In X-Men: Dark Phoenix, there’s an unintentionally hilarious sequence where two characters are fighting over control of a helicopter, one with magnetism powers, the other with telekinesis. But what that translates to on screen is two thespians standing in place and straining to wrangle nothing. There’s a similar moment in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, where Force prodigies Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) struggle to control a troop transport. While not as laugh-inducing as those helicopter shenanigans, it is a small example of the cartoonish reality Skywalker exists in, a reality separate from the saga it means to conclude.
That cartoonishness manifests in a variety of absurd plot elements, but moreover, that feeling of being in a zone of emotional unreality pervades the film. Weighty developments seem to occur multiple times only for them to be reversed, the emotions they stir rubber-banded backwards. And this relates to the number one, banner, headline problem with The Rise of Skywalker. The movie is filled with big developments that have the potential to be emotionally resonant, but none of them land, because the film zooms through them all. Significant story twists are either half-assed in execution, or feel incidental because they lack setup and we don’t live with the repercussions. The emotions are unearned.
Is character A Force-sensitive? Maybe, but it doesn’t really amount to anything besides confusion and is so glossed over you wonder what the point is. Do characters B and C betray their group? Yes, but it is largely stripped of any significance or sense of payoff it should have had. Does character D die? Yes, but I’m not in the moment. I’m not feeling it. Does character E sacrifice something of themself? Yes, but it barely registers in the storytelling and gets reversed. It’s a strange state of affairs when the film’s trailer does a better job of giving the emotions space to breathe.
For the first act at least, The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t reach for those deep emotions, instead embracing the spirit of serialized adventure that is key to Star Wars. It’s this trilogy’s main heroes, Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), on a series of adventures. The charitable reading is, this is where the movie cooks at its highest consistent intensity. The uncharitable reading is, this is exhausting. It’s charismatic performers playing at comic strip hero, so there are moments of genuine fun. It’s there in Rey firing her blaster like she’s spamming the button on Star Wars Battlefront; it’s there in the sight of jet troopers delightfully wiping out. At times it can feel a little like forced frivolity. When C-3PO is with the group, he has to chime in at every possible opportunity, presumably to keep Anthony Daniels happy with his number of lines. Regarding director J.J. Abrams’ decision to let the actors improvise, I’m sure it was fun for them but it isn’t always to the advantage of the story.
The tension between some dreadful plot decisions and the simple fun of being along on a Star Wars ride defines much of the movie. I love how Rey takes in the Aki Aki puppet show, and how she can can beat someone down and then offer her hand to them in the blink of an eye. The snapping sound as a Force-summoned lightsaber hits a hand is simply exciting. A few legacy character returns, including Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), work well. There’s at least one great piece of aural fanservice. And the choreography for Rey and Kylo Ren’s lightsaber dueling remains effective. There is not a dearth of quality, but those moments are tainted by a few key woeful choices in the big picture.
Bringing back Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in the worst possible ripped-from-clickbait-websites fashion proves to be a mistake. There is also an unfortunate thread in The Rise of Skywalker that feels like a reaction against The Last Jedi, particularly the first line out of a returning character’s mouth. There is a revelation of Rey’s backstory that undermines her character and the thematic groundwork of The Last Jedi, and moreover, serves no essential purpose in the story. In specific sequences, we see a deft portrait of Rey wrestling with aspects of herself that shows the storytellers possess the skill to portray her internal struggle without resorting to fan theory bingo, which makes it all the more disappointing that they do. Also, when not pushing against its predecessor, the film re-stages specific set-ups from The Last Jedi, and executes them decidedly worse.
The cast is solid. Adam Driver remarkably builds a physical consistency for the Kylo Ren character, repeating certain subtle movements from the previous films. One of my favorite things in the movie is Driver’s delivery when Kylo Ren says he can never go back to his mother. Daisy Ridley does well with challenging material. Richard E. Grant makes for a nicely sadistic military authority figure. The production and art design is a constant source of joy in Star Wars. How else to praise the Knights of Ren, only there to look cool?
John Williams’ final score for Star Wars introduces some new Alan Silvestri-esque sentimentally sweeping cues, and though he quotes some old passages effectively as specific callbacks to each original trilogy movie, he could have pulled more past themes out of the toolbox. In one of the most fist-pumping moments of the film, Williams deploys fanfare usually reserved for the end credits sequences of these movies to sharp effect. It is delightful how much mileage Williams gets from big statements of Rey’s theme, and fascinating how at one point he melds her leitmotif with another character’s. And look for a certain other character’s theme played in the opposite key it usually is.
So what the Babu Frik is going on with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? There is a smattering of good material here, to be sure. But there are also unmotivated emotion dumps, coming off the heels of by far the most emotionally powerful film in the series. Unconvincing plot developments, the centerpiece being a silly metaphysical finale. My biggest critique of The Force Awakens is that it’s not weird enough, playing with a relatively conservative imagination in terms of general environment and design. The Rise of Skywalker proves I should be careful what I wish for, as so much of the driving engine of its story crosses the threshold of weird into ridiculous. By and large, Skywalker will be remembered for feinting in the general direction of emotion when it should have stoked tears, and for lacking a mastery of character that previous Star Wars films displayed.
We’ll always have The Last Jedi. A weak 5/10.