Well, we’ve had time to think about The Rise of Skywalker and as is tradition, I’m going to write about a new Star Wars movie and then maybe not write about Star Wars anymore. Because here’s the thing. I liked Rise of Skywalker. It’s a little dumb and there are things in it that are bad, but on the whole, I like it. It’s a fine Star Wars movie. However, it’s an absolutely terrible follow-up to The Last Jedi and a disappointing look into the franchise’s priorities.
But first, the actual movie. J.J. Abrams returned after Force Awakens to direct a movie he didn’t intend to make. Originally scheduled director Colin Trevorrow apparently Josh Tranked himself out of the job. (Advice to future directors: If they announce you’re going to make a Star Wars movie, don’t immediately release a terrible movie in the wake of this news. They will fire you.) And I’m as big an Abrams supporter as anybody. I was looking forward to seeing what he’d do after he piled all the greatest hits into Force Awakens. That felt like he had a bucket list of Star Wars things to do and maybe now, after Last Jedi and Rogue One played with the formula, he’d be able to do something really new and leave a stamp on the franchise.
And instead, we got a Star Wars that is 100% a Star Wars. The stuff you expect to see in a Star Wars movie is here, and it’s done pretty well. Half-baked philosophy about balance that doesn’t hold up to any level of scrutiny, a third act that cuts between a space battle and a smaller scale fight on the planet below, ghosts giving advice, a desert planet. That’s the Star Wars stuff, and you’re going to get it here.
It’s fun to see the new characters finally together on an adventure – Rey, Poe, and Finn don’t have a single scene where the three of them are together in the first two movies. And those three are likeable characters portrayed by good actors and I like seeing them fighting Stormtroopers. Yes, it feels like Finn was ultimately not that well developed – he needed some kind of arc beyond deciding not to be a Stormtrooper ten seconds after we met him. But John Boyega is great and he sells a character whose personality can be described as “is John Boyega”.
Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss is a fun addition and I feel like she has enough hinted-at backstory to warrant a Disney+ series even if there was no good reason to keep her completely helmeted the whole time. She’s famous and attractive, but not so famous that seeing her face would be distracting. That sort of felt like an attempt to make her Lady Mandalorian, but again, if we get a Disney+ show, all is forgiven. Babu Frihk is one of those great minor aliens that I love way out of proportion to their role in the movie. Fun stuff happens here.
The plot is bonkers – the Emperor is back and this is a fact we learn in the opening crawl. Also, do not begin your movie which features reused Carrie Fisher footage with “The Dead Speak!” There’s a lot of criticism over the fact that the Emperor’s return happened in Fortnite, a video game that is not Star Wars-themed, and that is indeed a gross move. But there’s a tradition of opening these movies with huge between-movies events announced in text. I mean, Star Wars comes out and tells us that the Empire can’t recover from losing the Death Star and Empire Strikes Back begins with “Actually, they did. It was super easy.” I don’t care that we learn about Palpatine’s return in a tell-don’t-show.
It’s a little more disappointing that the motive and mechanism behind the Emperor’s return is never explained. It’s implied to be cloning, indicated by a facility with a bunch of Snokes in jars, but it would be nice to know who cloned the Emperor and why they do not appear in the movie and why they would unleash this evil that could not possibly benefit them. I’m not even sure who the crowd is watching the final battle. You can fanwank something about a Sith cult, but that should have actually been in the movie. A shrugged off “cloning, I guess” is not really acceptable, but that’s all you’re going to get. And come to think of it, it would be really interesting to see how and why the Emperor was controlling Snoke. I don’t want my hand held, but this would have benefited from explanation. Knowing who cloned the Emperor and why would be cool. I’ll buy that it was “somebody”, but they’re leaving genuine entertainment value on the table. They imply the culmination of a long-term plan but with no details about what that plan was.
And like I said, I liked the movie. It’s held together with duct tape and good will, but I had fun. I love C-3PO and he got a lot to do this time (though maybe he and Chewbacca didn’t both need big emotional moments based on fake outs), and the rebooted droid calling Babu Frihk “one of my oldest friends” is one of my favorite jokes in the franchise. Everything with Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver is great and giving a Star Wars villain depth is the greatest trick J.J. has ever pulled off. The scenes where they Force Facetime and they fight despite being in two different places and objects from one location suddenly appear in the other is one of the coolest things in the trilogy. Stuff like that is genuinely great.
The rebels riding space horses atop a Star Destroyer? Awesome. The entire universe showing up to fight the First Order Fleet at the end? That is extremely my jam. That’s the most Doctor Who moment in all of the Star Wars franchise. Love it. Rey learning that she’s a Palpatine (complete with a cameo from Killing Eve star Jodie Comer)? Bad, but not as bad as her being a Skywalker. I can live with that. It is a fun Star Wars movie that maybe they didn’t finish writing before they shot it, but it’s a satisfying to the trilogy that I had a great time watching.
