Spoilers for literally all of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to follow.
The first sign of trouble for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker comes with the first sentence of the opening crawl: "The dead speak!"
This is basically a thesis statement for Rise of Skywalker, which is so, so much more interested in the franchise's past than its future. In the most baffling opening text since The Phantom Menace began with a sentence on the taxation of trade routes, we’re told that the voice of Emperor Palpatine—who died all the way back in 1983’s Return of the Jedi—has been heard broadcasting "a threat of revenge" across the galaxy. It sounds like the Dark Side version of a podcast.
Even then, I held out a little hope. J.J. Abrams is as much a merry trickster as he is a film director, and he loves his little twists. The "return" of Palpatine could easily turn out to be some clever scheme by some unknown villain, who hopes gain power by drafting on the reputation of the terrifying emperor.
And then, just a minute or two later, Kylo Ren comes face-to-face with Emperor Palpatine himself—very much alive, thank you—and Rise of Skywalker starts digging a hole it never finds a way to climb out from.
If you remember 2017’s The Last Jedi, the previous movie in this trilogy, you might have had some different ideas about how Episode IX might go. The Last Jedi ended with several franchise-altering twists: the possibility that there might be a middle ground between the Light and Dark sides of the Force, or the promise of a generation of young Jedi whose names weren’t Kenobi or Skywalker.
Forget all that. Rise of Skywalker has no interest in it. Instead, J.J. Abrams has turned in a Star Wars movie that is only surprising in how unsurprising it is. Because yes: Emperor Palpatine really is alive, and it only takes a couple of minutes for him to win Kylo Ren to his cause. How did Palpatine survive his apparent death at the end of Return of the Jedi? Don’t worry about it. Has he really just been sitting around on a never-before-mentioned Sith planet this whole time, telling Snoke what to do and waiting until… I don’t know, until he remembers radio exists? Apparently.
In the meantime, Palpatine has also managed to assemble his own army, complete with what looks like thousands of Star Destroyers. Each of those Destoyers is, somehow, equipped with a Death Star-style cannon powerful enough to destroy a planet. That’s just the start of the many half-explained geegaws that will drive the plot forward, as a Sith dagger leads to a Sith wayfinder leads to a bunch of bullshit that leads to Emperor Palpatine’s big goofy chair.
This is as good a time as any to address the biggest and dumbest retcon in Rise of Skywalker: The question of Rey’s lineage. The subject was hotly contested at the release of The Force Awakens, and the odds-on favorites were that Rey was either a Skywalker or a Kenobi. The Last Jedi found a clever way to zigzag around all the fan theories: The mysteriously orphaned Rey really was a nobody, whose parents were random scumbags who sold her off for a quick fix.
That was clearly intended to be the final answer, and it should have stayed that way—but having originally raised the question in The Force Awakens, Abrams couldn’t resist mucking around with the answer. So it’s soon revealed that Rey’s grandfather is actually Emperor Palpatine, and that her "scumbag" parents were actually a noble, loving couple who rejected Palpatine and abandoned Rey to protect her. (If you want to learn about Palpatine’s family, I’m sure a canonical tie-in novel about his wife or his son or whatever is already on the way.) Rey’s proficiency with the Force wasn’t a fluke after all; it was in her blood all along. Her midichlorian count is probably off the charts! Everybody loved midichlorians, right?
Fine, you might say. Rey is a Palpatine, or a Kenobi, or whatever. I don’t care how this fits into the old Star Wars movies; I just want to watch the new one. Shut up and play the hits. But even with the bar so low you could step right over it, Rise of Skywalker somehow fails to clear it. There are so many aborted storylines and character beats in this movie that feel like the script was accidentally shredded and taped back together from a dozen different drafts. When the movie opens, Rey and Poe are argue-flirting like Leia and Han—until the movie decides that never mind, they actually get along fine. Finn walks right up to the edge of confessing his feelings for Rey and then just… doesn’t. There’s a new droid named D-0 who is the victim of abuse from his previous owner, which is weird—but also don’t worry about it, because he’s just a device to move the plot forward.
Everything about Rise of Skywalker feels half-hearted and perfunctory—like Abrams and cowriter Chris Terrio wrote a rushed first draft of the script, intending to fix the problems later, and just never got around to it. Early on, there’s an incredibly unconvincing fake-out about Chewbacca dying on a spaceship that explodes. The eventual explanation for his survival? He was actually on a different spaceship. The boundaries of the Force seem to be whatever the screenplay requires at a given moment, from teleporting objects around to healing open wounds and/or death. There’s not a single memorable line of dialogue in the whole movie. (Okay, maybe "They fly now," but only because it’s spoken three times in the span of about 10 seconds.)
It is no surprise that a Star Wars movie leans heavily on nostalgia; this is, after all, one of the few Hollywood franchises so obsessed with its own history that it first continued the story by looking backward, not forward. And the previous movies in this sequel trilogy did successfully make the old characters feel fresh and vital. It did that, mostly, by saying goodbye to them; from the tragedy of Han Solo’s death to Luke Skywalker’s rousing redemptive arc, these movies have found ways to give poignant new endings to old Star Wars favorites.
The unique challenge Rise of Skywalker faces is the unexpected death of Carrie Fisher—and while I don’t blame the movie for struggling to fit Leia into the story, I also can’t say they figured out how to do it seamlessly. Leia’s scenes—which were cobbled together from unreleased footage from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi—fit uneasily into Rise of Skywalker, as the movie attempts to retrofit a coherent role for Leia with the limited usable footage they have.
