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The Rise of Skywalker: An Imperfect Ending, But Provides Populist Hope in Dark Times

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

A lot of digital ink has been spilled already discussing the failures of The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not a bad movie, but it has the weight of literally four decades of expectations and fandom riding on it. It was going to be impossible to deliver something that satisfied everyone.

And yet, it is incredibly clear that this film tried to do exactly that. Unfortunately, in trying to do and be everything to everyone, it ends up doing none of those things particularly well. Its plot twists are predictable enough that they’ve been guessed already by a thousand angry Reddit fanboys. I hope they are pleased with what they got.

Because what this movie feel like is “safe.” It’s the cinematic equivalent of gluing in the firing rocket from Boba Fett’s jetpack because you’re worried someone will hurt themselves with it. Yeah, it’s still a Boba Fett figure and therefore pretty damn cool. But when you create something for mass consumption based on the idea that we have to please an (angry) lowest common denominator, you end up serving up something that is blander than it needs to be.

The Force Awakens worked because despite its reliance on nostalgia and creating a new hero’s journey for our new characters, it was a reinvention of the original Star Wars for a new, diverse, and female-led generation of fans. People got angry. All the right people got angry. Good art should do that. Then The Last Jedi took that and turned it to 11. It subverted expectations and tropes, delivering something that was divisive in all the right ways. The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker could not be more polar opposite of movies in that way– as JJ Abrams described it in The New York Times, a “pendulum swing.” It didn’t need to swing that far, JJ.

It’s as if, after making the 8th highest-grossing movie of all time, “But there’s all these people who are Mad Online about it. Maybe we should make the next movie to try to please them.” And that is exactly how we end up with things like the abomination of a car Homer designs, built for the “average” person:

But great art isn’t built like this. Compare and contrast this with three of the best wide-release films of 2019, starting with Ford v. Ferrari. Shelby and the team at Ford didn’t set out to create a car for the average person. Far from it: they wanted a race car and delivered something that was, in fact, hard to drive. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways and delivers in all the ways fans of the detective mystery will enjoy. But it has some sharp corners that you can poke your eye out with. But it also has Chris Evans in a sweater in a scene with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” playing in the background and him telling basically every other member of the cast to “Eat $#!t.” Sharp edges.

And then we have Avengers: Endgame, which was set up with much the same expectations and weight. But somehow they managed to stick the landing. Why giving us a film that both felt nostalgic and literally traveled through the past of the MCU, but ultimately all of that was done in service a furthering the characterization of our characters, especially Tony and Steve. So when the final “I am Iron Man” snap happens, it’s earned, it’s organic, and it’s beautiful. Yes, the giant Avengers Assemble moment at the end is a bit contrived and designed to please, but it’s so fun we don’t mind that we’re being pandered to.

The Rise of Skywalker differs in that its pandering doesn’t feel earned. It feels focus-group-tested and, frankly, boring.

If The Rise of Skywalker fails to perform at the box office, Disney is going to need to do some serious self-reflection. The first step is admitting that you have a problem with an abusive, toxic fanbase. And maybe you need to break up with them. Because they’re not letting you be your best, true self. And you’ll never be able to please your abuser enough to make the abuse stop. So stop trying to appease the unappeasable.

Now, all that being said, I actually still mostly like this movie. Because Star Wars is like ice cream. Even if it’s not your favorite flavor, it’s still ice cream, dammit. Even if it’s insipid and bland, it’s still pretty damn cool.

The film is a little basic. Most of the first two acts are a giant MacGuffin hunt, culminating in a final showdown between good and evil with a massive space battle raging overhead. It is very on brand for Star Wars. But what exactly were we expecting?

Keri Russell is Zorii, my new favorite character. She’s badass. She puts Poe in his place on several occasions. And their angry/flirty banter is like straight out of Moonlighting. She also offers the film’s populist message (not these exact words, but this sentiment): the powerful divide us and make us feel like we’re alone. But if we remember that there are more of us than of them, we can unite and overthrow them.

