Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ★★½

Edit: promised a friend I’d watch this again with them, had to lower the rating a bit. I had forgotten how bad the opening 50 minutes of this thing was.

On a shallow, superficial level, Rise of Skywalker works. It’s a propulsive pop adventure that rockets through 140+ min runtime with a lot of action, humor, and spectacle. Our likable bunch of heroes race from one place to the next, guided along by a strong John Williams score. The combination of practical and digital effects breathes life and credibility to its many locales. The Ralph McQuarrie look and design of classic Star Wars has been sleekly modernized in an array of impressive ways. JJ Abrams, for his part, is no longer the shaky-cam, canted angle, made-for-TV close-up abusing director from 10 years ago. His style is closer to Spielberg, built on solid fundamentals and an intuitive eye for the 2.35:1 frame. He also gets strong performances from a terrific cast. Best in show honors, of course, go to Adam Driver. Every new movie of his makes me more convinced he’s the greatest actor of his generation. The wounded intensity and emotional vulnerability that’s central to his Kylo “Ben” Run rests entirely on Adam’s shoulders.

But look under the shiny, gleaming exterior of the movie, you’ll find the insides are completely hollow. There’s a lot of plot, but very little, if any, storytelling. There really aren’t any ideas or themes, at least not one’s that weren’t regurgitated from other, better movies with the creative impulses that inspired them stripped away. As capable as the cast is, their characters are all ciphers. Action figures frantically running around a (man)child’s fan fiction. There’s a palpable sense of fear and anxiety behind the camera, as if the movie ever stopped shoving all caps STAR WARS stuff at us constantly, someone in the audience might be bored. Death and the threat of danger are reversed so often it actually becomes hilarious; the very thought of making anyone watching this uncomfortable has been ripped out. The movie barrels along with a lot of craft, but no personality or vision. Emotional investment is basically impossible, so the film is best enjoyed in a Turn your Brain Off state of naivety. As entertaining as Rise of Skywalker frequently is, its completely free of wit, revelation, or risk, and leaves the audience feeling nothing as the credits roll. As a big event movie, that’s a disappointment. As the supposed end to one of the greatest and influential pop culture sagas of all time? That can only be labeled a failure.

It’s too easy to lay this all at JJ Abrams feet, that packager of slick, empty Hollywood escapism. Taking a step back to view the trilogy as a whole, its perfectly clear there was never any plan for all this. No creative vision, no great story begging to be told across a grand tapestry. The Star Wars sequel trilogy exists merely because there was a financial obligation for them to exist. They’re a trilogy because Star Wars popularized the idea of movie trilogies. Creative meetings couldn’t have gone much further than obvious signifiers: X-Wings and TIE Fighters, Jedi and Sith, lightsaber duels and cute droids and the Millinieum Falcon and Skywalkers. The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi seemed to be in combat with each other, so thematically dissimilar they were. Rare has a trilogy, planned or not, ever had such incoherent character arcs or inconsistent ideas to build on. Rise of Skywalker is left with just trying to give audiences the Ultimate Star Wars experience, like a Disney world ride that’s all money shots and none of the connective tissue narrative cinema is built on.

If you go back and look at George Lucas' "Star Wars" from in the context of 1977, it fits right into the canon of New Hollywood greats. But while his contemporaries were pulling from the French New Wave or Italian neorealisim, Lucas cribbed influences from Kurosawa, Flash Gordon, John Ford, Joseph Campbell. It felt personal, in its own strange way, driven by the point of view of one auteur. As timeless as it seemed, it felt current and relevant to the outside world; its not hard to draw a comparison to the Vietnam war watching Star Wars, fresh on the minds of every American in the late 70s. It took risks, even when it was traveling in clichés and archetypes, and went on to inspire multiple generations of creativity.

But somewhere along the way, Star Wars became just another risk averse IP in our increasingly IP-driven world. As its universe expanded, it ironically put on a cap on the possibilities of what "Star Wars" could mean. Star Wars is now product, "market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption" as Martin Scorsese recently put it. Where once Star Wars drew upon the outside world, it’s now merely about itself and its finite number of themes and ideas. The films that once showed audiences things they never seen before is now just another franchise built to deliver exactly what we remember, again and again. The imagination this series used to cultivate seems like a relic of a bygone era. Something from a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away from ours.

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