Note: This review includes minor spoilers for Episode IX.
It’s clear from the opening crawl that something is rotten in The Rise of Skywalker.
“The dead speak!” are the first words in director J.J. Abrams’ return to the helm. The jarring, hastily disseminated context for this revelation evokes a fetid odor, like curdled blue milk or a rotting corpse. As it happens, Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio have reanimated a corpse — that of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), canonically killed at the end of the original trilogy. His reemergence is unexplained in the film, announced via “a mysterious broadcast” to the galaxy in a cross-promotional event exclusive to the online video game Fortnite.
This confusing and lazy creative decision casts a sour aura that pervades the movie, so overburdened with retcons and retreads that it suffocates what should be a powerful conclusion to a 42-year-old story. In his refusal to let the dead rest, Abrams imbues the saga’s finale with the excitement of a funeral march. He riffs on both Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi in a needless effort to tie up threads from the entire series, believing that referencing everything that’s come before is the proper way to deliver narrative closure. It’s a mournful mistake that leaves Episode IX as a whimper disguised as a bang.
While I expected Abrams’ return to parallel his remix/copycat method in The Force Awakens, the movies that The Rise of Skywalker evokes for me are Rogue One and Solo. Those two “Star Wars story” spin-offs feel less like feature films than video game playthroughs — or, to crib Martin Scorsese’s remarks about Marvel, they’re more like “theme parks” than movies. They navigate this fictional universe like dark rides on a rigid track, offering little more than brand recognition as they hurtle toward a predetermined finale.
Episode IX feels like the most definitive and dispiriting example of Star Wars on autopilot. Abrams and editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube can’t decide where to catch their breath; the film moves at a steady, apathetic clip from the outset, rarely allowing what could be more affecting moments time to resonate. The dogfights and lightsaber duels are larger than ever — but in the film’s unrelenting charge, they’ve never mattered less.
Deaths are also distilled to mere fakeouts, as if the film is desperately afraid of having stakes. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel crafts rich images with shadow and bursts of red or blue light, but even he is relegated to quoting compositions from the original trilogy. The onslaught of warmed-over saga callbacks initially feels like a desperate plea to appease as many viewers as possible, especially those who disliked The Last Jedi. And by an hour in, the sloppiness starts to scan as contempt.
To understand the narrative and aesthetic decay at work in this Episode requires a brief recap. Two years ago, writer-director Rian Johnson’s thematic reframing in The Last Jedi sparked a rabid and still-raging debate over the sanctity of this saga’s original elements. Many viewers (myself included) were enthralled with Johnson’s subversion of nostalgia and the primacy of legacy bloodlines in favor of a more egalitarian vision of the Force. Others balked.
It’s a shame, because in his hurried sound and fury Abrams seems to have forgotten what’s interesting about the new characters he set jubilantly into motion in Episode VII. Choice and coincidence brings together Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) in The Force Awakens. Johnson’s The Last Jedi splits them off into separate missions in service of developing their personalities. The Rise of Skywalker strings the trio together with a series of fetch quests that allow them little room for anything more than expository dialogue and the kind of hollow near-joke banter that’s become pervasive in Disney’s other behemoth, the MCU.
Occasionally the cast seem to reveal embarrassment with the stale material. In one emblematic moment, Isaac merely sighs through the galaxy-shaking revelation that “somehow, Emperor Palpatine has returned.” Finn repeatedly hints at “a feeling” that suggests Force sensitivity, but his character’s agency in the plot — which grew between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi — is now puzzlingly scaled back. More shameful is the sidelining of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Train), a choice that reads as capitulation to the racist and misogynistic bile spewed at Tran after Johnson’s installment dared to give a substantial Star Wars role to a woman of color.
Elsewhere, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) feels like a fraction of the character we’ve seen fleshed out over the previous two movies. Now the Supreme Leader, he’s determined to hold onto dark side power, though still glimmering with the possibility for light. And yet we’re denied his interiority, a problem not helped by the return of the Vader-lite mask he destroyed, another eye roll-inducing walkback from The Last Jedi. Only through Driver’s careful emoting (in the snippets where his face is exposed again) can we see his regret and yearning: brow and lip aslant, eyes dewy behind their rage.
The film’s ultimate tragedy, though, is its treatment of its protagonist. Despite Abrams’ own previously expressed belief in a Force “more inclusive and stronger” than lineage, here he suggests that blood matters most after all. Thus Rey from nowhere is reduced to Rey from somewhere infamous in the Star Wars galaxy. Attributing Rey’s power to a character with whom she previously had no apparent connection discards the most inspirational element of her arc in favor of one that re-entrenches the series’ determinism. Like Driver, Ridley soldiers on in her effort to elevate lesser material, blending passion, fear, and resilience with every leap, grimace and saber swing.
I can’t help but wonder whether Abrams doesn’t understand his error or simply doesn’t care. Both Rey and Kylo’s trajectories in The Rise of Skywalker reek of hopelessness, though John Williams’ soaring musical cues each beg us to perceive their journeys as triumph. For anyone who has endured traumatic or neglectful family experiences, the first two films in the sequel trilogy were soothing. You could be from anywhere or be anyone, and your future choices could redeem your past actions or circumstances. You could let go. But Abrams now suggests you can’t (or shouldn’t). He also heartbreakingly caves to the idea that salvation isn’t available to everyone, even if they make the ultimate sacrifice.
George Lucas’ original six-episode saga was a family fable, sure, a story of good versus evil in which the disgraced Skywalker is restored to Eden by his own hand, inspired by his own son. The serpent is destroyed. A once again anointed family is permitted to move on. But Abrams possesses such a fetish for reincarnating this fable that he destroys the potential for progress, tarnishing the original redemptive payoff of Return of the Jedi that he tries so hard to emulate. He desperately runs toward an iconic Star Wars image in the film’s final moments without realizing what it means for his characters, let alone how bleakly it shrinks a universe the sequels should have expanded.
Lucas isn’t a sacrosanct creator, but his 2012 deal to sell Lucasfilm to Disney has increasingly felt like a Faustian bargain. The House of Mouse pumped out five Star Wars films in the last five years and earned heaping piles of cash, but this franchise is only one of Disney’s acquisitions. In 2009, they bought Marvel Entertainment. In 2019, they finalized their purchase of 20th Century Fox and began forbidding theaters from repertory screenings of Fox classics. As my colleague Thibault Jalby predicted with trepidation in 2014, we have at last reached “the Disney singularity.”
It’s no accident Episode IX feels of a piece with Avengers: Endgame, down to the quippy dialogue preceding acts of heroism. As 2019 remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin illustrate, Disney has shifted its focus from artistic innovation to regurgitation, reskinning its classic films to keep the box office flowing. Star Wars is just one more casualty to a strategy that is, to quote Scorsese, “brutal and inhospitable to art.”
In that respect, The Rise of Skywalker ultimately serves Disney’s corporate ambition more than any storytelling or aesthetic goals. It’s a zombified flyby through the series, something the company has been setting up from the outset, betraying Abrams’ overindulgence in nostalgia and mystery box storytelling as Trojan horses. By the time the twin suns set one last time on a galaxy far, far away, The Rise of Skywalker makes the Star Wars sequel trilogy look at best like a case of wasted potential, and at worst like a four-year grift.
Verdict: Movie Fail