When Star Wars debuted in 1977, it was an immediate revolution of cinema and culture. Audiences voted with their wallets: This is how we want our stories delivered, and these are the stories we desire.
Four decades later, Star Wars is less a cinematic revolution and more a cultural one. 2015’s The Force Awakens kicked off a string of franchise remakes starring female leads, while the visage of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) became the honorary icon of the Resistance following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. 2017’s The Last Jedi leaned into the multi-threaded beast whole hog to both delight and chagrin. Out came the Star Wars fanboys, so upset they were, they called for Disney to start again and refashion their beloved modern-day King Arthur tale in their image.
Audiences wanted the movies to look back on past glories fondly; audiences wanted the movies to move the cultural conversation forward. They wanted nostalgia; they wanted progress. The center could not hold. There once was a time when Star Wars could unite that which politics divided. That time has passed.
And, so, we come to the final installment (for now), Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker. Let the heavy lifting begin.
Like previous installments, Episode Nine begins in media res: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) searching the galaxy for puppet master supreme, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Ren finds him, infirmed and frail but seemingly incapable of dying. Palpatine has amassed a fortune of followers, and, with his last gasp, is ready to crush the rebellion once and for all. It’s his Final Solution — pardon — Final Order.
Who stands in the path of this powerful despot? The last Jedi: Rey (Daisy Ridley), clothed in the same egg-shell-colored cloth Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) sported all those years ago. It’s worth noting Rey’s costume design: Functional and comfortable. When she stands next to Ren — stylish black cape, padded black sweater, black helmet with red veins running all around — it looks obvious who would win in a fight. He has the theatrics, but she has the range.
Costume design, metaphors of fascism, the iconic hum of lightsabers and the screech of spaceships — they all work beautifully. What doesn’t work: The curtain call of characters trotted out in the name of fan service, the constant threat of sacrifice where there is none, and a story crafted by four writers who lean so heavily on old tropes and familiar faces that they fail to create their own sense of wonder.
Visually, Skywalker is awash in special effects, dramatic close-ups and smash cuts. It’s like watching a runner trip mid-stride: Keep moving forward, no matter how clumsy it looks, or fall flat on your face.
Rise of Skywalker doesn’t fall flat on its face (for a movie two-and-a-half hours long, it’s pretty engaging). But temporary engagement does not a movie make — or a franchise. Somewhere along the line, the thread was lost. Try as they might, it doesn’t feel like hope, and it doesn’t feel like rebellion. It feels like another asset in a multi-national corporation’s portfolio. It feels like commerce. That’s entertainment?
ON THE BILL: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens Dec. 20.