(Ed. Note: This review does not reveal any specific action points from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. After the film’s release on December 20, Polygon will have a more in-depth analysis of the story in future reviews and essays.)
It’s been over 40 years since George Lucas launched Star Wars in 1977, an entire universe that was later called Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The film was an instant success, partly because it was such an original take of familiar material. Lucas relied heavily on classic Western and Akira Kurosawa films to shape his galaxy far away, but gave the setting a fresh and highly specific face and tone. Imitating the past as it is revised into the future has been part of Star Wars DNA from the start. So J.J. Abram’s finale, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, with its aggressive, relentless imitation of the past, should fit thematically in Lucas Vision.
But it doesn’t feel like it respects the series’ past. It’s more like Abrams obsessively hiding behind it.
When the last Star Wars trilogy with The Force Awakens was released in 2015, fans were concerned about what Abrams would do with their beloved franchise. Previously, he had revived the Star Trek movie franchise in a leaner, younger, much smelly, and smarter form. His change to the Trek canon included some significant rewrites of loved characters and a reworked tone. While some viewers welcomed the changes, others bridled them and openly wondered what Star Wars would be like if Abrams tried to develop an equally fraternal mentality.
But Abrams took a different path. The Force Awakens experienced fan nostalgia by re-creating A New Hope for a new era. The Force Awakens, a half-successor and half-stealth remake, introduced an empire with a new skin color and a new Darth Vader, a gender-changed Luke Skywalker and a modernized R2-D2, as well as a whole range of other familiar elements. Fans and critics alike were positive about the film, which was to be used to hand Star Wars over to a new generation of young heroes. At the same time, these characters became fan avatars who took the opportunity to meet with heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) – even with these older heroes were about to keep going.
Rian Johnson’s sequel, The Last Jedi, relied much more heavily on the idea of “handing it over to the new generation,” with a kill-your-idols approach that undermined fans’ expectations and openly encouraged viewers to accept that the series evolved from the Skywalker line defined Lucas’ original film trilogy. As a result, The Last Jedi has proven to be incredibly controversial, and critics differ mainly in whether they blame the message, the execution, or both. Seemingly suspicious of this fragmenting response, Abram’s The Rise of Skywalker leads straight back to the nostalgia approach that served him so well at The Force Awakens.
Image: Lucasfilm / Disney
The most notable effect of this plan is that Episode IX, like The Force Awakens A New Hope reflected in characters, conflicts, and storylines, exactly reflects the return of the Jedi from 1983 to the point where savvy fans easily easily saw half of the scenes could challenge enemies and history turns well in advance. It is a remarkably safe and shy approach that deliberately reflects the viewer’s cinematic past with a “You loved this last time, right?” Here is more of it! “It’s the rom-com method of storytelling, basically cinema as home cooking: the story is simple and predictable enough to be calming, and the surprises are only in the details that confuse the story.
In this case, most of these meaningful details come in the form of suddenly introduced new skills that change the dynamics of many conflicts. The new Sith skills that determine the plot may outshine purists, but they’re part of the buy-in for the story. The new space combat tactic is much more likely to frustrate viewers who remember the canon of the past. And fans who have been annoyed by The Last Jedi’s introduction of unprecedented powers will not find it easier with The Rise of Skywalker to push power even further into the realm of the “almighty, all-flexible magic ball”. than ever before. These skills come to Rey (Daisy Ridley), and in particular to her fateful opponent Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose psychological connection with Rey serves to push the action forward at a frantic pace to force a series of confrontations that form the backbone of the film, and to enable a series of surprisingly visually playful meetings of the mind.
