The Rundown: 2 out of 5 stars J.J. Abrams return to Star Wars is lackluster as structure and plotting go out the window in favor of fan service. Despite some well-timed levity and gorgeous effects, the final installment of the Skywalker saga can’t live up to four decades of filmmaking history.

SPOILER ALERT! Full spoiler article

If there’s one thing I know now that I didn’t know before it’s that J.J. Abrams does not understand Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, he’s SEEN Star Wars, I’d imagine he LIKES Star Wars, but it is clear from his latest foray into contributing to Star Wars, that Abrams doesn’t really understand the material on any level deeper than a surface one.

Leading up to the release of Rise of Skywalker, I watched almost every bit of Star Wars content. Thanks to Disney+ I had access to the wonderfully scripted Mandalorian, as well as the previously ‘pay-per-season-streaming-only’ Rebels. I rewatched critical moments from the Clone Wars cartoon, I watched Solo, and Rogue One, as well as Episodes 1-8. From all this content, a clear narrative takes shape. One not simply about the rise of fascism and the plucky rebels who defeat it, but also about what makes someone a hero. The drives that lead heroes down dark paths, and the drives that may allow them to return to the light. Nowhere is the deeper nature of Star Wars revealed more than in the TV shows, where the volume of screen time is vast, and so these concepts can be fully explored.

The deeper meaning of the Force that goes beyond Light and Dark is something that Star Wars has been skirting around for a while now. While in the original series the Force was very binary, Luke and Obi-Wan are the Light Side (the good guys). The Emperor and Darth Vader are the Dark Side (the bad guys). Even though there is some talk about the ‘temptation’ of the dark side, it’s almost laughable that it would hold any allure for our farm-boy hero. The bad guys are dressed all in black and have red weapons, so clearly bad. If you were trying to do good, save the galaxy, why would you ever join a side that screams ‘evil’?

This is where the prequels come in. In the prequels the ‘good guys’ are in power. There are Jedi everywhere. Yet, they can’t seem to stop a single bad guy from taking over the galaxy.

While they seem unintelligent and inept in the movies, the Clone Wars tv show better shows the nature of the Jedi. How they too may misunderstand the Force, in a way that doesn’t make them automatically ‘good’. They’re dogmatic, and adhere strictly to codes set down years ago, and that adherence hurts people. The dark side is painted as something that lets you be free of these constraints, though the dark side does attract what seem to be pretty straightforwardly ‘evil’ characters, there are clear markers where it paints a picture of what the force is about. Balance.

Both those who adhere too closely to just the light, and those who only follow the dark, bring ruin on themselves. This idea was brought to a head in The Last Jedi. In The Last Jedi we have both dark and light side characters coming to the realization that what ‘side’ they’re taking isn’t all that they are. We have Kylo Ren turning against his dark side master, wanting only to go out and make for himself what he can. We have Luke pontificating on the failures of the Jedi. How their strict adherence to the ‘light’ did not stop the dark side from taking over, how his successes could not prevent Ben Solo from turning to the dark side. In that movie we start to see the edges of a larger Star Wars universe, one freed from the morally naive binary of light vs dark. Star Wars lives and breathes in a new era of trying to understand the true nature of the Force, and to find, finally balance. Rian Johnson understood that about Star Wars. J.J. Abrams did not.

Finally we get to the main event. It’s time for it all to come to a close, though now Johnson is out and Abrams is back at the helm. When it was announced it almost made sense. Few, if any, of the tidbits of lore we were teased in Force Awakens were addressed in Last Jedi, Johnson was too busy establishing the tone for the trilogy, trying to set us up for the big finale. Abrams was now poised to deliver on the mysteries he held in front of us all those years ago. Snoke, the Knights of Ren, Rey’s destiny. All the bits and pieces that hinted at a richer, larger Star Wars than we’d known before. If only Abrams had built on that to deliver something spectacular. Instead we got this.

