Endings are hard. Stories come and go, but some last for decades, powered by the way they speak to people, echoing out to the young and the old and inspiring generations to come. Closing off something of that magnitude in a satisfying way comes as one of the most difficult choices a creator or storyteller can make. With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the end comes as a harsh death, an embittered rattle of craven and story-breaking choices that makes you question if its storytellers ever knew what they were doing in the first place.
Time has passed, and a new-old enemy has resurfaced. Because power begets power, our heroes must chase down many, many leads that will inevitably get them to face this new-old enemy, but by the time they can get there, the power couplings on this space cruiser have long been decoupled. The slog of going from one place to the next, getting caught, escaping, and then going on to the next place, which is then rinsed and repeated, can be riveting if there is emotion to tie it all behind.
Instead, it’s tied to closing out a loop that’s already been closed: a big secret that’s already been answered. It doesn’t come as a shock or as a surprise; rather, it comes as a rolling of the eyes, another chance of opening up the world blown out for a manner of tying everyone together. Some of the story decisions made are chaotic at best, where two movies worth of story are crammed into one throughline that already has too much to accomplish. Because there’s so much of it, moments don’t get enough time to land before the classic Star Wars wipes are on to the next thing.
We get plenty of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo, but it’s in service of fulfilling one character’s purpose rather than serving them all. In doing so, none end up working, leaving a large question of why so much time is spent fetching MacGuffins instead of giving a chance to characters that need a lot more to stand out from the shadow. The core cast is still bright and shiny, but they are held back by the laborious and lumbering story. They become lost in their own story, because things need to happen, whether they like it or not.
It all ends up feeling like filling in checkboxes, completing tasks that cheapen the overall experience in the name of telling you why you love Star Wars, rather than showing us why. Why are certain characters appearing? Because it’s the end, of course! Why is this person appearing now, even though they are dead and should not have Force Ghost powers? Don’t ask, but it’s happening now, so just accept it! The callbacks are supposed to affect you to make the medicine go down, but in the end, all it does is cause nostalgia to backfire.
There are moments of dual sunlight, however. The practical effects and costumes are still top notch among the chaotic grey and blue CG; the John Williams score cresting the peaks of his best work and playfully bringing back old themes as though they haunt particular, familiar sets; and some new characters are fun, exciting additions (Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss a wonderful new player). Plus, Billy Dee Williams graces the screen again, bringing so much warmth and goodness to the movie that it’s like a beacon of hope.
But they all become lost in a sea of noise and maximum size: that is to say, to go as big as possible, and all else will be forgiven (at least, that appears to be the intention). Going big lessens the emotional impact, so while there are more ships and explosions on screen than ever before, it’s hard to care when it’s lost in a sea of baffling story and character decisions, and great moments are drowned out by cramming exposition into every empty corner of the frame.
This is all a long way of saying the movie simply doesn’t work. Given the chance, pieces of this movie could work, certainly; but it’s bogged down by the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, where even the sink and the building the sink came from is thrown in there. It’s overwhelming, not in the sense of causing a draining factor from the emotion it causes; it’s overwhelming how off it all feels. It’s Star Wars by name, but distant and cold.
The Last Jedi (2017) is a reminder that hope comes in the most surprising of places, and that doing the impossible is possible once failure is learned from. The Rise of Skywalker makes sure that hope comes from what we already know, and that failure must be learned a few more times before the impossible is possible. We’ve been here before, but it doesn’t have the same impact. This is a real shame.