Film

Review: As It Ends an Era, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Gets Too Nostalgic for Its Own Good

I think I went into this most recent (and supposedly final) Star Wars with the right attitude: I didn’t pin my hopes and dreams on the filmmakers bringing us back from the edge of the crushing disappointment of the prequels (and yes, I will happily admit that the prequels have a handful of lovely sequences in them, if you will admit that they still suck overall). My only bit of wishful thinking about episodes 7 through 9 was that they bring something new to the familiar settings and characters and give us some idea of how this far away galaxy would move forward once the so-called Skywalker Saga was complete. I’m not talking about setting up new sequels—I am firmly done with these stories—I just wanted to have an idea that the universe was in good hands.

Star Wars Rise of Skywalker

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

So now this 40-plus-year-old story is done being told, with director and co-writer J.J. Abrams back to wrap up what he began in The Force Awakens, and I’m genuinely stunned that not only did he learn nothing from the risks taken by interim writer/director Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi), but also that Abrams, in some cases, actively attempts to dismantle some of Johnson’s boldest choices—choices that needed to be made, if only to breathe some fresh air into this virtually lifeless nostalgia corpse that seemed more interested in parading a series of familiar faces and storylines before our eyes than in actually doing anything unexpected (heaven forbid!). With The Rise of Skywalker, you can almost feel Abrams and his team checking off a list of complaints about The Last Jedi and either ignoring them, undoing them, or minimizing their importance to the greater story.

I’ll keep this review as spoiler free as possible, but I can’t promise not to dance around a few key plot points. I’m just assuming that the fact that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) isn’t fully dead isn’t even a secret any longer, and if you thought it was, well, an announcement that he lives is right there in the opening crawl. Not only is he alive, but since he was defeated at the end of The Return of the Jedi, he has built the largest fleet of Star Destroyers ever assembled. Apparently he’s been lurking in the shadows of the creation of the First Order since Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was in metal diapers and had a hand in bringing Ren and Snoke (from the previous two films) together to worship at the altar of Darth Vader’s melted helmet.

The film opens with Ren locating Palpatine with the express purpose of killing him, but when the zombie Emperor reveals not only his ultimate plan to beat the Resistance but also his specific plans for capturing Rey (Daisy Ridley) to bring her over to the dark side, Ren has a change of heart and joins forces with Palpatine, at least for now. Driver continues to bring a supreme angst and depth to Kylo Ren that is so clearly not in the screenplay (co-written by Chris Terrio, an Oscar winner for Argo), and if anything elevates this movie far beyond its nostalgia dry humping, it’s him.

But Ridley’s work in Skywalker is a close second. Not unlike her Force buddy Ren, Rey is struggling with who she is, where she came from, and why she is showing signs of being the most powerful Jedi ever. Finally receiving some practical Jedi training, her power, skills and commitment to staying on the light side of the Force seem firmly in place. But when she receives another message from Ren, she returns to the hub of the Resistance and her friends Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, playing the crack pilot with a bit more humility and dignity than before). I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised at just how much Carrie Fisher shows up in The Rise of Skywalker; using unused outtakes from The Force Awakens, the footage fits in seamlessly with the story being told, without feeling crowbarred in. Although I don’t feel the film overall does justice to the legacy of the franchise, Abrams does a solid job paying tribute to Leia Organa, letting her go out as the leader and inspiration she always was.

Old friends are back as well, in the form of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2, and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). A few new faces also show up with varying degrees of effectiveness, including characters played by Dominic Monaghan, Keri Russell (as an old friend of Poe, Zorii Bliss, who never fully takes her helmet off), and Naomi Ackie as Jannah, another former stormtrooper who befriends Finn and introduces him to a legion of troopers who defected from the First Order. Kelly Marie Tran returns from the last film as Rose Tico and is largely lost in an ocean of secondary characters. And the weirdest return belongs to Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, still suave and still a friend to the Resistance.

The supporting players on Team Bad Guys fare better. I will always love Domhnall Gleeson’s take on prissy little ginger bitch General Hux, whose character supplies us with one of the film’s truly major surprises. My favorite new addition to the saga is Richard E. Grant as General Pryde, a First Order leader who has secretly been taking orders from Palpatine. Grant can play charming and personable so convincingly, but when he turns his acting powers to evil, he’s magnificent. I’m guessing any other surprise appearances in Skywalker are ones I’m not supposed to mention, and so I won’t for now.

