First, a seemingly controversial opinion: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a good movie. A good movie—not a good film. Films win Oscars and play festivals. Movies sell popcorn and play in multiplexes. There are films that qualify as movies and movies that qualify as films, but Rise of Skywalker is definitely a movie. That’s not meant as an insult. J.J. Abrams’ final installment of the Skywalker Saga was meant to be a wildly entertaining spacefaring allegory about the power of good to overcome evil, of light to drown out the dark. In that, it’s incredibly successful.
Does that mean everyone will like it? Absolutely fucking not. In fact, judging by its current green-splat Rotten Tomatoes score, many people don’t. That’s not surprising; it had far too many people to satisfy. It was built, by someone who knows how to make a paint-by-numbers blockbuster under the auspices of the Disney juggernaut, to win. It was clear, from the story, the characters, even the jokes, that it was an attempt please (appease?) as many folks as possible—lifelong Star Wars fans, movie critics, people who loved The Last Jedi, people who hated The Last Jedi, ReyLo shippers, the gays. Lucasfilm has built an empire out of giving the people what they want while also weathering—and deflecting—those fans’ most imprudent demands. The Rise of Skywalker is the result.
Let’s start with the plot. As audiences discover, thanks to the opening crawl’s pulpy first line—”The dead speak!”—Rise is not only picking up where The Last Jedi left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) leading the Resistance in a fight to defeat the First Order, but she’ll also be facing the Ghosts of Star Wars Past. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has retrieved a Sith Wayfinder (actual name) and located Emperor Palpatine (surprise!) in a far off corner of the galaxy. Palp promises Kylo/Ben the keys to a new kingdom known as the Final Order if he kills Rey and ends the Jedi for good. (Same as it ever ‘twas.) Kylo agrees, but has other plans—namely, to join (forgive me) forces with Rey, defeat Darth Sidious, and rule the galaxy together. Can he pull her to the Dark Side? Can she lure him to the Light? Who knows! It’s a little bit “Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen Go to King’s Landing,” except they’re not related (probably). What unspools after that is a series of quests and fake-outs leading up to one epic battle, just like every Star Wars movie that came before.
Do you sense it yet? That disturbance in the Force? Yeah, that’s the thing. Rise’s story is smart in that it brings back the one Big Bad who has loomed over the whole franchise, effectively tying this final movie to all the episodes that preceded it. Going into the movie Abrams has said he felt the pressure of not just completing the trilogy he started with The Force Awakens but also of ending the trilogy of trilogies going back to 1977’s Star Wars. You can feel that here, the onus of history. Making a movie that speaks to people who saw the very first movie in the theater in the late ’70s as well as millennials introduced to the franchise during the era of the prequels and those who just joined with Awakens is foolhardy—they’re different generations, with differing ideas of what Star Wars is. Satisfying them all would require including elements in opposition to one another. Yet it was the only option Abrams had.
In that sense, Abrams did everything right. He gave the people what they wanted. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in a posthumous performance reconstructed from old footage) is given her flowers of respect. Rey, the female heroine so many had longed for, discovers her true powers and lineage. All the droids you’re looking for are there. Rose Tico, the one whose mere presence caused “fans” to badger actress Kelly Marie Tran with racist harassment, is given too little to do. (Though, it’s hard to tell if this was done to appease the trolls or if it’s just a matter of Too Many Characters, Not Enough Time.) The counterintuitive flourishes Rian Johnson imbued into The Last Jedi, which critics loved and fans eyed skeptically, are gone. For the first time ever, Star Wars has a same-sex kiss—a perhaps too-small gesture, but still one that was erased in Dubai, even as it flew by censors in China. (Make Finn and Poe lovers, you cowards!) There are, brace yourselves, Ewoks and Lando Calrissian and trips to Tatooine and the wreckage of a Death Star. One can fault Rise of Skywalker for many things, but they cannot fault it for not playing the hits.
All that, and it still seems as though The Rise of Skywalker is not enough. The final assessment of this chapter won’t be completed for a while, but the initial reactions have been lukewarm at best. It seems as though the film has failed to meet expectations. But here’s the thing about expectations: They’re just planned disappointments. Expecting Rise to be anything other than what it turned out to be is to misunderstand the entire enterprise of Star Wars in 2019. Did anyone see anything Abrams has done in the past two decades and think the last movie in the Skywalker Saga would be the moment when he would decide to lean in to his wackier tendencies? (Anyone who thought the film’s original director, Colin Trevorrow, would do anything differently didn’t see Jurassic World.) Even if he did, Disney likely wouldn’t have released it. You don’t make $10 billion-plus in a single year without focusing on surefire crowd-pleasers. (Anyone who thinks this offends George Lucas’ original artistic vision forgets that he left the world of American Graffiti and THX 1138 to make movies about space wizards.)
It’s a shame. Because when relieved of the weight of all it was (forgive me) forced to carry, The Rise of Skywalker has its joys. Its scenes are lush, and its action scenes kick. The twists are funny and its emotional lows are effective. A person, OK me, might even say it’s a satisfying end to a series that could’ve easily ended very poorly. It leans on nostalgia without being fully stuck in the past. Does it try too hard to please everyone? Yes. Could it have been riskier? Sure. Is it at least more exciting and dramatic than watching the impeachment of President Trump? Probably. Actually, I don’t know. What I do know is this: It’s a Star Wars movie through and through, and that makes it good enough.
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