STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Taught Me To Love The Prequels

This review is fairly spoiler-free.

In the beginning there was the word, and the word was Starkiller. From this humble start came dozens of iterations, concepts, ideas and drafts until what finally emerged, like a triumphant amphibian climbing from the primordial ooze, was Star Wars, later known as A New Hope

All beginnings have ends, of course, and 42 years later the ending of that new hope – or one particular aspect of it, anyway – has arrived. I’m tempted to continue the Biblical allusions here and talk about how at the end, as in the end of the Bible, there is a Beast, “having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” Maybe once upon a time I could get have gotten worked up into that John the Revelator mode, but that time is past. I’ve lived through the Prequels and the wars over The Last Jedi; I’ve seen the eradication of swaths of the Extended Universe and I’ve witnessed the birth of a really coherent and exciting transmedia canon. I’ve seen worse, and I’ve seen better, and in the end The Rise of Skywalker is more a disappointment than a blasphemy. And who can worry about blasphemies in Star Wars post-midichlorians anyway?

To look at Rise of Skywalker you have to look at it from three perspectives: as the ending of the Sequel Trilogy, as the ending of the nine film ‘Skywalker Saga’ and as a movie all on its own. It’s that last one where the film fails the most, being an egregiously incoherent glurge of events that are without actual plot or structure. It’s just things happening one after another, and it’s one of those movies where nothing anyone does, none of the objects they seek, actually matter because it all gets wrapped up anyway (Raiders of the Lost Ark is the ultimate example of this kind of storytelling, in that the ending would happen with or without the involvement of Indiana Jones, but it’s a well-made movie, which Rise of Skywalker is not).

But who is going into this as a movie? Imagine coming into the Star Wars story with the ninth film in the Saga, the eleventh film overall? No, this is not a real movie in any sense of the term, and can only be seen as a piece of the larger whole. 

Tragically it’s a bad piece of the larger whole. But we’ve had bad Star Wars before. There are few movies – Star Wars or otherwise – that reach the epic levels of terrible we see in Attack of the Clones, a movie that I find actually hard to sit through. No, Rise of Skywalker isn’t even notably bad within the larger canon of Star Wars. And the badness of this movie – this bland, messy, unshaped badness – has actually made me appreciate the terrible Prequel films in ways I never thought possible.

Revisiting the Prequels in the run-up for Rise of Skywalker I was struck by how many incredible ideas, concepts and images they each contained. They’re awful, executed with an ineptness and a lack of effort that feels almost criminal, but they’re also stuffed with extraordinary things that, on paper, are very interesting. The fall of the Old Republic and the internal rotting of the Jedi Order are great, and the way that Anakin Skywalker comes to the Dark Side – longing for a strong hand to cut through the messiness of democracy, hoping only to save his loved ones from death, daring to experience love when part of a religion that denies it – is phenomenal. On paper. In execution it’s a drag and a bore and most of all a tragedy. The fact that there are so many ideas, so many interesting philosophical concepts at play, but that George Lucas was fundamentally unable to express them in a dramatic or engaging way is a tragedy. This, I think, is the fear of all artists – being unable to translate everything that’s in your head into something other people will not only understand but also feel excited by. 

Rise of Skywalker is almost the exact opposite. It has nearly nothing going on; no concepts, very little philosophy, no grand ideas about humanity or society. To say that JJ Abrams doesn’t understand Star Wars is a big judgment, but after two JJ Abrams Star Wars movies it’s clear to me that he simply doesn’t understand Star Wars. He understands it on the level of Kenner toy commercials, but he doesn’t understand what George Lucas was trying to do with his six films. He gets the pacing and the imagery and the ways the characters banter with each other, all the surface stuff, but he fundamentally does not understand the soul of the franchise. 

Yeah, yeah, lol at the idea that this toy-generating, Disney-owned, cartoon-spawning intellectual property has a soul. But it does. It has more soul than any of its imitators, and it’s successful because of that soul. There’s more going on under the hood in Star Wars than just Joseph Campbell cover songs and gee-whiz special effects, and over the course of forty years some truly talented people have found their way to that soul and used it to express universal concepts about what it means to be a human being trying to do the right thing. Unlike other action franchises, Star Wars has never been about defeating bad guys or fleeting love stories, it’s always been about people being tested, often failing and how they deal with those failures. Darth Vader was never Luke Skywalker’s biggest nemesis – it was always Luke Skywalker.

But Rise of Skywalker has very little on its mind besides getting characters to run from one location to the next, breathlessly trying to find items that will direct them to other items that will give them directions to another thing where they will engage in a big battle. This the JJ Abrams thing – his movies do not have plots but rather have characters simply running from one scene to the next, continuously dragged along by the momentum of their own movement. This is done to magnificent effect in Star Trek (2009) but that might be the only time it truly has ever worked for him.