Ignoring specific plot points for now, it should come as no surprise that Rey finds a reason to confront both Kylo Ren and eventually the Emperor, and in doing so, she must confront a few hard truths about herself and where she comes from. In part of his dismantling of The Last Jedi, Abrams has now made the issue of Rey’s lineage important again after Rian Johnson thought it best not to get caught up in such meaningless devices. By saying that Rey’s parents were just ordinary people, Johnson emphasizes that anyone can be a hero and not just the son or daughter of someone powerful. I guess Abrams didn’t agree, but tying her to nostalgia does nothing to make the character any more interesting or meaningful, and it takes a great deal of the potential kick of this movie right out of it.

All of that being said, The Rise of Skywalker is a stunning, often haunting, movie in a visual sense. Abrams has designed certain sequences almost like horror movie set pieces, especially in the realm that surrounds Palpatine. The action sequences are also spectacular, but action has never been an issue with Abrams, as he’s proven in one other Star Wars film and two Star Trek movies. His bigger issue is caring too much about what other people think and trying to please everyone, especially the most vocal among fanbases.

I still don’t know what Abrams actually thinks of The Last Jedi, and while his treatment of it in Skywalker literally includes a character saying his choices in the last movie were “a mistake,” he was given so many opportunities to take these films to new and interesting places. Instead, he revisits familiar locations and even more familiar characters over and over and over again. It’s like comfort food that fills you up but offers no substance. I think the filmmaker believes that by capturing a familiar feeling with his movies, he’s doing the soul some good, and that might be true for some. I’ve always been of a mind that such nostalgia-mining results in empty and lazy movies.

I will give Ridley and Driver full credit for acting their hearts out in The Rise of Skywalker. I could have watched an entire film in which they were the only characters and been wholly satisfied. But when you bring back Emperor Palpatine, don’t have him simply spout out the same old lines about the Dark Side and have him shoot Force Lightning from his gnarled fingers; we’ve seen it all before and worse, we know it can eventually be defeated.

There’s a coda to this final film that exemplifies what’s wrong with Abrams’ approach to Star Wars movies. And while I won’t ruin the moment, on so many levels, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, mostly because I didn’t want to be seeing it. I didn’t dislike The Rise of Skywalker because I enjoyed The Last Jedi so much; I disliked it because I don’t tend to like any movies that don’t branch out from their humble origins and try to be original within the framework of a set universe. I acknowledge that Abrams had an impossible task in wrapping up these nine movies, but like many, maybe he needs to spend less time on the internet and more time remembering what made these stories special in the first place.

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17 replies »

  1. Thankfully, Abrams made Rise of Skywalker so that when rewatching the saga fans can skip Last Jedi entirely. The bold choices in Last Jedi were not consistent with the universe that had been created in previous films. If the film were better, that would have expanded the established universe, but instead the film served only to contradict it. Terrible storytelling, too, especially for the middle film of a trilogy.

  2. Ah, sad but true. I was so excited to see this movie after all the interesting new ideas set up in the Last Jedi – after how repetitive (but fun!) the Force Awakens was, TLJ was so refreshing. I expected and wanted to like this movie, assuming it would be a continuation of those themes and keep adding something new. But not only did it not commit to the story that preceded it- it didn’t even commit to its own story. Moments like what happens with Chewbacca could have been really compelling – the potential for drama and conflict was there – and then the movie seems to decide ‘nah, nevermind.’ Why do it at all if we don’t get to see the characters mourn, feel a feeling, and give Rey a chance to really struggle and try to come to terms with this incredible power that she has? The whole movie overall felt like a wasted opportunity, I really was surprised at how sad it made me that this is how the Skywalker saga ends – all of them dead, defeated. So much for hope, I guess.

  3. I have planned this moment for the 4 last months. From what I’ve seen, this is the best Star Wars film ever made! The visual effects are genius, the music and lighting are poetry, and the acting is brilliance. The surprises revealed so far have been watched by me at least 200 times on YouTube and I have broken the pause button haha. Try watching it in stereo surround wearing only leather pants, just after a shower, it is amazing.

