Two years ago, I reviewed “The Last Jedi” for this newspaper. Never in my life have I seen a film generate such a polarizing reception from audiences. At the time, I gave the film a five star rating. While my high rating was in part indicative of my genuine enjoyment of the film, in retrospect I can admit that it may also have been a reactionary response to an incredibly negative review of the film from this same newspaper. This can be seen as yet another example of how the extreme conflict among audiences influenced the discourse on the film.
Now, given two years to ruminate on “The Last Jedi” and having seen the completion of the arcs it explored with this final film in the “Skywalker Saga,” my opinions have undergone some revision. I am more willing to recognize some of the film’s flaws, such as the poorly executed arc for Finn, the unnecessary sidelining of Princess Leia and the overly convoluted issue of communication between Poe Dameron and Vice Admiral Holdo.
Despite the realization of these flaws, it took viewing “The Rise of Skywalker” to solidify in my mind the elements of “The Last Jedi” that made it such a strong (if imperfect) entry in the series. The best way that I can characterize the flaws of “The Rise of Skywalker” is to compare it to another massively popular series which came to an end in 2019: “Game of Thrones.”
In its early seasons, HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” based on the popular “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by author George R. R. Martin, was both critically acclaimed and beloved by mass audiences. The show was a cultural phenomenon, praised for its strong characters, themes and storytelling. The series’ fifth season was where, for many audience members, it began to show signs of rot, yet its strengths were still able to carry the show through its rough patches.
It wasn’t until the final season where the problems which had been building finally eclipsed the quality of the show’s strongest elements. Viewers complained of the rushed pacing, lack of internal logic or consistency, mishandling or pure abandonment of major themes and character arcs and an overall feeling of style over substance.
Every single one of these complaints can be lodged with “The Rise of Skywalker.” At nearly two and a half hours long, making it the second longest film in the franchise after only “The Last Jedi,” the film can’t spare a single second to breathe. The amount of plot traversed feels like enough to span an entire season of television and not a single feature length film. Important plot points and character reveals come and go in the blink of an eye with no time spent to reflect or generate an emotional response from the characters.
The reveal of Emperor Palpatine having somehow miraculously survived the destruction of the Death Star in “Return of the Jedi” is laughable. To make matters worse, not only is Palpatine alive but he is in command of a massive fleet of star destroyers all fully manned and all individually possessing the power of the Death Star. Abrams makes no effort to explain any of this, as any explanation given would most likely further illustrate how absurd and poorly thought out these choices were.
These inclusions remove so much of the weight of events central to the original trilogy. The awesome and terrifying power of the Death Star in “A New Hope” has been reduced to a cheap built-in feature for star destroyers, not unlike back-up cameras for cars. The emotional weight of Darth Vader’s decision to kill his master in order to save his son (and ultimately the entire galaxy) is severely undercut as well by the revelation that Palpatine is still alive. Considering that Snoke, in one of the film’s most idiotic moments, is revealed to have been a lifeless puppet operated by Palpatine, this means that Palpatine, through Snoke and the First Order, was able to cause the destruction of multiple planets and caused the events which led to Luke’s death. Vader’s sacrifice appears to have been in vain.
The other issues with this film’s plot are too numerous to detail. Many are not inherently bad ideas, but they suffer from a lack of attention or buildup to make them feel earned or important.
The acting was, as usual, strong. Daisy Ridley is still a likeable protagonist as Rey, and John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are still charming and entertaining as Finn and Poe. Adam Driver remains the strongest actor in the series as Supreme Leader Kylo Ren, giving off a commanding, intimidating presence yet never completely masking the character’s inner vulnerability. The talent on display makes mishandling of these characters in the screenplay all the more unfortunate.
Looking back across all three films in the new trilogy, none of these characters have an arc that feels particularly well executed. The only one who seems to have been given any narrative effort is Kylo Ren, but even his role falls victim to the breakneck pace of the film, rarely being given enough time to show real emotion or contemplation in his decisions. When these characters were introduced in “The Force Awakens,” I was eager to see where their stories would lead them. Now that the story is over, I’m left to think about their wasted potential.
The same goes for the characters in the original trilogy. Lando Calrissian feels shoehorned in to this film, appearing for about five minutes total in a role that had little bearing on the plot except to serve as a deus ex machina at the end. Ian McDiarmid is delightfully hammy as usual in the role of Palpatine, chewing scenery left and right, but his inclusion in the story is so insultingly preposterous that I was unable to enjoy his performance.
