Eight films, 20 hours and hundreds of nostalgic moments have lead up to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and the final film in the franchise has the impossible task of wrapping up a fleet of story lines in a mere few hours. It’s almost too much for a single film to juggle, and not even the Force can pull it off.
Which is a shame because America needs Star Wars now more than ever. When George Lucas made A New Hope in 1977, it was in response to the country’s tumultuous times. It was nice for audiences to see the good guys win after we lost the Vietnam War, and it was a chance to escape to a galaxy far, far away for a nation dealing with uncertainty in the wake of Watergate. Now, there are headlines about scandals, shootings or acts of terrorism every day. We all sort of feel like we need rescuing, don’t we?
In the Star-verse, Rey (Daisy Ridley) represents the universal hero. She’s the last Jedi and the last hope for the Resistance. Now a Moses-like figure armed with a literal staff, Rey has made it her life’s mission to part the Red Sea that is the Sith. That means dueling Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Supreme Leader of the bad guys. It also means going up against the hooded Emperor Palpatine, who has been in hiding for decades.
Director J.J. Abrams keeps things moving at light speed. From one swashbuckling adventure to the next, Rey and her friends zip from planet to planet looking for clues of Palpatine’s existence. Poe Dameron, the vivacious pilot played by Oscar Isaac, is flying everyone around in the Millennium Falcon. Along for the ride: Finn, the stormtrooper turned good guy (John Boyega), the iconic warm-spirited grizzly beast Chewbacca (voiced by Joonas Suatamo), the biting and beloved C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8, the cute robot who rolls around aimlessly.
Together, they stand against the dark side that threatens to wipe out all that is good in the galaxy. That’s pretty much the premise of every Star Wars movie, but the stakes here are more consequential, and the picture’s scope is monumental. You don’t have to be a fan of the series to enjoy the lightsaber duels and dog fights in space, either. One spectacular scene sees Rey and Ren trading lightsaber blows on a windswept coast, as the backwash of towering waves shower over their intense faces. Another scene memorable for its galactic scale comes toward the end of the run time- a thousand Resistance space ships go to war against even more Star Destroyers in a winner-take-all battle for the ages.
While The Rise of Skywalker has no shortage of spectacular set pieces, it’s still missing the magic that made A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi landmarks of pop culture. Lucas’ original trilogy brought out the child in all of us. Everywhere audiences looked there was something new to see, and Lucas paced those films so that we could stop and take everything in before moving on to the next planet. Here, Abrams moves things along way too fast. Every minute he cuts to a new planet. And there are so many new and old characters coming and going that it unfolds like an intergalactic bus station. And some of the stops are better than others.
Whenever Ridley and Driver share the screen, the dramatic force between them is palpable. Rey sees the good beneath Ren’s cracked mask, while he sees the darkness brooding under her bright smile. Through the performances, their attempts to change one another’s sides recalls the intensity of Darth Vadar trying to turn his son Luke Skywalker against his friends. If there’s anything clever in the script, it’s the way it reflects the divide between good and evil in everyone, a duality that’s more complex than black and white, and which was the basis for the original.
Other than Ridley and Driver’s chemistry, though, there isn’t a lot to like here or feel awed about. The enterprise is too cluttered to be breezy. It’s too caught up in trying to please fans, so there’s no risk or revelatory ideas on screen. This can be credited to the waves of negative feedback that Disney received after Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Hardcore fans hated the way Johnson added his own creative flourishes to the picture. In The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has clearly decided to leave out any traces of individuality or creativity, as to not upset the hardcore fanbase.
Though the pop culture status quo might be satisfied here, those who judge the film on its own merits or the potential the final series showed for greatness -building on the original rather than bilking it- will not be. During the climax, Rey, the protagonist of the final trilogy, declares, “If we fail, it was all for nothing.” It’s an unfortunate metaphor for a film that ultimately, fails the eight episodes before it.