Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ★★½

So, this is a "good news/bad news" scenario of the highest order (or Final Order, if we're speaking in the parlance of this picture). The good news is really only for folks who strongly disliked THE LAST JEDI. J.J. Abrams' return to the STAR WARS universe practically reduces that rather superlative instance of an auteur navigating the studio factory system and somehow still managing to make the movie he wanted to make nothing more than narrative sinew between two "traditional" installments in this third (and apparently final) trilogy of the Skywalker Saga.

You want a RETURN OF THE JEDI structure? THE RISE OF SKYWALKER's got you covered (mirroring THE FORCE AWAKEN's NEW HOPE aping). How about an answer to Rey's backstory that actually ties into previously established canon? Boom, it's there. You want Kylo Ren going Full Vader in his quest to conquer the galaxy and reign as its Supreme Ruler? Again, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is gonna be your jam. Multiple Force Ghost cameos that are sure to make boyfriends across the country lean over to their significant others and whisper "that's [Insert Jedi Name Here]"? Yup. How 'bout a recycled big bad that's revealed to be the author of all our heroes' pain? Yippie-kay-yay, motherfuckers, J.J.'s here to make your day.

So, as you can probably already guess, the bad news comes for the rest of us who enjoyed a quirky artist going somewhat rogue within the Mouse House. Gone are any of the challenging notions regarding "killing the past" and paving your own way forward. Ditto the character digressions, excised in favor of heavy exposition (that's generally ironing out LAST JEDI wrinkles), narrative propulsion, and LOST cameos. In short, it's the Abrams Method, applied with maximum aggression, desperately desiring to win back at least a portion of the fan-base who felt alienated by Johnson's purposefully idiosyncratic thematic smuggling.

It's a totally understandable move (especially given the disastrous production/reception of SOLO) and, when taken in tandem with THE MANDALORIAN - which plays like glorified episodic fan fiction for the most part - is a pretty clear indicator of where STAR WARS is headed as it moves past this three chapter tragedy of doomed soul Ben Solo and his angelic Jedi counterpart, Rey. Iconography is king instead of innovation, as the safety of what's familiar is almost certain to guarantee success. And as long as you have a competent workman like Abrams behind the lens, stringing together beautiful but ultimately empty imagery that wows you for the majority of the 130 minutes you're locked into that theater seat, it's pretty much a sure bet that this massive IP will continue to redefine the meaning of the word "serviceable" in more ways than one.

So, does THE RISE OF SKYWALKER work? Technically, yeah; works like a charm. The stellar cast continues to coast on charisma alone, as Adam Driver proves again that you could give him a fucking Subway menu and he'd somehow manage to transform it into Shakespeare. The set pieces and light-saber duels zip by at a pace that somehow convince you they weren't totally pre-vizzed and contain a tangible sense of danger. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the big, melodramatic finale (not to mention final shot) made this rather cynical viewer's cheeks rise up in an effort to fight back big ol' nostalgic tears. It's really only after I walked out of the theater that I began to wonder what the hell it all meant or was in service of, and came up somewhat lacking in a response. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want out of these sorts of blockbusters. Not to stir up bad feelings all over again, but THE RISE OF SKYWALKER seems to fit snugly into the "theme park" analogy Martin Scorsese made when discussing the MCU, with about the same level of emotional investment as your average AVENGERS installment (which, again, given the studio, should be expected at this point).

Perhaps this pandering, roller-coaster approach to dramatic stakes explains the somewhat tepid early responses on Twitter from the usual junket crowd. I've long maintained that if you see a big blockbuster receive a handful of glowing "epic", "amazing", "all-timer" reactions from the usual suspects, followed by a string of mixed responses with variations of the phrase "...but I had fun with it" tossed in, you've got a disappointment on your hands. For me, that's precisely what THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is: a let down in the wake of THE LAST JEDI's daring reinvention of a property I've loved my whole life. Sadly, I fear that, in ten years, I'll remember about as much about Abrams' latest trip to a galaxy far, far away as I do about that time I rode Splash Mountain when I was twelve years old. The ride was fun, but nothing more than a fleeting recollection on a much longer timeline.