The most disappointing role of all has to go to Princess Leia. While complaints about her awkward inclusion in the film and clunky, confusing conclusion can be reasonably attributed to Carrie Fisher’s death in 2016, the problems go much deeper. Her role throughout this sequel trilogy has been to act as a glorified extra. These films never quite knew what to do with her. After her brief appearance in “The Force Awakens” which was played up as more of a cameo, she was put offscreen in a coma for most of “The Last Jedi.” Now, in her final film, she mostly just stands in the background and offers inspirational quotes. The closest thing these films gave her to a purpose was to help turn her son back from the Dark Side, but so little time was spent developing that angle that it seems like an afterthought.
The handful of characters introduced in this film (Keri Russell as Zori Bliss, Richard E. Grant as General Pryde, Naomi Ackie as Jannah and Shirley Henderson as the adorable, hilarious Babu Frik) all leave an impact, but have such small roles that they are not given much of an opportunity to shine. Even then, they mostly have more screen time than Rose Tico, played once again by Kelly Marie Tran. It is unfortunate that she received such a downgrade in this film as I found her genuinely likeable in the last film and strongly sympathized with Tran after the cruel attacks she received from toxic fans online.
With this incredible cast of new characters, Disney could have given us an amazing, fresh story for a new generation of viewers. Instead, they were afraid to experiment with such a lucrative brand, retreating to the comforts of nostalgia and recognizability. Even when Rian Johnson attempted to force the trilogy into a new, original direction with the shocking ending of “The Last Jedi,” Abrams and co. managed to turn in yet another shameless ripoff the original trilogy with no regard for logic or consistency.
When assessing the whole sequel trilogy, it is clear that Disney’s heart simply was not in it. The extreme care shown to crafting the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a cohesive series spanning decades was nowhere to be found in their handling of “Star Wars.” The original plan was for three separate directors to work on each film, with no creative mind overseeing the whole story. The creative dissonance was clear between “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.” Abrams and Johnson had wildly different goals and visions for the franchise which are almost totally incompatible. With Abrams back for “Rise of Skywalker,” the film feels less like Abrams’ previous work and more like a movie made by committee. There is no creative vision on display at all. Instead, what we get are a multitude of ideas that have all been crammed together to appease the lowest common denominator.
The original film from 1977 may have been a fairly light space adventure, but it was groundbreaking. Lucas mixed the seemingly dissonant genres of westerns, pulp science fiction and Kurosawa’s samurai epics and then threw in some Eastern philosophy and Western fantasy on top. Logic would suggest that this strange hodgepodge of influences would never create a cohesive whole, yet it worked brilliantly and became an instant classic. The next two films challenged audiences even more, changing the direction of the story from a classic good versus evil fight to the complicated relationship between a son his father (with a healthy dose of action heaped on).
Even the prequels with all of their many flaws tried to make a statement about the corrupting influence of power and the danger of rigid adherence to dogma. With the new trilogy, you are left wondering, “What were they trying to say?” Rian Johnson presents us with a few strong themes (which I detailed in my review of “The Last Jedi”), but “Rise of Skywalker” leaves all of this behind in favor of briefly touching on simpler messages that the series has already covered, namely “don’t lose hope” and “you don’t have to be like your ancestors.”
This lack of depth is not a problem unique to Disney’s “Star Wars” films, but is one that plagues modern blockbusters. Once known for its trailblazing films that came to define animation, Disney now relies on soulless live action remakes of it classics, stripping the stories of their emotion and complexity. For every “Into the Spider-Verse” or “Avengers: Endgame,” we get three times as many movies like “Venom” or “Suicide Squad.” Who needs a layered story with a fascinating take on important issues when you have an action packed trailer with Will Smith?
In the end, as much as I can dismay that these vapid, substanceless movies are being made, these same films are usually very successful at the box office. Even in the case of “Star Wars,” lots of audience members seem to prefer “Rise of Skywalker” to “The Last Jedi.” It seems that, in many cases, cheap thrills have triumphed over thematic resonance. Perhaps the problem is not that the studios are putting a lack of care into their blockbusters, but that audiences have become complacent and are not demanding high quality output from the studios.
Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.