Of course, Poe does his same move that he does in The Last Jedi, and take the words of a smart, successful woman and repeat them back to everyone in a rousing speech– and everyone listens to him. But in this case, unlike his foil Admiral Holdo in TLJ, Zorii is sexually available to Poe (her last name is BLISS like she’s a goddamn Bond Girl. . . yikes), so her putting him in his place and explaining the meaning of the movie isn’t going to ruffle anyone’s feathers. I say this more out of a sense of awareness of the sexism at the base of criticism about TLJ than as a complaint about this movie, because I really like all the business between Zorii and Poe, and Russell and Oscar Isaacs have a definite chemistry, even when she is acting underneath that helmet. But that also says more about me as a heterosexual middle-aged white male who has had a crush on Keri Russell since she was on The Mickey Mouse Club than it does about The Rise of Skywalker, except, again, that it feels the film was built to be almost aggressively pleasing to me.

The same is true of the conflict between our two main characters, Rey and Kylo Ren. There is conflict, there is that strange romantic tension that ReyLo shippers pick up on. Oh, ReyLo shippers. . . there is so much in here for you to enjoy. Everyone else? Well, there is at least one thing in the movie that is likely going to be divisive. But the fights between the two of them are a lot of fun.

But some of the best payoff in The Rise of Skywalker comes in its opening moments where (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone) there are scenes of Leia training Rey as her new Jedi Master. This film sends off Carrie Fisher in some amazing ways. While some of it seems maybe a little forced, it’s mostly just great.

There are some big hero moments near the end. They’re a lot of fun, but they punctuate a final act that feels a little messy. But we get to see Lando fly The Millenium Falcon again and team up with old friends. Billy Dee Williams has never been better. It almost forgives a lot of the messiness and contrivances that get us there.

My biggest complaint is how so many of the side characters get sidelined, especially my precious Rose Tico. She is given almost nothing to do, and in the final act heroics, Finn is paired up instead with new character Jannah. Don’t get me wrong, Jannah is great and presents some great foil moments for Finn because of her backstory (no spoilers on that), but the problem with this is it feels like in the first movie they tried to pair Finn with Rey, then in the second with Rose, and certain segments of the audience rejected that. So they give him, as with Poe, a foil who is sexually available and also black as though we’re sort of subtly saying “Oh, these two characters should be together.” That gives me oogey feelings because, again, it feels like playing to the lowest common denominator: “Here’s a ship no one can get upset about.”

But then on the other end of the spectrum, there’s C-3PO and Chewbacca. Both play integral roles to this story, and Threepio specifically steals every scene he’s in. If you would have told me C-3PO was the breakout performance of the movie months ago, I would’ve laughed in your face. It is, nonetheless, true, and he’s absolutely amazing. New droid D-O is also a lot of fun. There are also some cameos, especially near the end, that made me squeee with delight. Specifically, one character who I’ve waited the entire new trilogy to show up makes it on screen, if only briefly.

But that beautiful populist message ends up ringing loud and true through that final act. It feels in so many places like a very direct middle finger to Donald Trump, to Boris Johnson and Brexit, to all the other forces in the universe who stand with the dark side. Just don’t tell Xi Jinping, or else Star Wars will get banned from China. And no way will Disney be willing to take that.

For all the complaining about The Rise of Skywalker, it isn’t really a bad movie. It just isn’t the great movie it could’ve been. I shouldn’t be arrogant enough to expect that Star Wars is always going to cater to my tastes and be my wish fulfillment (in this case for more complex, subversive material). But, it’s incredibly important to let people like what they like. I’m sure there will be millions of Star Wars fans who love this, and I’m determined to let them have their fun. It’s doubtful the toxic parts of the fanbase will be so kind or will even like this. Maybe Lucasfilm can learn a thing or two from their corporate cousins at Marvel.

3.5 out of 5 stars