Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Review: The Rise of MacGuffins

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Co-writer and director J.J. Abrams launched the newest trilogy of Star Wars movies with 2015’s The Force Awakens. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s challenging (and somehow controversial) second entry, The Last Jedi, indicated a shift in priorities for the franchise. In The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams returns to bookend the trilogy and nullify Johnson’s efforts to advance the canon.

Without spoiling the movie’s central reveal, which is dropped during the opening crawl like Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber down an air shaft in Cloud City, here is a synopsis:

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Supreme Leader of the First Order, seeks a Sith wayfinder on the planet Mustafar. Upon discovering one of two known wayfinders in the galaxy, Kylo Ren uses the device to make his way to a hidden destination. Resistance fighters Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and their droid friends must spring into action to track down the other and take on Kylo Ren and the First Order.

That’s not so much a plot summary as a summary of The Rise of Skywalker’s opening 20 minutes. Abrams and fellow co-writer Chris Terrio chew through more plot in The Rise of Skywalker’s two-hour and 22-minute runtime than most television shows manage in an entire season. 

Saying The Rise of Skywalker contains too much plot is like saying Chewbacca is a small, brown dog who barks a lot. It’s an understatement and not wholly accurate. The story is closer in scale to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, a 20-hour video game, than A New Hope. Each quest to find a MacGuffin leads to another MacGuffin. It’s Who’s on First? for obscure Sith memorabilia.

The film introduces scene-stealing mechanic Babu Frik (Shirley Henderson) and adorably relatable droid D-O (Abrams), but instead of developing the new characters, it allows C-3PO to suck the air out of the room in the name of nostalgia. Keri Russell, helmeted for the duration of the movie, plays a small part as Zorii Bliss, one of Poe’s old flames. Covering Russell’s face is a disservice to her acting chops, but her inclusion seems like a deliberate corporate choice; with her introduction, Disney snuffs out any potential on-screen relationship between Finn and Poe. Notable LGBTQ+ representation in the Star Wars universe will have to wait until next decade.

Thanks to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Sean Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Disney stumbled upon a dependably funny and niche brand of meta-humor. Apart from the aforementioned Babu Frik and D-O, The Rise of Skywalker’s comedic beats fall flat. Additional hallmarks of Kevin Feige’s Marvel franchise, like the intricately outlined narrative and unified, coherent vision, are also absent here.

Excessive planning can contribute to artificial and contrived stories, but no planning is madness. A trip to the grocery store without a shopping list. A wedding without invitations. A Super Bowl party without food. All of that, on a billion-dollar scale. The result is backtracking and retconning at a breakneck pace. Without a Thanos to aim for, it’s a baseball thrown into the neighbor’s yard. And not the fun kind seen in The Sandlot.

The Rise of Skywalker treks ahead without forethought, often deriding the canonical decisions of its predecessor. Intentionally or otherwise, Disney rubber stamps Abrams’s jabs at The Last Jedi. Johnson, like several others who worked on The Last Jedi, received undue vitriol from a vocal minority of the online fan community. To hear those words parroted in a film released by a multinational corporation is uncomfortable. Disney, siding with Angry Online Men in the name of profit, is distressing.

Incoherent story aside, The Rise of Skywalker isn’t much of an action movie. Abrams ushers (Force) lightning-fast cuts into a galaxy far, far away. The Star Wars camera traditionally lingers between characters and scenes, but three- and four-second cuts are routine in Episode IX. It’s a decision made to exhaust its Jack Torrance-length script.

Setpieces, blocking, and cinematography, which separated The Last Jedi from the other seven main story entries are undistinguished in The RIse of Skywalker. There is no setpiece equal (or close to) the Snoke throne room duel or stunning Holdo maneuver. A rain-deluged lightsaber battle between Rey and Professional Sad Boy Kylo Ren is the film’s lone memorable action sequence.

If unadulterated nostalgia was the formula for this movie and the trilogy at large, Abrams succeeded. A risk-averse, wistful reminder of 40-year-old characters is a belittling approach to celebrate the franchise that birthed them. The Rise of Skywalker fully embraces this cynical way to create art. A fan-favorite character is “killed” only to be resurrected by sleight of hand trickery five minutes later. This deception is emblematic of The Rise of Skywalker’s lack of emotional stakes and narrative clarity.

With the release of The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars franchise has completed its third movie trilogy. Even compared to the dreaded prequel trilogy’s (criminally underrated) Revenge of the Sith and the much-maligned Return of the Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker is a discouraging and ineffective conclusion.