There’s a scene early in Rise of Skywalker that is, I believe, the Abrams method given form. On the run from First Order Tie Fighters, Poe Dameron takes the Millennium Falcon through a dangerous maneuver called ‘lightspeed skipping,’ where he jumps to lightspeed for a second at a time, drops out at a random place and has to dodge stuff (he always has to dodge stuff, he never drops out of lightspeed in space, which most of the universe is made up of) before jumping to the next random place. This is how a JJ Abrams movie, and especially this JJ Abrams movie, is structured. The lightspeed skipping is his whole style in one frantic nutshell. It’s his argument for being the auteur of incoherence. 

Because he’s unable to bring any narrative cohesion or philosophical meaning to his story, Abrams fumbles the finale of the Skywalker Saga. The Last Jedi, with its idea that anyone can be a hero and that the Force belongs to anyone, not just people in a lineage, actually creates a more satisfying finale for the whole story, and ends up making Rise of Skywalker operate like an epilogue. The Saga’s thematic concerns about the nature of power and who wields it, about the nature of the Force and who accesses it and about the nature of success and how it is actually defined by our reactions to failure, are all wrapped up in Episode VIII. What Abrams does is take old concepts and rehash them, without regard to how they play or what sense they make, and he just tries to hit some familiar beats with them. 

This makes Rise of Skywalker feel weirdly disconnected from everything that went before in the Saga while also bending over backwards to nod to stuff from earlier movies. I think part of the issue is that Abrams has apparently never seen the Prequels (he has Dominic Monaghan, in a truly distracting cameo, say that cloning is something only the Sith know about, which is patently untrue as shown in Attack of the Clones) and so the only stuff he cares about comes from the Original Trilogy. As a result he’s only able to connect to Han, Leia and Luke and doesn’t seem to have access to the full sweep of the story, or interest in it. He can’t conceive of a Star Wars beyond those characters, and that makes the whole thing feel small.

And when I say feel small, I mean really small. The Prequels tell the story of the fall of the Old Republic with many scenes that take place in the seat of galactic government. The OT gets more compact, with the story of a galactic rebellion being told with characters who are part of a larger operation. But by Rise of Skywalker there’s nobody, no sense of what the galaxy is like, what’s going on out there, and despite the hopeful ending of Last Jedi the Resistance seems to be about forty guys. It has all the scope of a TV series in the 90s. (This tracks, by the way, with what Abrams did in The Force Awakens, where he just recreated the Rebel/Empire thing with new names and gave us no explanation for why this was happening. He has no interest in the world around his action scenes.)

But what makes Rise of Skywalker such an unfitting end to the Saga is its absolute dearth of imagination. There are new planets, all of which could just be old planets for all their boring sameness. Another desert world! A snowy world! A jungle world! Even the reveal of the Sith homeworld is unimaginative – it’s just like a cloudy plains planet with what seems to be a huge stone Jawa sandcrawler on it where the Emperor lives. There are new aliens and new monsters, but they don’t feel exciting. In great Star Wars movies new creatures evoke a sense of a world beyond the frame, in Rise of Skywalker many of them just feel like iterations of things we’ve seen before. There are some moments of inventiveness – I quite liked our heroes walking through a mass dance sequence – but the breakneck pace of the movie doesn’t allow us to get in any of them. 

That lack of imagination extends to the central conflict. The Emperor is back, without explanation or rationale, and you understand the only reason he’s here is that JJ Abrams couldn’t conceive of a finale for Kylo Ren that didn’t have him turning against a powerful mentor. Rian Johnson killed Snoke in the last movie, so Abrams just puts the Emperor in the Snoke role (since Snoke was only the Emperor 2.0 anyway). Despite the Sith not being a thing in the previous two films, it’s all about the Sith this time. Where Lucas deepened mythology in the Prequels, here Abrams flattens it, gesturing at stuff with the knowledge that someone at Lucasfilm will be tasked with coming up for a backstory as to why there are a thousand robed people in Palpatine’s palace. 

This is why I like the Prequels better than Rise of Skywalker, even though I enjoy watching them less. They’re imaginative. Every one of them introduces new things, weird things, opens the galaxy in major ways. Even Revenge of the Sith, the most hemmed in of the three due to its nature, has a new kind of planet and a weird new enemy in General Grievous. The debate at the center of the movie, Anakin’s final pull to the Dark Side, is interesting if botched. But it’s still there. Rise of Skywalker has none of that – nothing that feels chewy or deep. 

It’s also a bad ending for this Sequel Trilogy. It spends a lot of effort unmaking The Last Jedi, including having a scene where the ghost of Luke Skywalker cheekily reprimands Rey for throwing away her lightsaber. Rose Tico, the character who represented the idea that anyone could be a hero of the Rebellion in The Last Jedi, is sidelined and left behind. Poe Dameron is forcefully morphed into Han Solo 2.0 by the addition of a pointless spice smuggler backstory. Finn gets turned into a generic action hero who runs and jumps over things while shooting. It’s wild to me that John Boyega is so vocal about not liking his role in The Last Jedi, where he had emotions and an arc. Finn has none of that here, and it seems to me that Boyega has the same vision of Star Wars as Abrams – it’s all about running down hallways while shouting out one liners and shooting stormtroopers. He gets to do a lot of that and very little anything with emotional resonance or weight.

