2 out of 5
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
As I like to preface these things: I don’t think I have a bias for or against the Star Wars Universe and movies. The furor over the new generation of movies has been interesting to some degree, and also rather disgusting, but I still don’t believe its overly swayed my take. I watched the original movies a heckuva a lot on cable / VHS when growing up, but also never felt any especial affectation for them beyond familiarity. In the movie’s favor, I tend to like J.J. Abrams. I wouldn’t say he often makes movies of much depth, but he’s been involved with and made things I enjoy; I think he is good at spectacle, with enough scriptly grounding that it doesn’t become faceless.
…But, The Rise of Skywalker is very, very faceless. Unfortunately, this isn’t due to the movie going overboard with blockbuster sensation, which can at least result in some kind of visual overload (e.g. Michael Bay), rather that almost the entirety of the movie seems to move and function without much soul. Marvel movies, and now Star Wars flicks, and these kind of billion dollar “epics” in general are, for better or worse, generally predictable in the structure and patter, but there can be flavor and a degree of nuance to make things feel, at least, like their own movies, just with a lot of connective stuff somewhat “by design.” Skywalker doesn’t benefit from this, despite being skillfully constructed and with a main cast that’s certainly warmed up to their characters at this point – near every line of dialogue and every shot feels like its been procedurally generated. Despite the poor reception the movie got, I sincerely wasn’t expecting this to such a degree; I was pretty much completely disengaged with the film for the majority of its runtime, shuffled from setpiece to setpiece and one-liner to one-liner and meaningful glance to meaningful glance and so on. Character actions / motivations seem wholly swept up in whatever’s necessary to move us to that next setpiece (or cameo, in this case); Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) trudge toward defeating the Dark Side is constructed of the most obnoxious of video game tropes: one fetch quest after another, with “your princess is in another castle” messages at the end of each. Her up-and-down tumult between siding with or against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is also of a video gamey style, churning us through floaty action and then giving us a “cut scene” that just sets the next stage.
Even my affinity for Abrams’ direction takes a hit, as he vastly tones down his style for something I think he felt was slightly more “classic” – more static and stagnant in this case – perhaps in trying to play it safer with fandom, but robbing the movie of any sense of personality as a result. There were two moments that briefly stuck out as inspired in the movie – when I suddenly got a twinge of excitement; or this being an “event” – one on a ship; another some parts of the climactic battle featuring Rey and some unmentioned others – and both of those moments, I think, were helped by environments that felt unique to the series. So there wasn’t some precedent to latch on to, and there’s an uptick in quality as a result.
There are lots of plotty foolishnesses and illogics that could be plucked apart, but I think those exist in almost all of these big budget films, and it’s more a matter of how successful the movie is at distracting me from their existence. Which is to say: not so successful in this case. I do think Ridley and Driver and the other leads – John Boyega, Oscar Isaac – gave their all to a very surface script, and despite how much I’m criticizing the lack of impact and emotion of the film, it is professionally made, i.e. I think it looks the way Abrams wanted it to.
However, I’m happy we’re at the end of this modern “trilogy,” and that this has, perhaps, cleared away our expectations for what Star Wars should look like in today’s cinema landscape, meaning the next movie’s – maybe, hopefully – have an opportunity to start fresh, and without machine-learning algorithms constructing the script and shot list.