How do you review a movie like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? A movie the whole world wants to know about but doesn’t want to know about?
By giving people choices. So here, reader, is a choose your own adventure review of The Rise of Skywalker. You may recognize the format from our review of JJ Abrams’s first mystery box of a Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. Navigate below for as little or as much feedback as you’d like.
Please note: no portion of this review discusses anything that would qualify as an actual spoiler for the film, such as major reveals, nor does any portion of the review detail anything more than you’d see in a typical movie review. If you want actual spoilers, go check out Reddit or something.
Level 1 Review, e.g.
DID YOU LIKE THE MOVIE, YES OR NO? THAT’S LITERALLY ALL I WANT TO KNOW.
This was a lot of movie shoved into one movie, and there were parts I liked. It’s not in my best or worst movies of the year. As its own entity it functions much better than it does as a part of something larger. I don’t, however, think it was successful overall as a third act in this trilogy.
If you want to know what I liked and didn’t like in a general sense, without plot details, buckle up and read on.
Level 2 Review, e.g.
WHAT DID YOU LIKE OR NOT LIKE ABOUT IT? NO PLOT DETAILS, PLEASE.
For some background on my Star Wars tastes – I loved The Force Awakens for its amazing ability to craft characters and build a new world for this series. I liked, but didn’t love, The Last Jedi, which I think achieves higher highs than TFA (Rey and Kylo got the best scenes, and the battles of all kinds look incredible) and lower lows (the casino fetch quest, Poe, etc.). The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson had some great ideas and an eye for stunning visuals, and Abrams is a master at character generation and puzzle building. I think they complement each other well and could have, working in unison, created an amazing trilogy from start to finish.
What we got, instead, was an Abrams movie, followed by a Johnson movie, followed by an Abrams movie, with ongoing diminishing returns as each pivoted from the other instead of organically growing. Clearly distinct movies operating in separate domains with separate ideas and goals. The result is a disjointed experience and a disorienting final chapter that spends too much time retreading old ideas and not enough time creating new ones.
None of this was a huge surprise to me, though, and The Last Jedi arguably suffered from this too. What did catch me off guard is the way The Rise of Skywalker looks. I thought one of the most unifying aspects of the first two films in this trilogy is that they were both visually breathtaking. TFA used lots of negative space and sprawling desert to paint a beautiful picture, and TLJ used evocative colors and bold contrast to create a vivid palette for its story. It seemed fair to assume this third movie would look great, if nothing else. But The Rise of Skywalker looked muddy, busy, and messy. It mostly trades stunning, sprawling canvases for cramped interiors and feels like a movie shot almost wholly in a studio and on fake sets. Everything happening on screen feels like it’s out of utility rather than composition.
There were parts I liked, though, and they mostly come back to character work. As has been the case all along, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to be a compelling and masterful villain. His character arc is close to being exactly what I wanted. I also felt like Poe (Oscar Isaac) was largely underserved by TLJ, and I think this film does a good deal to correct that, putting him squarely in the film’s foreground by giving us a small bit of insight into his backstory. In small ways, too, it feels like a film that knows its characters and their sense of humor. And even though the film is the trilogy’s final chapter, The Rise of Skywalker also manages to introduce several new characters, both humanoid and alien. I liked almost every new addition without feeling like they were taking away from the overall narrative, which isn’t an easy feat. Lastly, it didn’t feel like there were any unimportant “B” plots in The Rise of Skywalker. There’s plenty of McGuffin chasing and fetch questing, but the core group of characters does this together, all propelling to the same plot point.
Feel like you’ve had as much information as you can take? Kylo will see you out.
Level 3 Review, e.g.
OK BUT CAN YOU PLEASE BE MORE SPECIFIC? I’M NOT SCARED.
The Rise of Skywalker takes place an undetermined amount of time after The Last Jedi and focuses on the return of Emperor Palpatine. Both the good guys and the bad guys want to know where he is and what his plans are, and they spend most of the film hunting down devices that could lead them to his coordinates. Kylo Ren wants to find him because he views Palpatine as a threat to his own power, while The Resistance needs to find him to protect themselves and their cause. Rey, meanwhile, struggles to fulfill her Jedi training and understand her place in this narrative, particularly given the confusing connection she felt with Kylo Ren.
The politics of this trilogy have never been very clear, so for this non-expert viewer, I assumed Palpatine was simply an addition to The Bad Guys. But Kylo Ren being egotistical enough to view Palpatine as a threat instead of an ally is an interesting pivot from what I expected, and one which pits The First Order and The Resistance against each other when vying for the Emperor’s coordinates but also in search of a mutual goal: Palpatine’s destruction. This all works for me in its broad strokes.
When I say The Rise of Skywalker retreads old territory, though, I don’t just mean the original trilogy. It certainly has callbacks and nostalgia for the older movies in spades, of course. But it’s clear Abrams felt he had to rectify the trajectory for this movie that was set in the second film, rendering so much of that movie null and void. The Rise of Skywalker relitigates ideas that seemed settled and even moves some of its characters backwards in order to push them forwards again. On a whole it feels too much like a course correction to instead of a natural extension of TLJ. Because of that course correction, we get too much plot shoved into the confines of the 2 hour and 20-minute film – in some ways this movie feels like a miniature episode 2 and 3 stuck together.
My biggest problem with The Rise of Skywalker, though, is how it lands its most important moments. These are moments where I appreciated the idea but the execution of it was just underwhelming. They arrive with mostly a dull thud instead of a rush of excitement and emotion. Some of that is just due to them being awkwardly shot or staged, but there were at least two moments where I felt like I should be taking in the scene with a lot more emotion than I did.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker had a monumental task to undertake. It’s been a year of controversial endings (Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones), proving how difficult it is to close sprawling narratives without some people feeling left out in the cold. RoS wasn’t a total bust, for me, and I enjoyed large parts of the ride. If you hated The Last Jedi, you might even love it. But it’s hard for me to see it as a successful third installment because it spends too much time dwelling on its past and not enough on its future. Kylo Ren said it best: You’re still holding on! Let go!