clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Rey lit by blue and red lightsabers from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Lucasfilm/Disney

Filed under:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a defeat, even in moments of triumph

J.J. Abrams dives straight down the nostalgia well in Episode IX

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

[Ed. note: This review reveals no specific plot points from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Polygon will have more in-depth story analysis in future reviews and essays after the film’s Dec. 20 release.]

It’s been more than 40 years since George Lucas launched an entire universe with 1977’s Star Wars, later styled as Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. The film was an instant hit, in part because it was such an original take on familiar material. Lucas drew heavily on classic Westerns and Akira Kurosawa films to shape his galaxy far, far away, but he gave the setting a fresh and highly specific new face and tone. Aping the past while revamping it into the future has been built into Star Wars’ DNA from the very beginning. So J.J. Abrams’ finale, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, with its aggressive, relentless copycatting of the past, should fit thematically into Lucas’ vision.

But it doesn’t feel like it’s respecting the series’ past. It’s more like Abrams is obsessively hiding behind it.

Back when the final Star Wars trilogy was about to launch with 2015’s The Force Awakens, fans were vocally nervous about what Abrams would do to their beloved franchise. He had previously resurrected the Star Trek film franchise in a sleeker, younger, much more foul-mouthed and smart-assed form. His alteration of the Trek canon included some major rewrites of beloved characters and a newly revved-up tone. While some audiences embraced the changes, others bridled at them, and openly wondered what Star Wars would look like if Abrams tried to give it an equally frat-boy-minded mentality.

But Abrams took a different tack. The Force Awakens embraced fan nostalgia by re-creating A New Hope for a new era. Half sequel, half stealth remake, The Force Awakens introduced a reskinned Empire and a new Darth Vader, a gender-swapped Luke Skywalker and a modernized R2-D2, and a whole lot more familiar elements. Fans and critics alike were generally positive about the film, which set out to hand Star Wars over to a new generation of young heroes. At the same time, it turned those characters into fan avatars who thrilled at the chance to hang out with their heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) — even as those older heroes were in the process of moving on.

Rian Johnson’s sequel, The Last Jedi, leaned much harder on the “handover to the new generation” idea, with a kill-your-idols approach that subverted fan expectations and openly asked viewers to accept that the series was evolving away from the Skywalker lineage that defined Lucas’ original film trilogy. As a result, The Last Jedi has proved incredibly contentious, with detractors varying mostly in whether they blame the message, the execution, or both. Seemingly leery of that divisive response, Abrams steers The Rise of Skywalker straight back to the nostalgia-courting approach that served him so well with The Force Awakens.

Rey and Kylo Ren stand on opposite ends of the sunken Death Star bridge in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Image: Lucasfilm/Disney

The most notable effect of that plan is that just as The Force Awakens mirrors A New Hope in characters, conflicts, and plot beats, Episode IX closely mirrors 1983’s Return of the Jedi, to the point where savvy fans could easily call out half the locales, enemies, and story turns well in advance. It’s a remarkably safe and timid approach, one that consciously reflects viewers’ cinematic pasts back at them, with a “You loved this last time, right? Here’s more of it!” attitude. It’s the rom-com method of storytelling, essentially cinema as comfort food: The story is pat and predictable enough to be soothing, and the surprises exist only in the details that mix up the story.

In this case, those telling details largely come in the form of abruptly introduced new abilities that change the dynamics of a lot of conflicts. The new Sith abilities that drive the plot may rankle purists, but they’re part of the buy-in for the story. The new space-battle tactics are much more likely to frustrate viewers who remember past canon. And fans who raged over The Last Jedi’s introduction of heretofore unseen Force powers aren’t going to have an easier time with The Rise of Skywalker, which pushes the Force even further into the realm of “all-powerful, all-flexible magic bullet” than ever before. Those abilities come to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and, more notably, her fated adversary Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose psychic connection with Rey is used to keep the plot moving along at a breakneck speed, to force a series of confrontations that form the movie’s backbone, and to enable a number of startlingly visually playful meetings of the mind.

