a good year for long-running sagas which culminate in a showdown in front of a pointy throne.
As a mysterious transmission from the long-thought-dead Emperor Sheev Palpatine broadcasts throughout the galaxy, Kylo Ren uses a Sith Wayfinder to trace the message to its source, the mysterious planet Exegol, legendary Sith homeworld and hiding place of the resurrected Palpatine and all the Star Destroyers, ready to emerge and conquer the galaxy once and for all. Meanwhile, the remains of the Resistance plot to find a way to locate and destroy this fleet before it can be deployed. But Rey is troubled by dark visions and it seems the Emperor has more than a passing interest in her destiny too…
Who could have possibly foreseen that a Director notorious for his reliance on homage and nostalgia who’s conspicuously never been able to stick the landing would deliver a film which doesn’t quite stick the landing and flings a neverending cavalcade of callbacks and references at the screen in place of a cogent story? Instead, we’re offered an over-stuffed, occasionally incoherent Jive Bunny style cover artist compilation of everything “Star Wars” has been where fan service box-ticking and course-corrective bet-hedging takes the lead at the expense of narrative cohesion and character development.
The problem lies largely with the script which features Prequel-level dialogue and overwritten, arbitrary plotting although the saving grace is that it’s not as leadenly performed by the cast thanks to more performance-friendly direction. Admittedly, no threequel has been so damaged by the untimely death of one of its stars since Heath Ledger’s passing derailed The Dark Knight trilogy resulting in the compromised “The Dark Knight Rises”. Here, though, the absence of Carrie Fisher is more keenly felt, never more so than when she’s on screen, restricted to static, monosyllabic exchanges with other characters who deliver long expository questions and statements for the venerable general to respond to accordingly. It’s technically well done, but there’s no getting around the fact it’s clearly reused and repurposed footage. There’s a Leia-shaped hole at the heart of this story and all the call-backs and cameos in the galaxy cannot fill it.
Screenwriters Chris Terrrio and Abrams himself lack the patience or interest to keep things even remotely consistent across the three films and so characters we’ve come to know arbitrarily change their nature in service of hitting the required plot points. Abrams has always been open that his favourite Star Wars character is Han Solo and is shows here as he tries to turn nearly every character into a facsimile of him, no more so than Po who, out of nowhere, acquires a history of being a spice running scoundrel who left debts, broken hearts (and no doubt deceased Rodians) in his wake. None of the costly lessons of “The Last Jedi” matter, nor his hard-won understanding of the importance of long-term thinking for leadership either because when push comes to shove, his go-to move is still a heroic Hail Mary all-out attack. Other old characters get pretty short shrift too. C-3PO is reduced to an irritating caricature by this point and an array of new action figures characters are introduced, namechecked and then discarded by the plot having done their merchandising job.
It’s obvious that despite their bullish response and healthy Box Office, Disney were deeply spooked by the polarised reaction to “The Last Jedi” (and the collateral damage to “Solo”) after the near-universal embracing of the cosy nostalgia of “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” but in returning to Abrams as their ‘only hope’ they’ve ensured that in trying to please the bulk of the fans and also appease the bitter fandom factions they’ve delivered a patchwork quilt of “Star Wars” moments likely to disappoint everybody.
Palpatine’s abrupt and cursorily explained return, Rey’s parentage, the checkbox appearance of the Knights of Ren (without exploration or explanation), Abrams innate desire to pander to every fan theory, speculation or wish can’t make up for his lack of a singular creative vision. In many ways, “The Rise Of Skywalker” confirms that, for better or worse, “Star Wars” has become a franchise with a small-screen mentality now – it belongs, serialised, on television and not in grand epic blockbusters that arrive every couple of years – which is kind of appropriate given its roots in the Saturday matinee serials of George Lucas’ youth. There’s plenty of energy and action, of course, and pretty things to look at almost as if Abrams believes if he keeps everything moving fast enough and looks cool enough you won’t have time to see how ineptly put together and derivative it all is but this is Star Wars and everything is destined to be scrutinised to an infinite degree. Star Wars needs to move forward to survive and Abrams isn’t the man to turn to for that. I guess “Star Wars” fans know how “Star Trek” fans felt back in 2013.
There’s a distinct lack of emotional weight to anything that happens and not one but two cynically and inelegantly staged death fake-outs in the middle of the film undermines any potential stakes for what follows. Not only that, but given the degree of teetering between good and evil as characters oscillate arbitrarily between redemption and damnation it make you wonder just how many genocidal mulligans are one family allowed? In the end, though, the bad guys are defeated by their one consistent Achilles heel: their apparent inability to design any kind of superweapon that doesn’t have an obvious and easily attackable fatal weakness and perhaps the most damning assessment of the sequel trilogy is that it leaves the Star Wars galaxy in exactly the same place it was at the end of “Return Of The Jedi” (except without Han Solo, Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia), so what was the actual point?