In the wake of behind-the-scenes turbulence on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — the final chapter in the new Star Wars trilogy and the Skywalker saga on the whole — that led to J.J. Abrams’ hiring, there were immediate concerns. What route would The Force Awakens director take, having made an enjoyable rehash of A New Hope the first time around, but been dealt a subversive middle chapter by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi? Would Abrams honour the values of its direct predecessor or would he return to dig into the nostalgia? The first trailer for The Rise of Skywalker hinted Abrams was tilting towards the latter, as one would expect, what with the reveal that Sith dark lord Palpatine, killed by Darth Vader over 30 years ago, would be involved in some manner.
The rest of the film confirms our worst fears. The Rise of Skywalker — out December 20 in cinemas in India and across the world — proves that Abrams clearly harbours too much love and respect for the original trilogy. Forget building on where the divisive yet brilliant The Last Jedi left the galaxy of Star Wars, Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio (Argo, Justice League) choose to ignore the film altogether, be it its messaging or its characters. Instead, The Rise of Skywalker opts to collapse onto itself. It packs itself full of references, cameos, and flashbacks that are gratuitous to say the least. And in turning inward rather than facing outward, it’s not only a betrayal of what The Last Jedi had put forth, but a disservice to George Lucas’ imagination with the franchise in the first place.
The Rise of Skywalker ultimately plays it so safe that it makes you wonder if it was designed by committee — or a global forum of Star Wars fans who threw everything they love about Star Wars in a blender. It’s too afraid to really commit to anything. Big consequential moments, be it character deaths or narrative revelations, are set up, only to be abandoned. This preference for chickening out remains true across The Rise of Skywalker, as it delivers a sweet family-friendly ending about good triumphing over evil. There’s no problem with that lesson as such, but in context of the film’s events — and a nine-chapter story that began four decades ago — it all feels rather underwhelming. Surely there must be more to the Skywalker saga than this? Evidently not.
In an attempt to cloak its many troubles, Abrams applies a veneer of breakneck pace to The Rise of Skywalker from the start. The traditional opening crawl informs us that the voice of the seemingly-dead Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been heard across the galaxy, which drives Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — the new Supreme Leader of the villainous First Order — to hunt him down, to prevent any challenge to his authority. Meanwhile, the good guys of the Resistance in Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are also on the lookout for Palpatine, which requires them to find a MacGuffin, one of many lazy writing choices in The Rise of Skywalker. This essentially drives the first half of the film, as the Millennium Falcon crew hop across planets in its search.
This allows The Rise of Skywalker to pull in new characters who are meant to reflect on the core ones. There’s Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), an old criminal friend of Poe’s who didn’t depart on the best of terms. And there’s Jannah (Naomi Ackie), an ex-Stormtrooper who defected from the First Order, like Finn. Alongside, the film also makes room for Resistance leader Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016), appearing with the help of unreleased footage and digital wizardry, in addition to bit parts for Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Leia’s twin brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). But The Rise of Skywalker is always in such a rush that it has no time to reflect on the end of an era, let alone serve its new characters or develop existing ones in a meaningful way.
The new Star Wars movie’s failure with characters robs it of any depth. The mystery of Rey’s parentage — Abrams said there would be more to it in The Rise of Skywalker — is resolved in an off-handed and highly questionable manner, which also reverses what The Last Jedi had bravely done. Meanwhile, Ren’s journey isn’t properly earned and feels abruptly cut. But that’s more than you can say about the others. Though both Finn and Poe are constantly involved in the proceedings, their arcs barely progress. A minor villain is written out by making him behave stupidly, and even as the film proclaims to “never underestimate a droid”, it largely treats them as furniture save in one important subplot. The Rise of Skywalker’s biggest character crime, though, is Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), Finn’s friend introduced in The Last Jedi, who is stuck in a corner as the film doesn’t know what to do with her.
Still, The Rise of Skywalker could get away with all that were its emotional core — Rey and Kylo Ren’s connection — cooked to perfection. And to an extent, it does manage that. The deeply-felt scenes involving Ridley and Driver are the rare occasions that the film slows down and takes a breather. Their exchanges, most of which make use of the clever connect introduced in The Last Jedi, flesh out the characters’ mental states, their respective struggle with the light and dark side of the Force, and their mixed feelings for one another that drives them to try and bring the other over to their side. But The Rise of Skywalker also muddies this yin and yang by unnecessarily dropping in an old villain, whose return isn’t justified and whose presence detracts from the relationship between the central duo.
And as two of the remaining wielders of lightsabers, Rey and Kylo Ren are also responsible for some impressive duels in The Rise of Skywalker, though the fights are a far cry from the zenith that was the two of them taking on former Supreme Leader Snoke’s Praetorian Guards in The Last Jedi. Even in terms of action sequences, the new Star Wars movie doesn’t have anything to rival what came before. The set-pieces involving star fighters aren’t orchestrated in a coherent and emotionally powerful way, with Abrams lacking the thrill he delivered on The Force Awakens, and Johnson’s ingenuity and imagination from The Last Jedi. The Rise of Skywalker also lack its predecessor’s wit and humour smarts, even as it crafts a few funny moments with Poe, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and new alien Babu Frik.
Combine that with poor dialogue and a tendency for cheap exposition, and you’re left with a film that makes its characters say things out loud that shouldn’t need to be said. Abrams seems to have forgotten the filmmaking principle of “show not tell”. The Rise of Skywalker also feels disjointed at times, almost as if it’s been through patchwork that’s left behind visible seams, just like the red scars in Kylo Ren’s haphazardly repaired helmet. But Abrams’ biggest crime, by far, is how he’s so beholden to the past of Star Wars. His obsession — or fear, one could argue — drives him to link as many dots as possible, and in doing so, he fails to heed the message that was served up by its predecessor: “Let the past die.” It’s called The Rise of Skywalker, but if anything, it’s a death-knell for the Skywalker saga.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is out December 20 in India in English and Hindi.