It’s difficult to weigh in on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker without rhapsodizing on the entirety of the intergalactic saga George Lucas launched over four decades ago, seemingly with a guilelessness that would quickly be eradicated by unexpected merchandising riches. That’s a natural impulse, I suppose, given the relentless marketing aimed at reminded the masses that this new film, officially Episode IX for those who prefer to tally them such, is the final, no-foolin’ conclusion of the epic story begun with a little thimble-shaped robot charged with delivering a video message. Maybe more pertinently, The Rise of Skywalker, as envisioned and executed by J.J. Abrams, is engaged in active conversation with every Star Wars film that has come before it. For better or worse, it’s also overtly communicating with — and perhaps beholden to — the fan base
Abrams returns to the core Star Wars series after relaunching the ongoing story with the deliberate echo The Force Awakens and ceding the screen to the superior — and exhaustingly controversial — The Last Jedi. His thin plot rehashes much of what’s come before, most notably a simplistic conflict of good and evil, with plucky heroes and proudly malevolent villains. There are gentle callbacks to what’s come before, especially other outings that landed in the third position of segmented trilogies, accidentally arguing that there might not be much of a difference between reverent and slavish. A consensus is already forming that Abrams overly acceded to squeaky wheel fandom in wiping away much of the ingenious deconstruction introduced by writer-director Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi, but Rise of Skywalker smacks more of churlish reasserting of earlier bad ideas that were kindly, deftly replaced by improvements. Johnson took Abrams’s inventions and made them better. Abrams misguidedly puts the discarded pieces back in place, contorting the narrative beyond all reason to do so.
On its own, though, The Rise of Skywalker is a reasonably engaging space adventure. Freed from the heavy baggage of the franchise’s preeminence in entertainment culture, it might be possible to find attributes in the archetypal storytelling. That doesn’t forgive the base mechanics of the film too often being executed in a manner that surprisingly clumsy (several action sequences are edited into a confusing hash of images), and the apparently sincere desire to give the whole sprawling endeavor a proper sendoff doesn’t automatically instill genuine emotion. If I was occasionally entertained, I was rarely moved. In trying to please a fervent few and ruffle no one, Abrams made a film devoid of passion. The hope is stale.