The Rise of Skywalker (JJ Abrams, 2019)

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This is a review of The Rise of Skywalker. If you don’t want to know anything about what happens in the movie, you shouldn’t read this.

Honestly there was probably no way that The Rise of Skywalker was going to be what one would call a “good” movie. At least not in any really meaningful sense of the term. And definitely not with JJ Abrams in the director’s chair. The Disney Star Wars films have been met from the beginning with two vehement attacks. First, that they are the product of corporate middle management, cash grabs designed by committee to appeal to quadrants more than anything else. Call this the attack from the left. It was almost unavoidable that the films, lacking the singular personality of George Lucas behind them, and produced by a monolithic monopoly deathly afraid of anything that might be the least bit interesting, would be lacking in soul. The second attack came from the right, from an aggrieved base of so-called fans the loudest of whom were little more than whiny, entitled babymen, complaining about anything that threatened their preconceived ideas of where the Star Wars saga should go, and, perhaps most importantly, whom it should include. The complainants range from your basic nerd pedants arguing about the physics of a Holdo Maneuver to unimaginative screenwriters who couldn’t conceive of possibilities not outlined in the holy Original Texts to outright misogynists who whined repeatedly when any female character was given any degree of power or screen-time (they called Rey a “Mary Sue” after The Force Awakens and had far worse things to say about Rose after The Last Jedi). It would take a singularly confident and determined filmmaker to counter all these outraged voices and deliver a truly singular, beautiful, exciting, and thoughtful conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. JJ Abrams is not that filmmaker, and we will all pay for his lack of vision.

And pay we will, again and again. Or at least I will, because I’ve been a sucker for Star Wars since I was four years old and I’m not going to stop now just because nerds are angry and suits are soulless. The Rise of Skywalker is a deeply flawed movie: recklessly plotted, nonsensical in conception, uninteresting to look at, more concerned with solving unimportant problems than raising new and provocative questions. And I’m going to see it over and over and over again.

The Last Jedi ended with both sides, the light and the dark, the Resistance and the First Order, agreeing to let the old ways die. It hit a massive reset button on the structural issues of both Galactic governance and Force dualism, acknowledging that the Rebellion and the Jedi failed because of fundamental flaws within them that were merely exploited by the forces of Darkness. This is the thesis of Lucas’s prequels, and a compelling message for our own time, when our dominant ideologies have so limited our potential choices as to make real change seemingly impossible. The Last Jedi opened the door to something new: we don’t know what Rey (not quite a Jedi) and Kylo Ren (not quite a Sith) would make, nor how their inevitable confrontation would occur or resolve, but for once in the rigidly deterministic post-prequel Star Wars universe, anything seemed possible.

 

Stop reading now if you are afraid of spoilers. Major plot points are mentioned in the next paragraph.

 

But then, with a cowardice remarkable given the inevitability of the film’s, and the parent corporation’s, financial success, The Rise of Skywalker backs away from all that. In the interest of answering the stupidest complaint about the two previous films in the series, Abrams brings back the Emperor and makes him Rey’s grandfather. Somehow. It’s frankly the dumbest circle-closing retcon in Star Wars since Lucas made Leia Luke’s twin sister in Return of the Jedi. But at least that was merely tacked on, and not the premise for the entire movie. It seems that our good pal Emperor Palpatine survived his fall at the end of Jedi (sorry Vader, you died for nothing!) and has been hiding out in uncharted space on the Sith home-world for decades, hissing at ghosts and making experimental people and building a massive fleet of Star Destroyers (which are parked on the planet for some reason rather than flying around in space like, you know, spaceships). And also everyone of these Sith Star Destroyers (manned by apparently billions of people who come from, somewhere) has a Death Star laser on it that can blow up a planet. He wanted to capture Rey when she was a kid but he lost her somehow and then I guess gave up for 20 years. But now he’s back and wants Kylo Ren to bring her to him so she can sit in his chair.

The plot of the movie, such as it is, revolves around our heroes traveling from planet to planet looking for a map to the Emperor, then, once they find the map, trying to read it. They hop around, the First Order and Kylo always right behind them, and along the way have some adventures, the most moving of which are fake outs while the rest seem designed merely to establish the heterosexuality of Poe (who has a past with Keri Russell) and Finn (who has something important he never says to Rey). The structure of the film is established early when Poe, on the run from some TIE fighters, skips the Millennium Falcon from planet to planet in short hyperspace jumps–we’re never at any place long enough for it to seem real, but we bump into a lot of stuff while we’re there. Rose, the character at the heart of The Last Jedi, is sidelined back at the Resistance base for all these adventures, along with R2-D2 (because he and BB-8 can’t be in the same place at the same time?) and Leia, played by Carrie Fisher in what are obviously outtakes from the previous films, as the actress died before filming began. It’s not quite as ghoulish as the reanimated Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but its pretty janky: she always seems like she’s in a different scene from the other actors because, well, she is. Sidelining Rose isn’t fatal to the story, but it is a sign of Abrams’s total lack of conviction and willingness to give in to the most toxic elements of Star Wars “fandom” and it wholly undermines the ideological foundation of the series as The Last Jedi left it.

As of the end of Rian Johnson’s film, the Disney Star Wars films, Rogue One included, were telling a coherent story about social change over time, the passing of one generation’s ideas and ideals to another through myth and legend and revolution. A story about continuity and flux, about how improvement might be possible by discarding the worst parts of our selves and our worlds and embracing the best, and the sacrifices necessary along the way to make that change real and lasting. It’s not a profound idea for sure, but it’s at least an idea. And it’s not one that’s incompatible with Lucas’s theories as explored in the first two trilogies and the excellent Dave Filoni TV series Clone Wars and Rebels, which lie somewhere in-between Dialectics and Taoism. But Abrams junks all of that in favor of a whole bunch of plot, as if just throwing loud noises on the screen were a substitute for ideas or feelings.

The Rise of Skywalker is both bad and dumb, but I liked it. There are some wonderful individual moments. They don’t really connect to a coherent whole, but as isolated sequences, they’re marvelous (Rey jumping over a TIE fighter, Keri Russell looking Poe in the eyes, most of Rey and Kylo’s interactions) and the finale builds to some really lovely moments for Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. But really, Star Wars is simply too fundamental to the deepest parts of my brain for me to ever really dislike any of it. I’ve been trying to get my kids similarly hooked on it and it isn’t working at all. It’s possible that in helping to provide for them a safe and secure home life I have stunted their need for a fantasy wherein the absent and hostile father is redeemed. Or it’s possible that their young brains are simply being wired by TikTok and Roblox and Minecraft rather than the works of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Regardless, Star Wars remains an endlessly fascinating imaginary world for me, one built up with nonsense and mumbo jumbo and inane plotting and silly retconning and goofy kid stuff and surprisingly moving moments of loss and regret, failure and hope. I don’t have to forgive it its faults, because faults are part of the fabric of Star Wars, they are what make it so beloved. Because you can’t love a perfect thing, it would be too closed, too intimidating. The Rise of Skywalker is merely the latest deeply flawed entry in the saga. If it were to fail at the box office, that might actually be the best thing for the future of Star Wars, in that it might convince the suits to let someone with actual ideas or visual sense tackle one of these movies for a change (or at least not pull the rug out from under them when they do come up with something interesting, as in Solo and, maybe, Rogue One). But it’ll probably make a billion dollars and everyone will hate it and we’ll keep getting more of the same for another decade. That is the way of things.