The ninth and concluding film in the set of trilogies that began some four decades ago with A New Hope(1977), best exemplifies why recycling old tropes in stellar CGI and prioritizing fan service over original and ingenious storytelling, is generally a bad idea. But given that mediocrity is Hollywood’s new norm, it shouldn’t come off as that much a surprise. For starters, J.J. Abrams doesn’t pick up where The Last Jedi (2017) ended. Instead, it very painfully and ridiculously, tries to undo whatever Rian Johnson had accomplished, replacing nuance with mawkish nostalgia. For one, Johnson warned us about the danger of thinking in absolutes, of the possible pitfalls of thinking in only Jedi/good-Sith/bad binaries, such as the fact that cocky Resistance pilot Poe’s mutiny wasn’t really a good idea or that Ben Solo’s transformation into Kylo Ren had a darker history that we weren’t aware of.
The Last Jedi was indeed controversial and divisive, and Abrams now in a bid to pacify every sect in the Star Wars fandom played it so safe, that it has ended up disappointing nearly everyone, all for different reasons. What we have this Christmas is a Disney film that is insincere, hastily-packaged and riddled with more plot holes than stars in the galaxy. The Rise Of Skywalker lacks a cohesive plot. We learn that Palpatine who was last seen chopped to pieces, has mysteriously survived, owns a body and has been controlling Snoke and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo all along. He enlists Ren’s help to capture Rey, so that he can murder her. When the Resistance receives news that Palpatine has returned to power, Rey who still hasn’t completed her Jedi training, decides to seek Palpatine out herself, aided by Finn, Poe, Chewbacca and the droids, following the trail of ancient clues and artifacts, even as Ren hunts her in a cat-and-mouse chase across planets, all the while exchanging intense and brooding looks.
The plot is shoddy and as the film progresses, becomes even more illogical. With Palpatine restored to his status as the Big Bad, the writers seemed unsure as what to do with Kylo Ren, who was introduced as the primary villain in The Force Awakens(2015). As the leader of the fascist First Order, Ren does not spend much time wiping out the rest of the Resistance, but instead searches all of the galaxies for Rey, whom he hopes will turn to the dark side. But after being mortally wounded and immediately healed by Rey, he has an epiphanic encounter (a tender Harrison Ford cameo) that prompts a change of heart. But his redemption arc, which is rushed and sloppily written, comes at the cost of nearly everything else, particularly the supporting characters. For instance, the character of Rose who played a major role in the last film barely gets any screen time- a clear nod to the racist and sexist fans who bullied the actress playing her (Kelly Marie Tran) into quitting Instagram. And while the other two male leads- Finn and Poe- have interesting on-screen chemistry, they are both tokenistically paired off with women they encounter on random planets. Poe meets and behaves crudely with an ex-girlfriend (whose face is hidden for the most part) he had abandoned, but who still helps him, and Finn is smitten with another an ex-Stormtrooper Jannah, bonding with her over their shared trauma of being enslaved, who also immediately helps him.
If the forced heteronormativity wasn’t a problem, there’s also the bit where Rey and the gang wander around a colorful planet that appears as an exoticized depiction of India and that the character of Babu Frik who wipes off C3PO’s memory sits uncomfortably as a racist Chinese caricature (which were probably unintended side-effects of Hollywood’s cursory attempts at being culturally diverse). The blink-and-you-miss-it lesbian kiss at the end probably went unnoticed by most viewers, who had their eyes only for the main stars, who apart from Rey and Kylo Ren, seemed clueless and directionless for the most part, because the script did not allow them to do anything other than bicker with each other and pilot vehicles from one hostile planet to the next. It is also painfully evident that Leia Organa’s sparse appearance is a result of recycling limited old footage.
And Rey, the stand-in for next generation’s Luke Skywalker, has devolved to become a textbook definition of a Mary Sue at least for the first half of the film, where she is seemingly all-powerful, performs a variety of cool stunts and can do impossible things with the Force- all of which after a while, appear convenient and contrived because the operative rules and limitations of the magic system are never explained.
