Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker below
A long time ago… the first Star Wars film was saved in editing. The original cut of the film was a disaster on par with the destruction of Alderaan. The story and scenes flew all over the place like asteroids flung from a field of planetary debris. But in subsequent edits and the final theatrical release, superfluous scenes were removed, but at the same time the film was given room to breathe. Its perfectly plodding pacing lingered on the two droids for much of the first act, before ever introducing the main character of Luke Skywalker. The result was a cinematic masterpiece, one which still holds up in 2019 as well as it did in 1977. Director J.J. Abrams’ first crack at a Star Wars film was The Force Awakens, which was rightly derided as derivative of A New Hope to a fault. And yet the first film’s willingness to make major edits, to cut unnecessary content, and to adopt a more thoughtful and deliberate speed of storytelling are all aspects which Abrams would have been right to ape for The Rise of Skywalker.
The film’s breakneck speed actually adheres to Lucas’ directorial mantra of “faster and more intense,” and evidences why he was always a better worldbuilder than a director. Scenes are stripped of their emotional weight in an over-eagerness to skip onto the next. Consider the destruction of Kijimi. As soon as Abrams establishes that Star Destroyers now carry planet killing weapons via its annihilation, the film promptly forgets its existence. Contra the destruction of Alderaan, in which Leia, Obi-Wan, and the audience all have time to process the impact. Gareth Edwards recycled the Death Star to great effect with the destruction of Jedha City with a much less physically powerful blast, but whose impact was shown affecting the heroes and villains alike. Yet Abrams, like General Hux, once again repeats the mistake of Starkiller Base, confusing more powerful superweapons as more interesting MacGuffins; confusing destructive scale for emotional depth.
The film’s second major failing is in its very Disney-esque deus ex saccharine. Throughout The Rise of Skywalker, characters constantly comfort one another with the platitude that “there are more of us than there are of them” despite all evidence to the contrary. Though the ranks of the Resistance have grown since their decimation at the Battle of Crait, they still pale in number compared to the vast legions of the First and Final Orders, and nowhere in their extensive travels do the heroes meet many citizens or soldiers sympathetic to their cause. Lando and Chewbacca’s mission to unite an armada’s worth of warriors seem as hairbrained as any of Han’s old schemes, and even less likely to succeed, let alone in so short a timeframe. While it does follow from the events of The Last Jedi that that oppressed of the galaxy have been inspired by the last stand of Luke Skywalker, showing such via their appearance at the last minute with little to no foreshadowing strains credulity. It makes for an exciting turn in the climatic battle, but not a plausible one.
Worse is the film’s need to spell out for the audience the thesis it’s arguing in this scene, with a certain First Order officer saying, “They’re not a navy, they’re just people.” What’s meant to be inspirational comes across as cloying and sentimental. But worst of all here is the substance of the message itself: the forces of Good can win only through numeric advantage. It cuts against the thesis of every other Star Wars film. In the first, a small squadron takes down the Death Star. In Rogue One, the same is true for the stealing of the Death Star plans. And in The Last Jedi, Luke walks out with a laser sword and single handedly takes on the whole First Order. The Rise of Skywalker, meanwhile, places more trust in people than The Force to bring about a eucatastrophic outcome.
And what is that outcome? The defeat of Palpatine? By bringing him back once and not establishing why this defeat is different, there’s less closure here at Exegol than at Endor. What then? The fall of a dictatorship throughout the galaxy? Balance in the Force and the prospect of a new generation of Jedi soon to be trained? Instead of advancing the narrative whatsoever, Abrams only managed to bring it back to the same exact spot it was in at the end of Return of the Jedi. Palpatine’s return could have been meaningful, giving Rey an opportunity to go beyond what Luke had done. Her defeat of Palpatine could have granted everyone knowledge of the Force, or brought back all the dead as Force Ghosts, or any number of radical changes to the status quo to give the Skywalker Saga a true sense of purpose and finality. Instead, the entire Sequel Trilogy was rendered a reskin of the Original, minus its originality. Or its quality. After all, did Rey blocking Palpatine’s lightning with her sabers and destroying him with the feedback truly have more resonance than Luke’s anguish in feeling the lightning course through him and appealing to his father for mercy? Did her kiss with Ben – whose redemption had already happened – have more weight than Luke taking off Vader’s mask and seeing the face of his father for the first time? No. In the many parallels between the originals and Abrams’ sequels, the latter are always a poor copy of the former.
This is especially the case with Abrams’ repeat reliance on the trite trope of the thermal exhaust port. It reeked of plot expediency even back in A New Hope. Rogue One did much to make sense of the original Death Star being built with a fatal flaw, but no such explanations exist for the similarly singular targets at Starkiller Base or the Last Order fleet. Palpatine builds an entire armada on a planet whose atmosphere prevents the ships from taking off without a signal from a single tower – despite no one in the galaxy knowing the location of that planet, thus presumably allowing the manufacturing to take place on a moon or in low orbit. Or if there are resources to build a thousand Star Destroyers, why not build more than one tower? Or why would Palpatine announce his existence to the galaxy while he was still vulnerable? And Abrams’ attempt to subvert this convention only leads to more questions. If the command ship could act as a backup for navigating the fleet through Exegol’s atmosphere, why weren’t all the ships fitted with such, other than to create a simple and achievable task that would ensure the heroes’ victory. At least the vulnerabilities of the second Death Star were explained as a deliberate gamble on the part of Palpatine. No such explanation exists for the Last Order’s folly here.
