Star Wars, for better or worse, has always been a franchise that has swayed to the demands of fans. You want more Star Wars? Here’s the story of the Clone Wars and how Anakin became Darth Vader. That’s a story you want, right? Well fans rejected George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. It didn’t feel like the Star Wars they knew as a kid. Jump to Lucas selling Lucasfilm to Disney and Bob Iger not wanting to have a prequel situation on his hands with his $4 Billion investment. The fans said they wanted something like the old films, so The Force Awakens gave it to them. But then that was too much like the original films, down to near-identical story beats. The fans cried out that they wanted Star Wars to do something new and bold. Enter Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi: a film that divided the fanbase so intensely that the edict for this final chapter in the Skywalker saga was “just make everybody happy.” Unfortunately The Rise of Skywalker is a film that tries to do too much and ends up not doing much of anything at all.
I’ve long been a proponent that not agreeing with story decisions isn’t reason enough to think something is bad — The Last Jedi being Exhibit A. Say what you will about the choices Rian Johnson made, but it’s hard to deny that his film doesn’t have a very clear and focused point-of-view and vision for what it’s trying to do. With Rise, JJ Abrams seems to be trying to cram as much Star Wars into one movie as he can which results in a film that feels like a series of half-built sequences and half-cooked ideas. If The Last Jedi was a full-course meal with perhaps too many vegetables for some fans, than The Rise of Skywalker feels like staying up all night binging on cotton candy. The movie moves at a break-neck pace, never staying in one location for long, perhaps in an attempt to distract from its narrative short-comings, and you never really find your footing. While Abrams is certainly going for something new in certain places and takes some big swings, the movie ends up tying itself in knots trying to justify its choices — making the whole affair feel like it’s held together by scotch-tape rather than a strong story. It’s also regressive in how it responds to the choices in The Last Jedi which is disappointing for fans of that film and makes Rise feel narratively wobbly as a result.
Sloppy storytelling aside, there’s still plenty for hardcore fans of the series to enjoy. Carrie Fisher ends up being in the movie more than you’d think, though it does feel patch-work at times. While the first half of the movie is its rockiest, it functions like an extended Indiana Jones-like adventure that features our heroes working together as a team and provides a lot of entertainment and fun. Rey and Kylo Ren continue to be a strong pair of co-leads and their interactions throughout are the more successful parts of the story and give the film its only emotional depth. The performances from both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are top-notch and Ridley especially is given a lot for her character to work with. The film is also so loaded with fan service that one could argue it’s built entirely upon giving fans reasons to celebrate. There’s lots of big moments that should have long-time fans cheering in their seats. Even for all of its shortcomings, the film still has plenty of enjoyment to offer. I imagine it’s an entry that I will come to like more over time, but for now, it’s disappointing that JJ Abrams was playing not to lose, rather than going for a big win. Grade: B-