If there’s something you always wanted to see in a Star Wars movie, but haven’t yet, odds are it’s in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The film plays like a 150-minute checklist of cool stuff and surprises designed to please as many fans as possible. That may sound great, but in the process, that densely packed highlight reel fails to tell a story that’s narratively interesting, thematically cohesive, or that builds any impactful stakes. It’s a film designed to tantalize and delight in the hope those things cover up its many shortcomings.
(Note: We’ll be largely spoiler-free from here on out but there will be some discussion of broad plot generalizations that some may consider minor spoilers. Read at your own risk.)
When last we left a galaxy far, far away, the First Order had landed a decisive blow against the dwindling Resistance. However, a heroic act by Jedi Master Luke Skywalker was set to inspire the rest of the galaxy to rise up and help the small group of good people defeat the huge collection of bad people in the galaxy. Sadly, in The Rise of Skywalker, that thread is all but forgotten and not much has changed. The Resistance seems a little bigger, sure, but it’s still incredibly small—and now, instead of just the First Order to worry about, they have a new problem, too: Emperor Palpatine.
Hopefully, thanks to the trailers, you know that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the Sith Lord at the center of the previous two trilogies, is back. I say “hopefully” because the movie largely glosses over how he actually comes back. He just...is. By bypassing a logical explanation (there is one but it’s ill-conceived, to say the least), co-writer and director J.J. Abrams completely shifts the entire crux of the sequel trilogy thus far. The grand idea of the First Order never quite recovers from Palpatine’s introduction and all of their massive power developed over the previous two films is sorely undercut.
Finding the resurrected Sith Lord is no easy task either, and that is the main through line in The Rise of Skywalker. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) set off on a quest across the galaxy to acquire clues to find where Palpatine is lurking so that they can destroy him. They’re also given an arbitrary timeline of a few days which is supposed to add tension to the proceedings but doesn’t, mainly because the passage of time in Star Wars has rarely been a big thing, so why start now? (Does anyone wear watches? Which sun do they go by?)
With a group of characters looking for random objects that will provide a map to a legacy character, we’re back to The Force Awakens narrative structure again. That journey takes the crew to several new planets, all of which are bustling with life, aliens, droids, and all sorts of awesome Star Wars background material. Each time the heroes arrive on a planet, something exciting happens—we meet a new character, there’s a battle, a mystery is uncovered, etc. But the repetition is incessant. They’re on one planet, then another. Now a ship. Now a speeder. Now Rey’s off. Now Rey’s back. Now someone is in peril. Now they’re OK. The film moves at a breakneck speed and, as a result, never spends enough time at any of these places or with any of the people. It’s all incredibly rushed and mind-bogglingly cluttered. You almost feel like two movies’ worth of story are forced in, pun intended.
The few moments when The Rise of Skywalker does slow down, it improves immensely. For instance: its attempts to give Leia an important role in the story even with the limitations of Carrie Fisher’s passing, or to add weight to the crucial arc of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In the case of Leia, Abrams does a more than sufficient job of weaving her character throughout. It’s probably a smaller role than she would have played if she were still alive, but the effects and editing make it so you hardly notice. Leia is the backbone of the film. As for her son, Kylo’s role is even more fascinating and complex than it was in the last two films. However, slotted into this dense, rushed story, it’s not given the time it needs to be explained properly and ultimately falls a little flat. Getting into more detail about either of those things requires talking heavy spoilers, so we’ll leave it there for now.
Rey is once again the center of the movie, and she’s once again maybe its best part. The character has to endure a lot here—physically, mentally, spiritually—but Daisy Ridley continues to make it look all too easy. Close-ups of her reactions to some of the film’s bigger moments are heartbreakingly beautiful and a reminder of what Star Wars can be at its best. Some of her moments are so beautiful, in fact, that the tears in your eyes may make you forget the bumpy ride it took to get there.
Driver and Ridley are excellent together every time they’re on screen. However, they’re on screen together so much in this one that at a certain point their lightsaber battling almost sputters off, as if they don’t know why they are even doing it anymore—like the movie has exhausted the idea of these two going toe-to-toe again and again. That awkward pause does lead to a new angle, though, so it’s not a total waste, but the pair certainly could have used an extra conversation or two to pad some of their narrative beats.
Other returning characters, like Poe and Finn, also get more to do. There’s lots of fun banter, a few hints at their respective pasts, and maybe even the seeds of romance (not between the two, of course, but with other characters), Chewbacca has an expanded role, C-3PO plays a crucial part, and Lando’s (Billy Dee Williams) return is super nostalgic. One character who doesn’t get a lot more to do is Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who is mostly watching from the sidelines, wasting much of the potential she built up in the previous film.
The film also manages to introduce lots of new characters too. Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) are both welcome, excellent additions and deserve way, way more screen time than they get. The same can be said for the super cute Babu Frik, who all but steals the movie, and new droid D-O, who is there only to cover a specific plot point but is adorable nonetheless.
The main issue with The Rise of Skywalker is the movie tries to do too much with too many characters. All of these moments and introductions go by in a flash and feel short-changed in retrospect. The film is so jam-packed and dead set on moving on to the next item on the list that just when you want to see more of something or someone, it’s long gone. That happens with the plot too. Characters spend an hour solving one mystery only for it to open another mystery that’s basically the same exact thing, meaning neither of them truly feels important to the story at hand, let alone the entire Star Wars saga.
All of that drains the stakes of the movie. Don’t forget this is Episode IX—the finale of not just one trilogy but a trilogy of trilogies, and the film tells us time and time again this is the battle to end all battles. The fate of the galaxy is on the line. But Abrams doesn’t quite convey this in an impactful, emotional way, nor in a way that one-ups similar conflicts seen in previous Star Wars finales. (It looks bigger for sure, but that’s about it.)
Since we don’t quite understand the dynamic between the First Order and the Emperor, or the Emperor’s story, we’re just left trusting that this is a big deal. The movie is more concerned with finding its MacGuffins than creating tension. And the scenes meant to inspire that tension—such the reveal of a legion of Star Destroyers and what they can do—leave too many lingering questions. Where did that come from? How did it do that? You’re left scratching your head rather than being scared or worried about our heroes. Plus, time and time again, something major happens only to be reversed like it never happened a little while later. Very few things feel permanent in the film, which can work against the audience’s trust.
And yet, this is Star Wars. Even if the story is wonky and its thematic drive unclear, every few minutes something happens that is fairly incredible. After all, there is that checklist of cool Star Wars things I mentioned earlier. And that avalanche of excess very expertly covers the fact that some of the character arcs don’t track or the story is repetitive. As long as we get huge reveals, shocking surprises, and lots of John Williams score playing over it, there’s a good chance you’ll be entertained, even if the movie really isn’t saying anything that we can take away and apply to our world. Star Wars is at its best when it’s inspiring, but The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t quite get that. It’s a means to an end destined to be divisive.
Without a doubt, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has something for everyone. It force-feeds you so much Star Wars you’ll probably want to go back for seconds. Sadly, it suffers mightily from being more focused on excess instead of resonance. For some people, that will be more than enough—but for us, it’s not. The Rise of Skywalker may be the end of this Star Wars trilogy, but there will be more in this universe eventually. The legacy of this film, and this trilogy, will not be an ending. Instead, it’s the beginning of a Star Wars debate that will last forever.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens Friday.
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