J. J. Abrams’ «Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker» might be everything «the fans» want – but that doesn’t make for inspiring, challenging, or even particularly exciting cinema. The Skywalker saga comes to an end with a film so focused on pleasing everyone that it forgets to be more than a stale collection of nostalgic callbacks – and, in the process, gives us a lot of worrying insight into how Disney plans to engage with its franchises in the future.
The guiding theme of the newest «Star Wars» trilogy is, unsurprisingly, nostalgia. J. J. Abrams’ first entry, «The Force Awakens» (2015), meant a reanimation of a beloved classic that, for many viewers, immediately evokes childhood dreams and deeply rooted feelings of familiarity and comfort. It did that very well: although some took issue with it being an almost step-by-step retelling of the original trilogy’s opening chapter, George Lucas’ «A New Hope» (1977), it still skill- and delightfully managed to revive the formula with a fresh, engaging, and diverse cast of characters, heartfelt moments, and the promise of a galaxy full of possibilities.
Nostalgia was also at the heart of Rian Johnson’s second part, «The Last Jedi» (2017) – yet the director of the upcoming «Knives Out» chose to take a surprising and rather bold approach: instead of following its predecessor’s lead and rehashing more of what came before, it renegotiated the franchise’s themes and, ultimately, pondered whether nostalgia might not be something better left behind in order to focus on the future. Johnson’s film was a revelation: in probably the most stylized and artistically accomplished visuals in «Star Wars» history, it dared to dream of a franchise that might not give the fans what they think they want (read: more of the same), but a franchise that forges new paths, questions old authorities and ideals, and does not subscribe to creative limits set by capitalistic calculation.
«Star Wars» – these fans insisted – belonged to «the fans»
What followed was a lot of rage from, predominantly, the most toxic parts of the Internet: entire Reddit threads were filled with the noisiest of online shouting; bullying campaigns against Johnson and supporting actress Kelly Marie Tran were initiated; petitions were launched that demanded a reshoot, based on every single fan’s dearest wishes. «Star Wars» – these fans insisted – belonged to «the fans». And what «the fans» wanted, apparently, was a film that followed the formula to a tee.
Here come the good and/or the bad news for Abrams’ «The Rise of Skywalker» – probably depending on the feelings you had about «The Last Jedi»: the last installment of the third «Star Wars» trilogy seems to be exactly that ridiculous reshoot, both ignoring and actively deconstructing any innovation that its predecessor had come up with – only to replace them with a sugary overdose of stale nostalgia and every callback imaginable. Exactly what «the fans» wanted – except really, really boring and, at times, outright infuriating.
The adventure begins one year after Johnson’s film left its heroes: scrappy Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still training to be a Jedi; loyal Finn (John Boyega) and charismatic Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are still fighting alongside the Resistance; Supreme Leader of the First Order Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) still attempts to fill his grandfather Darth Vader’s evil shoes while blinking solemnly from underneath his emo haircut. What makes the action unfold is – you guessed it – a callback: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) seems to have risen from the dead, and the heroes (now sans the delightful Kelly Marie Tran as she unjustly receives the Jar Jar Binks sideline treatment demanded by online trolls) have to cross the galaxy in an epic quest to find and, yet again, defeat him. So far, so familiar.
That familiarity in itself does not have to be a problem was beautifully shown by Abrams in «The Force Awakens», and there are quite a few gratifying moments and comfortable callbacks to be found in this film as well, be it the return of beloved characters (force ghosts, memories, and resurrections demonstrating that in the era of the franchise, no-one ever truly dies), John Williams’ ever-iconic score that almost manages to blast over any creeping doubts about the film’s hackneyed plot, or the various lightsaber battles and spaceship chases that are flawlessly rendered with CGI precision. Added are some vibrant new settings as well as a few characters worth remembering. Babu Frik (voiced by Shirley Henderson), for one, is the most precious introduction to the franchise since Poe’s circular droid BB-8 and the porgs, episode VIII’s perennially squalling alien birds.
«Problematic and frustrating, however, are both the film’s stubborn refusal to creatively engage with any of its source material beyond the simple act of pushing nostalgia.»
Problematic and frustrating, however, are both the film’s stubborn refusal to creatively engage with any of its source material beyond the simple act of pushing nostalgia as well as its central mission of puckishly trampling over everything that made Johnson’s entry into the franchise riveting and special. In «The Last Jedi», Rey’s apparent parentlessness made a refreshing comment on how the Force had always been something an exclusive, aristocratic elite possessed – and how it might finally be truly and democratically connecting everyone in the galaxy. Luke Skywalker’s refusal to live up to his status as a mystified hero was a powerful take on how we engage with the past and how we glorify individual heroism, turning flawed people into faultless figures that cannot fail. Well, Abrams is not interested in any of that. Every twist, every innovation gets flattened out, dulled, diluted for the sake of – nothing, really.
The film’s constant comments on its predecessor range from clumsy and lackluster (Kylo just didn’t know the whole truth about Rey’s parents! So forget that twist of the last film!) to outright spiteful. In one of its most vindictive moments, invoking one of Rian Johnson’s most controversial choices, the film has a disgruntled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) catch a flying lightsaber and reprimand Rey for throwing this precious weapon away. (Yes, it really is that level of petty.) By that point, at the latest, the film reveals its true face as a product conjured up by the Internet’s darkest prayers.
«‹Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker› is a soulless, artless film, one that resolutely follows its promise of giving «the fans» everything they want – knowingly ignoring that true art springs from moments of surprise, from challenging what we believe we know, from not simply reliving what has come before but from creatively engaging with it.»
«Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker» is a soulless, artless film, one that resolutely follows its promise of giving «the fans» everything they want – knowingly ignoring that true art springs from moments of surprise, from challenging what we believe we know, from not simply reliving what has come before but from creatively engaging with it. It turns art into a checklist, one that, ideally, pleases and appeases every single viewer – an endeavor which is doomed to fail and produces a film so inoffensive it actually makes you angry. One can only hope that this film is not prophetic of Disney’s future franchise plans: of profitably selling us the same product again and again, dulled down and turned into the most generic of algorithms, while vilely cackling at those daring to wish for more.
Release date: 18 December, 2019
Film facts: «Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker» / Director: J. J. Abrams / Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Kelly Marie Tran, Carrie Fisher, Ian McDiarmid, Richard E. Grant, Domhnall Gleeson, Billy Dee Williams, Mark Hamill / USA / 141 minutes
Image and trailer rights: Disney Schweiz / ©&TM Lucasfilm Ltd
J. J. Abrams delivers the new «Star Wars» trilogy's last entry: uninspired, mean-spirited and brimming with the stalest kind of (calculated, corporate) nostalgia.