The rest should have been easier. Star Wars is one of the rare franchises where a bunch of "dead" characters can just show up as Force Ghosts, which does end up giving Abrams the excuse to insert a new, clunky scene between Rey and Luke Skywalker. (Would you believe he raises his old X-Wing from the water, like that other movie you remember?) Somehow, that’s still not enough; Han Solo, who is not a Jedi and can’t be a Force Ghost, appears to Kylo Ren as a "memory" instead, so I guess Rise of Skywalker’s definition of "memory" is something that never actually happened. The goal of this truly ridiculous scene, as far as I can figure, is to give Kylo Ren an excuse for the whiplash-inducing emotional pivot he makes in this movie, which reopens the redemptive arc that seemed to be closed at the end of The Last Jedi.
Or I don’t know, maybe that whole scene is just there so everybody can clap when Han Solo shows up. Remember Han Solo? You like him! He says "I know" in this one and everything. Rise of Skywalker is essentially two and a half hours of scenes that have been reverse-engineered so Star Wars fans can point at the screen and say, "I understood that reference."
Can a Star Wars movie be more interesting than this? Yes. And a Star Wars movie was more interesting than this, two years ago, when Rian Johnson made one. It was also more interesting two years before that, when J.J. Abrams relaunched the franchise with The Force Awakens. That’s a big-hearted, thrillingly paced movie that expertly walked the tightrope between the old and the new. Why didn’t somebody find a way to bring the guy who made that movie back?
Rise of Skywalker does occasionally show a vague interest in Rey, Finn, and Poe, the central trio Abrams introduced in The Force Awakens—by which I mean, I guess, that there are multiple scenes in which those characters walk and talk and occasionally crack a joke or kill somebody. But you can’t say the same for pretty much anybody else. Anthony Daniels gets the chance to give C-3PO a moving death scene—honestly, the only time in this movie I felt anything—only for Rise of Skywalker to walk it back with a lame joke and a system reboot that brings C-3PO back to normal. New characters Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell) and Jannah (Naomie Ackie) are so incompetently introduced and developed that they might as well not be in the movie at all.
Worst of all is the treatment of Rose Tico, the most substantial new character Rian Johnson introduced in The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker is mostly just frustrating in its laziness and incoherence, but Abrams’s open disinterest in Rose is genuinely galling. Rose, who was such a likable and dynamic presence in The Last Jedi, is essentially a glorified extra here, getting about as much screen time as Abrams’s old Lost buddy Dominic Monaghan (who seems to have been cast in the role of Actor Whose Presence Never Stops Being Incredibly Distracting). As for Rose’s relationship with Finn… well, like so many things Rise of Skywalker never bothers to address, I guess we have to assume they had a falling out between the two movies.
Abrams’s utter lack of interest in Rose is the clearest signal of his lack of regard for The Last Jedi as a whole, and Rise of Skywalker stops just short of retconning that movie out of existence. Abrams has been mostly polite about The Last Jedi on the press tour, but this is essentially a mid-franchise reboot designed to jettison anything he didn’t like about that one. I don’t care whether you liked The Last Jedi or not: It is deeply uncomfortable to watch a feature-length subtweet of it.
Let’s wrap this up: Rey eventually goes to Grandpa Palpatine, who offers her his big chair while helpfully explaining that killing him would actually just turn Rey to the Dark Side, ensuring the Palpatine legacy would continue to dominate the galaxy. (Palpatine, man: She was probably gonna kill you until you said that! Why couldn’t you just play it cool?) Rey turns him down, Kylo Ren shows up, and Palpatine grows stronger by sucking power out of Rey and Kylo’s relationship (?). Rey kills Palpatine by reflecting his lightning back at him with her lightsaber, which is apparently not enough to make her turn to the Dark Side under whatever rules govern Light Side/Dark Side stuff. Rey dies. Kylo Ren uses the force to resurrect her (?). Kylo Ren dies. But hey, they kiss first, so big ups to Team Reylo!
And so the galaxy is saved. The epilogue to Rise of Skywalker finds Rey returning Luke and Leia’s lightsabers to the Lars homestead on Tatooine, where Luke was raised. That’s a planet Leia only visited briefly in life, and where she was forced to wear a golden bikini and chained up to a giant slug. And wait a second—didn’t Leia’s body disappear when Kylo Ren died? What’s she doing spending her afterlife with her twin brother? Whatever. The movie doesn’t care, and if the screenwriters can’t be bothered to think about this stuff, neither can I.
If Disney can be believed (and they can’t), this is the end of it all: The culmination of an odd collection of movies, produced over 42 years, which we’re all pretending can be understood as a singular and coherent vision called the Skywalker Saga. That was never true, of course. If George Lucas had the "Skywalker Saga" figured out when he made Star Wars, Luke and Leia wouldn’t have kissed each other so much. The prequels wouldn’t have been so lumpy and messy that they’d eventually require extensive reedits of the original trilogy just to connect. And the new trilogy wouldn’t have turned out to be such a strange Frankenstein’s monster of three movies—one good, one great, one awful—that don’t quite fit together.
The final shot of Rise of Skywalker is Rey Skywalker, née Palpatine, standing and staring at those gorgeous twin suns on Tatooine. It’s an image you’ll recall from the original Star Wars.
And I’ll give Rise of Skywalker this: It’s a fitting ending for this movie to go out on—a half-baked reference to a better scene from a better movie, as the character who once represented the future of Star Wars stares, boringly and stubbornly, into its past.
A ridiculous end to a once-promising trilogy.
As the movie's second unit director, Mahoney is the first woman to helm a Star Wars film.
The filmmaker says the end of the Skywalker Saga really feels like an ending.
Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
“I think it’s going to go on forever.”
The only actor to appear in every film in the franchise to date, Daniels is mere days from capping off an iconic run.
Originally Appeared on GQ