When Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi was released two years ago, it changed, if not created, the idea of online “discourse.” A surprisingly subversive big-budget blockbuster, writer-director Rian Johnson’s take on George Lucas’s creation questioned not only established Hollywood narrative structures, but the franchise’s beloved mythology and, in the process, infuriated the “fans” who most needed to hear its points.
For months, it felt like all we talked about was TLJ and in some ways, it feels like we never stopped—not least because Johnson’s latest, Knives Out, is a direct shot at the often-misogynistic, often-racist and, unfortunately, often-very vocal fanboys who hated the film. Since the news broke that not only wouldn’t Johnson be back to continue the story, but J.J. Abrams, the director and co-writer of 2015’s The Force Awakens, would helm Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the alleged final installment in the Skywalker saga, those same vocal fanboys have been hoping he would “fix” all the things they thought TLJ “broke.”
Those hopes got a boost last week when, in an interview with The New York Times, Abrams seemed to criticize Johnson’s film, saying, “it’s a bit of a meta approach to the story. I don’t think that people go to ‘Star Wars’ to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’” Putting aside the fact that it’s pretty rich for someone who’s spent most of their career riffing on Spielberg to accuse someone else of being “meta,” those comments seemed like confirmation that Abrams would squander all the exciting story potential Johnson left him at the end of TLJ. Indeed, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker not only largely wastes the opportunity to forge new ground left by the previous installment, but is so obsessed with its own mythology that it ends up being a barely coherent series of nostalgia-inducing but ultimately meaningless references that even a bad fan fiction writer would find indulgent.
How you’ll ultimately feel about Skywalker should become clear in the film’s first half hour, as Abrams, who co-wrote the script with Chris Terrio off of a story they developed with Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, singes the ends of every tantalizing plot thread TLJ left hanging. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, the focus of so much misogyny and racism that the actress left all social media, is quickly shunted offscreen to study old star destroyers, basically never to be heard from again. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who was left without a master to excuse his wrongdoing and poised to become a vehicle to explore toxic masculinity, is quickly given a new master so that the film can, for a third time, ask whether he deserves a redemption arc.
Worst of all, though, is the moment we see Rey (Daisy Ridley) studying the aged pages of the Jedi scriptures that should have burned in TLJ. The whole point of Johnson’s story was that mythology and the family dynasties particularly integral to this franchise should not be prerequisites for heroism, so, it’s disappointing when the film’s plot is set off by Rey making a connection between the scriptures and an offhand comment made in a strategy meeting with Resistance leaders.
Abrams, from his TV work like Alias and Lost, to his film work like Mission: Impossible III and Super 8, has always been obsessed with mythology and Skywalker is similarly driven by that obsession until it suffocates under the weight of all that history. The Jedi scriptures quickly lead to the return of old villains, which bring back discussions of Rey’s origins already so creatively ended in TLJ, which quickly leads to the same dark side/light side struggles Luke (Mark Hamill) went through—all of it peppered with images of locales and familiar characters included solely for nostalgia’s sake. Every moment feels like a retread of something before and worse, the film is so committed to hitting those plot points that the character work becomes non-existent, leaving the film a relentless trudge toward a solution we can easily guess.
While most characters are just absent from the screen to make way for newer, less interesting characters, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) seem to have forgotten what they learned in TLJ altogether, suddenly reverting to the outdated and toxic hero narratives they grew out of. Even worse off is Kylo Ren, who spends most of the film looming in the distance, an inert and malevolent force until the film’s final act, when Driver’s acting abilities make up for the character development the script doesn’t bother to do. Instead, the only the character whose arc is actually written is Rey and Ridley is so strong throughout that her arc almost redeems the entire film.
Rey, as the ideological synthesis of everything both Luke and Leia (Carrie Fisher, who appears thanks to movie magic throughout) represent, has always had a lot to live up to as a hero. And yet, Ridley pulls it off brilliantly here, making the task look if not easy, then like the culmination of three films of smart, powerful work. Rey is, in many ways, a living plot device here, but because Ridley has laid so much emotional groundwork over the previous films, she never lets the audience forget the character’s humanity. When we repeatedly see Rey be kind to every person, creature and droid she meets, we know how hard-won that goodness is after the hurt and disappointment she’s experienced. When she effortlessly showcases her power in a face-off with Kylo Ren, it’s awe-inspiring precisely because we know how she struggled to control and accept that power. And when the film reaches its climactic battle and the story’s epilogue, Ridley keeps the tone from becoming corny or letting us laugh at how stupid the twist of her origins is solely through how grounded Rey’s emotions feel.
Speaking of that final battle and what follows, even for those not as predisposed to fan service, it’s deeply rewarding. It’s impossible to say exactly how without spoiling everything, but those final moments do feel like a beautiful and celebratory culmination of decades of storytelling. However, satisfying as those final beats may be, how strong they are only emphasizes how weak the rest of the movie is and makes you wonder just how much more rewarding Skywalker could have been with a better script.
Return of the Jedi, Lucas’s original capper to his Star Wars trilogy, has always felt like a subpar follow-up to The Empire Strikes Back and the same is true for The Rise of Skywalker and The Last Jedi. Though Johnson’s film only became controversial because of the way it deliberately provoked people who needed to be challenged anyway, thanks to Abrams, it will only get better with age. Where TLJ makes daring story choices in order to make the audience think about the stories that shaped them, Skywalker force chokes the viewer with convoluted mythology, numbing us with nostalgia in hopes we don’t notice how thin the story and character work really are. And while that ego-stroking nostalgia trip is the whole point for too many, perhaps it’s time we actually start listening to the heroes we admire and ask a little more of our art and ourselves.