Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It's fitting, somehow, that 2019 should end with The Rise of Skywalker. Everything that's wrong with the contemporary blockbuster has converged on this unfortunate film, like a pedigreed dog made sickly by generations of inbreeding.

The saddest part is that there is a germ of a good idea here. The Rey/Ren dynamic is probably the most interesting relationship this franchise has ever seen, and the question of whether Rey would ultimately turn to the dark side never seemed like a foregone conclusion to me. Indeed, this film is at its strongest whenever these two characters share screen time.

But even this potential is completely mishandled. The mystery of Rey's parentage was always such a significant part of this story arc. The reveal during the previous film that she did not, in fact, have a significant legacy, was probably the only twist that could have been surprising without also being incredibly stupid. So of course now we get a new reveal, one that is incredibly stupid, and Rey is now the granddaughter of Palpatine for some reason. (This also planted in my head the image of Palpatine having sex, which is something I dearly wish I'd never been forced to consider.)

Her relationship with Ren is likewise undermined, since Hollywood can't ever allow a relationship between two characters to end without kissing. (Provided, of course, that said characters are not the same gender, because heaven forbid.) As the moment approached, the two people sitting beside me were muttering to each other "don't kiss, please don't kiss," and when it finally happened the entire audience burst into raucous laughter.

Most of this film's "surprises" are unbelievably predictable. Usually this is because one can easily detect what the next bit of gratuitous fanservice will be. This film can't go more than five minutes without trotting out something from the original trilogy just for the sake of pointing at it. (Even John Williams seemed tired of the charade, doing little more than replaying note-for-note whatever it was he wrote for these cues the first time.) Again, the two people beside me provided an interesting barometer of how this nonsense was being received by actual fans. Their groans became increasingly exasperated with every "reveal." These desperate attempts to make them happy were only causing irritation.

When a twist can't be predicted by a fanservice checklist, it can be predicted by the extremely thorough telegraphing. Poe spent the first two acts of the film occasionally bemoaning the fact that the resistance had no backing, that "no one shows up" when they call for help. This means that during the Final Epic Battle, anyone who's not expecting that "surprise" help will show up can't have been paying much attention. I think it was meant to recapitulate the moment at the end of the original where Han Solo swoops in to save Luke, but that moment comes about due to Han's character, not by mere plot convenience. And this is just one of many, many moments in the film where some sort of incredibly predictable nonsense happens just to make the plot flow a little more smoothly.

If any film series can be said to define the 2010s, it is certainly the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. This new slew of Star Wars films is clearly meant to emulate that same business model, but this is the first Star Wars I've seen that was written like a Marvel film. The film is peppered with stale witticisms from the characters ("They fly now? They fly now!"). The fantasy is intentionally deconstructed with sly winks (Ren saying "ow" after a dramatic leap). One character (the droid doctor) is clearly designed in the Baby Groot tradition, or possibly a Funko Pop figurine brought to life. And, most conspicuously, the film is more interested in being big than it is in being interesting. As I said earlier, the best parts of the film are the parts where it's just Rey and Ren, but the vast majority of the film is as far removed from that as possible. Why have one lightsaber battle when you could have five? Why have one plot when you could have a dozen? Why have one Star Destroyer when you could have a thousand? This is Guardians of the Galaxy: The Rise of Skywalker, and don't you forget it!

I could go on. I could talk about the story's over-reliance on macguffins and setpieces. I could talk about how it wastes time. I could talk about how Poe and Finn both get shiny new heterosexual love interests just so that Disney can grind those rumors of gayness under its heel. I could talk about how the character of Rose is completely wasted. But why bother. Nothing that happened here should be a surprise to anyone. This trilogy has always been flawed, and this film simply magnifies that legacy. But even more than that it's the culmination of 2010s Hollywood. This was the era in which every big-name film was some variation on "pre-existing characters flying through CGI mayhem," and this one is no exception.