Rey is the one character who has an interesting throughline in this film, which is a nice change of pace from the past two movies. I think it’s heretical to say this, but I’ve felt that Rey has been the weak link in the ST until now; she’s been largely unchallenged, had little to do and been worryingly blank. That’s all changed in Rise of Skywalker, to the point where she’s almost a new character. She’s driven and focused, and the same focus that makes her a strong Jedi also represents a darkness within her. Drawing a line between ambition and the Dark Side is good, and well done here. Her journey is interesting, even if it ends in a profoundly incoherent and stupid way (I can’t say more without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that I do not understand the end of this movie based on what the Emperor’s plan is). 

Sadly, Kylo Ren is fully let down by the film. He’s been the most interesting character of the Sequels, and if we’re going by the idea that this has been the Skywalker Saga he’s actually the lead. Adam Driver has created maybe the most incredibly conflicted villain of modern times, a complex and dimensional portrayal of someone suffering who tries to push that suffering onto others. I like Kylo Ren more than most of the other characters in the whole Saga, and I’d put him alongside folks like Ahsoka Tano from the Clone Wars cartoon in terms of being realized beings who find themselves really uncomfortable in the Light/Dark duality of the Force as expressed by the Sith and the Jedi. That makes them better recipients for the Saga’s full thematic sweep, which has been about exploring the ways the Light and the Dark Sides interact, than more black and white characters. 

But here he’s a doofus and, again without spoiling, his business in the second half of the movie is moronic. He becomes a completely different character in the third act and it’s heartbreaking. Kylo Ren is JJ Abrams’ greatest contribution to Star Wars, and yet he tragically bungled his ending. 

Speaking of bungled endings… the digital resurrection of Carrie Fisher in this film is ghoulish and horrible. The opening crawl begins with the sentence “The dead speak!,” and how no one involved in making this movie realized this was… weird is beyond me. But beyond any moral or ethical considerations of making a dead person give a performance in a movie shot after they died, Rise of Skywalker does this thing badly. You know when someone cuts together two movies as a joke so it looks like they’re in conversation and saying dumb things to each other, but it’s also always janky? That’s what this is like. Characters are forced to bend over backwards to have dialogue that fits into something Carrie Fisher said on the set of The Force Awakens, and every interaction with Leia feels reverse engineered. They have Fisher saying “Don’t tell me how it looks, tell me how it is,” and they had to figure out something Rey could say to her to get that response. It’s awful, and there’s a phantom-like quality to Fisher’s head being placed on a body double. All of the Leia scenes are bad and, I think we will eventually come to see them as disrespectful and tasteless. 

By screwing up Kylo Ren and reducing the supporting heroes to either generic action guys or Han Solo clones, Rise of Skywalker even does the Sequel Trilogy dirty. It’s not even a good conclusion to this particular triad of movies! And so, as Darth Vader says of Obi-Wan Kenobi, its failure is complete – it’s a bad movie, it’s a bad Sequel Trilogy movie and it’s a bad Star Wars movie.

But it’s not spectacularly bad. It moves at a clip, and as is the Abrams style that clip keeps you from realizing nothing makes sense, no one has motivation and no plot points are actually connected. In my review of The Last Jedi I said that Rian Johnson gave Joseph Campbell a kick in the nuts before giving him a bear hug. In Rise of Skywalker Abrams seems unclear what the Hero’s Journey is, or how the structure of these eternal myths work. It’s a betrayal of Star Wars in a fundamental way… but not in a way that breaks Star Wars

That’s the kindest thing I can say about this movie: it doesn’t break Star Wars. With Star Trek Into Darkness Abrams fundamentally broke Star Trek (or at least the Kelvin timeline), but he doesn’t do that here. This is a zero movie, all sound and fury signifying nothing etc. There are a couple of nice things in it, but the most important addition to Star Wars lore – Rey using the Force to heal – was actually introduced in The Mandalorian. 

If anything Rise of Skywalker makes one thing clear: Star Wars is over at the movies. There will be more, but the franchise has actually achieved its true form on TV, in comics, in games, in novels. It’s become a sprawling transmedia franchise and no longer needs the movies. There will be more movies, of course, but the fact that this week’s Mandalorian is about two thousand percent better and more Star Wars than this week’s Star Wars movie says it all. 

In the end JJ Abrams delivered Star Wars to the end safely, not harming it in any major ways. Maybe the greatest thing that Abrams, having no imagination and no real sense of the sweep and meaning of myth, has done with his Star Wars films is remind us of the unique and strange genius of George Lucas. Once I hated the Prequels and they turned me away from being a Star Wars fan. Now, with distance and with the experience of Abrams’ weak, risk-averse fan films, I’ve come to appreciate the fucked up flawed brilliance in those terrible movies. I don’t think Rise of Skywalker is a very good Star Wars movie or ending to the Saga, but it did make me truly appreciate everything – good and bad – that has come before. 

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