I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Kudos to J.J. Abrams for doing something extraordinary to Star Wars with his Rise of Skywalker: he has made me not care about it for the first time in my life.
Look: I am the clichéd GenX Star Wars fan who was eight years old in the summer of 1977 when the first movie hit us all with the force of a supernova. I lined up as a teenager — the queue wrapped around the cinema; just a one-screener back in those pre-multiplex days — to find out what Return of the Jedi would bring us.
I was there when the first Phantom Menace trailer debut broke the baby World Wide Web. I spent the summer of 1999 rewatching Episode I many many times and having endless (and still not resolved) philosophical discussions with other fans about just what, precisely, constituted the “phantom menace” and whether Qui-Gon was stupid and incompetent or wise but thwarted and what “bringing balance to the Force” would mean.
I was so very primed, in 2015, for the third trilogy to bring the 40-year-long story of my geek existence to a conclusion. This myth has defined my entire pop-culture life, in so many ways: it has contributed to the patois of Generation X (“Use the Force”; “I dunno, I have a bad feeling about this”); it has shaped how we all think about movies now. Star Wars — the first movie but also the ongoing sprawling saga, with its videogames and cartoon TV series and all of it — has been the Ultimate Story in the same way that, say, Gone with the Wind or Casablanca, or Lawrence of Arabia or The Sound of Music, have been for earlier generations, except even more all-encompassing. The Star Wars machine has become The Movies. Star Wars is almost religion… almost literally.
What I’m saying is: I love Star Wars and I very much own that love. I have lived that love. The saga is in my geek blood.
And yet I watched The Rise of Skywalker and — throughout it and after it — could muster no reaction beyond a huge heaving sigh of I No Longer Have Any Fucks To Give Here. I don’t even want to argue about any of it anymore. I’m exhausted by all of it, and not in a good way. I am exhausted by the toxic fan reaction and by the ultimate pointlessness of it all. (I am not saying that arguing over fiction is pointless. I am saying that arguing over this particular story has been deliberately rendered pointless by those who have been telling it.) I’m kind of relieved that it’s over, actually, because it has stopped being fun. Worse, it has stopped being interesting.
And it’s all the fault of J.J. Abrams.
Four years ago, I summed up my review of Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens — the first installment of this new trilogy — like this:
[It c]harts a path to a future that refuses to get mired in nostalgia. Yet all the ‘Star Wars’ notes are here, remixed into a glorious new arrangement.
And then Abrams passed off — though I don’t think it was by his choice — the next chapter, The Last Jedi, to writer-director Rian Johnson. A chapter I loved it, because it:
[u]pend[ed] expectations, demythologize[d] the mythos, and [took] an iconic series in a bold new direction with a story full of humor, courage, and dazzling imagery.
It seemed to me that this was the right approach for the first two movies of a new trilogy, a wrapup trilogy, to take: acknowledge the past and play with the tropes, but then move in a much-needed new direction. Finish this particular story but open up this universe and make room for it to expand into fresh vistas. I mean, that’s how you keep it going, right? That’s what you need to continue raking in big ol’ corporate profit, no? It’s a big fucking galaxy out there, isn’t it? Let’s explore it!
But with The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams — director as well as one of four credited screenwriters — sucks it all back in upon itself. Nothing that happens here and none of the answers to the mysteries the previous films in this new trilogy posed are the least bit surprising or enlightening. The biggest narrative crimes of The Rise of Skywalker are the same ones as Solo: A Star Wars Story: everyone in the galaxy actually knows everyone we’ve met before. This big crazy wide universe is, in fact, really insular and really fucking small and incredibly familiar.
Say what you will about George Lucas’s prequel trilogy — it certainly has its problems, to say the very least — but at least it showed us a vibrant, diverse galactic civilization. And yet Rise of Skywalker might as well be a soap opera set in a small village, for all the scope it has. It’s genuinely shocking how cramped this movie ends up feeling.
Who is Rey (Daisy Ridley: Peter Rabbit, Murder on the Orient Express)? Whence comes her Force powers? From there? Really? *groan* Forget whatever space battles this movie wants to mount; forget everything else Rise of Skywalker could have been about: Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8) makes this movie about that question, and the answer is tedious as well as aimless. For all the endless callbacks to beats from the original Star Wars trilogy — just when you think Abrams is done referring to the old movies, he throws in an even more shameless reference — Rise barely seems interested in the spirit of the overall tale. In 1977, Star Wars was rebellious and antiestablishment in every way it could be, from its provenance as a scrappy little indie in a Hollywood that didn’t know what to make of it — it was damn near cinematic outsider art — to its protagonist, the lonely farmboy who dreamed of adventure and of a life anywhere but where he was.
Last Jedi was imbued with that spirit: in its audacious suggestion that the Jedi were greatly in need of, at a minimum, a Reformation, or that maybe the faith’s time had come to die; in its celebration of the little people who win wars with their necessary slogging gruntwork and its rejection of showy one-man heroics. Last Jedi was anti status quo, was all about blowing up the metaphoric Death Star that is this movie machine. Its target — perhaps unwittingly, though I suspect not — was as much a hidebound fandom as the increasingly hidebound franchise it worshipped.
And then J.J. Abrams comes back, here in Rise, with, “LOL, hell no!” and delivers multiple fuck-you reversals to what Rian Johnson did in his film. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac: X-Men: Apocalypse, Mojave) is back to being celebrated as a cheerfully reckless hothead. Ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega: Pacific Rim: Uprising, Detroit) and maintenance engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) are completely sidelined, their brand of quiet power and everyday courage not required here, and certainly not deemed of any worth. (Rise brings in another token nonwhite nonmale in order to pretend it is Diverse, but mysterious low-tech warrior Jannah [Naomi Ackie: Lady Macbeth, Doctor Who] ends up with almost nothing to do, too.)
It’s one thing — a depressing thing — to see that, obviously, there was never any unifying vision for this trilogy; no one mapped out even a sketch of a overarching plot for the three movies, and the grand story it tells is damn near incoherent because no one seems to have had any idea what it was going to be about. Way worse, though, is how, with The Rise of Skywalker — the film struggles to justify that title — Star Wars became the Empire, solidifying ideas about lineage and nobility (broadly defined) and destiny and heritage that, more than ever in today’s world, need to fucking die, when slavish adherence to dynasties and heritage are doing so much damage.
Somehow I’m always shocked when anything considered science fiction or fantasy shows itself to be so lacking in imagination, and when its fans reward it for its narrowmindedness. I’m also never not disappointed. It’s clear now that whatever flight of fancy Star Wars once took me on, it is no longer interested in having me along on the journey. This saddens me, but there are plenty of other stories out there that will engage me as I need.