Here are two opinions that I hold very strongly, one you’re likely to agree with and one you may not. First, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is the best movie in the Star Wars franchise and it isn’t even close. Opinion 2: The Empire Strikes Back is the movie that ruined Star Wars. Not by anything the movie does directly, but because of what it’s legacy inspired. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
While this a review of the presumably concluding chapter of cinema’s most celebrated saga, it is almost impossible to examine without talking about the two chapters that precede this film. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi represent controversial strategies in storytelling and moviemaking. To put it clearly, if you dislike The Rise of Skywalker than it is likely due to systemic issues in Hollywood that were perpetrated by the previous two films to varying degrees of success and fan approval.
Rey, Finn, and Poe are all back and they finally feel comfortable in the roles in the story they’re meant to undertake. Oscar Isaac is a lot of fun as the roguish Poe, while he basically argues with everyone he comes across from Rey and Finn to old flames. Finn (John Boyega) doesn’t come off nearly as goofy as he did in the previous films, but he still infuses the trio with personality. Daisy Ridley doesn’t quite nail the bickering/humorous scenes very well, but Rey’s emotional journey is her most trying yet and Ridley is more than up for the task. Once again, Rey is haunted by the truth behind her parentage, while headed towards a collision course with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and a returning Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid). Speaking of Driver, he remains the best actor in this trilogy in what is turning out to be a career year for him. His character arc takes turns that are hard to sell, but Driver is so talented that you believe it even when you’re questioning the writing.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t broach the topic of Princess Leia. The late Carrie Fisher is present here through deleted scenes from The Force Awakens, actor doubles, and CGI trickery. Yet her scenes are off for obvious reasons. We understand that there’s not much Disney can do given the circumstances. Yet, Leia doesn’t at all feel like a person here; more like a stock character in a video game cut scene, replete with canned lines. Every line of dialogue from her is so broad that it could apply to a million different situations. Even so, the filmmakers manage to scrap together a touching exit for the Princess turned General.
The touching scenes involving Fisher are in stark contrast to the film’s blistering pace. This is Star Wars set to the key of James Bond. This precedent is all kicked off by how quickly the premise is set up: Empereror Palpatine is back due to, well, plot contrivances. But his return leads to fun adventures for our main trio, as they capture MacGuffins that will lead to the pale bastard’s location. But Palpatine’s return is troubling, both for what it means for the film’s creativity and what it means for Rey. This is the great disappointment of JJ Abrams’ two Star Wars films. They just feel like remixes of prior films but leaving a faaar lesser impression (name me one memorable moment during the dog fight on Starkiller Base, I dare you).
However, it’s easy to see how we got here, dating all the way back to the original Star Wars (1977). George Lucas and his team’s stroke of genius was to curate Star Wars with every nostalgic image, sound, note, and character archetype you can imagine to create the most rapturous crowd pleaser ever conceived. The original Star Wars is essentially Everything You Love About Movies: The Movie. A film so expertly crafted, not necessarily in ideas but in evoking a feeling from the audience. The cinematography, score, sound effects, and framing combine to maximize the medium’s potential to inspire empathy and excitement. When you hear John Williams’ score today, you’re instantly reminded of those feelings of joy and bittersweet sorrow.
Disney is aware of the original films’ power, but are struggling to string audiences along for a new tale beyond the initial sales pitch. The new films are still playing the same game as the original, but audiences know all the notes to the song now, so they pay more attention to the lyrics. The new trilogy is a meta-story about nostalgia, but it’s proclivity to simply replicate plot points from the original trilogy seems ill-advised. To be fair, there is a way to craft a tale explicitly about nostalgia, but the new trilogy is so surface level and shallow that it becomes apparent that there’s nothing poetic or insightful it has to say about our relationship with the past. The trilogy’s main idea of “isn’t it craaazy how history repeats itself?” is less a thoughtful thesis and is more accurately, just like Lucas’ mantra “it’s like poetry, it rhymes”, just a cover for the real reason these films repeat ideas – a reliance on rehashing what has worked before.
Palpatine is the literal manifestation of not only the lack of originality of new Star Wars, but Hollywood at large. That as filmmaking techniques, cinematography, CGI, lighting, blocking, set design, and stunt work have evolved, the screenplays for our blockbuster films have remained stunted, with rare exceptions. As a result, our on-screen characters end up fighting literally the same battles that their predecessors fought, instead of progressing the conflict to a new plateau.
This is exemplified in The Rise of Skywalker – these movies have never looked better. The set design is phenomenal, the visual effects gloriously blended. The staging and camera movements are excellent, while the lightsaber fights are as good as they’ve been since Episode 1’s “Duel of Fates.” The set pieces (from a gothic opening to a battle amidst the tidal wave) are completely immersive. Yet, the story largely lets the air out of the balloon. The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film for a variety of reasons, but the most famous reason is it’s dark third act turn. During said act, we learn something that not only changes what we thought we knew before, but fundamentally changes what the story we’re being told is actually about. And it all works for one key reason – you weren’t expecting it.
But nearly every Star Wars film since has desperately wanted a moment like that, and audiences want to feel something like that again. When everyone is expecting something shocking to happen, it won’t land. As a result, we get the forced sibling reveal in Return of the Jedi (1983). We get a prequel trilogy that shrinks the galaxy, to the point that I’m surprised Lando Calrissian wasn’t Queen Amidala’s landlord. And we have a sequel trilogy obsessed with familial bonds and how they can be hidden to be revealed later. Say what you will about Rian Johnson, but at least he understood that the structure of Star Wars films needed a revamp in the hopes that the franchise will feel fresh again. Where The Last Jedi stumbled is in conflating structural evolution with it’s heavily debated perspective of the characters’ motivations. But The Rise of Skywalker feels like a regression. There are many moments towards the end that seem like great ideas on paper, including the final scene, but the haphazard plotting limits the emotional connection. The amount of monologuing and exposition makes the film come off as a bad anime series. At one point, Poe practically looks at the camera to opine “OH MY GOD WE’RE SO OUTNUMBERED, HOW WILL WE POSSIBLY GET OUT OF THIS SITUATION?!” Even McDiarmid, the best performer in the franchise’s history, is struggling to make the film’s ham-fisted, dialogue-for-the-blind storytelling work.
That is how this story concludes – a fun, but exhausting mess. But it’s bittersweet. We say goodbye to the new characters just as we were getting familiar with them. There’s also a somberness surrounding the entire film, largely due to the absence of the original trilogy’s heroes. When we do get cameos of Leia and Lando (Billy Dee Williams), the nostalgia is effective. Mark Hamil is excellent in his brief reprisal of Luke Skywalker, and his character feels like it has appropriately come full circle. Disney will continue making Star Wars movies, and all we can do is hope that the franchise comes full circle on it’s past struggles.
There is one insightful idea the sequel trilogy had. In The Last Jedi, Yoda imparts onto Luke the wisdom that failure is a lesson to be learned from, not an event to hide in shame from. Likewise, we can learn from this new trilogy how we can improve our ability to write new chapters of old stories. Relationships with the past can be healthy, but you have to grow and evolve in order to take the past with you into the future. That’s not a lesson for the audience, that’s for the people behind the camera.