‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Wants So Desperately To Be Liked

Every Star Wars film, even the less than stellar ones, has left me with a sense of wonder when I watch the credits roll. Leaving the cinema for The Rise of Skywalker, I could only feel numb. Now, I’m not going to pretend Star Wars was never a corporate juggernaut (there’s probably a one to one ratio of R2D2 merchandise to human beings on planet Earth that exist to prove me otherwise), but for the first time in my Star Wars fandom-fueled life, I felt I was watching a product. In every passing moment of this movie, I could imagine a meeting between our corporate overlords at Disney, puppeteering every piece of this film’s mass-market machine. Is this a film for the sequel trilogy fans? Is this a film for winning back The Last Jedi haters? Is this a film for internet fandom? Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker wants so desperately to be liked by everyone that it ends up satisfying almost no one.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to even be typing this review right now. At the risk of sounding over-emotional, Star Wars — specifically, the sequel trilogy — has simply meant the world to me over the last four years. I was a junior in high school when I saw The Force Awakens, still closeted and without a stable support group of friends to help me navigate the world. I have loved Star Wars since childhood, and while I’ve lived through the release of Revenge of the Sith, there was something so alluring, comforting, and relatable about Rey, Finn, Poe, and their rag-tag team of new-age rebels; they represented me. Speed through: Me signing up for my first twitter account, branding myself as The Star Wars Guy™️ at school, meeting some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known, and facing the most difficult and scary phase of my young adult life in college. Now, we’re here in 2019, my life has drastically changed for better or for worse — but my friends and the comfort we felt from our sequel trilogy trio remained the security blanket through it all. Star Wars gave me a found family to fall back on, so, I’m well aware of the beauty of this fandom, and our connection through common interests.

But, I am also familiar with the ugliness. The second entry of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi split the Star Wars fandom in half. Nitpicks turned into discourse, discourse turned into harassment, and we have not heard the end of it, even after two whole years. Rian Johnson and his film have been made out to be the icons of destruction; their target being the Star Wars fandom. It was actually through seeing this outrageous response to one of the most ambitious, brave, and challenging movies to come out of this franchise did I realize that I wanted to start formally writing about film. I saw so much love for the property in The Last Jedi, and I felt that the same amount of enthusiasm should be paid forward for all those who were willing to listen: a reassurance that our future is in the hands of younger generations and that a hero can come from almost anywhere.

I write all this context because that side of the Star Wars fandom has proven that they don’t want ‘challenging’ or ‘brave’, they want ‘familiar’ and ‘derivative’. They seek nothing more but their childish theories validated, and all their irrelevant questions for the sequel trilogy answered. And yet— after all that ugliness, The Rise of Skywalker plays like a two hour and twenty-minute rogues gallery of all those theories and questions from Reddit to Tumblr and Twitter; a convoluted and confusing husk of a Star Wars movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too. Complete with one-liners pettily poking fun at/apologizing for The Last Jedi, J.J. Abrams’s finale to the forty-two year running Skywalker Saga is so obsessed with righting the supposed “wrongs” of its predecessor that it forgets to just have a soul of its own. It’s not just bad storytelling, it’s cowardly storytelling.

Though Dan Mindel’s cinematography is beautiful, and John Williams’ score plays all the greatest hits, the sloppy craftsmanship of The Rise of Skywalker starts to show itself even within the first act of the film. Just when you think you could not get more tired of toothless exposition, the film starts alternating between tensionless action sequences and, somehow, even more exposition. By the third level in the video game fetch quest, you start to understand that Chris Terrio (Yes, Batman V. Superman guy) and J.J. Abrams did not actually write a screenplay — they wrote scenes. Scenes that reek of last-minute rewrites. Hyperactive, noisy, and awkwardly edited scenes that range from mildly enthralling to exhaustingly repetitive, not even vaguely tied together by theme or narrative consequence. Imagine if five different TV episodes were condensed and slapped together, and you wouldn’t have something too far off from the pacing of this film.

Most major or minor characters, while charmingly performed by the cast we’ve grown to love so much, have little to no character development and seemed to have been put on reset, despite all the excellent trials The Last Jedi put them through. A big selling point for this film was seeing the group dynamic between our trio front and center, and while there are certainly some cute moments, they also feel empty and unearned. For the very first time in the sequel trilogy, I felt that the characters of color were being tokenized. Within our own trio, Poe Dameron is reverted back to the cocky hotshot type he learned to grow out of in the last movie. Finn has very little character development outside of being reminded that he used to be a Stormtrooper. Lots of noise in promotional material was made about our new heroine Jannah, but we know almost nothing about her. Rose Tico, who was previously Finn’s motivation to embrace the Resistance, is now a glorified extra. Much like the scenes that poorly attempt at closure with General Leia Organa, there just has to be a better way.

Now, Angry Online™️ arguments on the finale of the Skywalker Saga were just bound to happen. Star Wars is at an awkward point in pop culture where it means something different to everyone. Some find it to be the most epic coming-of-age story in cinema, some are here for the worldbuilding and the adventurous spirit, and some just love the pretty space wizard laser swords. But I’ve always seen it as a story about family relationships — the blood we are born with and the bonds we choose to make. It’s why the franchise was deemed significant enough to keep passing down for forty-two years straight, and why I am lucky to know the people who have changed my life for the better.

Before this movie, the sequel trilogy was a beautiful portrait of generational conflicts merging together. It made diversity and youthfulness part of its text with The Force Awakens, mirroring the original trilogy’s iconography and recontextualizing their cultural importance to frame our new trio at the center. The Last Jedi put their heroics to the test, forcing them to confront their egos, passiveness, and desperation to belong in the world.

So, it’s profoundly saddening to conclude that The Rise of Skywalker is so at war with itself that it ends up saying not very much at all. I will always deeply love Star Wars. I treasure the love I got to share for these characters, themes, and worlds every day of my life. Seeing this movie was still a rite of passage for me. For one, it feels like the bookend to the most formative chapter of my life. And yet seeing the story I was so invested in be derailed in service of pleasing an anonymous vortex of people on the internet was devastating. It was the most Star Wars has ever felt insincere, making me even more aware of how little the people who formulated this movie in a lab care about these characters the way I do. This is a dangerous precedent for fandom culture to follow moving forward, and that is perhaps the most disturbing and toxic part of it all.

But, despite a disappointing final chapter, it was a wonderful four years with Rey, Finn, and Poe— and I’ll still keep them, my found family in the Star Wars fandom, the countless theatrical viewings and the Resistance merch I own in my heart forever, for no one’s ever really gone.

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