Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is broad in scope—it spans more than a few planets, enormous ruins, epic space battles. Despite grand designs, it feels like the safest possible conclusion to a long and complicated cycle of stories, an attempt to please as many fans as possible by avoiding any risks. And while this doesn’t feel like a direct “rebuttal” to Rian Johnson’s swerves in The Last Jedi, director JJ Abrams takes only a few direct cues, leaving much of the thematic storytelling behind.
The broad backdrop of the film is the ongoing war between the Resistance and the increasingly fearsome First Order, who are readying a galactic strike. The central character conflict, of course, is between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and instead of embracing the gray tones painted by Luke Skywalker’s rejection of the Jedi hierarchy in The Last Jedi, the conflict is boiled back down to light versus dark.
Of course, that’s not the worst decision for a Star Wars flick. It’s a serviceable tale, but a predictable one—to the point that it felt, at times, like reading a listicle of fan predictions for The Rise of Skywalker. The answers for our characters’ problems are often found in the previous films, refusing to let the past die.
Uninspiring story decisions combined with truly clunky dialogue from Abrams and Chris Terrio creates some uneven pacing. This is compounded in part by the workarounds required after the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher—already recorded footage was used for General Leia Organa, and it’s clear some dialogue was written in response to that footage. There are several scenes where Abrams succumbs to nostalgia to the detriment of the story and its characters, of whom there are many.
Even the score feels like a nostalgia hash, with John Williams relying on familiar themes to the point of repetition and distraction.
When Rise of Skywalker works, it’s in the most intimate character moments: Finn having a frank and thoughtful discussion with franchise newcomer Jannah (Naomi Ackie), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) looking for guidance as he’s thrust into leadership, and even Rey and Kylo squaring off psychically. The more characters in a scene, the broader they each become. Poe especially suffers from this; rather than building on his arc from the previous film, he’s given an unnecessary backstory and a confusing temperament.
Two stalwarts give particularly good performances—Anthony Daniels is doing his best work as C-3PO, who gets his own subplot. And Joonas Suotamo truly gives Chewbacca his due in one emotional scene. It’s nice to see them get some attention rather than simply being props.
Other existing characters are sidelined for new ones—there’s less of Lieutenant Connix (Billie Lourd) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is almost entirely benched. Instead we’re introduced to two engaging and interesting women, with complicated stories and relationships to our leads. But there are a few lines between Poe and Zorii Bliss (a helmeted Keri Russell), and Finn and Jannah that feel like they came straight from a ‘no homo’ studio memo demanding. (And while I did genuinely appreciate a queer kiss on screen involving a minor but reoccuring character played by Amanda Lawrence, Oscar Isaac’s press tour really emphasized again how safely Disney played this film).
Ultimately, Rise of Skywalker is a frustrating exercise for me as both a critic and a Star Wars fan from childhood—the amount of time I’ve spent with the wider world of the Star Wars universe as a fan made me want a more thoughtful and challenging film, but as a fan I was occasionally totally immersed. While Dan Mindel returns on cinematography from The Force Awakens, this film felt less concerned with memorable imagery and more focused on simply getting through it. Many of the set pieces here felt drab and unimaginative. But again, the parts that worked—a whole new breed of space horse! A dramatic battle by the sea!—felt so wholly Star Wars.
The experience felt like more than the sum of its parts, buoyed simply by being a competent Star Wars tale with a fantastic cast.
But there’s nothing in this film that couldn’t have fit into the broader themes drawn by The Last Jedi: finding a balance between light and dark, rejecting old hierarchies but learning from past failures. And the sheer amount of exposition needed in this film meant that some of its wins feel unearned, development told rather than shown. Rey's struggle with the dark side never feels internal, just presented to us.
There's no sense of risk in the story itself, not just in the decisions behind it. If each step unfolds as expected then there's little room for subversion of either tropes or expectations. There's also very little room for emotional moments to breathe, instead skipping along to the next bullet point.
The Rise of Skywalker falters more than it soars, but it never truly fails, either. To that end, I can’t say the film doesn’t succeed at wrapping up the series, concluding at least this era of the Skywalker saga. Whether or not you're satisfied depends, in part, on what you want from the franchise: the familiar or the future.