Over the past week and a half, I have been re-watching every Star Wars episode released (so every theatrical film minus Clone Wars, Rogue One, and Solo). Why? In a recent interview, director J.J. Abrams stated that his newest film, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, isn’t just the ending to the recent sequel trilogy, but the ending to the entirety of the Star Wars trilogies. So, okay – he’s not just trying to wrap up The Force Awakens and Last Jedi – but Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi too?
I guess the former sounded too easy to him. No, I get it – if this truly is the last one (and I think it is), then there should be some ‘full circle’ elements going on that encompass the other trilogies. So…that’s what he went for. Did he do it? Yes, but the result is not pretty and sometimes downright painful. Let’s get into it: (warning: minor spoilers)
Rise of Skywalker vs. Last Jedi?
Oh my god, why do I still have to talk about this? Once upon a time, Rian Johnson made a Star Wars movie and ignited a small but vocal minority into full blown conspiracy. They alleged that Johnson was a rogue director – taking what Abrams started in Force Awakens and running off to completely disregard it in Last Jedi. After the ensuing backlash (in which Last Jedi made over a billion dollars and was a critical darling – you know, really horrible stuff), Disney realized they had to hire J.J. Abrams back to “correct” their mistakes.
I know, right? People really believe this. Well, I suppose compared to some of the other conspiracy theories going around today, this one is pretty harmless.
Is there truth to any of it? I don’t think so. These movies were not made in a vacuum, they were made in the studio under the careful eyes of many executives. A lot of money went into these films.
That said, it is interesting to watch this saga flip flop from Abrams to Johnson back to Abrams. They are two very different filmmakers with styles that do not blend together. After seeing Episode IX, I fully believe that there was a rough outline drafted for these three movies – one that was sadly impacted by the unforeseen loss of Carrie Fisher post-Last Jedi.
Does Rise of Skywalker undo Last Jedi. No. Not even close. I mean, if you went into the theater believing that there was some kind of secret war in Disney – maybe? But no – many of the themes begun in Last Jedi continue into Rise of Skywalker, most notably Rey’s theme of “it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters who you are.”
But it’s Abrams this time – so yeah, there’s a different emphasis to the scenes. A tendency to look back rather than forward. A loving admiration (bordering on obsession) for the original trilogy that pervades much of this current movie.
The result? Actually, it’s really not great. I would say it’s overall the worst thing about Rise of Skywalker.
Why J.J. Abrams was the Wrong Choice
Whenever I watch the prequel trilogy, I always feel a little frustrated. It’s full of good ideas marred by bad execution. Director George Lucas had a vision – a vision that did not mind janky character interactions and wooden dialogue, a direction that did not mind over-the-top corniness at the expense of realistic relationships and empathetic reactions (remember when Anakin screams “From my point of view the Jedi are evil!” in Revenge of the Sith…holy hell, George).
There’s a lot to like in the prequels, but the choice of director makes it hard to always see the good over the bad. Rise of Skywalker is a lot like this. Yes, J.J. Abrams is a lot better with dialogue than George Lucas. He has a different problem – he is obsessed with what came before.
The result is a movie where the past oftentimes feels like its smothering the present. Characters like Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo don’t just have to compete with each other for screen time but against Chewbacca, C-3PO, Lando, and even returning cackle-master Emperor Palpatine as well.
I’ve heard several critics state that this movie feels rushed, like it’s trying to cram two movies’ worth of plot into one. I could not disagree more – mostly because there’s barely enough plot for one film present. But I do agree there’s a lot shoved into this film, especially in its opening act. We’re moving from planet to planet right off the bat, following characters as they scramble to find MacGuffins, reveal juicy but irrelevant tidbits about each other’s back stories, and engage in obligatory lightsaber battles.
There’s an anxiety to this film that cannot be overlooked. Abrams doesn’t direct as a competent veteran filmmaker but as a fan…in particular a scared fan. He has seen the darkside of the fanbase and he doesn’t like it.
The result is a movie that is always afraid of itself. Abrams is in new territory, not just doing an ending but an ending that is unlike Revenge of the Sith or Return of the Jedi. He seems genuinely terrified of having too many new ideas, so he oftentimes crams in a bit of fan service to try and reassure himself that he won’t be bombarded on Twitter the way Rian Johnson was after Last Jedi irked people who felt Luke Skywalker should have been perfect for the rest of his life.
Even when he’s not doing fan service – there’s a real sense of every character looking back. We get Poe’s origin – if you really cared? We get Fin meeting more former stormtroopers, and Rey can’t stop having flashbacks to her parents every third scene. There’s even a moment where the worst happens (at least in Abrams’ mind) C-3PO loses his memory…only to get it back a few scenes later – nobody really cares.
In Last Jedi, Johnson genuinely invested in the characters. Rey questioned her place in the universe, especially after meeting her hero, Luke Skywalker, and seeing the person he was. Finn learned the difference between choosing a fight and being drafted into one, and Poe learned that being a leader doesn’t mean charging headfirst into every conflict.
In Rise of Skywalker, personalities are origins. We take a step back, looking at these characters more as mythological archetypes and less as people. It’s kind of a bummer, especially when the plot points would have hammered home harder with more human investment.
To quote Patton Oswalt on Star Wars: “I don’t care about where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff!”
I guess, on one level, J.J. Abrams finally got what he wanted. He really is like George Lucas…just maybe not in the most flattering light.
So…What Happens Now?
I know it sounds like I’m really down on Rise of the Skywalker, but honestly – I didn’t hate the movie. I walked out of the theater feeling satisfied and a day later that feeling continues. Yes, it’s not amazing, but it’s far from horrible either.
For some fans, I guess it’s catharsis? You get to see Luke as benevolent again and Rey gets placed into an existing family tree so…yay? Is that what you really wanted? Just that? Okay…
Honestly, hats off to both Abrams and Johnson for their work on this trilogy. They did a job that even George Lucas no longer wanted to do – and they did a good job. I believe this sequel trilogy stands taller than the prequels that preceded it. Are they as good as the originals? No – but nothing was ever going to be, so that’s fine.
That said, I am happy that we are saying good-bye to the Skywalkers. Star Wars is bigger than one family – films like Rogue One have already shown this potential. Now that we’re free and we know there likely won’t be an Episode X – at least not for a long while – we can get on to having gifted storytellers explore this wide universe. I can’t wait to see what comes next.