    Emperor Palpatine resurrection is super cool and it will be awesome to watch Rey and Poe and BB-8 kill him to death will be super satisfying. The rebels are always the underdog and the new starfighter will be awesome!! The saber-lance is badass and will be my favorite toy as soon as DisneyWorld makes it and sells it. The only disappointing thing is that there is no reveal that there is a trans character or that Poe and Finn end up together. I hope they do, but JJ Abrams will probably just have one of them die in a tragic twist after they kiss. I know it will be passionate but very sad.

    It was deliberate to release this movie before the end of this year, so that there is Oscar award consideration. I predict it will be nominated for 16 categories and win 13. Hope you all have your tickets and are as moist as I am now! May the Force be with you.

  4. You got to love the same bots and trolls going around the web attacking anyone who love “Last Jedi”. And yes its the same people going to different critics site because you can see they are that lazy enough to write the same response but under different names. They are going ballistic that Rise of Skywalker is getting pan by critics.

    • LOL! Seriously your trying to make the people who liked The Last Jedi look like the victims? Do you realize that for the last two years it has been the people who didn’t like the last Jedi who have been under constant attack. You can find countless articles accusing them of being everything from racist and misogynist to Russian bots. Yet if you actually look into it you will quickly find that all of those accusations are blatantly false and it is just a way for Disney to draw attention away from the fact that they are dealing with a franchise and fanbase that they don’t truly understand.

      If you want even better evidence of this just look at the revenue of each Star Wars film produced by Disney and you will see the massive drop between each film.

      Also where are you coming up with the people who didn’t like The Last Jedi are going ballistic because of the critics response to the Rise of Skywalker? Most of the people who didn’t like the Last Jedi have long ago given up on this trilogy and expected it to be bad and are rather happy that critics are finally somewhat on the same page.

  5. I think you are completely misinterpreted what fans wanted vs what was actually delivered. What people didn’t want was a nostalgia filled rehash of A New Hope but unfortunately that is what was delivered with The Force Awakens.

    Then in the Last Jedi Ryan Johnson did nothing but add very cringe worthy humor into otherwise serious scenes and try to subvert fans expectations whenever he got the chance. If you want to properly subvert fan expectations in a meaningful way you need to replace the expectations of the audience with something equally or even more impressive then what they were expecting in the first place. Unfortunately, Ryan Johnson failed miserably at this because instead of adding something amazing, everything just lead to dead ends and the audience was just left wondering what was the point of it all.

    After all of the subversion of expectations, lack of compelling character arcs, and plot holes from the Last Jedi there was very little direction left to take for the last movie in a trilogy. So, it is not surprising that is a jumbled mess.

    • Spare me the crap about how last Jedi ruined “Rise of Skywalker. ” “Rise” will live or die on its own merits, not because a few crybabies still hold a grudge over a film they did not like.

  6. 1. You say “genuinely “ way too much.
    2. You liked The Last Jedi which voids your entire opinion, on anything, in life.
    3. This movie will probably still suck

  7. Thank you for your review. It and others like it convinced me that JJ must have repaired the deliberate sabotage of Johnson, as he set about trying to destroy a billion dollars worth of IP with his “bold choices”.

    The boycott is over. Balance is restored. The fan base will be happy, the critics are sad, and another 30% gap on rotten tomatoes between “critic score” and “real person score” is on it’s way.

    • Oh the irony that Johnson set out to destroy a billion-dollar franchise and ended up making a billion dollars doing it. He must be so disappointed, and I’m sure he gave all the money back.

  8. Couldn’t agree more, the nostalgia impulse has completely sucked any originality or life that could have been in these movies.

  9. Uuuum, well, if you think that paying penance to cinema past, or willfully ignore the the niceties of nostalgia vis a vis viewer brain chemistry, or, even giving the audience what they want, is all a bad thing, then please, lol, I…strongly recommend that you not go see Top Gun Maverick next year; you’ll most likely end up looking like a Palpatine zombie as result.

    Just stick with reviewing flicks by all your young, cool, and hip directors who want to Benihana
    all trope and coda and give the audience nuevo sushi on avacado toast; like Deadpool guy with
    Terminator or Johnson with Star Wars. Enjoy lol

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