So, you might be looking at the title of this blog and wondering how this review seems to fit with my blog’s focus on anime. I’m making an exception just this once for two reasons. First, while I wouldn’t generally consider live action Star Wars films anime, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is such cartoonish, repetitive, and poorly paced nonsense that it often feels like a badly stretched out arc from a predictable shounen anime (the battle between Rey, Kylo Ren, and the Emperor especially feels like a lackluster imitation of shounen anime). And second, I hate this movie so much that I will vent spleen against it wherever I have a platform to do so. So without further ado, here’s my review for J. J. Abrams’ critically panned The Rise of Skywalker.
Now, the Star Wars prequels are bad movies. Full stop. They are awkwardly acted, clumsily written, burdened with ridiculous and excessive CGI, and are often entirely unnecessary and contrary to the spirit of the original trilogy. And while I certainly have no wish to perform some kind of revisionist history on those films and argue that they were actually underappreciated masterpieces, there were several moments during this final entry in the Star Wars saga where I found myself longing for the relative simplicity and coherence of the prequel trilogy’s story. In my most desperate moment, I heard the voice of Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn as a Force ghost and actually wished I were watching The Phantom Menace instead. While The Rise of Skywalker might barely scrape passed Attack of the Clones, it is certainly vying for the worst movie in the Star Wars franchise.
The Last Jedi was a divisive film, with critics praising it and the majority of the Star Wars fanbase decrying it as absolute heresy. I personally enjoyed the film, but I can understand why others despise it. And I can understand how J. J. Abrams and the writers of The Rise of Skywalker must have felt pressured to somehow revise and repair the damage done by Rian Johnson’s much riskier film. But at this point, already two movies into a trilogy, this final film needed to stick to the story that had led to this point and accept each major decision made, mistakes and all, in order to move forward and craft some kind of satisfying and coherent conclusion. Instead, Abrams and company decided to retcon the majority of The Last Jedi, disregarding the evolution of Rey’s arc and the reveal of her true parentage, the exciting potential to move beyond the binary of Jedi and Sith, the idea that the force was accessible to anyone regardless of status or birth, and even the existence of major characters like Rose (who, love her or hate her, played a large role in The Last Jedi but is relegated to less than three minutes of screen-time in this film). Even the Knights of Ren, introduced in J. J. Abrams’ own film The Force Awakens, are granted little screen-time and zero lines of dialogue, essentially acting like some kind of non-threatening Nazgul until they are dispatched without a second thought or even a line of dialogue by Kylo Ren, their former leader. The blatant disregard for the past and what came before (ironically the message of the same Last Jedi that Abrams tries desperately to run away from) creates a baffling finale that satisfies none of the questions or anticipation built up in this trilogy and that craps all over the original trilogy that inspired it.
There are few positive things to say regarding this film. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren, driven by their peculiar Force-connected dialogues, is back in this film, and those scenes remain as effective as the ones in the previous film, managing to generate the only moments of tension and interest in the entire movie. Their lightsaber duel, while less tense and brutal than the first duel in The Force Awakens, is still visually appealing, and their evident exhaustion as they continue to beat against each other adds a nice touch of grit that is seldom seen in Star Wars. The look of horror on Rey’s face when she believes she’s killed Kylo and the moment when she surprises herself by healing him further intensifies their complicated relationship, which unfortunately becomes the only aspect of the story worth caring about. These well-acted and sometimes well-written scenes continually provide false hope that the film might somehow improve.
However, despite their obvious talent, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver only barely manage to deliver solid performances, burdened by the ridiculous script they have to work with. Ridley repeatedly tries to communicate the weight of her grief and hopelessness as an abandoned orphan, only to have her valiant attempts trampled on by the ridiculous performance of a corpse-like Emperor telling her she shall become “Empress Palpatine.” The Emperor is hammier than ever here, and his scenes with Rey sabotage Ridley’s otherwise decent performance. And while the Emperor was always somewhat cheesy, the series’ typically serious characters are repeatedly brought down to his level. John Boyega’s Finn continues the character’s horrible trajectory set in The Last Jedi, awkwardly vacillating between a leader meant to be taken seriously and a bumbling, quippy sidekick. His relationship with Rose is entirely forgotten, his previously romantic feelings for Rey are awkwardly gestured at once and then forgotten, and his new relationship with undeveloped newcomer Jannah is left unresolved as well. His relentlessly unfunny banter with Poe (another character with little to do in this film) becomes grating within minutes, and their cheesy and stilted arguments undermine many of the serious scenes they share, including—most perplexingly—the scene where they are both nearly executed. It’s hard to feel anything about a story whose characters can’t even muster a moment of sobriety when they are about to die.
