Four years ago, when J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens broke box office records, all it truly had to do was recapture the general grandeur of Star Wars for a new audience without pissing off the old one too much. Two years later, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi furthered the first aim, but failed spectacularly at the second, splitting audiences virulently along opposing lines about the film’s controversial creative direction. Now, Abrams returns (taking Colin Trevorrow’s place) to right the ship and pray for a smooth landing for this nine-film, decades-spanning epic. The results, however, are beside the point.

Whether or not The Rise of Skywalker is actually a good movie feels like a less important argument than understanding what the metric for that classification even is anymore. In the years Star Wars was dormant, the Expanded Universe of comics, books and video game tie-ins extrapolated the world of George Lucas’ first trilogy into a varied, lush breeding ground for genre exploration. In that time, fans took the childlike wonder they felt at the first films and imbued it into new stories, exhaustively filling in the blanks of every space not explicitly explained by Lucas and his collaborators.

But this mindset clashes irrevocably with the way Disney has gone about making Star Wars films since purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012. The studio is great at weaponizing nostalgia, obviously, but with the Marvel brand, Kevin Feige has 50 years of established stories from which to adapt new films. With Star Wars, they’re starting from scratch and have largely been flying blind. It means that the heights of the new trilogy and the standalone films are higher than some of the MCU’s homogeneity, but when things don’t land, they crash hard.

The Last Jedi’s approach left many dissatisfied, and for its part, Abrams and cowriter Chris Terrio attempt to course-correct those major elements. If people were frustrated that the film’s three leads, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) spent too much time apart, here they are together. Constantly. Displaying an unearned kind of camaraderie that only works off the strengths of its performers. Johnson wrote too many plot threads that ultimately weren’t essential to the completion of the narrative? Here, Abrams and Terrio have densely plotted their sequel with multiple MacGuffins and extreme fetch-quest mechanics so every scene feels necessary.

The downside to that is every few scenes feel identical, with our heroes going from Stars Wars Planet to Star Wars Planet to interchangeable First Order ship. Abrams’ approach, once again, is to recapture what feels like Star Wars more than it is to create a compelling story on its own. The action is less legible than in the last outing, and none of the set pieces have the same verve as TLJ, but that’s not to say the characters we’ve come to enjoy aren’t pleasant to spend time with, or that the grandeur alone isn’t enough to hold the average viewer’s attention.

But nothing here feels daring. The actual logistics of bringing Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine back as the main villain are completely hand-waved and pushed so hard that they have to be accepted, even if neither of the two films that precede this one so much as seeded his return. Thankfully, his performance is still suitably horrific and the set pieces that prominently feature his presence do have a unique vibe, even if the entire third act built around him gives off heavy The Matrix Revolutions energy.

Rose Tico, the character Kelly Marie Tran brought to such vivid life in the last film, is relegated to background status, getting roughly the same screen time as Greg Grunberg’s Snap Wexley and an unnamed Rebel played by Dominic Monaghan. (Also, this is the nitpick of all nitpicks, but Disney told Carrie Fisher to lose weight to come back as Leia in the last two films, but fucking Greg Grunberg’s chunky ass gets this oversized cameo piece with no body shaming attached?)

Speaking of Carrie Fisher, Leia is still in this movie, despite Fisher’s untimely death. Her major spotlight was deferred to the third film to give Han and Luke their epic conclusions in the other two films, so her expected presence here is cobbled together from outtakes and unused footage in a way that would be clever if it meant anything at all. The work done to keep her around in the plot long enough to “sort of” matter stretches the upper limits of movie magic.

This brings us to the real issue with The Rise of Skywalker. It feels like a patchwork quilt. It’s nearly impossible to feel immersed in the world when the puppet master’s hands are so visible, and the strings haven’t been hidden from view. This is a movie made purely from damage control and trying to sew up a giant tapestry of film, the last few chapters of which were, by design, not connected or in proper communication with one another. Even the kind of viewer who doesn’t spend all their time arguing about movies on Twitter and reading articles on the Playlist will have a sense of the backstage turmoil in these productions, and that’s a major failing.

Disney+ has proven to us all with “The Mandalorian” that the majority of Star Wars fans really just need intermittent dopamine hits of their specific nostalgia flavor to numb the pain of living in modern capitalist society. The Skywalker saga coming to a semi-satisfying end means Disney can move on with the real work now, picking the bones of whatever ephemera we comfortably identify as being “Star Wars” and repackaging it carefully so as to 1) sell Funko Pops and 2) try not to piss off anybody.

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One Comment

  1. Jhon

    December 21, 2019 at 4:42 am

    “ . . . Numb the pain of living in a capitalist society”? Where did that COME FROM? You lost me lamenting the relative invisibility of “Rose Tico” who was PC-shoehorned in from the second she was ever imagined, but without “the pain of living in a capitalist society”, Star Wars movies (or a job telling people if they’re good or not) wouldn’t exist . . . Politics poisons everything. It’s sad too because you used a few 10 dollar words I don’t see every day.

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