When Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out two years ago, it was divisive. A certain toxic corner of the internet raged about it and against writer-director Rian Johnson for daring to do something other than keeping favorite characters (correction: character, i.e. Luke Skywalker) safe in their original factory boxes. Never to be taken down, never to be damaged, never to be tested, but kept in pristine, vintage condition, forever.
But plenty of others, myself included, loved The Last Jedi for what it dared to do: Evolve the Skywalker Saga and give Star Wars a desperately-needed injection of something new. Not every part of it worked, but the parts that did really worked. And it offered us something different than what we’d ever seen in the saga to this point: That anyone could be a new hero, that old ones can struggle, that we as the audience can come to understand those heroes never stop learning or needing to evolve, that one doesn’t have to come from a pedigreed and privileged line in order to be a Jedi. It was imperfect, but it was bold, and exciting, and it gave fans something to sink their teeth into by challenging them instead of placating them.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is not that kind of movie.
I admit, I’m struggling in writing this review. Normally I use our 3 Reasons format, but that’s just not going to work for me this time. I can’t make my thoughts fit neatly into boxes with this one. Contrary to what some fans might think of critics, I don’t actually like to write about movies I don’t enjoy; I want to be able to say of a movie that I loved it. However, I also can’t lie and I’d be an unreliable narrator if I started to now. The best I can do is write how I feel – and then write about why others might feel differently.
Rise of Skywalker is exactly what you think (or feared) it’s going to be. Look, we all knew as soon as J.J. Abrams was brought back to do the third movie that a lot of The Last Jedi would get retconned. We knew what his return meant, especially in the wake of the backlash. Rian Johnson risked too much, people got spooked, and they brought Abrams back to play it safe. And that’s a shame, but would be understandable and forgivable to an extent. The problem is that small but loud and toxic corner of the internet was listened to too closely, and TROS was built around everything they claimed they wanted. It’s a worse movie for it.
It would be understandable and forgivable if the writing were solid. I expected storylines to be rolled back but hoped I’d walk out at least satisfied if the movie gave me a reason to fully buy into the story it was telling. It did not, instead relying on miles of exposition and convenient plotting as well as a heaping helping of deus ex machina in ways big and small. It’s a movie that asks you to just go with it and don’t bother to look too closely at where the plot wears thin. As for redemption arcs, I assumed there was one coming, but, well, the thing about redemption arcs is that they only work when earned; redemption doesn’t feel like the truth of a character when it’s simply handed to them. I also expected there to be fan service; I just didn’t expect to be bombarded with it nonstop or for it to be so heavy-handed the characters might as well have looked directly at the camera and winked.
And it would have been understandable and forgivable had Rian Johnson’s work been respectfully countered and woven into the story. Instead, there were a number of mean-spirited and what felt like deliberately personal jabs taken at Johnson’s expense. Odd, unnecessary, and deeply discomfiting.
Unfortunately, all of this dimmed for me what should have been joy at Rey fully coming into her own and a fantastic performance from Daisy Ridley, who has grown up as an actress in front of our eyes. Oscar Isaac, too, finally gets a chance to shine, with Poe Dameron, a woefully underdeveloped character for the first two (and especially the first) movie getting a backstory and depth. As expected, Adam Driver dual-wields his intensity and vulnerability as Kylo Ren, diving more deeply into the latter than we’ve ever seen.
That being said, I’m just one person and these are solely my own thoughts. Art, especially art that has been with many people since childhood, is subjective and lands differently depending on the person. For some Star Wars fans, The Rise of Skywalker might be as perfect a culmination of the Skywalker Saga as you could hope, and if it is, I will be thrilled about that. I can certainly see why it might be. There is plenty of nostalgia for fans to love. I admit, I did not grow up with Star Wars and it isn’t my fandom, so the emotion of most of the fan service was lost on me – except for anything regarding Carrie Fisher and General Leia. Always and forever Carrie Fisher and General Leia. Fans who wanted to see plenty of nods and references to their favorite characters and actors, however, will almost certainly be moved by those moments in ways I was not.
The action sequences are also pretty stellar. If there’s one thing TROS isn’t, it’s boring. There’s a speeder race against stormtroopers, plenty of lightsaber duels, a bunch of blaster action, and an all-out battle in space. Despite its length, the movie mostly zips along at a brisk pace, thanks in large part to how much action there is.
But the real heart of it, as it has always been, is the fraught relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. Throughout the first two movies, we’ve had yet to see them at the extent of their powers, especially Rey, who was still working her way to becoming the badass and ultra-powerful Force wielder she was destined to be. But she levels up considerably to match Kylo in strength and skill, and it makes for some excellent moments between them as they struggle in a moral (and in one scene, literal) tug-of-war for one another’s souls. The Rey-Kylo dynamic has always been a fascinating one, and even if Rise of Skywalker expects you to fill in an awful lot of gaps in regard to how their relationship has evolved since we last saw them, it’s still a dynamic to hold your attention.
The bottom line is, if you loved The Last Jedi, you’re likely going to struggle with The Rise of Skywalker. But maybe not. And if you’re a longtime fan of Star Wars, you’ll probably find a lot to love in the final movie, seeing it as a fitting and epic conclusion to the Skywalker Saga that’s been over four decades in the making. It was not a movie for me, but not every movie has to be. Hopefully, it’s a movie for you.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters on December 20th. Get tickets here.