The stakes for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker are about as high as they can get for any movie. It’s the ninth and apparently final installment in the widely beloved Skywalker saga, part of a globally popular franchise spanning 40 years, eleven movies and TV shows, books, video games—the full works. Such a film would be a mountainous task for anyone to take on, and unfortunately it seems that The Force Awakens (2015) writer-director J.J. Abrams wasn’t entirely able to shoulder that burden. The evidence of his considerable effort is all over the film, but effort doesn’t automatically translate to good filmmaking or storytelling.
TROS starts off well enough, but to both its benefit and detriment, it takes off at a brisk canter and only speeds up from there. There’s an over-reliance on swinging almost violently from one development to the next with reveals and payoffs galore, each new scene seeming to unveil something that requires one or all the main characters’ attention. But at this harried pace, it’s impossible for anyone—not the audience, not the characters, not even Abrams or his co-writer Chris Terrio, it seems—to fully explore and absorb each individual twist and turn. Our heroes are constantly focused on solving the next problem, getting to the next destination, saving the next person. It’s a problem neither TFA nor its sequel The Last Jedi (2017) suffered from, and it’s a debilitating one.
As in TFA and TLJ, Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parentage is a key component of her arc here. However, it’s jumbled by marked attempts to jam more revelations and reveals in spaces where it simply doesn’t seem to fit. In fact, the work done in both TFA and TLJ towards building Rey’s identity in her heritage (or lack thereof) and her resulting journey are undone somehow, like scribbling over lines on a page instead of continuing onto a new one. While Rey’s awakening and journey in the Force were formerly paralleled to Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) descent into the dark side, TROS does away with that vital gap between the parallel lines and ties them directly to each other instead. In that gap had previously existed compelling tension, intriguing mystery, a powerful push-and-pull that made for interesting if divisive storytelling. Without it, both Rey and Kylo’s journeys as Force users become less fascinating. It was not a beneficial choice at all, for either of these characters or for the narrative, and only resulted in anticlimactic nullity.
Star Wars fans are going to be warring for a year or two about whether Kylo’s arc and eventual fate was deserved or not, but parts of it were, in a way, earned. However, much of it isn’t played out well either. In writing Kylo’s part of the story here, Abrams and Terrio seem to have forgotten that when characters or stories arrive at major turning points, there has to be something after that follows. Consequences, impacts, reactions, reflection—all of these are lacking in the aftermath of Kylo’s inflection points.
Arguably the best part of TROS was the trio content. Bringing Rey, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) together made for some of the finest moments of the movie, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the three actors have excellent chemistry together. It’s a shame Abrams and Terrio opted not to lean more heavily on the bond between the trio, an unmade decision which would likely have paved the way for more emotionally impactful payoffs. Finn and Poe make leaps and bounds in their journeys as fighters and leaders, but the progress they make is offset slightly by Abrams and Terrio’s constant lumping of the two together. It’s one thing to pair characters up for tasks and adventures, but it’s another to fuse their individual development arcs together, especially for characters who have come from backgrounds and struggles as different as Finn and Poe. The two characters are not nearly similar enough for their journeys to progress the exact same way, and TROS would have been a much better film if it had taken the time to give each their due attention. Despite that, their shared intimacy and trust is one of the strongest pillars of TROS.
It was an absolute joy to see the late Carrie Fisher in the film, but unfortunately, what was given to the Princess-turned-General Leia Organa was weak. Without previous movies carrying most of the weight, Leia’s role in TROS would have been almost non-existent. To be fair, there wasn’t much Abrams could have really done about that. Nevertheless, it wasn’t hard to see the love and respect for Leia and Carrie laced all throughout the movie. She was there, even if she wasn’t.
As for the other players, Naomie Ackie made a killer Star Wars debut as freedom fighter Jannah. She conveyed strength and compassion in equal measure with effortless grace, and I wouldn’t argue if I got a miniseries focused on Jannah and her band of guerrilla vigilantes. One of the biggest pities of the film is the gross underuse of Kelly Marie Tran. Rose Tico is visible, but we never truly see her do anything, which is a shame considering the leadership potential and insights she displayed in TLJ. It’s especially disappointing when one compares it to the amount of screentime that went to series newbies Ackie and Keri Russell (as smart-mouthed mercenary Zorii Bliss). No shade to Ackie and Russell or their characters, but Rose was literally already right there.
Ultimately, watching TROS felt a lot like reading a first draft. One can almost always see the idea being reaching for, but it’s never quite grasped or realised in full. The number of unearned payoffs outnumber the earned by far too many. It seems that Abrams tried to shoot for all the stars in the sky and, frankly, succeeded at hitting dismally few of them. Perhaps a better strategy would have been to narrow the scope and focus in on key areas for the story and core characters, building depth and layers to the journey to make its final conclusion deliver the gratification that its dedicated audience seeks.