Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review: A visual wonder that lacks a soul

As the last chapter to the “Skywalker Saga,” J.J. Abrams creates a film full of Star Wars’ visual splendor but with none of its soul. Light spoilers lie ahead.

Good news, Rian Johnson! You’re no longer responsible for making “the worst Star Wars movie ever made.” Then again, the worst Star Wars movie ever made always was (and still is) Attack of the Clones. And the only reason some branded Star Wars: The Last Jedi as the “worst Star Wars film ever made” is because you had the audacity of not giving us a story that matched our collective head-canons. Even so, there was so much complaining from we, the fans–much of it legitimate–that Disney and Lucasfilm went into a full-blown panic.

In their desperation, Disney and Lucasfilm once again hedged their bets on writer-director J.J. Abrams to rescue the franchise with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the “for real this time” finale of the “Skywalker Saga.” After all, everybody loved what J.J. did with The Force Awakens, even if it was A New Hope redux. But wait a moment? Abrams brought on Chris Terrio to co-write the script? The same screenwriter who penned the infamous Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)? To quote one of Star Wars’ favorite phrase, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER key art

Indeed, the first signs of trouble for Rise of Skywalker happen within the first five minutes, when it’s revealed who the real architect behind the First Order is: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Yes, the master of the Dark Side and scene-chewing has returned from beyond the grave… somehow. And he’s also created a massive armada of Star Destroyers armed with planet-killing Death Star cannons. Never you mind that this makes Darth Vader’s redemption and self-sacrifice in Return of the Jedi all for naught. They had to bring old Palpatine back, you see, given how Snoke wound up being such a paper-thin facsimile. And also dead.

Thus the Sequel Trilogy’s new heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), along with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and BB-8 (sorry, RD-D2, but you’re staying behind to look after Princess Leia), must search the galaxy for the “Sith Wayfinder” that will guide them to the hidden planet where the Emperor and his fleet lie in wait. Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his Knights of Ren are also looking for the Wayfinder and Rey, having been ordered by Palpatine to kill her. As Ben still shares a Force bond with Rey, however, he would rather she “take his hand” so they can kill Palpatine together.

And as our trio and friends hop from planet to planet in the Millenium Falcon, they meet new allies along the way, such as the helmet-wearing mercenary and Poe’s former partner-in-crime, Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell); a squad of runaway Stormtroopers led by Jannah (Naomi Zakie); a one-wheeled “conehead” of a droid named Dio; and, for that guaranteed nostalgia factor, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). They also visit new worlds, including another desert planet (where the inhabitants are celebrating what seems like a cross between a souq and Burning Man) and another snow planet where they enter another cantina.

Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, Daisy Ridley is Rey and Anthony Daniels is C-3PO in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, Daisy Ridley is Rey and Anthony Daniels is C-3PO in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

…[J.J.] Abrams has turned the culmination of four decades of epic storytelling into a glorified video game side quest, allowing him to recycle Star Wars’ greatest hits yet again. The two-and-a-half hours do indeed go by fast, but also too fast…Even the Original [Star Wars]Trilogy knew when to slow things down.

In other words, Abrams has turned the culmination of four decades of epic storytelling into a glorified video game side quest, allowing him to recycle Star Wars’ greatest hits yet again. The two-and-a-half hours do indeed go by fast, but also too fast. There’s barely any time for the actors and actresses on-screen–all of whom do their best with the lackluster script–to sit down, take a breath, and reflect on what just happened before they’re rushed off into another part of the plot. Even the Original Trilogy knew when to slow things down.

Rise of Skywalker also seeks every opportunity it can to throw shade on The Last Jedi as an apology but in superficial ways. Didn’t like how Kylo Ren smashed up his helmet? Look! It’s all welded back together. Thought Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) was a pest? She’s practically a background character now. Felt General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) was cartoonish? Here comes Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde (seriously, that’s his character’s name) to show him the art of subtlety. Thought Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) throwing his old lightsaber over his shoulder was crass? This time we have his Force Ghost tell Rey “A Jedi’s weapon should be treated with more respect.”

Speaking of Rey, we finally get the full explanation about her parents. Yes, they’re still “nobodies,” but they’re also related to an established character. And once you learn who, you will likely respond with a “That’s it?” Though prepare to have your eyes roll back in your head once you learn what Rey has to do with the film’s title, and how much of an insult it really is.

If there’s one saving grace, Rise of Skywalker isn’t awful to look at. The duel between Rey and Kylo on the wreckage of the second Death Star is an instantly iconic action sequence. Clever editing expands the scope of Rey and Kylo’s Force bond in ways The Last Jedi only hinted at. The Sith planet of Exegol, cast in perpetual night with lightning storms as its only source of light, is especially stunning.

It’s also a Star Wars movie in which Abrams puts even more of his signature stamp on than he did with The Force Awakens. That means more liberal uses of pan and zooms, actor close-ups, slo-mo, and lens flares. It means everyone delivering snappy repartee and back-and-forth spats as a means of creating comedy. It also means another opportunity for putting his favorite performers like Greg Grunberg and Dominic Monaghan on screen again.

But for all the lens flare and camera tricks, the nostalgia and the fanservice, and the spectacular effects (both practical and digital), there is one thing this Star Wars film lacks that all the others had: the heart. When the only genuine laugh is a sight gag involving a lightsaber and flashlight, when even Lando flying the Falcon again can barely make you smile, and when an honest-to-goodness cavalry charge with alien horses serves as the dramatic high point, then something is seriously wrong. Only R2 and Chewie’s reactions to a major character’s death hold any genuine emotional resonance.

Next: Looking back on Star Wars, part 10: The Last Jedi (2017)

As the supposed end to the saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is as uninspired as it is timid, a shallow imitation of George Lucas’ vision without his imagination. There will, of course, be more– and better–tales from “long ago” taking place in this “galaxy far, far away” other than this one. There will other stories of good against evil, light against dark, hope against fear that makes Star Wars so appealing to young and old alike. Even now, this isn’t a time to feel disappointed or angry.  Besides, we all know the “Skywalker Saga” really ended with Return of the Jedi anyway.