By Noah Howard
Some spoilers ahead
J.J. Abrams has many titles. He’s one of the most prominent directors of our time, master of science fiction, lover of the lens flare. He’s the man who successfully adapted “Star Trek” to big-budget Hollywood, who brought “Star Wars” back from the dead. But after “Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker,” we can add one more title to J.J. Abrams’s name: coward.
“The Rise of Skywalker” is a film that refuses to take a single real risk, crouching in fear faced with an angry mob of fans upset by “The Last Jedi”’s refusal to bend to their will. Every time the movie has the opportunity to introduce real emotional stakes, every time a character must come to terms with loss or guilt or darkness, the movie spins around and retcons all the consequences it just introduced. Not one, not two, but six major characters face death at some point in this movie, and of the five, four are revived (some instantly) by a conveniently placed plot device. Without exception, every single one of those six characters should have stayed dead; instead, the shock and tragedy that often characterized “The Last Jedi” by virtue of its willingness to kill off major parts of the “Star Wars” universe is replaced by bland moments without any stakes or investment.
Even moments that otherwise would have worked are ruined by unnecessary and grating fan service. There are multiple cheesy exposition-dumps by long-dead characters, symbolic lightsabers that are so heavy-handed they feel more like light-clubs and annoying retcons of Rian Johnson’s more unpopular (but also brilliant) choices.
The plot itself reads like one long fanfiction. Within the film’s first few minutes, it’s revealed that the Emperor never actually died, kept alive on a giant Sith planet in a near-zombified state. The only mystery greater than how he teleported from a fiery death to a planet we somehow haven’t heard of for eight movies is what creative decision possibly could have led to a revival of an objectively dull villain. The Emperor worked as a plot device to drive Anakin’s growth, but he was never anything more than a scheming puppeteer to the Chosen One’s epic arc. Instead, his presence here is a massive distraction from the sequel trilogy’s greatest strength: the relationship between the mutually “grey Jedi” of Rey and Kylo Ren.
Rey and Kylo certainly have their moments in “Rise of Skywalker,” some of which are comparable to the palpable tension and emotional turmoil within both characters that Rian Johnson so effectively conveyed in “The Last Jedi.” But those moments are constantly interrupted by an absurd prop hunt that propels the majority of the film’s runtime. In order to find the Sith planet, Rey has to find Thing A. But to find Thing A, first she has to find Thing B. But Thing B is written in a language that C-3PO can’t translate… and so on. It’s a video game fetch quest on a blockbuster budget, and it’s every bit as boring as it sounds.
But the larger crime of this pointless plot is what it does to the rest of the movie. Despite its busyness, the movie doesn’t create enough tasks for its characters to pursue, leaving R2-D2, Lando, Leia and, most tragically, Rose, almost completely sidelined for the entire movie. Rose, in particular, was one of the best characters this new trilogy introduces, so to see her relegated to a few lines in the background of fight scenes is nothing less than a crime against the “Star Wars” universe.
Even worse, the rushed plot interrupts all semblance of worldbuilding. J.J. Abrams stages a massive, colorful alien festival, which quickly devolves into a shootout and a dull chase sequence that lacks any of the visual flairs of Episodes 7 and 8. There is a cantina scene here, but it lasts approximately four seconds as our heroes walk directly from one end of the room to the other to meet Disney’s latest plush-able cash-grab character. Elaborate puppets and costumes that must’ve taken skilled craftspeople dozens of hours become an out-of-focus blur (especially in 3D), forcing us to wonder why they even bothered in the first place. Say what you will about “Phantom Menace,” at least it let us enjoy its beautiful world.
But the guilt here isn’t entirely with Abrams. For the travesty that is “Rise of Skywalker,” the fault lies mostly with the “Star Wars” community. Fans criticized “The Force Awakens” for being too familiar. Then they criticized “The Last Jedi” for being too foreign. That latter film, in particular, was the subject of bafflingly unjustified ire, as fans who felt entitled to Rey’s backstory, Snoke’s origins or to Luke’s wholehearted redemption were left disappointed when they were met with creative decisions that were brilliant but not exactly what they wanted. This entire cycle of sequels has been plagued with people petulantly complaining that movies released in 2019 can’t capture the same magic of something they saw when they were children. The original trilogy is brilliant, yes, but much of its magic came from how new it was to all of us when we first saw it, how it played off of our childhood wonder in a way that no other movies ever have. That childhood wonder is gone, and “Star Wars” can never be new to us again. Yet we keep grasping, desperately, for that same uncapturable feeling and in doing so, criticize everything that doesn’t “get it right” without ever being able to truly articulate what made something “right” in the first place. And so we’ve created an environment in which a brilliant creator like Abrams is scared to do his job, scared to tell a story with art and heart, for fear of becoming forever emblazoned as “the man who ruined Star Wars” by people who ruined “Star Wars” for themselves.
And in this way, the “Star Wars” community is still a group of children. Like spoiled brats, we complained and complained that not everything fit neatly into place as we remembered it. And like spoiled brats, we got what we wanted, a watered-down disservice of a film that checks our boxes without making us feel a single real emotion. In our whining for “Star Wars” to be as we remembered it, we ruined it for a whole new generation of children that will now never be able to feel what we felt. Our anger led to hate, and our hate led us to the Dark Side. With “Rise of Skywalker,” “Star Wars” has died, and we, the fans, killed it. And unlike four out of six of “Skywalker”’s major characters, I don’t think that it can come back.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.