The nonstop pace is an advantage in some ways for The Rise of Skywalker. It makes the film feel like a sped-up victory tour around the Star Wars galaxy, as the protagonists hop rapidly from one planet and conflict to the next, meeting new allies and worrying over past foes. The gasping pace doesn’t leave much time for contemplating plot holes, or noticing that the stakes feel lighter than ever, even though in theory, entire planets are on the line. It also doesn’t leave time for further character development, any form of nuance, or even a moment’s reflection on the passing of an age. The Rise of Skywalker pointedly opens with a series of action scenes featuring different characters in different environments, all charging forward with such a frantic, breathless intensity that the audience is blocked from wondering why or whether any of the action matters. And that energy rarely lets up over the course of close to two and half hours.

All this charging about would feel more consequential if the characters’ goals didn’t feel so arbitrary. Early on, Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio introduce one of the laziest of cinematic tropes: an all-important MacGuffin the characters must find to move forward. The protagonists spend a great deal of time and energy chasing this object, but they’re constantly interrupted by new and changing goals of the moment, which are often reached and resolved in a blind rush. It frequently feels as if no one really cares what the characters are pursuing, as long as they’re doing it loudly, quickly, and with plenty of callbacks to the original trilogy, from characters to situations to specific lines.

Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian fly the Millennium Falcon into battle in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Image: Lucasfilm/Disney

The sense of a great deal of busywork being accomplished in an immense rush prevents The Rise of Skywalker from developing any larger themes, apart from the need to remind fans that they loved it when, say, Luke faced his evil cave doppelgänger in The Empire Strikes Back, or when Obi-Wan Kenobi posthumously whispered advice in Luke’s ear in A New Hope. It’s the first film of the final trilogy to lean on these echoes in place of any larger ideas. The Force Awakens was arguably about how history is cyclical, and the battles of the past will need to be fought again in the future by a new wave of idealists who may know little about the forces that shaped their environment. The Last Jedi was about letting go of the past entirely, and accepting that the future is more important.

But The Rise of Skywalker is almost a meta-movie about how Star Wars is cool, and people’s memories of it are cool, and their ability to follow an endless string of references is cool. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) get their share of screen time, alongside classic characters Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), who’s still the endlessly belittled butt of derisive jokes, even as he briefly, hurriedly takes on his most central role in the series to date. Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, has an insultingly minimal role this time out, but the late Carrie Fisher as Leia gets as much screen time as previously shot footage allows, and it’s a moving send-off.

Yet they’re all ciphers in a fast-moving machine that zips from one planet to another, and from one space battle or lightsaber battle to the next, with little sense of impact. Some of those clashes look tremendous — one fight that takes place in the middle of a raging sea is visually stunning and weighty — but shockingly few of them really matter, especially in an environment where so many of the seemingly monumental plot developments are quickly reversed.

Rey, with lightsaber out, prepares for a fight on a desert planet in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Image: Lucasfilm/Disney

Abrams and Terrio do attempt to bring scale and consequence to The Rise of Skywalker, but many of their biggest gambits are meant more for the fans than for the characters. At one point, Rey announces that she embodies all the past Jedi of history, while her adversary says he’s all the Sith that came before him. At another point, she returns to a beloved past locale from the film series — one she has no personal connection to, but appears to be enjoying entirely on the audience’s behalf. There’s certainly a palpable sense throughout The Rise of Skywalker that the creators are trying to revisit and pay off every satisfying battle and memorable moment from Skywalker Saga history all at once, by echoing them and turning them into a single symbolic conflict that can be repeated here one last time.

That sense of repetition and nostalgic recognition dominates the film, far more than any single revelation or payoff. The message, to the degree that The Rise of Skywalker bothers with one, is that we all remember and love Star Wars, so of course we’d be glad to see it all again, remixed and revved up and delivered in an energetic gabble.

But it’s bizarre to see Abrams and Terrio implying that even after 40 years of waiting for a finale, they just don’t have time to slow down, take a breath, and consider who these characters are, or what they’ve become after so many trials and traumas. It’s honestly true that George Lucas’ series kickoff A New Hope, with its tremendous creativity and its tremendous legacy, holds more cultural weight than anything the series is doing today. So repeatedly referencing and recapitulating that film and its direct sequels may feel more significant, and more fan-friendly, than striking out with an original vision.

But having the people in charge of Star Wars’ legacy acknowledging their own inability to move forward is a sad way for the story to end. Even as The Rise of Skywalker’s characters claim their ultimate triumph, the film feels clumsy, hurried, and above all, like an admission of creative defeat.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters on Dec. 20.