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I am sorry to report that The Rise of Skywalker, finale to the Star Wars sequel trilogy and conclusion to the nine-part “Skywalker Saga,” is not good. It does not succeed as a rousing science fiction blockbuster, an outstanding Star Wars movie, or a capper to its predecessors The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. It certainly doesn’t offer a satisfying conclusion to the Star Wars “trilogy of trilogies”—not because it lacks the distinctive trappings of the Star Wars universe, but because it offers only trappings on trappings, with no substantial thematic thought beneath.

Like its main antagonist, the trotted-back-out Emperor Palpatine, this is a dangling puppet of a film, kept going long past its natural lifespan by a combination of technology and sheer obduracy. Some mild spoilers will follow as we examine how this happened.

I went to the movie rooting for its success. I am a lifelong Star Wars fan, and I enjoyed both of the prior sequel trilogy entries. I found the new characters in J. J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens charismatic, even when the plot felt a little derivative. I was thrilled by Rian Johnson’s risk-taking in The Last Jedi, especially his choice to subvert the emphasis on destined bloodlines and desperate last stands that had become part of Star Wars. As Rise of Skywalker came together and rumors of behind-the-scenes drama emerged, I wished Abrams success in concluding the series. I mourned the loss of Carrie Fisher, but was glad that the filmmakers didn’t plan to Frankenstein her for more scenes like the makers of Rogue One unwisely attempted with Peter Cushing.

Alas, Rise of Skywalker doubles down on Abrams’s worst tendencies: replaying lackluster covers of others’ greatest hits, offering exhausting more-is-more spectacle, and contriving retroactive answers to questions no one was asking. What’s worse, the film takes every opportunity to sideline, cancel out, or even mock the most interesting ideas of The Last Jedi. Ironically for a sprawling story that ostensibly raises the stakes of Star Wars with escalations of military firepower, Rise of Skywalker felt like a pinched and nervous attempt to offer more and more Star Wars without adding depth, nuance, or complexity to the franchise.

The actors are still great fun to watch. Daisy Ridley’s Rey struggles to walk the path of the Jedi, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren tries to convince himself he’s happy as a bad guy. In the film’s best sequence, the two clash in a Force-mediated lightsaber duel from afar, a surprising and satisfying wrinkle to their psychic connection from The Last Jedi. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron whizzes around being a hotshot—never mind, of course, that his whole character arc in the prior film was about growing beyond that. Sadly, John Boyega’s Finn has very little to do. The idea that he could inspire other ambivalent Stormtroopers to throw down their arms is raised and then forgotten by the movie’s climax, where good guys cheerily massacre troopers by the thousands. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, a key player in the last film who represented the hope the Resistance brought to the galaxy, is bafflingly sidelined, reduced to a cameo.

The droids, aliens, and science fiction gizmos of the film are realized with verve, thanks to the talent of puppeteers, imagineers, and CGI wizards. The tiny droidsmith Babu Frik is particularly winning. Unfortunately, some of this creative work seems more about making new designs for toys than for advancing a discernible plot. The much-heralded Knights of Ren, for instance, spend the majority of the film standing ominously in the background, never actually doing anything. When their chance to do battle comes, they are dispatched as an afterthought, without even a nod to any emotional impact on the protagonists.

The plot of the movie is both impenetrable and simplistic. For underbaked reasons, the protagonists must chase a series of plot-important objects to get to a very secret planet where the revenant-like Emperor Palpatine has amassed a fleet of way-better-than-before Star Destroyers, each equipped with a planet-destroying weapon like the Death Star once boasted. Obviously, the fleet has a single weak spot for the doughty Resistance to target, and obviously once the plot demands it everyone can make it to the very secret planet to join in the fun. Every turn is telegraphed. For every affecting moment there are two that fall completely flat. 

Other Star Wars movies had their own plot contrivances, of course, but they did the audience the courtesy of trying surprising things with them or at least connecting them to meaningful character arcs. Here there’s an expected series of beats—daring raid, desperate last stand, eleventh-hour redemption, final confrontation with superannuated evil—and actors struggle to justify how their characters are shuffled through the stations. Why is it initially the case that Rey should not strike down Palpatine lest it lead her to the Dark Side, but once he’s gotten sufficiently charged up with Force lightning such an action is fair game? Your guess is as good as mine.

This feels like a movie made by a collector of Star Wars, rather than a storyteller. The movie is obsessed with the physical ephemera of past franchise entries. Every item once touched by Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia needs to be bestowed on the new leads, no matter how contrived the provenance. Great significance is invested in every prop from Lucas’s first trilogy—or in one groan-inducing case, in the lack of one prop from that trilogy (congratulations to Chewbacca on finally getting his medal). In seeking to legitimize itself by filling the screen with objects it has collected, the movie betrays its insecurity, like a degenerate scion to an aristocratic house dwarfed by the regalia he surrounds himself with. In its plot revelations, the film also seeks to embellish its characters with legacies and bloodlines, making the universe seem smaller and reversing the democratic insistence of The Last Jedi that the mystical Force could be present in anyone.

George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars captured the imaginations of millions with a relatively scrappy space fantasy. Filmmakers since, including Lucas himself with his prequel trilogy, have struggled to replicate this feat with many times the budget. Perhaps part of the problem is that there are enough beloved elements to Star Wars that it can feel like telling a story to merely shuffle about these mythic signifiers, arranging different dioramas of Jedi and Sith, lightsabers and Death Stars. But this shuffling won’t be more than rote repetition if the film doesn’t believe anything specific about heroism, evil, or faith. I hope people keep telling Star Wars stories, but I hope they learn from the successes of other science fiction narratives and the failures of The Rise of Skywalker when they do.

Alexi Sargeant is a cultural critic and Managing Director of the Aquinas Institute at Princeton University.

More on: Culture, Movies, Star Wars

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