by Kayla McCulloch on Dec 24, 2019

Not everything can be for everybody. The desires of one person do not equal the needs of another. Part of what makes life worth living is the promise of a unique experience. In turn, those unique experiences shape the kind of art and entertainment we, as individuals, choose to enjoy. Somewhere along the line, these simple truths were no longer allowed to enter the board room where nine-figure studio tentpoles are now conceived. This has never been as obvious as in 2019, in which franchises that were once idiosyncratic (even if only briefly) were reduced to indistinguishable gruel for the masses by way of needless sequels.

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Men In Black: International. Rambo: Last Blood. Terminator: Dark Fate. Each colon effectively acts as a barrier between the intellectual property one is supposed to love and the movie that inevitably disappoints. With just a handful of days left in 2019, Disney, Lucasfilm, and J.J. Abrams have teamed up to release Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — the eighth sequel to George Lucas’ inimitably strange and distinctive Star Wars (1977) — which is every bit as gawky and derivative as the title suggests, the convergence of beloved IP and baffling extrapolation that is equal parts congenial and disenchanting.

A direct response to Rian Johnson’s divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), the film picks up some indeterminate amount of time after the devastating Battle of Crait. (The exact number of months or years will no doubt be divulged in some supplementary comic or novel available for purchase wherever books are sold nearest to you.) Backed up by a much larger Resistance than at the end of the last installment, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and the rest of the Sequel Trilogy gang (which, granted, comprises much of the Original Trilogy and Prequel Trilogy gang) must face off against the greatest threat imaginable: the evil Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the series’ puppet master and apparent common denominator, having appeared in five of the franchise’s nine main entries.

Concurrently, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), embittered leader of the First Order, is also searching for Palpatine. As it turns out, the Sith Lord has beckoned both sides to his hideout on the planet of Exegol in an attempt to turn Ren and Rey against one another for his own personal gain. What transpires is a desperate search for a pair of Sith McGuffins — er, Wayfinders — that will guide the two opposing forces straight into the villain’s trap. With the opposition hot on their trail, the Resistance hops from planet to planet and encounters familiar face after familiar face in a desperate attempt to answer the softball questions Abrams introduced all the way back in The Force Awakens (while simultaneously ignoring the series-redefining, canon-altering ones asked by Johnson in The Last Jedi).

Not only is The Rise of Skywalker supposed to provide a worthy conclusion to the Sequel Trilogy, but it’s also intended to be a final farewell to the Skywalkers themselves. A task this daunting would be a struggle even for a veteran like Lucas, let alone for Abrams, who has never had much of a style beyond “Spielberg Pastiche.” The weight of eight other Episodes, four television series, three spinoff films, and countless supplemental books, comics, and video games would crush even the most competent filmmaker. Honestly, Abrams never stood a chance. That’s not to say that he doesn’t make a valiant effort, though.

Star Wars is inherently gratifying. It’s what has kept fans coming back for over 40 years now. A messy mix of campy sci-fi serials, the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, and classic Roy Rogers Westerns, Lucas managed to find a secret chord that continues to please the masses (even though he’s not involved anymore). Abrams’ two entries to the canon are a lot more fast-paced and breakneck than anything Lucas, Johnson, or other collaborators such as Lawrence Kasdan or Richard Marquand turned in, but it somehow manages gets the job done nonetheless. This is probably because The Rise of Skywalker never stops to take a breath once the action kicks in. It’s a neat trick that keeps the audience from thinking too hard about any one component for very long. With J.J.’s camera always moving, always sweeping, always zooming, always panning to the next set piece or big reveal, the viewer’s brain doesn’t even get the chance to process what’s transpiring. The director can be very deceptive in this way, but it seems he knows his methods are effective — they’re present in almost everything he does, but especially noticeable in his Star Wars films.

The seminal score, the instantly recognizable side characters, the unmistakable iconography — The Rise of Skywalker has it all, and it’s unquestionably pleasing to those who have enjoyed these Episodes for decades now, no matter who’s at the helm. While the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy laid their separate groundwork, it’s clear that — judging by the five films that have come out since 2015 — the Lucas-less entries are more interested in building on existing work than in setting out into uncharted territory. Isn’t Poe just a rebellious young smuggler-turned-flying ace for the good guys, a Han Solo in disguise? Haven’t we seen these exact story beats once (or twice or thrice) before? Isn’t Finn just a fearless fighter with experience on the battlefield and history with the bad guys, a gender-swapped Leia by a different name? These are questions that Abrams would rather the audience not ask, as the answers might level everything Disney-era Lucasfilm has built.

The key ingredient in The Rise of Skywalker’s contradictory success-via-negligence is the relationship between Kylo and Rey. Budding in The Force Awakens, growing deeper in the compelling cross-cutting communication sequences in The Last Jedi, and reaching new heights in the rush to the finish line in The Rise of Skywalker, the pair have always been the Sequel Trilogy’s most gripping element. It appears to be the one thing that can’t be found in any of the other Episodes, but can actually be explained by synthesizing the main relationships in the previous two trilogies: Kylo and Rey’s connection thrives on combining the Prequel Trilogy’s impassioned and forbidden love of Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padmé (Natalie Portman) with the mysterious and dubious love of Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher). Their dynamic has always been the most enthralling part of this new trilogy, and this is especially true of The Rise of Skywalker.

It’s been said that no one hates Star Wars as much as Star Wars fans. In the years that followed the release of Lucas’s Prequel Trilogy in the late ’90s and early 2000s, fans turned on the filmmaker and renounced the films outright. An early purveyor of wall-to-wall computer-generated imagery, Lucas’s three films showcased special effects that were nothing short of revolutionary at the time. Moviegoers complained that this digital embrace resulted in wooden performances, poor visuals, and cheesy characters that coalesced into one giant mess. In the wake of the Abrams-Johnson-Abrams Sequel Trilogy, Episodes I-III will be re-evaluated and re-appraised as a groundbreaking contribution from one of the most distinctive writer-directors of our time. Episodes IV-VI will continue to be cherished as the best Star Wars can get. Episodes VII-IX will be seen as a chaotic and tangled mix of everything that came before, a batch of appetizing individual parts blended together into a peculiar gray paste.

From the complete disregard for Lucas’s plans for the trilogy — Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, allegedly promised the filmmaker that his story ideas would not be forgotten, resulting in disappointment when the franchise’s creator first viewed The Force Awakens — to the new blood’s reluctance to embrace new technology in the same way Lucas did with his trilogies, to the lack of a definitive story arc mapped out before production began, this Sequel Trilogy feels more like a back-and-forth between Abrams and Johnson than a necessary and worthy follow-up to one of the most notable blockbuster trilogies in film history. The Rise of Skywalker is J.J.’s last word, a final attempt to say all that he wanted to say with this trilogy without the threat of another filmmaker coming up behind him and challenging his decisions. It’s a question mark, the final bit of punctuation to a trilogy that reads: ?!?

Rating: B