Star Wars: Weekend at Leia’s
I’ve pretty much liked all of the movies I’ve seen in theaters the last few years. This definitely isn’t a result of more discerning tastes: now that I’m a working adult, I have both the free time and the disposable income to see way more movies than I ever have before. I’d begun to wonder if maybe the constant barrage of content from the Disney/Pixar/Marvel/Lucasfilm machine had desensitized me to bad movies, that maybe I no longer had the capacity not to enjoy a movie with at least halfway decent production values.
You can imagine what a marvelous relief it was, then, to walk out of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker muttering, “what the fuck was that” to myself.
(N.B. This will not be a spoiler-free review. Consider this your last opportunity to bail.)
Reader, I had so many questions walking out of the theater: Why does the movie’s opening crawl canonize the video game Fortnite? Why do we make such a big deal out of C-3PO’s memory being wiped if he’s just going to get it back with virtually no consequences? Why does Poe need a sexy helmet lady who wears makeup under her helmet (that’s what makes her a sexy helmet lady) just to make sure we know he’s not strictly dickly? What is it that Finn spends the entire movie trying to tell Rey but never actually gets out? Why does Rey, at the very end, ignite her lightsaber in front of this random Tatooine resident and then turn it off, seemingly solely to reveal to us that it’s yellow? And most distressing of all: who was out here lying back and thinking of Naboo for crinkly old Sheev Palpatine?
When the movie isn’t raising absolutely distressing questions like the above, it feels like it’s running down a checklist garnered from trawling speculation and theory threads on the various Star Wars subreddits. Okay, Chewie needs to get a medal, check. Maz has a crush on Chewie so we’ll have her give him the medal even though she has no connection to the medal ceremony from A New Hope, check. Rey’s parents can’t be literally nobody, so we’ll reveal that she’s a Palpatine, check. Carrie Fisher’s dead so we need to kill Leia off, check. So on and so forth. Every choice the film makes feels either extremely boring or extremely contrived. I found myself constantly shrugging and saying, “Okay, I guess this is happening now.” None of the big moments feel earned by the events that precede them — the movie simply bounces from A to B to C, ticking off bullet points from a story outline.
In terms of craft, The Rise of Skywalker also leaves more to be desired. Jokes about lens flare aside, I usually think J.J. Abrams is a very competent filmmaker. Perhaps I was spoiled by Rian Johnson’s absolutely visionary directorial eye in The Last Jedi (say what you will about the overall quality of the film, but moments like Holdo’s lightspeed kamikaze, the absolutely gorgeous use of reds when the skimmers rush the First Order on Crait, the fight with the praetorian guards in Snoke’s throne room — these are absolutely stunning visual moments).
But compared to even The Force Awakens, the visual aspects of The Rise of Skywalker feel dull, muted, uninspiring. Maybe that’s intentional — the subject matter is technically a lot heavier than most previous Star Wars films — but even the incredibly grim Revenge of the Sith managed absolutely awe-inspiring visuals, especially the final duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan. We don’t get anything quite so gripping here. Even the final battle in the skies of Exegol, which should be a feast for the senses, feels too chaotic and random to truly draw the eye in.
This is not to say that there weren’t elements of the film that I enjoyed. I thought the entire sequence in the ruins of the second Death Star was one of the standout portions of the film, visually speaking. The opening sequence where Finn and Poe rendezvous at the ice base to retrieve the spy’s intel is a really proper bit of Star Wars fun. I love that we now have a live action Star Wars film with three major black characters, more than any other Star Wars, all of whom get to have one-on-one conversations with each other. But the good moments don’t outweigh the bad, the baffling, and the boring.
Ultimately, the way that The Rise of Skywalker handles Leia serves as a metaphor for the whole film (a point on which I agree with Tom Beasley’s Gizmodo article). As much as I think that they probably did the best they could under the circumstances, it’s fairly obvious for the majority of Leia’s dialogue that they’re recycling cut lines from The Force Awakens and doing their best to make it work.
She feels like one of those dolls where you pull the string and wait to hear which memorable catchphrase comes out this time. It’s all perfunctory, checking off a list of, “okay, we’ve got this snippet that we can put in, how do we make it fit”. And, sadly, when it comes time to say goodbye to the character, it’s a death that largely lacks impact, partly because most of us have already emotionally processed Carrie Fisher’s death, but more than that, because it’s not a moment that can really be acted.
The film spends as little time as possible showing us Leia’s face in order to avoid drawing attention to the use of recycled footage, but ironically, in doing so it just calls attention to it. The brain goes, “How odd that we’re only seeing this character’s hands or the back of her head during this emotional moment — oh, right, it’s because we’re using a dead woman as a marionette.” It all comes off as hollow, just like the film as a whole. It was like Weekend at Bernie’s but with Carrie Fisher.
It’s a shame that one of the greatest film franchises of all times has to have so poor a conclusion. Of course, the audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes would argue that I’m in the minority here, and if so, good. I wish I liked the movie better than I do, and I’m glad that there seems to be a sizable portion of people who thought it was a satisfying end to the Skywalker saga. I’m just not one of those people.
Regardless of my thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker, I still firmly believe that it’s an incredible time to be a Star Wars fan. The Mandalorian has been an absolute delight and I can’t wait to watch the final episode when I get home tonight. We have a long-awaited Obi-Wan series in the works. There’s a theme park ride where you can pilot the Millennium Falcon. The corpus of extended universe books will soon rival the amount of material available to fans prior to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, and it already rivals much of the old EU in quality and cohesiveness. I can’t recommend enough that you check out some of the things Claudia Gray has been writing, especially if you’re as big a fan of Leia as I am: she has an unmatched talent for capturing the voices of these characters, and part of me wishes they’d just go ahead and adapt some of her books for the big screen (or Disney+).
But The Rise of Skywalker is just not a very good movie. It left me with more questions than answers (and not in a good way), and the whole thing lacked an emotional core capable of actually reaching out and touching me in a meaningful way. It’s not the end of the world that we have a bad Star Wars movie (we’ve certainly been there before), but at least the prequels felt like they had personality and imagination. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t. It feels like J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio trawled Reddit looking for the plot points least likely to make fanboys yell at them. All in all, I have to give The Rise of Skywalker only one star out of five. If you liked it, great. I wish I did.
May the Force be with you.
Photo credits: Disney/Lucasfilm.
All images utilized under Fair Use.