Star Wars IX: Rise of Skywalker is emblematic of why poor movies are produced when the wrong directors are hired and more focus testing than necessary is conducted. Rise of Skywalker contains nothing that made the Star Wars universe, and the characters living in it, so beloved and treasured throughout the world.
As a movie watched solely for entertainment and watched only once, it is fairly serviceable, but that is as far as it goes as a work of cinema. It is jammed pack with beautifully shot and edited action sequences that don’t show any sign of slowing. One action sequence leads to another with only small breaks in between to introduce new characters. Sometimes a character may tell the audience what is happening. While entertaining, there is nothing of weight in these scenes. A lot of action is happening on screen but in reality none of it is actually important nor does it lead to anything important.
On top of this, the movie treats the audience as not being intelligent enough to understand what is happening. Instead of relying on aspects of story telling, such as subtle foreshadowing, the movie over explains plot elements time and time again.
One such example is the scene where Rey heals an injured snake like creature in the caverns underneath the sand dunes. Why was the snake there? How did it get injured? Why was this animal introduced and given so much screen time if it plays no part in the story at all? The answer is simple. The scene was there solely to show that Rey can use force healing and that it will magically restore the health of a creature. This scene is poorly done. It breaks the pace of the frantic action that happened before during the storm trooper chase, and the quicksand, to establish a plot point for a future plot point in a blunt and ham fisted manner. There is no character or narrative development at all.
Scenes of this type take up the major share of what happens in between the action. Another scene tells the audience, once again, what is happening. In what was supposed to be a touching scene where Leia passes, instead of showing us visually, we have Maz Kanata tell the audience that Leia is gone.
I can only guess that this is the result of heavy focus testing and the result of the focus test groups not understanding concepts such as force healing or needing plot elements explained. This makes for poor cinema. There are more intelligent ways to convey concepts, themes, and ideas to the audience. The director’s vision and methods lack finesse and craftsmanship.
This is not the only issue with Rise of Skywalker. The narrative elements establish nothing of importance at all. The writing uses cheap tactics to tug at the emotional heart strings of the audience without trying to sacrifice anything at all. In doing so, the narrative elements make no impact at all and make for a forgettable experience. Let’s look at Chewie’s supposed death. Kylo and Rey are struggling to control a transport ship that has captured Chewbacca and is returning to deliver the prisoner.
During the struggle, Rey accidentally uses force lightning to destroy the transport. This is a cheap shot at getting an emotional response from the audience by “killing” off a beloved character. However, Chewbacca is not dead, but somehow on another transport ship which was not shown at all. This negates whatever emotional weight the scene had. Not only that, it establishes no character or narrative developments. The scene could have focused on Rey being frustrated and channeling into the dark side of the force for more power. The consequence of giving in to the dark side results in the actual death of Chewbacca. Imagine the guilt felt by Rey if that had been the case. Imagine the internal struggle between light and dark. Imagine how much more relatable the character of Rey would be if that were the case. We all make mistakes, sometimes mistakes we regret for the rest of our lives. The only thing left to do is to learn from it and move on with life.
Instead, we have no further reference to Rey being able to use force lightning. We don’t see Rey struggle with any internal conflict. We don’t see Rey weighed down by guilt. Chewbacca’s supposed death had no purpose and no impact.
Another such scene is when C3PO’s memory is wiped. The touching scene where he looks upon his companions for one last time is undone when his memories are unceremoniously restored by R2D2. Nothing was lost and nothing was gained.
Not only did the narrative elements establish nothing of importance, the characters were not developed at all. We have scenes that focus more on action than anything else. The impressive fight scene between Kylo and Rey on the water crested remains of the Death Star climaxes at the point where Rey fatally wounds Kylo. This scene did not make any sense at all. Rey’s character has been established as a person believing in the redemption of others, of someone who sees the faintest glimmer of light in even the darkest of souls. Rey’s entire conversation with Luke in the Last Jedi mirrored that of Luke and Yoda in The Empire Strikes back. They both believed in redemption. In Return of the Jedi, Luke refuses to strike down his father. In the Rise of Skywalker, Rey strikes down Kylo in a moment of vulnerability when he was communing with Leia.
This contradicts everything established before in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Not only that, this scene is rendered impotent once again because Rey simply force heals Kylo and leaves him there. Once again nothing is accomplished, nothing is established, nothing is developed, and nothing is lost or gained. To make matters worse, Kylo simply turns to the light side after a short conversation with a memory of his father. Compare this to the subtle nuance of the scene in the Last Jedi where Kylo is struggling and fails to shoot Leia in the command deck of the Rebel fleet. The look of loss when his soldiers do it for him instead is incredible. No dialogue was spoken during that scene. It was simple, effective, and emotionally resonant story telling.
The scene where Kylo talk to the memory of Han is well done in that it parallels the scene where he kills Han in The Force Awakens. It would have had some weight had it been built up. The film instead focused on action first and then sprinkled in some emotional cheap shots. Once in a while you may get some genuine scenes like this, but it gets lost in the cloud of distractions this movie is filled with.
To top all of this off is just poor writing. Emperor Palpatine uses force lightning to disable only the Rebel ships in a unbelievable large area in the raging battle above him. Truly unlimited power. Snoke is a clone created by Palpatine? Why not just unleash an army of Snokes to do his bidding considering how powerful he was. Can we talk for a minute about the dagger used to find the Wayfinder? Somehow Rey managed to find the exact spot to stand on and use the dagger to outline the profile of the Death Star wreck and have it literally point to the location of the Wayfinder. This makes no logical sense in any universe. Why not just hide the Wayfinder in a more secure area and leave the location to a trusted person instead of leaving it in the middle of a wreck in a raging ocean where it may get damaged or lost to the elements.
Not only that, so much screen time is wasted on these poor plot elements. Notice here, that no time is spent on the characters and instead on meaningless fetch quests for MacGuffins.
In summary, Rise of Skywalker has beautiful and frantic action sequences broken up by poor narrative elements. It tries very hard to elicit an emotional response from the audience but is not willing to sacrifice anything. What little narrative development remaining is poorly done, lacks logical progression, and establishes nothing of importance. The scene where Rey fights a projection of her dark self best encapsulates the problems of the movie. It tries to live up to the original trilogy by aping important scenes but lacks all of the subtlety and nuance of relatable and interesting characters. Luke’s internal struggle of himself showed a flawed character, and it was a character we came to love because we had time to sit there with him in the swampy waters of Degobah with a charming little green alien. You can’t get to know anyone when they are always running away from you and the film is constantly trying to drag the audience along in a roller coaster of action and forced emotion.