A good improvisational actor will tell you the golden rule for creating scenes spontaneously is to keep in mind the phrase “Yes, and…” That simply means that when one actor adds some information into the scene, the other actors accept that information and build from there. It would go against basic improv rules to have one actor state that there is a bowling ball inside a box only to have another actor state that no, it is not a bowling ball but a toaster. You don’t negate what has come before.
Some critics have suggested that Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy, wrapping up with the just released Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, was not started with an overall plan for all three movies. If so, then the roll out of the three films could be seen as a form of improv. Director J. J. Abrams set the stage initially with 2015’s The Force Awakens. Writer/director Rian Johnson took many of the plot threads Abrams left dangling at the end of his movie and ran with them for 2017’s excellent The Last Jedi. Now, Abrams is back to wrap things up. Apparently, though, he is not a great improviser as he throws out some of what has come before for the sake of arguably lesser ideas and themes, all of which harm not just the film itself, but the trilogy and the overall nine-film story that is the Skywalker Saga.
Note: There will be spoilers from this point on.
In the year or so since The Last Jedi, the heroic Resistance against the evil First Order has not been able to rebuild their forces as fast as needed. A new threat to the galaxy has revealed itself in the return of the long thought dead Emperor Palpatine. First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) finds the hidden base that Palpatine operates from only to be told that the First Order’s conquest over the peaceful New Republic had been stage-managed by the evil Sith Lord himself. Meanwhile, the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, in digitally manipulated footage left over from The Force Awakens), receives word through a spy that Palpatine’s forces are about to spread across the galaxy. Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley), fighter pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and First Order deserter-turned-Resistance hero Finn (John Boyega) have to follow a set of clues to find Palpatine’s base for themselves to put a stop to his final assault before it begins.
If you like Star Wars, The Rise Of Skywalker has a lot of Star Wars things to give you. You get stalwart heroes, including one who can use the mystical Force. You have unbelievably evil villains bent on universal domination and armed with planet destroying weapons. There’s space battles and action sequences and comical droids. Abrams sure knows how to give nostalgic fans what they want for one of these films. And while that seemed to work well in his trilogy launching The Force Awakens, it is deadly for this concluding chapter.
I suppose that Rise Of Skywalker being so rooted in nostalgia should come as no surprise. The original 1977 Star Wars is so much of an homage to old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers Saturday afternoon matinee cliffhanger serials that nostalgia is hardwired into the franchise’s most elemental DNA. But here, it feels more like the film is just checking off a list of things that vocal fans want to see and not readily putting them all into the best context in relation to each other.
The film starts off with one of its bigger flaws – The return of the evil Emperor Palpatine, last seen taking a header down a miles-long shaft during the climax of Return Of The Jedi (1983). The mechanics of Palpatine’s return is never really spelled out. He just seems to pop back up and not in any sort of dramatic way. His reveal to the galaxy happens off screen, between movies and is only told to the audience via the film’s opening crawl. A moment that could have established some heightened stakes for the heroes right at the beginning of the story is instead thrown away via exposition, violating the most basic tenant of cinematic storytelling – show, don’t tell.
Minutes later, when Kylo Rem shows up at Palpatine’s Sith castle/temple/whatever we see some vats with half-grown Snokes in them to reinforce his claim that he created the First Order leader himself as some sort of puppet. Is this Palpatine himself a clone of the original who managed to transfer his consciousness into the new body after the old one was killed? (This could be an assumption many longtime fans who have read the 1990 graphic novel Star Wars: Dark Empire or some of the other novels or comic book tie-ins that the franchise is constantly churning out may immediately jump to.) Who knows? The movie doesn’t really seem to know nor care. (And pointing to story material outside of the films is cheating.) What has Palpatine been up to for the three decades or so since the events of Return Of The Jedi? How was he able to build his fleet of ships without anyone noticing? And where did all the crews for those ships come from? Why control the First Order through a puppet and then still wait a year after that puppet’s demise to reveal himself?
The film rushes right by these questions and offers no answers. Abrams seems only intent on bringing in a big bad guy. But without any kind of context to the character’s return from the dead or clear plan of villainy action, he never seems to exude any true menace. He’s just a two-dimensional baddie to face down in the film’s third act, a plot device that needs to be overcome, not a character who challenges the heroes in any meaningfully dramatic way.
