Editors' Note: This is a spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
At one point in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, our current band of heroes returns to the wreckage of an old battle site from movies past. It's a significant moment, and not just because it's our gateway into the final showdown of the movie. Rather, it symbolizes that for all of its good intentions, The Rise of Skywalker never successfully tears itself away from the ghosts of Star Wars past.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. One of the central points of The Last Jedi — in fact, the thing that truly thrilled me about the last Star Wars picture — was how it was ready to cast off the old and welcome in the new. Everyone's ready to take a torch to the old mythology — even Luke Skywalker himself, quite literally — and let the new generation of Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron have their own adventures.
If The Last Jedi was director Rian Johnson doing the equivalent of breaking Prospero's wand — kids, ask your parents — then Rise of Skywalker is J.J. Abrams duct-taping the wand back together. "See," he may as well be saying, as he trots out settings, characters, even scenes that mirror the previous eight movies, "good as new." But it really isn't.
I don't know if it was fan unrest that caused the people behind Rise of Skywalker from pursuing the bold path that Last Jedi boldly laid out or if it was the switch in directors, since there's never been a strain of nostalgia that J.J. Abrams hasn't passed up the chance to invoke. Whatever the reason for the shift, Rise of Skywalker very clearly decides that the best way to wrap up the Skywalker Saga is to go back to a lot of the same people, places and things that have been mined over the last 40-plus years.
None of this will stop you from seeing The Rise of Skywalker, of course. Hearing about the film's 180-degree turn from its last installment may make you even more eager to see the movie. And I wouldn't dream of denying you that chance nor do I intend to pepper this review with any spoilers or potentially revealing plot points. But I do think Rise of Skywalker's eagerness to re-embrace the past winds up contributing to a not very satisfying conclusion to a nine-movie arc, aided and abetted by some simple story-telling sins.
What Rise of Skywalker got wrong
The biggest storytelling misstep is that Rise of Skywalker simply tries to do too much in its 2 hour, 21-minute runtime. Think back to the original Star Wars. You can basically boil that film's setting to five sequences: Star Destroyer, Tatooine, Millennium Falcon, Death Star, Battle of Yavin. Rise of Skywalker knocks off that many locations before you even hit the film's halfway mark. We've just learned one planet's name before our heroes are jetting off to someplace else, like they're on some sort of intergalactic scavenger hunt.
You also get the sense that Rise of Skywalker would benefit by leaving more things on the cutting room floor. Nine movies in and we're still introducing new people and places, some of whom don't make their appearance until just before Rise of Skywalker's final act. We're trying to say goodbye and J.J. Abrams expects us to say hello.
This is not to say that there's not some entertaining moments in Rise of Skywalker or that we need to break out our impression of the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons to declare that this is the Worst. Star Wars. Movie. Ever. (Until they destroy the last prints of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, all subsequent Star Wars pictures can breathe easy.)
What Rise of Skywalker got right
John Boyega really shines as Finn in this movie. It's been a genuine pleasure watching him develop that character over the course of the last three movies. Daisy Ridley, of course, has towered over Episodes 7 through 9 from the get-go — she's been the best thing about this recent spate of movies, thanks to her ability to continue to give off a feeling of vulnerability even as she picks up new, seemingly more improbable Jedi powers. And as much as I wished for Star Wars to leave the past where it belongs, a couple of old, familiar faces made me smile when they popped on screen.
One return I did not care for — and it's not much of a spoiler since it's referenced in the movie's opening crawl — features someone who looked pretty dead the last time we saw him several movies ago. It is safe to say that this is Rise of Skywalker's biggest miscalculation by far, especially since it's at the heart of the movie.
If you like battle scenes, Rise of Skywalker offers more than a few, many of them expertly shot. Unfortunately, that can't be said of the climactic battle which fails to heed one of the first lessons of movies — set your duel in a shadowy, dimly-lit place and your duel will wind up being shadowy and dimly lit.
It's entertaining enough, if not exactly the eye-opening experience you may have enjoyed with the original Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back. But Rise of Skywalker is clearly the weakest link in this final trilogy of movies — kind of a problem when the last film of the last trilogy in a 42-year-long story about the Skywalkers should end things with an exclamation point or at the very least a period. The best Rise of Skywalker manages is an ellipses.
"If this mission fails, it was all for nothing," one of the characters observes during Rise of Skywalker's many All Hope Is Lost moments, a sentiment echoed at several points during the movie. The Star Wars movies certainly weren't all for nothing — they enjoy an impact that's going to continue to resonate for years, and they've brought incalculable pleasure to millions of viewers. But this is one mission that's not a success, not by the standards set by the movies that went before it.