Spoilers for the final chapter in the Star Wars Saga.
We just got back from watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It was … OK. The problem is, when you’re capping a four-decade-long multimedia saga that has woven its way to become the folklore of the century, “OK” really isn’t good enough. The cultural heft of the Star Wars epic deserved a send-off that was truly, well, epic. And it’s blindingly obvious that J.J. Abrams was never the person to write that appropriate conclusion.
The pacing is frenetic and many things are left unexplained. Abrams is the past-master of the Fridge Logic script, where the logical implausibilities pile up like mad and the writer hopes you don’t notice until you get home. Sadly, for Abrams, the plot holes jump out glaringly during the film, and it’s lesser for them. How did Kylo Ren find the Sith wayfinder? What’s going on in that first scene? How the heck did the Emperor cheat death? Never mind, we don’t have time for that — just hold on tight! I’m going to steal a line from a Vox review, because it’s spot-on perfect: “And while lots of things occur, very little actually happens.”
Some people complain that TROS is a glorified MacGuffin hunt, but I don’t have that complaint. MacGuffin hunts can be both entertaining and even deep, and MacGuffin hunts can provide space for interesting character development. (See: Raiders of the Lost Ark.) My complaint is, this MacGuffin hunt is poorly constructed. We aren’t given any time to figure out what’s being sought or why we should care, much less given any emotional connection to the chase. It’s as bad as the search for Luke’s map in The Force Awakens. (Hey, also a J.J.Abrams script. I wonder if there’s a connection?)
Speaking of The Force Awakens, this film has the weaknesses of that one writ large. There is copious fan service and a parade of things that appear One Last Time because we’re watching what is billed as the final Star Wars film of the original saga. Most of it is shoehorned in, with no time to breathe and no space to appreciate. Hey, look — Luke’s X-Wing! And over there is Vader’s helmet! Isn’t it neat to run into good old Lando! And awww, Chewie finally gets his medal! It’s overwhelming, not in a good way but in the “Hey, check this off the list” way.
Much like Luke in the original trilogy, Rey is the least interesting part of this band of misfits and would-be heroes. The most genuinely fun part of the movie comes at the start as Poe and Finn retrieve intel, then try to make it back to base. The banter on the Falcon is honest and engaging — I’d happily watch more hours of that. When they rejoin Rey, she gets in on the camaraderie, and it’s great. Then she flits off on her own, and the weight of the Chosen One arc very nearly crushes any spark of interest.
The movie isn’t awful, the way the prequels are. It holds together, albeit with baling wire and spit, and the characters are mostly interesting. In a world that had never seen Infinity War/Endgame, this might have been enough. It does the “wrap it all up” tolerably. But in our world, we’ve just recently had a brilliant example of how to tie together a sprawling franchise giving each character a sendoff of wit and dignity.
I’ll admit part of my issue is, I’m one of the approximately five people who truly value The Last Jedi . That movie acknowledged the significance of Star Wars by being willing to take the magnitude of risks that the original film did. Rather than kowtow to the sacred cows, it played with established tropes of the series and explored some implications that, perhaps, George Lucas would rather we not. Most spectacular of these, of course, was the revelation of the import of Rey’s parentage, in that it had none. Breaking Star Wars out of the rut of genetic destiny, Rian Johnson dared to say that perhaps the galaxy far, far away did not belong solely to those blessed by a genetic lottery. Everyone matters.
That was clearly a bridge too far for J.J. Adams, whom you can virtually see singlehandedly wronking Star Wars back onto its “true” course. There is nothing daring here: Rey is of special descent. Ben is redeemed semi-painlessly. The Big Bad is just bad with little motivation given other than the evulz.
In the end, The Rise of Skywalker justifies all the criticisms hurled at Endgame and the concept of franchises in general. Marvel showed us that you can utilize the scope and scale of blockbusters to tell interesting stories that delve into characters. But Disney Star Wars shows us how difficult that is, and how unlikely that innovative creators will be given the space to take those risks. Much like bringing in Ron Howard to patch up Solo (where you can almost literally see his fingerprints from shaving off anything interesting or daring), bringing in Abrams for his second go achieved exactly what Disney wanted: A film that takes no risks, offends no one, and stands for nothing. It’s a not-bad way to pass 2.5 hours but it will slip out of memory as soon as the credits roll. The Star Wars saga — and the Star Wars fandom — deserved better.
Update 2021-0607: My take here is, if anything, far too generous. The Rise of Skywalker is like a dead fish: none too appetizing when fresh, rapidly taking on a stench as time passes. It is the first Star Wars movie I have ever seen that has engendered absolutely no interest in rewatching. Indeed, I find the thought of sitting through it again repellant.