So it’s saying a lot that the ninth movie in the so-called Skywalker Saga, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” is so bad that it has made me wonder what I was thinking all these years. Did I actually love “Star Wars,” or did I love something about being young and feeling connected to other people through pop culture instead? Getting more “Star Wars” movies has been the equivalent of making a wish on the monkey’s paw: I got what I thought I wanted, but at a cost of not being sure that I wanted it anymore.
Though Lucas’s writing has often come in for criticism, one of the things that defines the original trilogy of “Star Wars” movies written by him and his collaborators was how natural the characters usually sounded, and how carefully their dialogue filled in a fictional galaxy without turning into exposition.Nearly every line of dialogue in “The Rise of Skywalker” is written and acted as if the characters are speaking to people watching them in a theater rather than to actual humans who ostensibly occupy the same fictional universe. (It is a measure of Adam Driver, who plays Kylo Ren, that he’s the only person who ought to come out of this franchise with his reputation substantially enhanced.) There are portentous pauses intended to increase the gravity of certain conversations that instead make the characters’ pronouncements seem utterly ludicrous. I wish I was kidding, but there is a scene in which one character reveals themselves to be a spy and actually says, “I’m the spy!”
Visually, the movie seems to have taken Dolly Parton’s joke that “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap" seriously. Sure, there are the usual flashy dogfights in space, and a sequence set at what looks an awful lot like an alien Burning Man. But the climax of the movie takes place in murky lighting and features visual effects that look at least a decade out of date, robbing the confrontation of the emotional impact and spiritual grandeur it ought to have conveyed. Even in scenes that look better, there’s a fan art quality to the visuals, as if director J.J. Abrams and his team decided to do certain things simply because they looked cool rather than because they made an iota of sense.
Speaking of sense, the plot of “The Rise of Skywalker” is almost too silly to be believed, and certainly too convoluted to bear, even if requests from the publicists handling the film didn’t prevent me from recounting the whole thing here.
Where the original movie unfolded concepts and new worlds comparatively gradually, using these concepts to give us a sense of mystery and scale, “The Rise of Skywalker” skips around frantically. Our heroes race from planet to planet so quickly that we might as well have watched them walk from green screen to green screen for all we get out of each new location. Major reveals come so fast and furious that it’s difficult to take much meaning away from any one of them, and certainly none of them carry the force of Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) declaration to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill): “I am your father.” “The Rise of Skywalker” reverses the plots of prior “Star Wars” movies and makes death less permanent than ever, lowering the stakes as it goes.
This year in movies has been defined by a discussion about the increasingly dominant role blockbuster franchises play in our film-watching culture, and for good reason. Disney, which owns both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, is more powerful than ever, demanding that theaters allocate an ever-larger number of screens to its movies and give it an ever-larger cut of ticket sales.
But while the Martin Scorsese comments that kicked off the most heated phase of this discussion were aimed at Marvel and superhero movies, the dismal state of the Star Wars franchise might provide a better warning about where we’re headed. The Marvel movies, for all their homogeneity, remain reasonably competent in a way “The Rise of Skywalker” is not. It’s one thing to get exactly the familiar entertainment you want when a certain level of quality is guaranteed. It’s another to be haunted by a zombie version of your childhood and to feel as though you conjured it into being yourself.