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Confronting fear, as Luke Skywalker tells his young protégée Rey (Daisy Ridley), may be the destiny of a Jedi, but breaking bad news to fans is the destiny of a movie reviewer. Sadly, I’m here to fulfill my destiny.
It’s not that The Rise of Skywalker, the final entry of the new Star Wars trilogy, is a complete mess. It has plenty of enjoyable moments, especially in the first half. The problem is that the pleasure arises almost solely from nostalgia for better scenes and characters in the original films and not from what’s on screen before us. Even this story’s main conflict is borrowed from the past.
As the iconic yellow text crawl declares: “The dead speak!” Sith Emperor Palpatine, last seen at the end of Return of the Jedi, has arisen as a sort of zombie villain to entice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to complete the quest his grandfather Vader started: He must kill the last hope for the Jedi. Only this time, instead of the sacrificing of a son, the conflicted antihero Kylo must offer up his true love—orphan Rey. She, in turn, must try to fan the spark of light still hidden in that dark breast before it crushes the last vestiges of freedom in the galaxy.
It’s not a bad setup, which is why it worked in Return of the Jedi. But director J.J. Abrams throws in all sorts of go-nowhere, extraneous twists to distract us from the fact that he has nothing new to offer.
Palpatine and Kylo Ren’s motivations shift constantly, to the point we’re not convinced either bad guy has a workable scheme for domination. It’s hard to fear the heroes will lose when their enemies are so unclear about their aims.
Yet the good guys’ goals aren’t much better. For half of the movie, Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Finn (John Boyega) pingpong across planets chasing down an artifact only to discover they don’t need it after all. Romance arises, sort of. But it feels lackluster and tacked in—something included simply to ape Han Solo and Princess Leia’s relationship without possessing any of their chemistry.
On several occasions we see a beloved character from the old guard die, ostensibly to gin up the emotional stakes as the loss of Han did in The Force Awakens. Yet in the very next scene, they’re resurrected. Was the point only to remind us how much we love these original characters? That certainly seems to be why a big reveal about parentage crops up, despite not really making sense: It recalls the greater “I am your father” scene that came before it.
This same “let’s throw everything in to please everybody” impulse is also likely what led to what’s being trumpeted as a “historic” first—the first gay moment in Star Wars. Question: When something happening in a single movie franchise now qualifies as “historic,” isn’t it time to declare victory and stop writing these headlines?
The breathless news stories are as silly as the moment itself. In essence, two female characters—characters so minor that neither appears on any cast list on a major film site—lock lips for a split second in the background as our main characters embrace in more platonic celebration. It might give parents pause, but it’s a little embarrassing for any movement to claim it as some sort of triumph. What it seems most like is Disney desperately hoping to avoid a kicking from the progressive entertainment police.
Instead, moms and dads might need to be more aware of Palpatine’s followers. Hooded in dark cloaks while monotonously chanting in an underground lair, they suggest nothing if not a Black Mass. That, along with some minor bad language, calls for taking the PG-13 rating seriously.
The Rise of Skywalker may leave the Stars Wars saga on a bit of a down note, but fans always have this New Hope: With the box office numbers this film is sure to win, another reboot is just around the corner.