In fact, it is disconcerting how the film frivolously plays with serious and relevant themes. Rey momentarily forgets herself and accidentally destroys an enemy transporter, seemingly killing Chewbacca in it- but she doesn’t have to face the consequences of her act because Chewbacca is revealed to be on a different transport all along. In another moment of desperation, the crew decides to erase C3PO’s memory (albeit with his grudging consent) to gain a vital clue, an act of mental invasion that eerily parodies the interrogation scene in The Force Awakens, but whose implications are laughably dismissed as R2D2 restores his memory a few scenes later.
But what Abrams fails most at, is the way he revisits and undoes everything that The Last Jedi did. The latter reminded us that you do not need to be blue-blooded to manifest the Force and that the orphaned “nobody” Rey, from the desert(ed) planet of Jakku, too had a place in the story and did not need anyone else to define her identity against. But Abrams retcons all of it with the big reveal that Rey is in fact Palpatine’s granddaughter and her taking on the “Skywalker” title at the very end, is thus cringey and reinforces the idea of elitist power hierarchies, instead of dismantling them.
In fact, the entire Palpatine sequence is confusing and underwhelming, with Palpatine changing his motivations from wanting Rey dead to wanting Rey to kill him instead, and finally settling on draining the Force out of Rey and Ren. The final fight lacks the poetic choreography of the battle with the Pretorian guards in the last film, and Palpatine’s spooky lightning powers wouldn’t have been out of place had it been in a Harry Potter film or at least a decade earlier. We’re also hurriedly introduced to the concept of the Force “Dyad” whose rules are never precisely explained, although it allows Ren to be turned into a plot-device to bring Rey back from the dead, while simultaneously dying and redeeming himself apparently. In fact, it’s this decision that probably stung the most, because as a redemptive death, it doesn’t allow Ren to be accountable for his criminal actions (and with Palpatine revealed to be pulling the strings all along, to what extent he was abused, gaslit and groomed by Snoke and to what degree he was complicit in the crimes as the leader of the First Order, become difficult to separate) and as a tragic romance, it fails utterly, as the duo barely get time to reciprocate their affections or recognize each other as they truly are.
The last two films in fact, hinge more on Ren being an abused and misunderstood anti-hero of sorts (a line of characterization that has drawn its justified share of criticism, because pop culture’s penchant of romanticizing good-looking white cis-male psychopaths is dangerous and problematic) but never addresses his “villainy” (or lack thereof) directly, because the makers lazily and conveniently have Snoke and Palpatine play those roles instead. The point is, Ben Solo doesn’t die a villain or as a misunderstood anti-hero, but ironically enough, as a hero, sacrificing his life out of his love for Rey, an act that is barely noted or remembered by the rest of the cast. And Rey despite being briefly reunited with her friends is isolated and alone against the sunset of Tatooine, at the end of the film. Disney, noted for its happily-ever-afters, despite getting a chance to, does not explore how cycles of abuse and violence can in fact be broken, but instead leaves the audience with a rather nihilistic message, that for the abused and the isolated, there’s probably not enough Force (or hope) in the entire galaxy to save them.
However, this isn’t to say that the film is unwatchable. On the contrary, it is engrossing and moves at a break-neck speed, and the cast (particularly Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, but also everyone else) have done their utmost best to compensate for a lackluster and unoriginal script. The scenes with Rey and Ren easily have the most magnetism, and it is worth noting that despite not being allowed a single line of dialogue after Ben Solo’s redemption, Adam Driver channels the complexity of his character with sheer body language alone. And while it is a disappointing end to the Skywalker saga, it is by no means the worst the Star Wars film ever made. It has its moments and it is entertaining and enjoyable in parts.
And so, if you watch it with low expectations, you won’t have that bad a time, although you will probably walk out of the theatres with the feeling that the characters did in fact, deserve better and that there’s always fanfiction to fix the job.