At other times the film explains too much. All of the things which Rian Johnson rightly eschewed – Snoke’s backstory, Rey’s lineage – The Rise of Skywalker attempts to answer. But whereas Vader’s revelation in The Empire Strikes Back was so shocking specifically because it was unexpected, the years of speculation as to these matters have rendered any answers unsatisfying, including the ones Abrams delivered. He’d been critical of Midi-chlorians in the press tour for this film, saying he wanted the Force to be a more mystical matter, and yet he felt the need to explain Rey’s strength through her having the blood of Palpatine. Johnson’s shrugging explanation that she was simply who the Force chose is much more in line with the idea that anyone can experience a connection to the divine irrespective of their lineage or station. Nor is the revelation itself given much pomp. Much as it yearns to be, it’s no “I am your father.”
The film’s final failing is perennial to all the sequel movies, though especially aggravated here: it has no idea what to do with the character of Finn. Early in the runtime as the heroes are stuck in the sinking fields of Pasaana, Finn states he has something to tell Rey before they die. When they emerge in a tunnel below before he has the chance to finish, he refuses to complete his confession. This is a thread returned to throughout the film, but never resolved. Presumably Finn was about to profess his (unrequited) love for Rey, but the plot point simple goes nowhere. Given that no two actors in the last century of cinema have ever had less onscreen chemistry than Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, avoiding romantic entanglements between their characters was a wise decision, despite such being foreshadowed back in The Force Awakens. The Rise of Skywalker smartly builds off The Last Jedi by pairing Rey with Ren, but in doing so renders Finn redundant. It seemed at points as if it’d once again pair him with Rose, and at others that he’d end up with fellow deserter Jannah, but neither relationship was developed romantically or platonically. Finn had a significant amount of screen time, but no arc or character development during such.
There is, of course, much to like about The Rise of Skywalker despite its many flaws, particularly where Abrams builds off Johnson’s work in The Last Jedi instead of negating it. Building off of the “ForceTime” connection shared by Kylo Ren and Rey and taking the fact that Yoda’s Force Ghost physically interacted with the world to its logical conclusion, the dyad of Ren and Rey are shown physically interacting across vast distances, even moving objects to one another. This leads to the most unique lightsaber battle ever conceived on screen, as the two clash blades while she’s aboard a starship and he remains on the planet below. Likewise, the active tracking through hyperspace that was such a crucial plot point in Episode VIII is shown to have ramifications going forward, leading to a brilliant chase as TIE Fighters pursue the Millennium Falcon from one planet to the next in quick succession.
Perhaps the best part of Skywalker is that Palpatine’s taunts and temptations actually make sense. In Return of the Jedi, when he told Luke “Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey towards the Dark Side will be complete,” it’s unclear what his goal could possibly be. Presumably Palpatine wanted Luke to convert from Jediism to Sithism and replace his father as Sidious’ apprentice. But Palpatine never made a compelling case to Luke as to why he should become a Sith, either by appealing to veracity of the Sith teachings or by tempting Luke with what he desired should he join the cult. And if Luke had actually killed Palpatine, per his taunting, that would cut against the Sith Lord’s goal. Moreover, Luke was an officer in the Alliance military and Palpatine a legitimate military target; he needn’t have been angry to strike the Emperor down. Nor would a single act in anger mean Luke suddenly rejects all doctrines of the Jedi and accept all the propositions in the corpus doctrinae of the Sith. That’s not how religion works. The SEAL who took out Bin Laden didn’t become a radical Islamist.
In Rise of Skywalker, however, Palpatine gives good reasons for Rey striking him down and for her to stay her hand. If she kills him, his spirit will possess her body. That is a far more plausible threat than her suddenly being a Born Again true believer in the Dark Side. And to tempt her to join Palpatine, should she do as commanded, he actually offers to spare her friends’ lives, unlike with Luke. The result is a far more menacing phantom than in Episode VI. Except, of course, for his final fate, which was ambiguous and nonsensical. Can he come back once again still? Why was killing him with his own lighting any different than slashing him with a saber? Here, as with elsewhere, the film raises questions to which it offers no answers.
Despite finally awarding Chewie his long-awaited medal, The Rise of Skywalker cannot be said to satisfyingly conclude the Skywalker Saga started “a long time ago” in A New Hope. Where it’s derivative of past Star Wars films, it proves a poor copy of its superior predecessors. Where it supersedes their narrative scale and stakes, it deescalates their emotional depths. Where it’s original, it proves overly saccharine. Where it offers revelations, its reveals are all unsatisfying. Where it argues a thesis, it proves a paltry platitude. The Rise of Skywalker might be the end of the nine-part Saga, but it must not be the end of the film franchise. It’s too discordant a note on which to end. The galaxy needs a new hope.