Rise of Skywalker takes place an indeterminate amount of time after The Last Jedi. From the opening scrawl we are told that a mysterious message has been sent into the galaxy, supposedly from the formerly-deceased Emperor Palpatine. Both the Resistance and Kylo Ren are desperate to find the source of the transmission. Ren to further consolidate power and eliminate any who would threaten his new position as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and the Resistance, who fear in the wake of the New Republic’s destruction that he could rebuild the First Galactic Empire. Kylo Ren quickly finds the source using a mysterious device, and finds the desiccated Emperor Palpatine, who gives him some new information and a sweet new fleet of Star Destroyers. Palpatine promises to deliver victory to Kylo Ren in exchange for Rey. So the hunt begins anew, Kylo and his Knights scouring the galaxy, and the Resistance desperately trying to find the location of this new/old Sith threat.

From the crawl I was intrigued. Maybe this would deliver. I was excited for what could have led to Palpatine’s return, and how a truly evil threat would change how Kylo Ren and Rey interacted. Throughout both previous movies it was clear that both Kylo and Rey had drives that pulled them towards the opposite side of the spectrum. Rey towards the dark, and Kylo towards the light. A uniting enemy that both could agree was ‘bad’ would be a great first step on acknowledging that both sides of force are needed for true ‘balance’. My hopes were quickly dispelled though, as through a haze of quips and one-liners, it was clear this was worse than just a standard space romp. It was art dictated by fandom. It was focus-tested and pandering, more worried about dividing the fanbase than uniting their narrative.

With scenes that look designed by any angry-fanboy who was upset at Last Jedi for not being ‘Star Wars enough’, this movie wants you to know “THIS IS STAR WARSTM”, but the Star Wars they’re talking about is just regurgitated nostalgia. The mysterious hero is, in fact, genetically predisposed to greatness. Vader is Luke’s Father, Palpatine is Rey’s grandfather. You’re only a hero if you’re born a hero. I think something that I was drawn to in Star Wars was the idea that this little farm boy from nowhere is dragged into a large conflict. Luke learning the ancient powers of the Force suggested anyone could be a Jedi. Anyone could harness the Force. While later movies reinforce the idea that having force powers is a matter of genetics, the Clone Wars TV show and Rebels both expand that, teaching us that the Jedi recruited from all over the galaxy, from any planet, any background. Once again, anyone could be a Jedi.

I always believed that this fantasy is at the heart of Star Wars. This is what Star Wars was, it belongs to any farm boy who dreams of something greater. Of adventure and a wider galaxy. J.J. Abrams has decided no, only if you’re born great. Good luck saving the galaxy unless you’re one of the chosen few. Instead of ‘balance’ we get ‘the Jedi were good and right and they never should have been defeated, oh look now they win!’ even though we have hours of content that suggests otherwise. That the Jedi were flawed and they made mistakes. This entire attitude, this re-affirming of the genetic superiority of the Skywalkers, sends a very clear message in how it’s framed. It’s to undo anything deeper that Rian Johnson may have wanted to bring to Star Wars. J.J. Abrams does not understand Star Wars.

You can almost see the twitter rage above every scene that undoes any complaint about Last Jedi seen online. Kylo Ren saying things like ‘when I told you who your parents were I didn’t give you the whole story, ACTUALLY there’s more’, it’s clearly in-universe errata, written at the whims of fanboys who voiced their displeasure at something new, even after criticizing Force Awakens from adhering too closely to an old formula.

All the answers in this film are old. Vader being Luke’s father was a huge reveal in the 70s, but that familial association isn’t as interesting now. ‘Luke, I am your father’ has been memed to death, it’s cliché. All it does now is create weird questions like ‘who did Emperor Palpatine fuck…. and when?!’ which, while hilarious, cheapens what could have been a grander destiny.

Luke shows up as a force ghost to say how wrong he was about everything he said in the last movie. All appearances of a greater understanding of the Force and the Jedi is gone. It just feels like they’re apologizing for something that shouldn’t have needed an apology. A suggestion that Star Wars be deeper than it had been is a way to further art. Mandating it stay the same is demanding its death. Because I know, at least for me, I am now much less likely to watch any new Star Wars. What’s the point? I’ve seen that story. You can tell it over and over again I guess, but miss me with that. I have other things to watch.

Through a haze of competent comedy zingers and graphic stormtrooper death, Rise of Skywalker manages to stay entertaining while being completely devoid of substance. Any grand narrative about the nature of good and evil is drowned out by laser blasts, explosions, and light saber battles. It’s shiny, it’s new, it will grab your attention, but it is an unfitting capstone on 40 years of cinema. J.J. Abrams, how I wish you understood Star Wars.

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