Film Review: The Rise of Skywalker is a study in wasted potential

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I usually write my reviews within a day or so of seeing a movie, but I’ve been feeling end-of-year burnout after my first full year of grad school, and I just haven’t been able to make myself sit down and write—so here I am, a week after seeing The Rise of Skywalker. But maybe it was fortuitous that I waited, because I’m having an unusual experience with this film: the more time that passes, the less I like it.

I walked out of the theater feeling emotionally satisfied even if I found the plot nonsensical and whiplash-inducing, and the dialogue almost universally awful. After all, this film hits the major beats that everyone seemed to be in agreement were necessary to end this franchise, and in broad strokes, most of what happens is predictable. The performances from the cast are transporting; the spectacle is magnificent; every other moment is a callback to something we know and love, and pulls delightfully at all our heartstrings. There’s plenty of Rey and Kylo, and I’m never going to say no to more of them.

Even as I was watching the film, though, I was baffled by certain choices made by the filmmakers that completely reverse the themes from The Last Jedi that challenged the Star Wars franchise in a really good way, opening up this world and giving it the potential for fresh and interesting stories. Yet instead, not only did we get a overstuffed nostalgia-fest of a movie that makes little sense while giving us almost zero character development, The Rise of Skywalker explicitly goes back on many of the themes established in the previous film, which was itself working from the ending of The Force Awakens that left Rian Johnson with few options if he wanted to take the story somewhere compelling. And yet he did.

But here, we have Rose Tico almost completely written out of the script while new characters are introduced in the eleventh hour; we have an out-of-nowhere reveal about one of the main characters that very much negates the idea that you don’t have to be a Skywalker to be special, that the Force is not reserved for those from a chosen lineage. I know this team had a challenge on their hands with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher and a very protracted shooting schedule, but I can’t shake the feeling that J.J. Abrams is pettily rebuking Rian Johnson for taking the story in a direction he didn’t like, and that’s… uncomfortable to witness. I get that The Last Jedi took this story in a direction that Abrams, and perhaps Disney, didn’t anticipate, but they gave Johnson the freedom to make what he wanted. The time comes when you have to put on your big girl and boy pants and accept that you can only work with the results of your own decisions to create the best possible outcome—instead of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

One of the problems that screenwriter Chris Terrio has said they had to deal with when working on this movie was that there was no villain, because Snoke was killed off in The Last Jedi, and they resurrected Palpatine to fill that role. But I submit that with a little imagination (and a different writing team), this movie could have done what its predecessor did: make a good movie with something to say about the world that also ends this trilogy of trilogies in a satisfying and thematically consistent way.

The big bad, starting with A New Hope, has always been the Empire, in whatever form it took. Instead of making the villain another decrepit, evil wizard Sith Lord, the enemy could have been the great, self-perpetuating and indiscriminately hungry maw of fascism. Kylo Ren could still have been a gray character, picking up from the tortured place we last left him. I wanted to see him struggle with the psychological burden of his bloodied hands; I wanted him to face the reality of leading a colonizing empire that uses slaves and children to populate its armies, and kills those who refuse to submit to its power. That would have given us a story that mattered, a journey toward redemption that would make sense to both the audience and to Rey, and the character development that was almost completely absent from this movie.

At a time when white supremacy and ethno-nationalism are rising around the world, one of the most culturally dominant franchises of our age could have said something important about what it really means to resist absolute power, or die fighting. Instead we got multiple McGuffins and uncomfortable lingering shots of blithely dispatched stormtroopers; flashy battles and explosions, and no meditation on the destruction of worlds. That wasted opportunity is what disappoints me most—but I suppose I’ve been expecting too much from a franchise that has always produced a white man’s vision of imperialism.

MAJOR SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

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Okay, so let’s get that birth secret out of the way first. Rey is a Palpatine?! I almost said something rude and loud in the theater when that was revealed. There is no cleverness in making your hero The Chosen One, But Evil. It’s a lazy way to recycle the same tired hero’s journey tropes while pretending you’re doing something new—and it undoes the heady, exhilarating freedom that infused the Star Wars universe in that quiet moment with the broom boy at the end of The Last Jedi. Rey could have been a one-in-a-million savant Force sensitive, and also an orphan of unknown origins. We could still have gotten that awesome-looking confrontation with Palpatine, and the horrifying choice to save her friends only by giving up her power to ultimate evil. We still could have had that incredible sequence of Rey giving Kylo the light saber and everything that came after.

It’s not just that this makes no sense, or that it undermines The Last Jedi’s entire arc. This would have been a better story if Rey had indeed decided who she was instead of discovering who she was (a claim J.J. and co. make about this film that is highly questionable), if she’d had to stand on her own feet and face her abandonment issues once and for all. (Maybe I just wanted Rey and Kylo to go to space therapy together.) And it’s a weird choice for her to help herself to the Skywalker name once everyone who might have an opinion about adopting her is dead. That made me cringe in my seat. Is denouncing one legendary name and appropriating another really the best way for her to stand on her own feet?

In seriousness, though, Rey has been searching for her place in the world since we met her, and she finally figured that out at the end of the last movie. It’s baffling to me that in this film we once again see her struggling to figure out who she is and what she wants, all conveyed in the most frustratingly vague dialogue that Daisy Ridley does her futile best to invest with meaning. I wanted to see Rey strong in her beliefs but tempted by her connection to and her empathy for Ben; I wanted to see Kylo face the fact that he’s been enthralled by his own insecurities and weaknesses this whole time, and finally face the ugliness of what he’s become. Then maybe his redemption would have felt earned and moving, and the relationship between the two of them would have made sense and gone somewhere satisfying—even if Kylo still had to die for his sins. Instead we got what we got: an inexplicable turnaround and a smooch before dying.

The cast of this film didn’t deserve the mess that they ended up having to put their names and faces to. It says a lot that the best moments of the film were the ones without dialogue: Rey and Kylo’s electric glares at each other, and the tension in their entire bodies whenever they were face-to-face; Kylo’s devil-may-care shrug in that last confrontation with the Knights of Ren; Poe’s wordless proposition, and Keri Russel’s instant rejection; Rey and Finn and Poe hugging wordlessly at the end, reveling in reunion (or perhaps glad that their contracts are finally over). The strongest feeling I’m left with is the realization that The Last Jedi was kind of a miracle given the vagaries of the Disney machine, and that it’s an even better movie than I initially believed.

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