As they prepare for their final battle against the galaxy’s forces of evil, the characters in The Rise of Skywalker remind each other several times that if this doesn’t work, everything that’s come before—everything they’ve fought for, everything they’ve been through—will all count for nothing. You could say the same of the movie itself. We can debate the importance of final chapters, whether they really have, or should have, the power to elevate or invalidate everything that came before them—and though the ninth episode in this generation-spanning story has been advertised with the promise that “The Saga Will End,” that’s a promise that has been made and broken before. But there’s a lot riding on how Skywalker lands the good ship Star Wars—and not just for Disney’s stockholders.
The Last Jedi was a thrilling addition to the Star Wars canon, drawing the best first-run reviews of any film in the franchise and instilling hope—a new hope, even—that it was possible for a movie to tick all the boxes required of a modern IP-driven blockbuster, and still be genuinely thoughtful and surprising. It was also loathed by a small but extremely vocal minority that was infuriated by writer-director Rian Johnson’s provocative approach to Star Wars lore. The franchise’s controlling entities seemed satisfied enough with the movie’s success—$1.3 billion in worldwide box-office—to put Johnson in charge of launching a brand-new trilogy.
But as the outcry from The Last Jedi’s detractors grew, Johnson has sounded less certain about his place on Lucasfilm’s call sheet, and J.J. Abrams, who launched the current trilogy and was brought back to close it out, used the first interviews on The Rise of Skywalker’s press tour to signal to the haters that they had been heard: “I don’t think that people go to Star Wars to be told ‘This doesn’t matter,’ ” he told the New York Times.
The haste with which The Rise of Skywalker rushes to undo its predecessor is almost comical at first, at least before its capitulation to the franchise’s most toxic fans turns outright contemptible. Mad that Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) didn’t spend enough time together in the last movie? Let’s shove them into the same frame from the beginning and throw in lots of forced banter to remind you that they’re pals. Didn’t like when they killed off the pale evil guy with the misshapen face? What if we brought in another? And that whole thing about Rey being “no one,” suggesting a radical rewrite of the idea that Jedi knights are made and not born? Well, you’ll have to see what happens there for yourself.
The Rise of Skywalker at least begins with a sequence of sublime visual beauty, as if Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel are out to prove that they can use the color red as well as Johnson did. Piloting his way through an intestine-red nebula with the aid of a GPS shaped like a glowing green prism, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) makes his way to the planet Exogol, where a new threat to the freedom of the galaxy has arisen, a souped-up First Order called the Final Order. Like Abrams’ The Force Awakens, which replaced the original trilogy’s Death Star with a larger, deadlier Death Star, The Rise of Skywalker’s default approach is: again, but bigger.
If The Last Jedi was about breaking with the past, Skywalker is slavishly in debt to it. The first words in the opening crawl are “The Dead Speak!” and the first words spoken are “At last.” In their quest to track down the only duplicate of Kylo Ren’s tracking gewgaw (technically called a wayfinder), Rey and co. arrive on another of the series’ ubiquitous desert planets, whose leathery inhabitants are in the midst of paying tribute to their ancestors via a festival that happens once every 42 years. You don’t need to look up how long it’s been since the original Star Wars.
The Rise of Skywalker literally raises the dead by using discarded footage to weave the late Carrie Fisher’s Leia back into the story—a mixed blessing for those still mourning her loss, and her character’s truncated arc, but not at all sure this is the way to address it. Although there’s little doubt that some digital trickery was used to resituate Leia in the new movie’s locations, there’s mercifully little of the dead-eyed creepiness of the exhumed Peter Cushing in Rogue One, and this is one time where bringing back a favorite character feels like more than mere fan service (although there are oodles of other moments in Skywalker that don’t clear this bar). Leia’s scenes, written around whatever snippets of dialogue existed or could be cobbled together, have the clunky feel of found-audio collages, but there, I’ll admit, my desire to heal the wound of Fisher’s abrupt departure was enough for to me to convince myself that it worked.
There are parts of the movie that reach those middling heights: moments where, if you squint hard, you can convince yourself the old magic is back. Over the course of three movies, Ridley and the role of Rey have molded themselves to one another, so that Ridley’s limitations now read as Rey’s obstacles. There are lightsaber battles and interstellar dogfights and moments of jovial camaraderie, although the latter often feel like strained vaudeville routines. (If you’re hoping for more of the chemistry between Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, you’re out of luck. She’s almost entirely left on the sidelines here with a pretext so flimsy it feels like an insult.) Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio repeatedly fall back on the tic of having characters repeat the same line of dialogue with varying inflections—“They fly now?” “They fly now!” “They fly now.”—as if mimicking the shape of humor relieves them of the duty to write actual jokes. There’s a hack-sitcom quality to especially the movie’s first third, with Boyega and Isaac left muttering asides as Ridley stares into the middle distance.
The Rise of Skywalker gives people what they go to Star Wars for, but that’s all it does—and worse, all it sets out to do. It’s frenzied, briefly infuriating, and eventually, grudgingly, satisfying, but it’s like being force-fed fandom: Your belly is filled, but there’s no pleasure in the meal. The movie feels like it’s part of the post–Last Jedi retrenchment, when Disney jerked the leash on Solo and killed plans for future spinoffs by insisting that filmmakers stick to the established playbook. It’s of a piece with the pointedly unambitious The Mandalorian, just good enough to get people’s attention but fundamentally terrified of rocking the boat. Rather than making a movie some people might love, Abrams tried to make a movie no one would hate, and as a result, you don’t feel much of anything at all.