Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ★½

The great tragedy of Kevin Feige is that, beyond raking in a mountain of cash as the head of Marvel Studios, he truly wants to be seen as an impresario of artists. The recent dust-up caused by Martin Scorsese staring holes through Disney's stunt-casting of noteworthy emerging filmmakers to lend clout to a method of filmmaking dictated by studio notes and franchise bible supervisors punctured this self-delusion and prompted a wave of pathetic self-defensiveness in which the CEO was called to stand up for the manager. In spite of it all, though, Feige's sincere belief that he is creating lasting art makes him a sympathetic figure, so earnest that he cannot see the extent to which he has helped to leech the next generation of filmmakers of the chance to make truly individual art.

Kathleen Kennedy is like Feige's cosmic inverse. If Feige has convinced himself that he has fostered an environment of creativity amid a soulless system, Kennedy's shepherding of Lucasfilm has been so profoundly mercenary that not only has nearly every filmmaker tapped to helm one of these features stepped down or been removed for having the audacity to try to bring a personal voice to this franchise, but all of them have subsequently been the targets of entire PR campaigns meant to discredit them. Rian Johnson somehow slipped under the radar with a truly unique, worthwhile contribution to George Lucas's unwieldy universe, and he has been rewarded for it with years of navigating fan backlash on his lonesome and a press rollout for this follow-up that has taken numerous potshots at his film to reassure angry fans that things will end "correctly."

That spirit infuses The Rise of Skywalker, the most soulless entry of the Disney era of Star Wars and perhaps the new prime example of how this age of filmmaking has brutally jettisoned vision and surprise for slavish devotion to IP and what a bunch of executives think you, the stupid public, want to see. This is two and a half hours of nonstop stuff, incessant exposition that flits through scenes designed to micro-target every possible fan-service desire at the expense of coherence or meaning. It actively unravels The Last Jedi's bold revisions and thematic questions, cooing into the audience's ear that everything will be as they want again, like massaging a pill down a dog's throat.

Every piece of dialogue introduces a new fetch-quest task, but it also bluntly affirms the most basic fan wants, from making sure the new trio is almost never apart to upholding the Manichean moral schism that TLJ so compellingly collapsed. That the film goes out of its way to sideline and omit Kelly Marie Tran, the only person to receive nastier online treatment than Rian Johnson, sends the ultimate message: if you scream loudly enough, the producers will listen, even if you are screaming racial and misogynistic slurs.

After Johnson's delicate direction and inventive production design, we fall back to Abrams, who definitively exposes himself as a fraud, a man who thinks a close-up of a wide-eyed face can make him the next Spielberg but who has such a shoddy grasp of how to communicate through a camera that one is left with a lesser notion of these characters and what makes them meaningful than we had after two films. Abrams sprints between micro-payoffs to irrelevant teases but keeps the characters locked into loops of behavior that make only slight room for growth within narrow parameters. There is a relatively early scene (or maybe late; time loses all meaning in this endless rush of plot) where a crucial clue can only be unlocked by wiping C3PO's memory. At first, that choice is given the gravity it deserves, with the heroes seriously contemplating the existential horror of erasing a companion who has, in his goofy way, been the one constant of this saga. Almost immediately, however, the moment becomes the subject of humor that overrides all drama, a reflexive flinch of considering anything truly dark or troubling in a film supposedly predicated on the possibility of total destruction. This scene epitomizes everything wrong with the movie to me, not only in its tonal cowardice but in the way that a potentially reset C3PO represents the ideal of the Disney era of Star Wars, the possibility to recycle without end, showing someone the exact same thing and hoping they will react as if they've never seen it before.

As a film property, Star Wars is, to put it mildly, flawed. George Lucas's deficiencies as a writer and his fixations as a technician limit even the original trilogy, and they place extreme stress upon the sincere thematic and technical ambitions of the prequels. But though he worked with elemental archetypes, Lucas created such an evocative realm that it sustained decades of multimedia properties that fleshed out its galaxy with action, horror and myth, and found its core characters malleable enough and captivating enough to develop fuller lives, changing and probing them with age and events to see how they might respond. Rey, Finn and Poe, on the other hand, seemed destined for little more than erotic fan-fiction. They are so rigidly defined by the protagonists who preceded them that they do not feel like a new generation laden with possibility but a means for the previous one to act out their own arcs once more. That the film relies more on the ghosts of classic characters than the actions of current ones only compounds that this is nothing more than a feel-good machine for the worst kind of fan and it renders this trilogy completely meaningless as a springboard for new creations. The final shot of the film is meant to communicate that the future is open for yet more stories, but in the end it feels like it has only succeeded in telling the same one again.

EDIT: I would be remiss not to commend the actors for trying their damnedest to make these new characters stick. Boyega and Isaac continue to radiate charisma and hit just the right tone of childlike exuberance that has been at the heart of the series even at its grimmest. Ridley works as hard to make Rey's baffling, constantly retconning persona work as Emilia Clarke did to find the logic beneath the tortured writing of Daenerys in the final Game of Thrones season. I've never given Ridley much due as an actress but she throws everything into this to make it make sense, from having to act against deleted footage of Carrie Fisher and give it emotion to unraveling the developments of TLJ without making Rey completely meaningless. Best of all is Driver, who continues to bring such soul to Kylo that the one unabashedly great constant of the new trilogy is how well he crafts a villain with depths beyond preordained cycles of fall and redemption. There is a scene here, right after the worst saber duel of the entire franchise, where he exudes such pain, conflict and shame with only a few lines that Kylo emerges from this series as its only truly defined new character.

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