Spoiler Warning: While I have tried not to reveal any significant plot points from The Rise of Skywalker, this article does stray into somewhat spoiler-y territory. There will also be potential spoilers for The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens.
Last time I wrote this about The Rise of Skywalker: “if it’s only okay – and even if it’s good but not great – the online hate and anti-Disney sentiment will continue”. After all of the controversy surrounding Star Wars over the last two years, which began with the reaction to The Last Jedi and continued through Solo: A Star Wars Story – which significantly under-performed – this film needed to work especially hard to bring fans back together.
Pre-release reviews initially seemed to be positive, but now that we’ve hit release day in the United States and other territories around the world, the full picture is coming into view, and it seems as though The Rise of Skywalker is not being particularly well-received.
Critic reviews are not always a reliable metric for judging a film – after all, critic reviews for The Last Jedi were glowing and completely failed to predict that film’s divisiveness. But this time, it seems as though critics and a significant number of Star Wars fans are on the same side, believing The Rise of Skywalker to be a flop.
As a caveat, this isn’t a review. While I have read a synopsis of the story, I haven’t seen the film for myself, and I won’t until it’s available on home video in a few months’ time. My health unfortunately precludes me taking trips to places like the cinema, and because I knew I couldn’t realistically avoid spoilers for months I chose to read a summary of the plot when it became available. But I won’t dig too deeply into that here – I will save reviewing the film itself for when I’ve seen it in the new year.
What The Rise of Skywalker had to try to do is bring back together two groups of fans – those who liked and hated The Last Jedi. The way to do that wasn’t by picking a side, because by so doing one group or the other will end up feeling alienated. The only way to bridge this kind of gulf would have been to set aside The Last Jedi and neither overwrite it nor celebrate it. There are ways that The Last Jedi could have been built upon to tell a new story which wouldn’t have been controversial. By trying to retcon large parts of it, The Rise of Skywalker has picked a camp and will have unfortunately upset many fans of its predecessor.
As I said last time, bringing back Emperor Palpatine risked coming across as cheap and lazy – and by most accounts, that has been exactly the outcome. Palpatine’s appearance in The Rise of Skywalker – after only the scarcest of references in the last two films and having had essentially no impact whatsoever on their stories – seems to be a deus ex machina. And this is a direct consequence of who was brought in to tell this story – JJ Abrams, who’d set up a mystery box in The Force Awakens that he didn’t know how to solve. He didn’t know how, of course, because he never expected to be in this position.
The decision to break up the writing of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, giving each part to a new writer/director, is inexplicable. It is by far the biggest issue that these films have had, and I’m saying that as someone who loved The Force Awakens when I first saw it, and as someone who greatly enjoyed The Last Jedi. As much as I liked The Last Jedi, the shift in tone from its predecessor is noticeable, and apparently The Rise of Skywalker is yet another change in tone from that film.
After buying Lucasfilm and the Star Wars brand in 2012, Disney needed to get together one team of writers and task them with crafting a new story – one which would play out over three films. If they wanted a JJ Abrams-style of storytelling, leaning very heavily on the original trilogy, then okay. If they wanted someone like Rian Johnson to shake up the whole trilogy and take Star Wars in a new direction, that’s okay too. But pick one – by trying to do both they’ve ended up with a disjointed series of films that have literally gone out of their way to overwrite one another. When there are a grand total of seven hours to tell the story, there’s just no time for rushing around undoing parts of it to cram in something new.
Realistically, this began with The Last Jedi, where Luke Skywalker famously throws away his lightsaber. That moment, set up at the end of The Force Awakens was a literal passing of the baton from one writer/director to another. And instead of taking that moment and building on it, Rian Johnson threw it away and told his own story. And from what I’ve read about The Rise of Skywalker over the last couple of days, JJ Abrams has essentially done the same thing this time too.
Instead of a triumphant return to Star Wars after the disappointment of the prequels, this trilogy simply hasn’t known what it wanted to do or what it wanted to be. Is it supposed to be a reboot, retelling Star Wars’ “greatest hits” for a new generation? Or was it supposed to be a bold new direction for a forty-year-old franchise that had serious issues with its prequels? Someone needed to be in charge to make that decision, and not allow the trilogy to sit on the fence and try to be both – while ultimately ending up being neither.
When I’ve had a chance to see the film for myself in its entirety I will review it, but for now suffice to say that the division in the Star Wars fanbase looks set to continue, and this last best opportunity to patch things up has been lost. That’s a huge disappointment – and an own goal from Disney, as they needed to bring back fans of the franchise who’d drifted away in the last two years. Despite my own personal misgivings about it, The Mandalorian television series has been well-received and hopefully that will go some way to mitigating the issues with Star Wars as a brand.
Indeed, The Mandalorian and its success may well have bought Star Wars some breathing room. Despite that, however, if the next Star Wars project underwhelms or disappoints, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that there’s going to be a major shake-up, including cancellations or possibly even the brand going on hiatus. We should remember, after all, that it’s only in the last four years that we’ve had Star Wars as a franchise back. And it’s only since 1999 that the idea of Star Wars as ever being anything more than three films has existed. In short, we can’t take for granted that the franchise will just go on churning out new content, especially if that content doesn’t meet Disney’s objectives.
Reviews for The Rise of Skywalker, to get back on track, mostly seem to say similar things. The overriding feeling is that, for better or worse, there’s an absolute ton of nostalgic throwbacks and returning content from previous iterations of the franchise. And in addition, the film goes out of its way on a number of occasions to undo and retcon moments from The Last Jedi. Several reviewers have written that The Rise of Skywalker feels like it’s trying to be both Episodes VIII and IX – almost as if JJ Abrams has completely written The Last Jedi out of Star Wars lore and has tried to cram in two films of his own into the runtime of a single title.
One positive aspect of seeing films late is that I know what I’m getting myself into when I finally do get around to seeing them. And with The Rise of Skywalker I have suitably lowered my expectations – which may actually make for a better experience. When it came to The Last Jedi my expectations were similarly low owing to that film’s controversial nature, and I ended up really enjoying it (despite the shift in tone). So we will see – and I’ll report back when I’ve seen it in the new year.
One thing I hope all Star Wars fans could agree on is that more Star Wars on our screens should be a positive thing, whether we’re talking about films or television series. But there are some people who now feel that Star Wars in the Disney era is wholly without merit, and they won’t tune in for new shows nor show up at the box office for new films. That could be a problem for the brand going forward, and one that will have to be addressed. Even if future Star Wars projects are great, I fear some fans have already decided to essentially quit the fanbase, or at most stick to the original trilogy and the now-outdated expanded universe.
It really does feel as though the best opportunity to bring fans back together was missed with The Rise of Skywalker.
The Rise of Skywalker and the Star Wars brand are the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.