Retrospective | ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ Failed the Star Wars Exit Exam. That’s Okay
Last fall, I began a series of retrospective essays on every live-action Star Wars feature film to date heading into the release of Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker. Now, with the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga heading to home video, I’ve written a final piece to go alongside it.
Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker had a tall order: to meet people’s expectations, it had to do three things at once. Obviously, it had to work as a movie. It had to work as the conclusion to a trilogy. It also had to work as a conclusion to a trilogy of trilogies, a nine-part opus developed over the course of three generations without a blueprint. Was this ever possible? Was is a reasonable expectation? (Star Wars fans are not exactly known for holding reasonable expectations.)
By most measures, it didn’t stick the landing. It received a decidedly mixed critical response, and generated the lowest box office tally of this new trilogy (unlike its threequel cousins Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, which both enjoyed bounce-backs from their respective middle chapters.) In a year which saw the franchise explore interesting new formats — everything from serialized streaming television, to modern AAA single-player video games, to immersive narrative theme parks — Rise felt timid, warmed-over, and unexceptional by comparison. As a movie, it’s somehow at once overstuffed and too light on ideas. It lacks a satisfying heft, yet it’s a lengthy, straining blockbuster. To tick off all the boxes it wants to within its sizable 2hr 22m runtime, it must breathlessly leap from one set piece to another without affording its audience enough quiet time with its characters to give its story beats gravity.
It’s not a terrible movie; if I put aside my misgivings with its thematic grasp of Star Wars, it’s a fun, albeit convoluted, escapist action-adventure. Rather, its shortcomings lie in how director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio have fundamentally misunderstood the heart of Star Wars.
Now, I want to give this movie a fair shake. I think the entire cast and crew performs their duties here admirably. The leads are as convincing and charismatic as they’ve been in the prior two entries. John Williams delivers another heroic lift, composing a beautiful, romantic score that looks back upon his four decade long oeuvre of Star Wars leitmotifs, while inventing a beautiful new theme cue that’s been in my Spotify rotation for months now. There’s some nice touches, like how Rey and Kylo’s unique connection, established in The Last Jedi, is expanded in clever and genuinely exciting ways. The production teams, likewise, fill every frame with gorgeous, quintesentially Star Warsy sets and creatures. The rank-and-file at Lucasfilm have the Star Wars assembly line down. That’s not the problem here.
The screenplay, rushed out the door after original director Colin Treverrow was booted over creative differences, is the culprit. It lets down this world and its characters: riddled with tortured logic and busywork, it misses obvious opportunities to meaningfully heighten its own dramatic stakes. Many of its beats could be removed without affecting the rest of the story, while key scenes have been lost in the edit, resulting in some real head-scratchers. At its worst, Abrams’ story seems to fundamentally misinterpret key tenets of George Lucas’ philosophy, which in Return of the Jedi cautioned against casting oneself as a white-knight savior of the world lest you become the villain in your own tale. Abrams seems to have sat out this lesson altogether, because at the climax of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey overcomes the phantom menace of yore with a deus ex machina which robs her of the chance to seriously engage with Star Wars’ core moral dilemma.
It was never about winning.
Comics illustrator and verified Twitter checkmark Brandon Bird recently opined that,
In George Lucas’ movies, the Emperor is a guy who plans and manipulates and controls, and eventually all of that is undone in a moment of empathy. He’s a device to deliver the moral that compassion is stronger than evil. JJ Abrams uses him as a video game boss.
Let me break that down a little more, in case you’re a normal human adult who doesn’t think about these space movies for kids all the time:
In Return of the Jedi, Palpatine gives Luke an ultimatum. Join your father at my side, and maybe I won’t obliterate all your friends who are fighting a losing battle next door. In an act of radical defiance, Luke rejects his offer, and is willing to die rather than capitulate to becoming a part of a corrupt system. He very nearly does die, electrocuted in a protracted sequence that’s fairly horrifying for a PG-rated fantasy film. It’s only upon hearing his son’s cries for help that Darth Vader is at last tipped over the edge to revolt, tossing Palpatine down a bottomless pit and getting a (belated) hero’s death in return.
As with The Force Awakens, Abrams chooses to mirror his third act’s action to its Original Trilogy counterpart. At Rise’s conclusion, Rey faces down Sheev Palpatine/The Emperor/Darth Sidious — or a zombified, possessed approximation thereof — and is presented with a similar choice as Luke: Strike me down in anger so that I may enter you, and your friends may yet live. Stick to your principles, and they’ll surely perish. Yet Rey does not choose as Luke did. She is drained of her life essence by the Emperor’s dark power, then receives a spectral cheerleading courtesy a whos-who of Jedi familiar to the audience — Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker, Mace Windu, Luke and Leia. Rey rises to her feet, announces “I am all the Jedi,” and with her role-playing game mana bar now restored to 100% capacity, is able to refract Palpatine’s lighting attack back at him as Mace Windu once did, this time going beyond scarring his flesh to full-on disintegrate the Sith Lord, evoking the angels in Raiders of the Lost Ark who melt Nazis. (There’s a surprising amount of Indiana Jones in this movie, actually, but that’s a digression I’ll leave on the table.)
