(Disclaimer: This review is going to go into spoiler territory at a certain point. A spoiler warning will be issued. I’ll give my general thoughts first. Also, everyone has their own tastes when it comes to Star Wars, so if you feel differently, that's wonderful.)
“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” is directed by J.J. Abrams (director of “Episode VII: The Force Awakens”) and written by Abrams and Chris Terrio (writer of “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League”) and serves not only as the climactic film of the sequel trilogy of 2015’s “Force Awakens” and 2017’s polarizing “The Last Jedi”, but as the final film of the Skywalker saga spanning eight prior movies before Lucasfilm and Disney move a different direction with the franchise.
The marketing makes it clear that now, in film canon, everything from “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” has led to this. But do Abrams and Co. stick the landing?
One thing that has become apparent over the past half-decade is that nobody at Lucasfilm developed an overarching plan for the story of the sequels to the original trilogy. Abrams opted for a nostalgic soft reboot that left a lot of questions unanswered. Rian Johnson wasn’t interested in the questions Abrams had to ask, so with complete creative freedom, he made his own vision with “Last Jedi.”
With “Rise of Skywalker”, that lack of planning results in a film that should be the “Avengers: Endgame” of “Star Wars” but instead is a poorly plotted, paced and edited film that clearly had issues in production.
There are good things about “Rise of Skywalker.” Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren remains the standout character of the new saga. Driver is one of many in this film giving strong performances with what they have to work with. The practical effects and sets were stunning and most of the computer effects looked great, reflecting the effort that went into the film by many people.
However, before we go into spoilers, there are too many things that hold “Rise of Skywalker” back from being a good movie on its own. The villain’s (and plot’s) logic falls apart entirely if you think about it for a minute, but the film is so breakneck paced, jumbled and choppy that the audience never has the time to fully process anything to think about it, nor are major moments allowed to sink in. The film is even more of a copy and paste of “Return of the Jedi” than “Force Awakens” was of “Star Wars” (I’m not calling it “A New Hope.”), but much grander and scale and much more nonsensical. The characters mostly feel hollow and emotional beats fail to land because of the strangely quick pacing and because the heroes spend the entire first half going planet to planet searching for McGuffins to help them find other McGuffins. There is so much exposition in this movie, it reminded me of the prequels and how there would be entire scenes of characters explaining the plot to the audience.
It’s not like I entirely blame Abrams. A lot of people share blame in the franchise ending up here. But while he does have an undeniable visual flare, he simply couldn’t help himself with the nostalgia-bait in this film, and his admiration for the past somehow backfires so spectacularly that manages to render Star Wars’ prior three entries irrelevant in the context of “Rise of Skywalker.”
I’m going to give my grade of this film and then discuss the plot to talk about what works and what doesn’t. It's hard to say what all is wrong with this thing without spoiling everything, so here goes.
DEAL’S REELS RATING: D+
If you’re reading this plot summary and haven’t seen the movie, I promise, this isn’t terrible fan-fiction I wrote. It’s terrible fan-fiction that Abrams, Terrio, and likely 20 other people wrote.
Also, be aware, this plot is going to sound like an 8-year-old playing with his toys and making up a story as he goes along.
The opening title crawl states that Emperor Palpatine is alive after his presumed death in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” and that he has sent out a broadcast to the galaxy, making his existence known.
Considering how this film ends for him, he essentially doomed himself in the opening title crawl.
Kylo Ren mows down people on his way to get a pyramid thing called a wayfinder, which allows the user to find the ancient, secret Sith planet where Palpatine is. Ren arrives in an awesome-looking sequence and encounters Palpatine. How is Palpatine alive? Doesn’t matter. It’s a throwaway line. Sure, he fell into a hole and then the hole exploded, but he just has some burns on his corpse hands, no big deal. His appearance in this movie after never being established in the previous two movies is an embarrassing admission of a lack of creativity.
He then explains to Kylo that he’s been secretly building the “Final Order”, a massive fleet of star destroyers with Death Star-strength lasers, meaning he has thousands of Death Stars. He’s says he’s only a short amount of time from beginning his final assault on the galaxy as the star destroyer Death Stars emerge from out of the ground in an awe-inspiring shot that also makes no sense.
How did he build those considering he’s a corpse being carried around by a robot? Who’s been helping him? Did he seriously do all that himself? Why do they burst through from out of the ground? Why does he have to wait a certain amount of time to start when his armada is clearly ready? If he has the final move to conquer everything (even though the First Order was already established to be on the winning side of things in prior movies regardless), why send out a broadcast that lets people know you’re coming instead of using your impossible and unexplained tactical advantage?
It’s always nice to see Ian McDiarmid as the character, but Palpatine just makes zero sense in this movie, as we’ll establish even more as we go.
As Kylo is sent to find and kill Rey, played by Daisy Ridley who does her best with a sorely underwritten protagonist, she, along with Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and BB-8, spend the next hour going from planet to planet to planet, partaking in pointless action scenes with no tension and receiving exposition over and over again.
Rey looks in Luke’s notebook and finds out about the wayfinder, so they go to a desert planet where they meet Lando and Lando gives them exposition. Billy Dee Williams is given basically nothing to do in the movie and he’s barely in it. Sorry, people who like Lando.
They all get stuck in quicksand, leading Finn to tell Rey that he has an important secret to tell her. But they fall through before he can say anything and find themselves in a cave, where they just so happen to stumble across a Sith dagger with Sith language on it.
Finn’s super important secret? Yeah, it never comes up again. It’s in the movie for absolutely no reason. Thanks, Abrams. That’s not terrible filmmaking at all. It’s also not terrible filmmaking at all that they just so happen to stumble upon this McGuffin.
Rey does a corny flip over Kylo’s tie fighter and breaks the wing off with her lightsaber in slow motion. It’s hilariously over the top. Then Chewbacca dies when he’s captured by stormtroopers and the ship he’s on blows up, except GOTCHA, he’s actually in First Order custody because he was on a completely different ship that the audience never gets to see but is only told about.
C-3PO can’t read the dagger aloud because his coding prevents him from saying Sith words, because movie, so they go to a planet and are dumped exposition by new characters that are hard to care about and have his memory wiped. He tells the characters in the room they’re his friends, even though R2 is the only character in the room he actually knows all that well.
After rebooting, he vocally translates the dagger in a deep voice as his eyes glow red. Nothing in his circuits would allow for his lights to grow red, but the people in charge of this film said, “The Sith are evil and have red lightsabers, so we’ll have his eyes turn red to let the audience know it’s eeeeeevil.”
Also, his memory being wiped ends up not even mattering because R2-D2 just resets his memory back to normal 20 minutes later anyway. Just like the Chewbacca death fake-out.
Speaking of Chewbacca, Rey realizes, “Wait, he’s alive! I feel him!” So, facing no resistance at all for some reason, they fly the Millennium Falcon into Kylo’s star destroyer and, long story short, this leads to one of the most embarrassing moments of the movie.
“The Last Jedi” insisted that Rey’s lineage wasn’t important to her character and her own actions would define her. Kylo himself drove that point home to her. In this movie, however, he tells her in an exposition dump that her parents were nobodies to protect her because she’s actually Palpatine’s granddaughter and Palpatine killed her parents trying to reach and kill her.
Um, OK. No, movie. No. Stop.
Palpatine having children, and a grandchild, is another massive problem in his inclusion. At no point was the Emperor portrayed as sentimental or wanting to carry on his own bloodline. He takes over the galaxy, rules it for a while, dies but not really which renders Darth Vader’s sacrifice irrelevant and builds the “Final Order.” This film also expects the audience to believe that he had kids on top of all that? When? With who? For what purpose?
If he wanted to kill Rey, why ever have a kid to start with that could cause her? Why have a bloodline and then immediately want it dead? Why could he sense Kylo as a child but not the location of his even more force-sensitive granddaughter? Why is his granddaughter important but not his own son or daughter? His kid is just some random person in the galaxy to the extent that it’s never even made certain whether it’s Rey’s mother or father who had the bloodline.
This was clearly never planned and thrown in the movie late in the game as a “GOTCHA!” moment to further undo “Last Jedi”, which this film goes out of its way to do a lot, often sarcastically.
The dagger instructions lead the heroes to another planet where they can find the second McGuffin wayfinder that’s in the second Death Star’s wreckage, so then Rey pulls out the dagger and realizes that a shape on the dagger’s compass would match that of the wayfinder’s location in the wreckage. So this “ancient” artifact’s main purpose is to be able to scan wreckage that’s roughly 30 years old. Got it. Also, there shouldn’t be Death Star wreckage like this, nor should the throne room be intact. The darn thing exploded in a nuclear fireball.
Rey finds the wayfinder but then has a vision of a dark side of herself with a red lightsaber, which was included in trailers as bait to create fan speculation that this film would actually take narrative risks at all. But once she awakens, Kylo is there out of absolutely nowhere and they fight on the wreckage. The fight is surprisingly weak compared to scenes such as their forest fight in “Force Awakens” or the fight against the guards in the throne room in “Last Jedi”.
Kylo gets the upper hand, but Leia (we still miss you, Carrie Fisher), his mother whose inclusion in this film always felt incredibly awkward, calls out to him through the force and distracts him, allowing Rey to stab him with her lightsaber. This kills Leia in very strange fashion, but Rey heals Kylo’s saber hole and he survives.
When you establish healing in your main hero, especially when it’s never been introduced in any of these movies before, you’re basically taking the cheap way out of any narrative corner. We’ll get to that shortly.
Also, after Leia dies, they just throw a blanket over her on the bed she died on, talk about her influence for two minutes, and then it’s back to the mission. The pacing in this film is atrocious.
Kylo’s visited by a vision of his father, Han Solo, who essentially forgives him for killing him. Even though Harrison Ford looked like he had just rolled out of bed, this scene is the best character interaction in the entire movie. It’s the one time callbacks aren’t used obnoxiously (such as Han silencing an apologizing Ben Solo and saying “I know”, a callback to “The Empire Strikes Back”) and Driver is clearly putting his all into squeezing any interest he can out of his character.
Now, the big, dumb ending. Rey arrives to the throne room on the Sith planet and Resistance fighters try to destroy one tower that will conveniently cause all Final Order ships to cease function, leading to a massive aerial battle.
Palpatine tells Rey his real plan was never to kill her, despite all the effort he put into having her killed. Nope, GOTCHA. He wants Rey to kill *him* so he can possess her and become the ultimate Sith. She almost kills him, but Kylo, now Ben, shows up, which inspires her to decline the offer.
And then? HIS PLAN CHANGES AGAIN. GOTCHA. His actual plan was to get the two in the same room together so he could suck out both of their life force and restore himself and reach his ultimate potential.
He recharges to his ultimate, original form… even though he still looks horribly deformed. He originally was a senator who looked like a normal man. Why doesn’t he look like Senator Palpatine now? Why does he still have a monster face? Is it because people remember “Return of the Jedi” and that’s what he looked like in that, so that’s how he has to look in this? ‘Member the Emperor? ‘Member?
The battle on the star destroyers is a bunch of confusing noise that becomes especially so when the film rips off “Avengers: Endgame.” When the situation seems hopeless, Lando shows up with thousands and thousands of ships, flown by, and I quote the movie, “just people.” Somehow, Lando has gotten all these people together in less than a day to play a role in this fight. It’s just like the “Avengers… assemble” moment, except you don’t care about the situation or any of the characters showing up, which, of course, include characters established earlier in the movie briefly for the cliched “Hey, look! I’m helping too! Clap, audience!”
Back down in the throne room, the emperor, now fully charged, force throws Ben down a conveniently placed giant hole and then shoots lightning into the sky in a laughably stupid sequence, even for this series about space wizards. Rey looks into the sky and hears every other Jedi speaking to her, letting her know she’s the true “Chosen One”, a title that once belonged to Anakin Skywalker, one of the voices. So she gets up and the film proceeds to rip off “Endgame” again.
The emperor shoots lightning at her saying “You can’t win! I am all the Sith!” In true Iron Man fashion, Rey, blocking the lightning with her lightsaber, says “And I…… have all the Jedi in me!” and uses a second lightsaber she happened to have behind her back to deflect the lightning back at Palpatine so he explodes.
Rey then collapses and dies. But then Ben crawls out of the hole because he didn’t actually die, and then he brings Rey back to life. They share an incredibly awkward kiss, even though he’s been responsible for countless deaths, and then he dies again because his unexplained healing powers killed him, because this movie wants to have its cake and eat it too.
This entire sequence was so ridiculous that it prompted laughter from the audience I was with. I saw an opening night screening at the Picture Show in Grand Junction. When Kylo fell over dead, half the theater burst out laughing. That's.... that's not good.
Rey goes to Tattooine and the farm Luke Skywalker grew up on and some random old woman walking her camel stops to shout at her “Hey! Who are you! What is your first and last name?”, which is a very natural way people talk. Rey then says she’s Rey Skywalker and walks off into the twin sunsets. Roll credits.
Rey’s insane, never-established powers feel rushed, and as a result, she truly becomes unrelatable by the end, choosing to place all of her value in taking the Skywalker name she has nothing to actually do with instead of embracing being a Palpatine or just “Rey.”
Also, because the first six films established Anakin as the ultimate character but Rey gets the final word, she ultimately represents the hostile takeover of Star Wars by Disney. Every beloved old character aside from Lando and some robots is dead, and Anakin’s importance completely diminished so that Disney could go, “Nah, nah, nah. THIS is the ultimate character and nothing else matters.” Her victory was never in doubt.
“The Rise of Skywalker” is a failure in plotting, a failure in character development, a failure in using visual storytelling over endless exposition, a failure in pacing, a failure in build-up or tension, a failure in consistency with the established universe, a failure as a finale to that established universe and a failure as a film meant to be satisfying. At absolute best, it can make for an enjoyable watch in the moment, but it’s a house of cards just waiting to cave in upon reflection. It’s not just bad, but it’s the laziest “Star Wars” film ever made.
This film is the ultimate “It’s not a plot hole, it’s the Force!” movie.
It’s always hard to tell right away how a Star Wars film will age, but I feel comfortable in saying the legacy of “Rise of Skywalker” will be as a cautionary tale of what happens when a company trusts a brand to do all the legwork from recognizability instead of having anything to say. It will also be as a movie doomed to always be compared to “Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.”
Please, just take a long break from this series, Disney. This journey ultimately wasn’t worth it.