Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is total sci-fi eye candy featuring about 50 different planets, many spaceships, lots of lasers, good fake animals, a cute new robot—all designed and photographed beautifully. It passes what is pretty much the basic test for any moviegoer, which is that it is fun to watch. But this conclusion to the third Star Wars trilogy has a basic problem it cannot solve. Simply put, who cares?
Does anybody care what family Rey comes from? Does anybody care about the psychic torments of Kylo Ren? Does anybody care about what happens to Poe or to Finn? Do you even remember who Rey and Kylo and Poe and Finn are? I’m not even mentioning Rose. Oh wait, I just did.
If I asked you what was memorable about the first movie in the trilogy, The Force Awakens, I bet you’d say Harrison Ford returning as Han Solo and maybe Carrie Fisher as Leia. If I asked the same about the disastrous second, The Last Jedi, you’d probably say Mark Hamill back as the bitter and bearded Luke Skywalker. Here, in The Rise of Skywalker, we get to see Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian again, and the moment he appears on screen, you could hear people in the theater sighing with delight.
Which is to say, the plots and characters introduced carefully in The Force Awakens and then terribly mishandled in The Last Jedi are primarily notable for how utterly uninteresting they are or have become. This is due, I believe, to a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of the Star Wars universe on the part of its ham-handed Disney supervisor, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and the writer-directors who made these three movies (J.J. Abrams the first and third, Rian Johnson the second). Simply put, they do too much.
These movies are just loaded with plot. Plot, plot, plot. Characters are introduced who are shrouded in mystery, and we are supposed to want to get to the bottom of their origin stories. There are double crosses, and secret spies, and red herrings. New love interests are provided for characters whose romantic lives are of no importance whatsoever. And kudos to you if you could describe the storyline of The Rise of Skywalker 10 minutes after you’ve seen it. As I write, it’s about 45 minutes after I’ve seen it and I got nothing.
So what? What Star Wars introduced into mass culture was the entire concept of "world-building." George Lucas was telling us a fairy tale about a galaxy far, far away a long time ago, and it was the galaxy itself that was of primary interest. Seeing Star Wars on the day it opened in 1977, I recall the wonder in seeing Luke staring at the two suns in the sky on his home planet (after he took a nice long sip of blue milk) and the utter delight invoked by the cantina where weird creatures drank cocktails and listened to a bad band. There were the two robots standing in for Laurel and Hardy. There was the gleaming spaceship of the Empire in contrast to the "hunk of junk" Millennium Falcon being flown by Han Solo. And, of course, the special effect that knocked the world’s socks off and changed the movies forever, when the Falcon went into hyperdrive and the stars lengthened as the ship zoomed into them and vanished.
The world-building was meticulous, but the plotting was rudimentary. There were good guys and bad guys, and a classic black-hatted villain straight out of a silent Western. The hero goes from innocence to experience; the guy who sticks his neck out for nobody becomes a team player; the mentor makes the ultimate sacrifice for the higher moral good, and the bad guy loses. It was simple to follow and made no demands on us. Quite the opposite; it turned out that for many people, Star Wars was the primal tale of their childhoods, and primal tales are simple and archetypal by definition.
The Rise of Skywalker isn’t primal. It’s labored. It’s trying to do things we don’t need it to do and creates needless distractions from the things it should do and does better. The one thing that is for certain is this: Instead of creating new characters after spending $4 billion to buy Star Wars from George Lucas, Disney should have just made three movies about Luke, Leia, Chewie, Lando and Han, older and wiser and angrier and whatever else they might be. You see them, you love them. You see Rey and Finn and Poe, and they could drop dead. They don’t, of course, but again, and for the last time: Who cares?