Guess Who's Back Now...
Star Wars, Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker
The new Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. film, Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker has only been out a couple of days (at the time of writing this article) and already it's become the center of a fury-storm Online. While some fans, and reviewers, seem to like the movie, more have negative opinions, with some opining it's somehow the "worst Star Wars ever." And considering Episode I: the Phantom Menace exists (let alone the Holiday Special), that's a bold statement.
Personally, going in to The Rise of Skywalker, I didn't expect the film to be that great. As I've noted in my reviews of the films up to now, I'm not a gigantic fan of Star Wars. Although I liked the films just fine as a kid, I was always more of a Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. fan. I wouldn't say George Lucas "killed my childhood" when he made the prequel trilogy, but those films certainly didn't help my opinion and basically turned me away from the series. The newest trilogy, spearheaded by J.J. Abrams, didn't wow me in its first outing, Episode VII: The Force Awakens and while I enjoyed Episode VIII: The Last Jedi that's because the movie tried to be more than a cookie-cutter Star Wars (and I'll admit it has its flaws even then). So, for this ninth mainline film, I went in just expecting "Star Wars," whatever that ended up being.
And, from the outset, this film is very Star Wars. Critics of Episode VII were quick to point out all the parallels between that film and Episode IV: A New Hope, beholden to the ideas of the original trilogy without really having anything new to say. That's exactly the same ground Episode XI treads, wanting to desperately to scream "STAR WARS!" to the heavens without giving usu anything new or interesting. Everything in the movie apes things we've seen before, giving us sights and sounds that might be crowd pleasing but are also, more often than not, oh so familiar.
The movie begins, right in the opening scroll, by announcing the return of Emperor Palpatine. There's no sugar coating it: he was the villain of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and despite the character never showing up in these new movies before now, an d there being nary a hint of his resurrection in the previous two films, suddenly he's back and the entire movie revolves around the Emperor. He's the real power behind the First Order, has been pulling the strings of Snoak and Kylo Ren, and now he wants to bring back the Empire and the Sith and he needs Kylo Ren to do it. Kylo will become the new Emperor, with the power (and presumably soul) of Palpatine along for the ride, and the only ones that can stop this evil threat to the Galaxy Far, Far Away are the scrappy band of rebels, the last few remaining after being all but destroyed at the end of Episode VIII.
But before they can defeat the Emperor and save the galaxy our scrappy band of heroes have to first find him. This means they have to find a transponder that can lead them to the secret Sith planet the Emperor is hiding out at, which lead them down an elaborate fetch quest that takes up a good portion of the movie. One thing after another delays them all while the Emperor builds a new fleet, the "Final Order" that will take over the galaxy. It's now or never for our heroes because if they fail the Rebellion will never be able to rise again.
There's a lot to talk about with this movie (and we'll get to that in a companion spoilers article) but to avoid ruing anything for people that haven't yet seen the movie, let's just say that not everything in the story really works. When the movie is tightly focused on Kylo Ren and Rey it all comes together. These two are the core of the film and it's their dynamic, their pull against each other, each trying to convert the other to their side of the Force, that drives the film. Everything else going on around them -- the elaborate fetch quests, the goofy and fun camaraderie of Finn and Poe, the evils of the Emperor -- is just padding distracting us from this core relationship. While a lot of it is fun and interesting, they feel like sequences from other movies; this film should be all about Kylo and Rey because they have the best story of anyone in the film.
The worst part is the Emperor because he feels so grafted on, like J.J. Abrams had big plans for Snoak but then Episode VIII killed the primary villain and Abrams struggled to bring the vision he had back together. So instead of just letting Kylo be the Supreme Leader, letting him be sway to the light by Rey because of their bond, he has to be motivated by external factors, has to realize that the evil whispering in his ear really is someone else and not just his own internal evil. It has to be the Emperor that drove Kylo evil and not that the kid just had a bit of that Anakin darkness in him. The Emperor pulled the strings in both of the previous trilogies so, by Abram's logic, he has to do it here, too. While it gives Kylo and Rey someone to fight, the movie would have been more dynamic if the battle could have been between the two of them, with Kylo tearing down the First Order from the inside.
And, yes, the film does a bunch of retconning on all the major plot details from Episode VIII. It's clear that Abrams wanted things to fit his nice a tidy box, checking off things that happened in Return of the Jedi and doing the same things in The Rise of Skywalker. His job, especially under pressure from Lucasfilm and Disney to "course correct" after the "disaster" that was Episode VIII, was to hit all the beats the fans wanted, giving them the exact movie they asked for without challenging them at all.
Again, I won't spoil the details -- if you read my Speculation on Episode XI just know that I was about 40% right (like I expected to be). A lot of major beats I expected happened just like clockwork and the movie went out of its way to deliver all the crowd-pleasing Hollywood moment you'd expect. It's a very safe, utterly predictable movie. Everyone that hates on this films, that calls it "the worst Star Wars ever," is probably pining for a movie that did more, that someone challenged the viewers and didn't simply ape a movie we'd already seen before.
But that's not the kind of movie J.J. Abrams was going to deliver. Star Trek fans can attest that Abrams knows how to deliver big moments and huge spectacle, that he's able to create movies that feel like thrill rides but often this comes at the expense of the soul of the movie (look for further than Star Trek Into Darkness for a film so beholden to what came before that it loses all sense of what made the series special). Abrams has to deliver his specific brand of ride, the puzzle box that always keeps the audience guessing (even when, more often than not, it's revealed that the box was empty all along), and he'll do this at the expense of logic, science, and good storytelling. The fanboys had specific wants, big moments they felt the previous film lacked, so Abrams made sure to stitch all these on to his standard narrative devices and made a movie out of it.
Fact is that it's not a great movie but it is a thrilling one. The basic structure of the film is linear, with a single main plot line that starts off shaky before finally finding its groove about 45 minutes in. It struggles with the void left by Carrie Fisher (who was supposed to be the driving force of this movie and, instead is stitched in quite poorly due to her untimely death), and then stumbles any time it tries to use Leia's plot line substituting other characters, or wordless versions of herself, in as if this could make up for the lack of Leia. And even when it does get good, it still has to comment on itself and the previous movies, as if saying, "look how smart I am! STAR WARS!"
In short, Star Wars, Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker is a movie so desperate for you to like it that it goes out of its way to deliver every character and plot beat from the previous trilogy, often at the expense of the story that really matters. Instead of being beholden to what came before, to giving the fanboy the movie they wanted and nothing else, the film betrays the story that really matters. There's a great film buried somewhere in this mess, and for long stretches that movie surfaces and The Rise of Skywalker is glorious. And then the Emperor shows back up, of the film cuts to an awkward scene of a silent Leia standing around, and it all falls apart again. This trilogy needed to end better than this; Kylo and Rey deserved better.