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There’s a lot sitting on the shoulders of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Writer-director J.J. Abrams’ return to the franchise he relaunched with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t just the concluding chapter to the current trilogy, it’s also the end of a storyline that’s been running for more than four decades. Expectations, to put it mildly, are high. So, how does the pic handle them?
Judging by the first wave of reviews, the answer seems to be “not particularly well.” It’s not that Rise of Skywalker is necessarily a bad movie, but one of the clearest lessons from critics’ responses to date is that it’s also not a film that’s easy to enjoy, either — or even understand, for that matter, as The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy points out in his review.
“More often than not, one wonders not so much what just happened but why, and what was at stake. A plot like this, featuring so many characters, locations and story dynamics, can by nature be confusing; so relentless is the pileup of incident that, at a certain point, one can be excused for checking out on the particulars of what’s going on at a given moment and why in favor of just going along for the amusement park ride,” McCarthy writes. “It might not be easy to confidently say what’s actually going on at any given moment and why, but the filmmakers’ practiced hands, along with the deep investment on the part of fans, will likely keep the majority of viewers happily on board despite the checkered nature of the storytelling.”
Is that a good thing? In its uncertainty, McCarthy’s review actually aligned with a number of other critics who were ambivalent about the film.
“I found it hard to care much either way about Rise of Skywalker, neither betrayed nor sated. The movie is too determinedly on its sweaty course, heedless of actual audience interest in its tunnel-visioned quest to be broadly loved or, at least, Internet approved-of,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “I don’t think Rise of Skywalker is ill-intentioned, exactly — it’s not malevolent like some joyless tentpole films are. But it takes no pleasure in its own existence, weakly adding some cutesiness here and there to liven things up (mostly in the form of a new droid whose existence feels redundant at best) but otherwise shuffling around morosely as it does what it thinks it needs to, piteously unaware that it didn’t have to be like this.”
Adi Robertson at The Verge has other thoughts about the movie’s unevenness. “There’s plenty of spectacle and space-fighting to keep The Rise of Skywalker entertaining. Minute to minute, it’s an enjoyable movie. And at its brightest points, it captures Star Wars at its best,” she writes. “But Abrams just hasn’t pared down the bombast enough to keep his story grounded — and with the trilogy at its end, it’s strange to be left with as many new questions as resolutions.”
Molly Freeman was equally ambivalent at Screen Rant. “Over the last 40 years, Star Wars has become such a massively popular franchise that The Rise of Skywalker faces the impossible task of trying to please everyone. Abrams, [co-screenwriter Chris] Terrio and all those involved in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker make a valiant effort to do just that and give everyone what they want, but the result isn’t so much a cohesive movie as it is methodical wish fulfillment loosely strung together by an overwrought plot,” she writes. “To be sure, there’s something for everyone to like — if not love — in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but the reverse is also true: There’s something for everyone to dislike, if not hate, too.”
Speaking of hate, Collider’s Matt Goldberg previewed what is likely to be the response of many fans with a blistering review: “I wish I could say The Rise of Skywalker was even moderately exciting in these set pieces, but even here, the action feels limp and stale. To compare Abrams to Abrams, there’s nothing here even half as exhilarating as the Millennium Falcon chase from The Force Awakens. It feels like we’re going through the motions of a Star Wars movie, but with a complete unwillingness to take any chances there’s nothing surprising or exciting. The only spark of life is when the movie stumbles into yet another idiotic reveal.”
So what, exactly, is the problem with the movie? According to New York Times critic A.O. Scott, the answer might be a lack of stakes: “Abrams is too slick and shallow a filmmaker to endow the dramas of repression and insurgency, of family fate and individual destiny, of solidarity and the will to power, with their full moral and metaphysical weight. At the same time, his pseudo-visionary self-importance won’t allow him to surrender to whimsy or mischief. The struggle of good against evil feels less like a cosmic battle than a longstanding sports rivalry between teams whose glory days are receding. The head coaches come and go, the uniforms are redesigned, certain key players are the subjects of trade rumors, and the fans keep showing up.”
Or, perhaps, it’s that there’s no surprise left in the franchise, as Helen O’Hara from Empire asserts. “For all the visual panache, pleasing cameos and interesting newcomers here, for all that [Daisy] Ridley and [Adam] Driver pour into their stand-offs, the Emperor’s presence shows a disturbing lack of faith at the heart of Rise of Skywalker,” she argues. “The fan backlash last time has been taken on-board too well; the storytelling here sputters whenever it approaches any similar chance to turn away from narrative convention and do something truly unexpected. You wish that this galaxy didn’t feel so small and scared of stepping away from George Lucas’ shadow.”
The idea that Rise of Skywalker is too aware of fan response is one also put forward by The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman. “The movie snaps together like a jigsaw puzzle, a series of concluding beats that seem inevitable and perfect, and designed to please all parties, so long as you don’t dwell on the logic too much,” he writes. “The Millennium Falcon zaps across the galaxy, baddies in tow, zipping through multiple blue tunnels of subspace, with Poe, Finn and Chewie cracking wise, TIE-fighters on their tail. A plane of sharp asteroids! A sky full of tall, narrow towers! An enormous space slug ready to gobble them up! John Williams’s score crashes along with them and, yes, this is what they mean when they say ‘this movie made me feel like a kid again.’ Each newly glimpsed setting is gorgeous and the thrill is tangible. Later Rey chastises them. The Falcon, apparently, can’t lightspeed-skip. But it just did, because our team is the best team! Why bother complaining?”
Why bother, indeed? As CNN’s Brian Lowry puts it, “Perhaps foremost, The Rise of Skywalker seeks to recapture some of the fun and playfulness that has been a hallmark of the series, despite the backdrop of darkness and galaxy-threatening peril at its core. … Faced with that task — and clearly mindful of the enormity of it — Abrams has made a Star Wars movie aimed at the people who love it best. The Rise of Skywalker isn’t perfect, but seen that way, it more than rises to the occasion.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker bows Friday.
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