2/10 In the aftermath of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so many disillusioned fans were demanding deep and specific revisions that the proposal to make a different version of the installment for each individual viewer became a running gag.
It looks like J.J. Abrams actually got to make his.
In Star Wars: The Apology Tour, Emperor Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned, somehow, living for the past decades on the Sith homeworld of Exegol in the uncharted reaches. Via galaxy-wide psychic broadcast, he announces that he will be ready to launch a new assault on the core worlds and establish a new empire and/or hook up with the existing First Order, which he also claims to be in charge of – it’s, it’ll be its own new amorphously fascist thing, I guess, whatever. The important part is, for some reason, he says he’s going to wait several hours to do it, which sets Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac) on a desperate mission to find Exegol and hamstring Palpatine’s fleet.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out in 2015, begging questions about where Snoke came from and dedicating entire scenes to idly wondering about Rey’s lineage, I assumed writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams didn’t have a plan for those threads, because J.J. Abrams never has a plan. He only has mystery boxes, which usually contain bombs that blow up in other filmmakers’ faces. But after mass fan dissatisfaction with The Last Jedi, it came out that Abrams actually did have a plan for two more sequels in this case.
I never would have believed it until I’d seen it, but he clearly wasn’t bluffing, because he’s filmed both of them here. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is clearly two stories spliced together, resulting in a movie that feels truncated to the point of incoherence despite being 142 minutes long. If you’re not wide awake and ready to keep up with this movie, it could easily slip into an overwhelming and utterly meaningless stream of noise and lights. It feels fast-forwarded, like a theatrical experiment for that awful Netflix 1.5x speed feature. Rey’s grueling odyssey across the galaxy, in which she struggles with Shakespearean temptation and doubt, is abbreviated into a quick and weirdly intense jaunt in which she seems personally unstable for being so shaken in such a short amount of time.
It’s not just a briskly paced-film – the original Star Wars is a briskly paced film. Rise of Skywalker is flat-out skipping things, and it shows you the things it skips. You’ll enter on a scene where Rey has almost finished what looked like a challenging climb, or in one of the first scenes, they set up R2-D2 for a tense download sequence with a “loading” bar and everything, and it takes him mere moments to get the information. At one point, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has to fight six guys with his bare hands, and we only get to see brief flashes of the brawl. Key new Force concepts are introduced with hasty, sloppily written exposition that interrupts the flow of scenes – Palpatine in particular is forced to devote far too many of his lines to explaining plot mechanics when he should be talking about how cool the dark side is.
Rise of Skywalker isn’t a movie you enjoy, one with precise timing and shot composition to compliment its emotional beats, it’s a movie you cram, guzzling as much plot as you can within an amount of time that will just barely allow the ushers to clean up for the next screening. It feels like I’ve only seen the storyboard for this movie. If someone showed this to me a year out from release, I would have told them it was a good start.
Within this overwhelming mess of incomplete scenes, it’s painfully easy to see the Episodes VIII and IX Abrams would have wanted to make, beat-for-beat remakes of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi just like The Force Awakens was of Star Wars. The Rise of Skywalker is creatively bankrupt to the point that you could pull out several similar scenes from Episodes V and VI and simply splice them in without seeming to have altered the movie – just slowed it down to a reasonable pace. But what in the original trilogy was palpably motivated by the characters is in Abrams’ trilogy motivated by the original trilogy having done it first.
The fundamental cowardice of this designing principle, which is already geared toward fan service, lends itself to fulfilling every possible fan-demanded correction, which The Rise of Skywalker goes out of its way to do. Every fan request you’ve ever heard is gratuitously indulged, and not just the ones associated with The Last Jedi. These moments of grotesque, pathetic groveling are just about the only things Rise of Skywalker seems to think are worth actually spending a moment on.
It is fan service to the level of fan dictatorship and threatens to set a precedent of fan ownership, but that’s the thing – to a very meaningful extent, the fans really do own Star Wars. Fans are what kept the franchise alive in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when George Lucas was saying there would be no more, not just by continuing to watch the movies, but by writing new material and expanding the story through officially sanctioned fan fiction. It’s not just misogynists and racists who are upset with this trilogy, it’s not just people who wanted to see something better, it’s people who actually made something better and had it tossed out by Disney.
Disney. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said they wouldn’t recreate the late Carrie Fisher’s face with their unholy facial animation technology, but they did. They don’t do it often, but it’s always easy to tell. Her death put the movie in a no-win situation – after Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill featured prominently in the previous installments, this was to be her movie, but she died before production began – and they tried, but the workarounds all stick out badly. All of Gen. Leia Organa’s (Fisher) lines that you can tell are really performed by Fisher look and sound like the B-roll that they are, random soundboard lines with no proper nouns in sight.
The trouble is, if you accept the constraints and goals that The Rise of Skywalker imposed on itself, I don’t know they could have done much better than this. Short of writing a better story or taking the amount of time they need to tell it, I don’t have too many notes. This movie has some real show-stoppers, when they don’t get skipped over. The roving camerawork in many of the shootouts are a consistent highlight. The story may be unoriginal and cowardly at its core, but it is oddly effective.
I get the firm impression I would really enjoy a three or four hour cut of this movie, and I’m honestly not sure why I didn’t get it. The answer studios will give you is marketing reasons – if a movie is too long, fewer people will want to sit through it and theaters can’t physically screen it the number of times they want to – but these considerations have been proven inconsequential time and time again. The level of fans’ devotion to Star Wars is comparable, and probably much higher, than that of the psychopaths who actually sit down and watch those four-hour editions of Lord of the Rings, and it’s at least on par with MCU fans, who made Avengers: Endgame, almost 40 minutes longer, the highest-grossing movie of all time just this year.
I could even have seen Rise of Skywalker being split into two movies, just like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame were, but of course, many would read splitting it in half as Disney admitting a mistake in The Last Jedi, and Disney never makes mistakes.
Endgame and Rise of Skywalker are sister movies and will remain eternally bound, both climactic endings of grand sagas acquired midway through their runs by the Disney empire. They are sisters, but they are not twins – Endgame is and will remain well-regarded as one of the better entries in its franchise, but Rise of Skywalker only hopes to remind viewers of how much they loved the movies of 40 years ago. Endgame shattered opening weekend records with a $357.1 million domestic debut, a true climax financially, almost a full $100 million more than its closest competitor which is also its direct predecessor. Rise of Skywalker is tracking to open at around $215 million, a large sum of money, but one that represents diminishing returns for its series.
This comparison is the most telling for how disappointing The Rise of Skywalker truly is in context. Endgame is the climax of a 22-film saga spread over 11 years, but they were the past 11 years. They’re very far from perfect – there’s only a handful of them I’d actually recommend as individual films – but they were the movies of our time. Rise of Skywalker is the climax of a nine-film saga spread over 42 years, and they came in bunches of three, all vastly different trilogies for vastly different audiences. The prequels offered a unique, to put it generously, turn-of-the-century aesthetic, and were roundly rejected, but the sequels, in fear of the same treatment, offer only fondness for the originals.
Those are all streaming now. Just stay home.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.