This ending…it does not sit well with me. Star Wars has always had a complicated relationship with the morality of violence. The good guys have long been justified in the use of violence to win the day, but only up to a point. For the common soldier, blasting some Stormtroopers has never been anything to sweat. But for characters like Anakin, Luke, and presumably Rey — the real moral centers of these tales — the stakes have always been higher. Because their super-heroic, Force-enabled capacity for destruction is so great, the lesson they’ve always had to learn is that giving into aggression, even if it seems like they’re doing it for the right reason, is a path that leads to the Dark Side.
This skepticism of face-value hero narratives didn’t come from nowhere. Star Wars was a product of Lucas’ post-Vietnam disenchantment with American moral and military exceptionalism. His interest was in how democracies allow themselves to fall into dictatorships, and the answer to that question was basically thinking that your shit don’t stink. (Jedi heroes always seem to start out as “brash” and “headstrong,” and end up wanly sad, but hopeful that the next generation will do better.) It’s what makes Star Wars a quintessential morality play for America, a country so preoccupied with its own myth of exceptionalism that it’s driving off a cliff of delusion.
Rey’s limited brush with the Dark Side in The Rise of Skywalker is pitched in a much more superficial, and frankly dumber way than Lucas (usually) wrote: she learns she is the biological descendant of Sheev Palpatine himself. Was this twist necessary? Certainly not. Is it fine? Yeah, I mean, it certainly tracks with the structural and thematic preoccupations of Star Wars as a whole. Yet every time someone mentions the word “granddaughter” or “grandfather” on-screen, I can’t help but wince. It feels so bolted-on, like it’s supposed to mean something to us of great gravity. But of course, it doesn’t!
After all, when Luke learns Vader is his father, it’s traumatic for him — in an instant, he’s gone from thinking his father had been some dead and lionized hero, to discovering he’s instead the monster who not a minute earlier sliced his hand off. When the audience learns Kylo is Han and Leia’s son in The Force Awakens, it’s a juicy, intriguing proposition — the last of the Skywalker line is a fallen, emotionally-disturbed supervillain.
But Rey learning of her heritage is such an obvious non-issue. Of course she is not beholden to the sins of her bloodline — she didn’t even know it was her bloodline until now. She grew up in an impoverished desert cut off from the rest of the known world. She’s never been an even incidental beneficiary of Palpatine’s legacy. The matter of her relation to the onetime Emperor is a triviality, an Ancestry.com connection that makes the viewer go, “hmm,” and little more. Yet Abrams believes this is the moral balancing point on which he can hang the “will she or won’t she break bad” tension of a Star Wars third-act episode. It’s rote, clunky, and very thin.
Built on this shaky foundation, then, Rey’s conflict with Palpatine has nowhere interesting to go. She wins as most movie heroes win: a Chumbawamba. She gets knocked down, but she gets up again.
Why didn’t a pantheon of Jedi speak to Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi, as he was getting electrocuted, and tell him to get up off his ass and fight? Because that’s the diametric opposite of what Lucas was interested in saying with Star Wars. Lucas may have been raised in a Methodist household, but he sought to bring a daoist perspective to his hero’s journey. The model Jedi, as represented by Luke Skywalker, expresses humility in all aspects. Abrams’ revisionist take on the Emperor finale here is, meanwhile, unmistakably old-school Abrahamic. The Force, speaking through the Jedi pantheon, exerts its will using Rey as a savior-vessel. God smites the sinner, and all is well. Justice has been served.
It is, to say the least, a dissapointing misreading of this entire enterprise, and it’s of a piece with one of my big criticisms of Abrams’ first Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Abrams clearly loves the Star Wars that existed in his imagination as a child. It inspired him to make movies, and his two franchise installments are nothing if not nostalgic love-letters to the characters he grew up with. (One of the bright spots in this movie is how it pays loving tribute to Leia as best it can, despite tragic behind-the-scenes circumstances which, in less-concerned hands, might’ve seen her conspicuously brushed aside.) Yet Abrams seems stuck with a six-year-old’s grasp of the series’ thematic content. Star Wars, to him, is only about a certain aesthetic; it means a specific narrative framework and all the rubber critters and greeble-filled sets used to bring it to life. As with his flimsy Star Trek outings, Abrams’ take on Star Wars is fundamentally plastic. It’s intellectually hollow — and worse, spiritually so. At its worst, The Rise of Skywalker is the kind of corporate pablum Disney is often accused of churning out en masse, designed primarily to pacify its audience, to make the people feel good about having spent $15 and two hours of their time, but lacking real depth.
