The first half of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn’t good, and the second half isn’t bad. After eleven films, the only fuel left in the series’s tank is sheer nostalgia, but at least Episode IX doesn’t go out of its way to irritate the audience, the way The Last Jedi did. I left the theater with a hearty shrug and a strong sense that the film’s director, J. J. Abrams, is the Ford Motor Company of filmmakers — a titan of mediocrity, an avatar of averageness, a guardian of the garden-variety. If he is a defining artist of our time — and I’m not saying he isn’t! — I guess this ain’t exactly the Renaissance.
Via the opening crawl — “THE DEAD SPEAK!” — we learn that our late pal Emperor Palpatine, or someone acting in his name, is calling in attacks on the rebels from a hidden planet. Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) resolves to track him down and destroy him to show who’s boss. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is, by the way, called “The Phantom Emperor,” which would have been a far cooler title for this movie than the one actually used (and also would have made more sense). His orders are, naturally, “Kill the girl.” That would be Rey (Daisy Ridley), the only good person left in the saga who wields the Force. Along with flyboy pals Poe (Oscar Isaacs) and Finn (John Boyega), she resolves to track down and terminate the emperor again, because every film in this series has to recycle previous plot points. Later in the show, when we learn more about Rey’s murky ancestry, there’s a scene that replays a scene from an earlier movie, which in turn was itself a replay of a scene from an even earlier movie. Then there’s the most notable replay of all: Carrie Fisher makes a prominent appearance despite having died three years ago, before this film started shooting, via unused footage shot for The Force Awakens years ago.
Kudos to Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio for making Poe less aggressively smarmy than he was last time around, and for their relatively streamlined plot with fewer dull tertiary characters lumbering around. There are no bizarre side trips to Planet Vegas this time, and no subplots based on parking violations. Yet as a group the new generation of characters are a bore; the villainous General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is Space Opie, Finn and Poe’s wisecracks are neither wise nor crackling, and Ridley continues to demonstrate only about three facial expressions (Blue Steel I, II, and III). But that’s all she needs in her grind-it-out role as a strong, fierce, brilliant, kickass space-lady. Someone needs to remind (male) screenwriters that a) it’s flaws that make people interesting, and b) women have them too.
Plot developments depend heavily on coincidence and dumb luck, as our heroes keep bumping into clues that lead them ever closer to a tracking device that will point the way to the emperor’s secret lair. At one point they just fall into a cave where they come across a dagger whose edge is covered with runes that describe where the tracking gizmo is hidden. Later when we get a glimpse of the ruins of the Death Star (which is kind of cool), another clue turns out to depend on randomly stumbling across this sight from exactly the right angle. One major plot twist is essentially a rehash; another is just dumb.
I’m not sure whether it’s panic or an adolescent attention span that makes Abrams do this, but he has an uncontrollable need to throw in random meaningless action scenes every ten minutes to make sure we’re entertained — fights and chases of no consequence whatsoever. Stormtroopers come after the rebel fighters, this time with a new skill: “They can fly?” someone marvels. Yes, they can fly. Like clay pigeons. They remain the most inept and killable group of soldiers since the Austro-Hungarian army. The armor they wear protects them from nothing, not even arrows. If they were trying to get shot by blasters, they wouldn’t have to do much of anything differently. After eleven movies of watching them serve as so many blades of grass to the weed-whackers, there’s not a lot of suspense in watching them shuffle around ineffectually a few more times. Moreover, Rey’s powers in channeling the Force are now so vast they’re a little absurd. She can blow up flying ships now? Really?
In the last hour, things do pick up a bit. Abrams continues the habit developed in The Last Jedi of having Kylo Ren and Rey mind-Skype each other, and it’s just as clunky a device this time around. When they finally arrange to be on the same planet together, though, they finally give the movie a little emotional pull, and there are a couple of strong scenes built around familiar figures. As the rebels join up to be massively outgunned by the First Order in the climactic battle, you can probably guess most of what’s going to happen if you’ve seen any previous Star Wars movie. But Abrams wraps things up without embarrassing himself. I had the sense that he just wanted to get this chapter of his life over and move on. Guess what? So did I. So does everyone. After five movies in four years, it’s time to freeze this franchise in carbonite for a while.
National Review Institute (NRI) is the nonprofit 501(c)(3) journalistic think tank that supports the NR mission and 14 NRI fellows (including this author!), allowing them to do what they do best: Advance principled and practical conservative journalism. NRI is currently in the midst of its End-of-Year Fund Appeal and seeks to raise over $200,000 to support the work of the NRI fellows. Please consider giving a generous end-of-year tax-deductible contribution to NRI. Your gift, along with all those from the NR Nation, will provide the essential fuel for our mission to defend those consequential principles for which National Review has fought since 1955, and for which, with your support, it will carry the fight far into the future. Thank you for your consideration.