People keep telling me they know me. No one does.
After over forty years and eight films, George Lucas' seminal 'Star Wars' saga is finally coming to an end. Of course, we've been here before - in both 1983 and 2005 - but this one feels different, weirdly more definitive. There will be more 'Star Wars' films, but the story of the Skywalkers, stretched across three generations, has run its course, returned to the hands of 'The Force Awakens' director J.J. Abrams. So, one last time, maestro John Williams raises his baton and with that one-of-a-kind blast of horns:
THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
As always, I'll avoid spoiling the details of the film as much as I can. And a lot happens in 'The Rise of Skywalker' - perhaps even too much. It hits the ground at a sprint and rarely stops to breathe, but while the action is consistently engaging and impressively staged, the sheer amount of... well, everything, creates a kind of a visual and aural blur. It's certainly entertaining, wildly so at points, but the film is coming at you from so many directions that it's hard to know where to look or who to be invested in.
Part of the problem is that the narrative doesn't have the thematic or structural clarity of the previous two films. There isn't a strong foundation to work from, no dramatic throughline to follow. The storytelling feels rushed both in development and execution, in need of a strong edit and tightening. There's also simply too many worlds to explore, too many episodic adventures, too many characters, and as a consequence, few feel sufficiently fleshed out. It's a film made up of bits and pieces rather than a strong whole, and it never finds a way to glue all those pieces together in a way that can give the film the skeleton it needs to work. The only character who has a good base to build from is Rey (Daisy Ridley), but everything that is so engaging and challenging about her arc in the film and the thematic questions it raises gets drowned out by the mess around her. There are further problems with the handling of Leia in the wake of Carrie Fisher's passing. It's commendable of Abrams to try and keep Leia as part of the story, but the method just doesn't work, and it may have been better to simply leave her last appearance as that in 'The Last Jedi' and not try and squeeze the square peg of the footage he had to work with into the round hole of the film itself.
The biggest issue with 'The Rise of Skywalker' though is that it's a film so very desperate to be liked that it constantly trips over its own feet. While nostalgia (that plague of current popular culture) had thematic resonance in 'The Force Awakens' and became a kind of thrilling antagonist in 'The Last Jedi'; here it serves no function other than to appeal to the sentimental memories of its audience. Motifs, characters and icons from the original series (almost never the prequels) appear wall-to-wall throughout but contribute almost nothing to the plot or the characters, and each subsequent reference makes the nostalgia-inducing haze of the film more transparent and more frustrating. Its motive is clear - please the fans at all cost, but the cost is the integrity, individuality and possibility of the film itself. This is especially disappointing as a follow-up to the sublime 'The Last Jedi'. It isn't even the fact it sidelines characters, relationships and ideas from Johnson's film that disappoints the most, but that it doesn't take up the thematic and stylistic provocations that film proposed for Abrams to pick up. That film encouraged boldness and individuality for the future of the franchise. 'The Rise of Skywalker' instead runs for safety, much more so than 'The Force Awakens'. At least that had a lush romanticism and some new things to say. In this instance, the original trilogy is less of a blueprint than a crutch.
That said, it is still an entertaining and enjoyable film, and many of the twists and revelations land far better than you expect. Some of them are even very clever and suggest the more interesting film that could have been had they been bolder. Daisy Ridley is still terrific as Rey, and the film gives her some great material to sink her teeth into. Unfortunately, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, 'Marriage Story'), the surprising MVP of the series, is given very little to do here, with his fascinating and tortured character reduced to a purely reactionary one. There's an attempt to build further on their relationship, but again, the sheer amount of noise in this film drowns a lot of that out.
Its motive is clear - please the fans at all cost, but the cost is the integrity, individuality and possibility of the film itself.
It's impossible to look at 'The Rise of Skywalker' as just a film on its own, and not just because it does so little to distinguish itself as an individual. This is the end of 'Star Wars' as we know it, the culmination of one of the truly great cinematic epics. What endings provide is the opportunity to clarify what the story was about in the first place, where all the characters and ideas culminate to complete a thematic whole. This is the direction the 'Star Wars' saga has always been headed, even in the prequels - a series of recurring thematic motifs on power and legacy, morphing through variations over eight films. 'The Rise of Skywalker' had the chance to bring it all home, tie it all together and make a definitive statement on the ideas Lucas set in motion back in 1977. Unfortunately, the wider consequence of the fact of this film not knowing what itself is about means that it doesn't provide that final rousing statement on what 'Star Wars' itself is about. 'Star Wars' is more than spaceships and aliens, space battles and droids. It's a journey of heroes and villains where the questions of what those words mean are considered in a thrilling and bombastic way. 'The Rise of Skywalker' does continues to ask those questions and maybe aim for an answer, but never with any clarity or rigour. It appears to be secondary in its intentions; making you feel sentimental is its primary one. It seems to think that by bringing back all the things you love, you'll be satisfied. But that isn't the way storytelling works.
It's a strange feeling to walk away from a film both having enjoyed it and disappointed in it all at once. 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' gave me what I expected and I enjoyed the experience of watching it for that, but it gave me nothing more than that, very little new and very little surprise, and for that I found myself as the credits rolled a little letdown. In the end, I can't help the feeling that "pleasing the fans" was more important here than telling a great story, which sometimes means risking disturbing the balance of what we know. This is becoming a recurring trend in Hollywood storytelling, and it is choking inspiration, spontaneity, innovation and imagination. J.J. Abrams clearly cares about this franchise, and the love is there on the screen in this film. But love can blind as much as it can inspire, and the former is certainly the case here. Maybe if 'The Rise of Skywalker' had possessed the spark of bravery its characters have and wasn't so desperate to be liked, the great 'Star Wars' saga might have ended with a bang rather than just a pop.