The faults of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” are those of the franchise over all, distilled and magnified because the film’s director, J. J. Abrams, is mainly a distiller and a magnifier, and brings virtually no originality to it. His earnest and righteously grandiose direction evokes, as few movies do, a craving for Michael Bay at the controls. Since the prospect of a refined stylist such as Wes Anderson or Sofia Coppola—who’d likely chafe at the narrow limits imposed by such a franchise film—is too much to ask for, a boldly imaginative vulgarian such as Bay would be a welcome substitute. See the opening chase scene of Bay’s “6 Underground,” currently on Netflix, for a sense of what can be done with an emotionally stultified and dramatically trivial script. It’s not good, but it’s at least full of surprises and provides a baseline astonishment. It would be fascinating to see the colossally derisive wreckage that Bay could make of the rigidities and pieties of “Star Wars.”
There are no such surprises, let alone audacities, in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” yet I confess that it’s nonetheless engaging to see how the movie’s ponderous banalities reveal the essence of the cycle’s four-decade slog. (I’ll do my best to describe it while avoiding spoilers, but beware nonetheless.) This installment also repudiates what’s best in Star Wars, namely the idiosyncrasies and complexities of George Lucas’s last two prequels, where he flaunted the purpose and the playfulness, the intricate political intrigue and the high-style flourishes, that he had sublimated in decades of cultivating industrial-strength success. Lucas sold the Star Wars franchise to Disney, in 2012; now whatever’s left of his world view has been mined and refined into narrow and simplistic norms. The dyad of Disney (with its sanitized and sanctimonious simplicities) and Abrams (with his scrawnily derivative sensibility, an echo of an echo) has become a Death Star.
As for the story of “The Rise of Skywalker,” it’s centered on its two protagonists’ struggles with their civic duties and their personal identities. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is being trained by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to continue the Resistance, but she herself is pulled between her blood legacy and her allegiances—she learns that she is a granddaughter of the late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who here makes a posthumous return as more than an illusion and less than flesh. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a.k.a. Ben Solo—who has repudiated his father, Han Solo, and gone over to the dark side—gets an offer from Palpatine to take his place, together with Rey, and continue the reign of the Sith.
The drama gathers members of the Resistance who survived the catastrophe of “The Last Jedi”: primarily, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), whom Leia designates as her successor; Finn (John Boyega), whom Poe names as his coequal; Chewbacca; and the droids BB-8 and C-3PO. These five, led by Rey, plan to pursue the revived Palpatine on the planet of Exigol, but they can’t find it without a gizmo known as a wayfinder, and they cannot get the wayfinder without deciphering an inscription that can’t be translated except, et cetera. The hermetic logic of the plot is as impeccable as it is ridiculous. It’s a drama crafted with robotic insularity for the consumption of viewers being rendered robotic at each moment of the soullessly uniform spectacle.
The bulk of “The Rise of Skywalker” involves characters in closeup expelling greeting-card-like slogans with vehemence and dour conviction, punctuated by lumpishly unchoreographed biff-bash-and-blam fight scenes. Abrams doesn’t offer any original, significant, or memorable images, not a glimmer of action that’s staged with a sense even of mere physical connection, let alone balletic grace or athletic splendor. The closest thing to inspiration comes in the form of an occasional touch of design, in the gigantic shiny basalt blackness of Sith void spaces and the overwhelming waves separating Rey from the wreckage of the Death Star. Instead of drama and imagination, the movie depends on a relentless blare of music, by John Williams, which takes the place of any emotional complexity that might dare to sneak through the interstices. The movie’s few infinitesimal touches of what might be called character—such as Rey substituting compassion for violence when she heals a deadly serpent—tick off a few ready-made socio-boxes. There is a quick moment of feminine solidarity, a carefully focus-grouped lesbian kiss. What’s more, it’s dispiriting to see the differences in how Ridley and Driver are directed. Ridley is called upon to express and overexpress, at each given moment, one given emotion, while Driver underexpresses, suggesting competing emotions. This isn’t a judgment on the skills of the two actors but, rather, what they reflect in the Star Wars universe and its creative conception: there, women, however heroic, are simple, and men are complex. It’s a reminder that the director and the four credited writers of “The Rise of Skywalker” are all male—and that the entire franchise, including the past half decade’s trio of sequels, has had no female director (and only one female screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, on “The Empire Strikes Back,” from 1980).
From the start, the series has exhibited a combination of grandiosity and cuteness, keeping its emotions in the narrow range between the irreproachable and the irresistible. “The Rise of Skywalker” amps up the cuteness factor with a new little creature, an impish one-wheeled stray droid with a conical head like that of the Pixar logo—as if recalling that franchise’s roots in Lucas’s stable. And one waits, in quiet terror, for the thudding delivery of the word that Steven Soderbergh has identified as Hollywood’s baseline weasel idea: “Hope.” There is a lot of hope, but, above all, it’s a movie that pushes the cycle’s own baseline idea, of family and return, to newly neurotic extremes. It’s a movie of grownups desperately tangled up in mommy and daddy issues a long time ago, before psychologists, artists, and even personality were invented.
In this regard, the movie harks back to the roots of the cycle, to Lucas’s peculiar place as the neediest and most throwback modernist. The greatness of the film that Lucas made prior to “Star Wars,” “American Graffiti,” was its conjoined source as personal recollection and historical horror show. Lucas filmed a coming-of-age story that’s really a compulsive return to catastrophe and entropy, a nostalgia for calamitous loss and a desperate search for where it all went off the rails. The Star Wars cycle is the answer—a quest for the primal structure of society and family and identity that, in the process, would also gratify those in desperate need of such answers. Lucas’s vision was huge, his emotional range truncated. He created a mighty, faux-Wagnerian fantasy that offered the petty and sanctimonious palliatives of “Leave It to Beaver” in a vast mythology, uniting past and future. And he created immense, vast, inhuman, impersonal cinematic machinery to embody the tiny but mighty flame of his personal obsession. In the best films of the cycle, “Attack of the Clones” and, above all, “Revenge of the Sith,” Lucas commandeers that machine with the force of his own inner resistance.
That flame has long been extinguished. The negative reviews that “The Rise of Skywalker” is getting seem to me like the reverberations of Martin Scorsese’s recent anti-franchise discourse—like a critical community doing public penance for its decades of fealty to imposters and fabrications and mercantile simulacra of art, a long-overdue recognition of the distinction between corporate content and personal creation. Despite the round of art-house verities that often get ballyhooed in their stead, this is a development that nonetheless fills one, dare I say it, with a new hope for the cinema.