Now, there is an interesting alternative reading to this climax that’s more charitable, one which I’ve been flirting with since seeing this movie in December. Perhaps Rey’s decisive rebuke of Palpatine’s evil is not an act of aggression, but one of righteous indignation. The ultimate greedy, scheming patriarch of the old order, smashed once and for all by our Jedi heroine and an intersectional band of her fallen allies? Sign me the fuck up for that Mary Sue shit.
I’m open to the argument that this is a necessary qualifier to Return of the Jedi’s thesis: after all, Star Wars’ embrace of pacifism has only ever gone so far. Standing up to fascism, as the Rebels always do, is surely virtuous. Rey’s decisive blow against Palpatine is also not a unilateral action, but a communitarian one: she stands in league with the voices of those whose eventual humbling granted them the spiritual wokeness to be able to speak to her from beyond the grave. Furthermore, it’s Palpatine’s own hate-fueled supercharged Sith lightning that destroys him, so technically, Rey is merely reflecting his own karmically-bad juju back at him. But the further down this road we go, the sillier this micro-parsing feels. I’m doing the heavy lifting here to make the scene sit well with me; ultimately, I’m giving it more thought than Abrams ever did.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest…
The rest of the movie I take less issue with — mostly. Its plot is an over-calculated assemblage of video gamey Macguffins, which isn’t so hot, and it’s never a good sign when a movie requires an accompanying user manual to answer questions like, “How did the dead leader of a defunct empire amass his unnecessarily-overpowered fleet in secret?” Yet one thing Abrams consistently delivers in his movies is a sense of charm. You like these characters, so you like watching them do stuff. Their dialogue is filled with that late-era Hollywood banter that’s occasionally eye-rolling, but which goes down easy for the most part. There’s none of the lamented Lucas stodginess, so it’s hard to say with a straight face that this movie is worse than, say, Attack of the Clones.
In particular, Rise’s watchability is enhanced by its aesthetic, which for my money might be the best Star Wars has ever looked. It doesn’t have the striking formal discipline of Rian Johnson and Steve Yedlin’s work on The Last Jedi, which has superior cinematography if we’re giving out awards. But in trying to explain why I find this movie so great to look at, I’m reminded of what Steve Jobs once said about the design of the glossy operating system which accompanied the first generation of translucent, Bondi blue iMacs: “We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them.” This is a movie I want to lick. It’s rendered in saturated, dark jewel tones which remind me of colorist John Higgin’s work on Watchmen, or the live-action Dick Tracy — works whose visual palettes balanced the simple boldness of comic books with noir-ish, moody undertones. And that approach, for my money, makes a wonderful kind of sense for Star Wars.
Rise, ultimately, is a letdown. But I’ve made my peace with that. I rewatched this movie before writing this piece once it hit streaming, two weeks into Los Angeles County’s ongoing COVID-19 shut-in. For all my complaining, this movie still put a bigger smile on my face than just about anything I had watched since this pandemic began. I love these characters, their history, and Williams’ operatic melodies that carry it all. It’s a tradition, an avenue of escape, but also a funhouse mirror through which to view our own life stories and society. There’s nothing else quite like it, no matter how many properties have taken a page from it over the years. Star Wars will survive the vacuous pageantry of JJ Abrams’ approach.
In 2019 alone, the same year that Rise of Skywalker came and quickly went, Star Wars blazed new trails elsewhere. On television, “The Mandalorian” debuted groundbreaking in-camera virtual technology and filled every social timeline from here to Tatooine with memes about a certain green Child. Respawn’s Jedi: Fallen Order told an interactive adventure that evoked the themes, emotions, and gravity which Star Wars is capable of (Just watching the game’s storyline strung together on YouTube makes for a rich Star Wars quasi-movie).
Perhaps most notably, massive theme park expansions at Disneyland and Disney World sought to put visitors into the Star Wars universe in a brand-new, participatory way. Guests enter the fully-realized Black Spire Outpost on the contested planet of Batuu, encountering characters like Kylo Ren and Rey while getting the chance to fly the Millennium Falcon, escape a First Order Star Destroyer, build their very own lightsaber, and…get mildly drunk on a face-numbing Fuzzy Tauntaun at a cantina where the DJ is the animatronic robot who used to fly the Starspeeder on Star Tours. The full force of Disney Imagineers (and Disney’s pocketbook) ran wild with their mandate to bring this universe to life, and it’s a joy to behold.
It’s bittersweet that all this launched just in time for the Disney parks to be indefinitely shut down for the first time in their history. I look forward to going back to Batuu whenever it’s safe and socially responsible to do so. The Galaxy Far, Far Away will always be a second home for millions of fans like me.
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And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’: