When JJ Abrams signed on to direct Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in early 2013, he went in with the intention to craft his signature “mystery box” film and ride off into the Tatooine binary sunset, content with the notion that other creatives would take the time to unravel the story from there.
He’s an “ideas” kind of director, known for revitalizing franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible) and certainly not for ending them (leaving well before Lost’s finale). So, when news broke in late 2017 that Abrams would once again return to direct the third and final film of Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy (following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow), Abrams faced the ultimate directorial task: how does one go about ending a story like this? Six years and one fan-divisive Rian Johnson film later, Abrams has an answer with Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker — the end of the so-called “Skywalker Saga” and Abrams’ journey with this franchise.
The Rise of Skywalker quickly reacquaints us with the trilogy’s main characters and what they’ve been up to since the events of Episode VIII – The Last Jedi; Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the new Supreme Leader of the First Order, resolves to dominate the galaxy, Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains with the help of Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, thanks to clever use of unused footage from TFA), and Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) embrace their roles as resistance leaders. The reemergence of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) will force our heroes and villains alike to embark on one final quest and prompt Rey and Kylo to confront one another for the last time.
At the heart of this trilogy, a war rages between two distinct voices – Abrams,’ who possesses clear reverie for the past, and Johnson’s, who seeks to push stories into the future. With the ball back in Abrams’ court, he ends this story exactly the way one would expect someone who has never ended anything properly before: close up every mystery, no matter the cost to its characters.
To that end, I experienced feelings of dissonance while watching this movie; these are the characters I love, but this doesn’t feel like their story. Their decisions often feel in service to the convoluted plot rather than an organic continuation of their character development. I can forgive a lot of this lazy writing, but there is a choice made involving Rey — my favorite character in the franchise — that I simply cannot get behind. No spoilers here, but this moment was a big ask of me as an audience member that unfortunately didn’t work, and therefore much of the film subsequently didn’t, either.
Say what you will about TLJ, but each character changed throughout that story. The same cannot be said about Finn or Poe here. Boyega and Isaac get a lot of screen time and bring that level of charisma we’ve come to expect from the actors — particularly Isaac, who hits his comedic beats effortlessly — but their characters do not face meaningful challenges that force them to move forward. Whereas Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) played a crucial role in the previous episode, Abrams reduces her to a second-tier supporting character. I didn’t love her storyline in TLJ, but it’s a shame that a talented actress like Tran was sidelined so swiftly. Newcomers Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) are fun additions, even if their characters primarily serve to further Poe and Finn’s storylines, respectively.
Regarding Rey and Kylo Ren, we truly don’t deserve Daisy Ridley or Adam Driver. The connection between these two — whether through the Force or pure emotion — remains the most compelling aspect of both this film and this trilogy. They manage to make even the most questionable story beats believable. While largely contrived, Rey’s arc is at its most interesting in TRoS when it overlaps with Kylo’s, who himself has the best (and perhaps only) character arc. Driver in particular provides the heavy lifting by injecting much needed emotional beats into the film where they clearly didn’t exist in the script.
These may sound like backhanded compliments, but my negativity stems from frustration and disappointment. I see how this film could have been great, but becomes too bogged down by storylines which have no business being in this trilogy, given the setup from the previous two films. Emperor Palpatine shouldn’t be in this movie, but if Abrams insists on including him, this was not the way to go about it. Abrams squandered the opportunity to be bold in his storytelling by making the safe choice at every turn, to the point where it feels like nothing is of consequence.
Despite my many issues with the film, I will say this about TRoS: this was the last chance to give us everything. This is intended to be the culmination of a nine-part saga, and while Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio’s script was a major misfire, I can tell by watching the film how hard he was trying to deliver for the fans. The practical and special effects are incredible, and director of photography Dan Mindel offers some striking visuals that play off of a blue color palette in a similar way that DP Steve Yedlin incorporated red in TLJ. John Willaims remains the MVP of the franchise with one last score which plays on our nostalgia while incorporating resonant new twists on these musical themes.
TRoS has no shortage of fan service, either, and a lot of these moments work well, particularly the re-introduction of legacy character Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Though the execution is noticeable, they made the very best of an awful situation by giving Leia and Carrie Fisher a proper send-off. Abrams tried with this film, and I have to respect the courage it must have taken to say yes to this project.
Star Wars is ultimately a story about hope. About legacy. About what we can learn from the past, and what we take with us into the future. There are still shades of that in The Rise of Skywalker, even if it’s more fixated on the past and ultimately not the ending I believe this trilogy deserved. Rey is still my favorite hero, and Kylo is still my favorite villain. If nothing else, I’m grateful that these stories exist at all, because no other franchise has endured and will continue to endure the way Star Wars has.