The nonstop pace is somewhat beneficial to The Rise of Skywalker. The film feels like a fast-paced victorious tour of the Star Wars galaxy as the protagonists quickly jump from one planet to the next, conflict, meet new allies, and worry about past enemies. The wheezing doesn’t leave much time to think about action holes or to notice that the missions feel easier than ever, although theoretically whole planets are on the line. There is also no time for the further development of the character, any form of nuance or even a brief reflection on the passing of an age. The rise of Skywalker begins with a series of action scenes with different characters in different environments, all of which progress with such frenzied, breathless intensity that the audience cannot ask why or whether one of the actions is important. And this energy rarely diminishes in the course of just under two and a half hours.
All of these attacks would feel more consistent if the characters’ goals weren’t that arbitrary. Abrams and his co-author Chris Terrio introduced one of the laziest cinematic tropes early on: an all-important MacGuffin that the characters have to find to move forward. The protagonists spend a lot of time and energy chasing this object, but are constantly interrupted by new and changing goals of the moment, which are often achieved and solved in a blind rush. It often feels like nobody really cares what the characters are chasing as long as they do it loudly, quickly, and with lots of recalls to the original trilogy, from characters to situations to specific lines.
Image: Lucasfilm / Disney
The feeling that a lot of work is being done in a huge rush prevents The Rise of Skywalker from developing bigger issues, aside from the need to remind fans that they loved it when Luke, for example, in The Empire Strikes faced evil double cave dwellers back or when Obi-Wan Kenobi whispered posthumously advice in Luke’s ear in A New Hope. It is the first film in the last trilogy that relies on these echoes instead of larger ideas. The Force Awakens was probably concerned with how cyclical history is, and the battles of the past will have to be fought again in the future by a new wave of idealists who may know little about the forces that have shaped their environment. The last Jedi were about letting go of the past and accepting that the future is more important.
But The Rise of Skywalker is almost a metafilm about how cool Star Wars is and how cool people’s memories of it are and how cool it is to follow an endless series of references. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) have alongside the classics Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) a part of the screen time hastily takes on his most central role in the series so far Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, plays an insulting minimal role this time, but the late Carrie Fisher, like Leia, gets as much screen time as previously filmed footage allows, and it’s a moving farewell.
Nevertheless, they are all ciphers in a fast moving machine that flies from one planet to another and from one space fight or lightsaber fight to the next with little influence. Some of these clashes look formidable – a fight that takes place in the middle of a raging sea is visually stunning and weighty – but surprisingly few of them really matter, especially in an environment where so many of what appear to be monumental Quickly reverse action developments.
Image: Lucasfilm / Disney
Abrams and Terrio try to equip The Rise of Skywalker with scalability and consistency, but many of their biggest moves are more for the fans than for the characters. At some point, Rey announces that she embodies all of the past Jedi in the story, while her opponent says he is the whole Sith that came before him. At another point, she returns to a popular earlier location in the film series – one with which she has no personal relationship, but which she apparently seems to enjoy only on behalf of the audience. In The Rise of Skywalker there is no doubt that the creators are trying to repeat and pay off every fulfilling struggle and memorable moment in the Skywalker saga story by repeating it and turning it into one symbolic conflict, the one here can be repeated one last time.
This feeling of repetition and nostalgic recognition dominates the film, far more than any single revelation or payment. The message is that we all remember and love Star Wars, and of course we would be happy to see it again, remix it and redevelop it, and deliver it in an energetic chatter.
But it’s strange to see how Abrams and Terrio imply that even after 40 years of waiting for a final, they don’t have time to slow down, take a breath, and think about who these characters are or what they have become after many tests and trauma. It is frankly true that George Lucas’ series launch A New Hope, with its tremendous creativity and legacy, has more cultural weight than anything the series does today. If you repeatedly referencing and recapitulating this film and its direct sequels, it may feel more meaningful and fan-friendly than showing off with an original vision.
However, it is a sad way that those responsible for the legacy of Star Wars acknowledge that they are unable to move forward. Even though the characters of The Rise of Skywalker celebrate their ultimate triumph, the film feels awkward, hasty, and most of all, a confession of creative defeat.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters on December 20.