Remember The Last Jedi? Remember how it introduced a bunch of cool ideas? It told us that Rey’s parents were nobody and democratized the Force, telling us that anybody can be a hero. The Rise of Skywalker tells us that that is very much not true. You have to be from a special lineage to matter and let’s ignore that we saw that stable boy use the Force and that it was maybe the best image in forty years of Star Wars. Last Jedi introduced a gray area and invited us to think about the people who weren’t directly involved in the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. Rise of Skywalker removes that entirely and turns the First Order into a death cult that wants to destroy all of the planets. Last Jedi invited us to think about things that are not usually welcome in the franchise and Rise of Skywalker tells us that, indeed, those things are not welcome and everything is black and white. It’s hugely disappointing. To be honest, you could tell me that J.J. didn’t see The Last Jedi and instead only read the plot synopsis on IMDB and I would absolutely believe it.
The Last Jedi was challenging for what it was, and between The Mandalorian and Rise of Skywalker, it’s been made clear that Star Wars will not challenge anybody going forward. The Mandalorian is fine and enjoyable, but it’s incredibly simple. I’m baffled at how many articles I see every week offering to “explain” what something really meant on that show. Everything means exactly what they tell you it means. This is a not a show that needs to be explained because everybody tells you their motivation in words and every plot point is clearly delineated without any room for ambiguity. Rise of Skywalker is a lot like that, minus the clear plotting.
That’s enough of a bummer, but it really feels like Rise of Skywalker is the product of corporate cowardice where Disney is giving in to the worst people in fandom. Remember the bizarre complaints about the existence of Rose Tico? Where “fans” of the franchise hated this perfectly likeable character so much that they bullied the actress off of social media? And how this was largely motivated by a white nationalist adjacent former Green Lantern artist who does not enjoy entertainment that includes roles for anybody who’s not a white man? Well, Disney heard Ethan “Piece of Shit” Van Sciver’s complaints and they have all but removed Rose from the final cut of the movie. (Fun story: Van Sciver, who is a piece of shit, was really on board with The Mandalorian until, four episodes in, there was a female character with both a face and a speaking role and then he was outraged at how Disney gave in to the “SJWs”. Cool that they want to placate this piece of shit.)
Remember when these same people complain that Rey is good at things and is thus a “Mary Sue” (it’s a dumb fandom term that everybody misuses)? But it was OK that Luke Skywalker was good at all the same things but was also a brilliant pilot and I wonder what that difference could possibly be? Well, Rise of Skywalker has Rey using the Force to heal both a giant snake and Kylo Ren. We’ve never seen that before, and that’s fine. It took three movies before somebody shot lightning from their hands and we bought that. But, and this is just my theory, they knew the Van Sciver crowd would lose their minds if Rey used a heretofore unseen power. The episode of The Mandalorian that premiered the day before the movie had Baby Yoda using that same power and thus cementing it in canon before some broad did it. Like I said, just a theory but the timing doesn’t feel like it could be a coincidence. It feels like Disney is trying to placate the worst sector of fandom, without realizing that some of those people won’t be happy unless George Lucas writes and directs everything and the rest won’t be happy until Luke Skywalker wears a MAGA hat and arrests Space Mexicans.
(NOTE: It has been pointed out to me that in the prequels, Anakin uses the Force as a healing power. It has also been pointed out to me that this is implied to be a Sith specific power, so my point still stands. Additionally, I would argue that if they wanted me to remember something, they shouldn’t have put it in the prequels.)
Even if that wasn’t their motive, it still feels like they backed off from a lot of really interesting ideas in favor of remixes of the things we liked before. Last Jedi raised questions about war profiteers and two years later Disney yelled “Look over there! IG-88 is riding a speeder bike!” So while I liked The Rise of Skywalker quite a bit, it also feels like maybe I don’t want to talk about Star Wars anymore. I haven’t seen any form of Star Wars discussion in a long time that didn’t become some sort of bad faith cesspool. Whether people are getting mad at actors criticizing the movies (don’t tell them about Alec Guinness or Harrison Ford) or fighting over their preferred pairings or the new “Seeing the movies doesn’t make you a Star Wars fan…” meme. There’s nothing I hate more in fandom than the self-appointed gatekeepers, so I’m out. I’m muting Star Wars terms on social media for at least the next year just so I can salvage some enjoyment.
The attempt to make everybody happy, including absolute monsters, has blunted a lot of the things that I found really engaging. I’d be OK with them taking a few years off from all things Star Wars and maybe figure things out. Because at its core, Star Wars was a fairy tale about fighting space fascists and it’s starting to feel like the modern iteration of the franchise is afraid to alienate real life fascists because they’ve got money too. It’s not totally spoiled yet and if Rise of Skywalker is the last Star Wars thing I see, I’m good with that. I left happy, if maybe a little unfulfilled. But I can see things just getting dumber and less challenging, and maybe Star Wars can rest for a bit instead of going in that direction.
Unless we get that Zorii Bliss series.