I didn’t want to review Rise of the Skywalker right after I saw it for a number of reasons. I am, in general, pretty generous to things that I just saw and didn’t absolutely hate, with my opinion typically cooling over a twenty four hour period. Even with The Last Jedi, I came out of it feeling okay until I back to digest it.
And then the food poisoning set in.
Wisdom suggested I wait to digest Rise of the Skywalker in order to give a decent review, and I feel like that was a good call. My initial response to Rise was less than favorable– it’s disjointed, it’s strangely humdrum, there’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. But at the same time, I think it’s also trying to make the best of a bad situation, so I can’t blame it for its faults in that regard. My opinion has softened a bit over the last two weeks. It is, by no means, a great work of cinema; but is it the absolute nadir of the franchise? Not remotely. This isn’t a Phantom Menace or Last Jedi; it’s probably comparable to Attack of the Clones. The best “bad” movie of the franchise. (With Revenge of the Sith as probably the worst “good” movie.)
At the end of the day, I can’t help shake a bit of nerd-grief at the whole thing, because I feel like Rise of the Skywalker could have been excellent– if it were the trilogy. Spoilers ahead; if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve either already seen it or don’t care.
The Rise of the Skywalker Trilogy
Rise spends its entire first act not quite redoing The Last Jedi, but that’s actually our second hint that Rise should have been more than one movie. The first comes in the text crawl (What my dad calls a “quantum word filament.”).
Bringing Palpatine back has a precedent; it happened in the old EU in the Dark Empire comics, where Palpatine’s soul fled to a clone body. His return is fine, but handled poorly. It’s just thrown out as a fact, and the opening moments of the movie is a montage of Kylo Ren slaughtering his way to the foot of Palpatine’s throne. The spectacle is wasted; whatever shock we had about the Emperor’s return was spent on the trailer.
Palpatine should have returned in the end of Episode VIII, in a theoretical The Last Jedi that didn’t hate the franchise it was a part of. Rey and Kylo fight Snoke, and Snoke’s guard, and our big, “I am your father moment” for the trilogy comes when we find out that Snoke is indeed a puppet of Palpatine– as we’re told in Rise. Snoke topples over dead. A signal is triggered, by his death or some other event, and Palpatine makes his presence known. Roll credits.
Everything that is interesting in Rise of the Skywalker is sabotaged by the trilogy’s overall lack of planning. It has to do the work of two movies, wasting that first act on Episode 8.5, and that’s a shame. I’m rather fond of the Indiana Jones style-chase-the-MacGuffin adventure story, and the Sith Dagger/Sith Wayfinder hunt would have made a great episode 8. It would even have given us a decent reason for Luke to be hanging out on Ach-to; back in our theoretical TLJ, Luke isn’t hiding because of his failure, he’s investigating a rumor, or a hunch, or a Force insight that maybe the victory over the Emperor wasn’t as final as they’d hoped. Maybe Luke was even demoralized by that revelation, keeping some of the structure of TLJ intact.
No one doubts the skill of the people who have actually, physically made these films. They’re all gorgeous; they problem is that they ring hollow. There is a sort of fundamental, metaphysical emptiness to them because they are not made for the love of the franchise; they’re made with an agenda. The agenda pushes everything, shapes everything. Corrupts everything. Maybe it’s just corporate greed; maybe it’s woke pandering. Maybe it’s a Culture of Death that wants to corrupt and destroy everything possible. Even if we give JJ Abrams the benefit of the doubt with his intentions– and Rise of the Skywalker certainly suggests he wasn’t on board with TLJ’s deconstruction– he’s working on the tentpoles of a corrupted franchise.
In the end, Rise of the Skywalker falls flat for two reasons: the lack of consistency across the trilogy, and the cynical forces shaping the franchise. Say what you will about George Lucas and the prequel trilogy (and I have a LOT to say), at least it was written by a man with a vision (maybe a dumb one) who wasn’t pushing, or being pushed, by an agenda.