It’s not just this singular moment either. The whole film feels like it’s too afraid to take anything seriously or to make any creative choices that might be divisive or upsetting. Everything is played safe, with little to no risks taken. Chewbacca is “killed” by Rey’s out-of-control powers, creating a potential situation for her to feel the pull of the Dark Side, a story line Abrams is insistent on repeating from the last film. But, even if someone had somehow believed that Chewbacca was dead, the film doesn’t even wait five minutes before we see him held captive by the First Order, reassuring us that this film will never do anything unpredictable or bold. Kylo Ren is redeemed and dies taking out the Emperor, just as Darth Vader died in the finale of the original trilogy, the Emperor somehow raises a fleet of ships all equipped with the destructive power of the Death Star which the plucky and overwhelmed rebel pilots must destroy again, and so on and so forth. Unlike The Last Jedi, nothing in this film feels new or surprising, save for one plot twist that absolutely destroys what made these movies interesting.
The Last Jedi’s powerful revelation that Rey’s parents were indeed worthless nobodies, not Skywalkers or Kenobis or any other recognizable Star Wars surname, is revoked in order to reveal that she is actually the granddaughter of the Emperor Palpatine, a decision so illogical and poorly planned it feels like a fan theory randomly made canon (which is likely what happened). All that The Last Jedi did to revitalize the Star Wars formula and make the Force a more widespread phenomenon, a natural source of power available to anyone from a Sith lord to a scavenger, is entirely destroyed. This out-of-left-field reveal isn’t earned and completely sets back the character arc that Rey underwent these past two movies. It feels especially unearned because Emperor Palpatine himself was clearly not supposed to enter this trilogy before this movie either. Stranded without their initial villainous overlord Snoke, the writers of The Rise of Skywalker desperately retreat to nostalgia for past Star Wars movies and resurrect a more interesting villain from that better story, undercutting all that Luke and Anakin did to defeat him and without explaining how he even survived (not even in the insultingly absurd title crawl sequence).
But while the Rey Palpatine twist is never earned and contradicts everything that happened previously, the Rey Skywalker moment is perhaps even more baffling. Near the beginning of the movie, a friendly alien villager asks Rey for her family name. Rey is visibly conflicted, sad and hurt and disappointed by the answer. She responds, “It’s just Rey.” As the film progresses, she finds out her true parentage, Leia tells her not to fear her true identity, and Rey defeats Palpatine’s plans for her. But in the final scene, when peace has been restored and Rey visits Luke’s abandoned home from A New Hope (a moment of egregious pandering), a random villager asks her who she is, to which she responds that she is Rey Skywalker, an ending which lacks congruity with the rest of the film. If Rey was to take Leia’s convoluted advice to heart, she could accept the name of Palpatine. However, the sensible choice would be Rey responding with “It’s just Rey” again, thereby paralleling the earlier scene and emphasizing her ultimate acceptance of herself as her own person. There is no reason for Rey to introduce herself as a Skywalker, except for the fact that that name is in the title. The film is riddled with inexplicable blunders like this one, often caused by the film’s dogged fascination with legacy, nostalgia, and redundancy.
Perhaps this last criticism might seem like a petty gripe, like minor nitpicking against a movie filled with major issues, but the editing of this film is one of its greatest weaknesses. The first half of the film in particular suffers from an inability to stick to any one scene or story-line, bouncing from one unrelated moment to another. The reason for such choppy pacing is obvious; if the film moves along quickly enough and throws enough at the wall to see what sticks, the audience won’t have any time to breathe and question why what’s happening on screen is actually happening. The main trio’s treasure hunt side quest never seems quite necessary but is pushed forward at such a hectic a pace, hopping from one planet to the next, that there isn’t even enough time to think through all of the abundant plot-holes. For instance, why would an ancient Sith dagger provide directions to a secret vault in a Death Star made only a few decades ago?
But while the hectic pace is overwhelming and might manage to distract the audience at times, the rapid pacing and choppy editing still ultimately backfire. Due to heavy amounts of exposition, an absurd amount of fade-aways, and dozens of abrupt conversational scenes that last less than a minute, none of the film’s characters feel like well-rounded people that the audience will pull for. Aside from minimal forced squabbling between Rey and Poe that is arbitrarily dropped midway through the film, the members of the main trio have almost no chemistry with each other since they are never allowed to just breathe for a moment and interact normally. Because the film doesn’t care about these characters, the audience won’t either, and the result is a film that moves at a breakneck speed that still somehow manages to feel like an agonizing crawl across an indeterminate and unplanned finish line.