But the return of Palpatine is by no means the only thing that it dashes through on the way to the finish line. There are a number of elements that Abrams introduces and then inexplicably drops without giving them their due. At two separate points, characters appear to die only to have their fate reversed within moments. These fake deaths have no impact on the narrative and only seem to serve to cheaply invoke a temporary emotional reaction in the audience. It is the cinematic equivalent of playing “got your nose” with an infant. Another underused element is the reveal of General Hux being the mole funneling information to the Resistance. His reasons why are a nice follow-up from a small moment towards the end of The Last Jedi. It adds a much needed complexity to the character and to the First Order in general. Unfortunately, though, any further development of that idea gets shot down, quite literally, as quickly as it appears on screen.
The film’s treatment of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is also distressing. Introduced in The Last Jedi, Rose embodied that film’s thoughts about heroism and the nature of why one should fight against evil. (“We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”) Here, her character is not treated well at all having been pretty much relegated back to what her job within the Resistance, a glorified technician. She is marginalized and isn’t much of an active player in the story until she joins with everyone else in the climactic battle. Her character’s lack of active role is especially frustrating given that Abrams has introduced a new Resistance character in the form of actor Dominick Monaghan, whose sole function seems to be to throw bits of dialogue into scenes to advance them along. While I understand Abrams wants to help out one of his Lost boys – See what I did there? – nothing his character contributes couldn’t have been done just as ably by Tran’s Rose.
Usually one of the most dependable elements of a Star Wars film is its music. Composer John Williams has been with the franchise since the beginning, creating iconic themes and motifs for every single film. And his work often features some new piece of music that becomes iconic for the franchise such as the franchise’s Main Title theme or “The Imperial March,” “Across The Stars” or “Duel Of The Fates.” But here, Williams contributes his usual fine score, but there is no piece that stands out in a way that those other compositions have.
But where the film really stumbles is in how it pivots away from The Last Jedi‘s central notion that heroism, as embodied in the Star Wars universe by those who have the ability to use the Force, can be found inside anyone. It is not just a select few born into certain bloodlines. Last Jedi director Rian Johnson democratized the ability to use the Force in his film in a way that was aspirational for viewers. Rey’s parents were nobodies, she wasn’t related to any of the other great Jedi warriors we have previously met in the saga. Her anonymity was no hindrance to her stepping forward to be a hero. It was a complexity that both spoke to the audience and opened up a wider landscape for future franchise storytelling.
But in Rise Of Skywalker, Abrams reverses that when he decides Rey is actually Palpatine’s granddaughter via a son of his whom we have never heard mention of before. Who was Mrs. Palpatine? How was Palpatine’s son raised? At what point did he realize that dear ol’ Dad was the most evil being in the Galaxy and decide to run away from home?
Star Wars is nothing if it is not a series of stories about children and parental figures, so it makes some sense that yet another variation on this theme is trotted out for the finale. And there is nothing inherently bad with the instinct to go in that direction. It is just that the way it was handled left much to be desired. The whole idea just seems to crumble under its own weight the moment one looks past the “cool surprise” element of the reveal. The decision takes a galaxy-spanning story with universal appeal and reduces it down to a Hatfields and McCoys-level family feud.
To be fair, things aren’t all dire in this galaxy far, far away. After spending two movies as co-leads but not really together on screen for an appreciable amount of time, we finally get to see Rey, Finn and Poe working together as a team. And they don’t work as smoothly as perhaps one would have thought. Although friends, their personalities don’t quite mesh at times and that feels remarkably fresh and fun to watch. This is where Abrams’ strength for casting comes through, having been behind the hiring of all three actors for this new trilogy. Richard E Grant as high ranking First Order baddie is also a delight as he sneers his way through every scene with an expression that suggests someone just walked onto the set with a bit of bantha poo-doo on their boot.
Star Wars has always held a special place in my heart, so of course it has hard to remain entirely neutral. It was one of the things that nurtured my interest and love of film. The first screenplay I ever read was the one published for A New Hope and the first time I ever saw things like storyboards was for that first film. There is no way I would be anywhere near as to where I am today if it weren’t for this film. I expected that I would be emotional at several points through my first, and probably next few subsequent, viewings. And there were a few moments that did get me misty-eyed. But this story just didn’t land with the emotional resonance that it should have and that I was hoping it would.
Expectations can be deadly when it comes to art, I know. But this final installment of a story I have been involved with, moved and influenced by for nearly me entire life just did not connect with me in ways that I was hoping it would. Abrams has given us a finale that feels more calculated to service fan expectations than the actual needs of the story, a film that placed cheap thrills above emotional resonance. And as such, he draws the entire four-decade cinematic saga to a close with a mildly enthusiastic shrug instead of a triumphant cheer.