By Darren Franich
December 18, 2019 at 03:01 AM EST
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Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker

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  • Movie

“I’m doing what you did,” says Rey (Daisy Ridley). Who’s she talking to? Does it matter? In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, newer characters go through old familiar motions, and so do old familiar characters, who won’t die even when they’re dead. Director J.J. Abrams imitates anything from the original trilogy he didn’t already xerox into 2015’s The Force Awakens. Did you see Return of the Jedi‘s second Death Star in the trailer? If you think that’s the only superweapon in this movie, then Abrams has a thousand bridges in Brooklyn to sell you.

“The dead speak!” proclaims the opening crawl. The voice of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is mysteriously broadcasting across the galaxy. The Emperor expired long ago, so it would be just stupid to assume he is still alive. But what uninspired hack could be resurrecting his image, and to what purpose?

It’s a surprisingly meta concept, since General Leia is still quite prominent. She’s played by Carrie Fisher, despite the performer’s untimely death long before production started. I don’t really know how Fisher’s appearance was created. It looks like a very high-tech combination of unused footage, digital effects, and terrible writing. Her presence plus the Emperor’s shadowy appearance multiplied by other ghosts from the past equals yet another Disney-branded Star Wars looking ever backward, never forward.

The nostalgia festival proves one final kneecap-slice for the heroes of this sequel trilogy. Rey still suffers from a nasty case of flashbackitis, always almost remembering her parents. Her mysterious past is her entire arc now, and Ridley has to spend another adventure staring with pensive urgency, dutifully waiting to find out what character she’s playing.

Along with her friends Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), Rey’s stuck in one of those fetch-quest plots you tend to get from later Pirates of the Caribbeans. Our heroes need to [deep breath] find a green glowing rock on one planet, and the location of that rock is etched onto a special dagger on another planet, but the coordinates are written in a language that can only be translated on another planet.

Keri Russell appears, briefly and awesomely, as a behelmeted old friend. Naomie Ackie plays a new ally who explains her backstory in her only extended dialogue scene, before blastjumping ensues. Isaac gives Poe a new pranksterish edge, which is fun. Finn keeps yelling Rey’s name loudly, which isn’t.

Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm

The best thing I can say about Rise of Skywalker is that it is sometimes incoherent on purpose. The Millennium Falcon escapes TIE Fighters by “lightspeed skipping” between locations in short bursts: hyperspace, crazy planet with tentacles, hyperspace, asteroid field, hyperspace, etc.

It’s an offense to whatever spatial reality George Lucas demanded from fighter jets screaming in outer space, and a few scenes in Skywalker represent chaos cinema unbounded from all logic. Rey still sees Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in galaxy-crossed tele-conversations, a contrivance that develops goofy new dimensions. Sacrifices get un-sacrificed, and superpowers become super-DUPER-powers. In a sacred moment of apex silliness, Resistance fighters ride starbeasts of burden across the surface of a low-flying Star Destroyer. If I understand gravity correctly, the evil pilots could defeat the rebel cavalry by just slightly dipping the ship’s port side.

Abrams co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Terrio, who also worked on on Batman v Superman and Justice League, poor guy. Those smash-ups had their own weird fixation on resurrecting dead flesh, but you have to credit Abrams for Rise of Skywalker’s top-speed pointlessness. He’s always been an excessive filmmaker, and excess is all he has left for his second Star Wars: huge fleets, bigger stormtrooper squads, the most droid pals ever.

Every character suffers, squeezed between action scenes and runscream hyper-emotionality. Kylo Ren’s turn toward counterculture anarchy was the best part of 2017’s The Last Jedi, and now this sequel rewinds him toward another internal Dark-Light thumbwar. I didn’t love Last Jedi, but it’s notable that director Rian Johnson was fascinated by Driver’s face, letting the idiosyncratic actor play simmering rage and melancholy. Abrams’ camera prefers Driver’s towering frame, shooting upward to emphasize his room-filling physicality. Rise of Skywalker ragdolls all its humans. Rey, Poe, and Finn keep crashing, tumbling, and jumping between ships. Just once, couldn’t someone in this sequel trilogy chill out?

If you enjoyed The Last Jedi, you’ll be disappointed by the walkback qualities of this follow-up. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) gets demoted to screenstaring at the command center. (She can’t join the main adventure because she has to “study the specs of old Destroyers,” now come on.) Another key Last Jedi personality returns with their whole philosophy pointed in an opposite direction. Johnson was anxious about the franchise’s influence, and not shy about suggesting that it would be weird to inherit somebody else’s saga. Abrams is the franchise era incarnate, producing Star Treks and Mission: Impossibles when he isn’t Cloverfielding stray ideas into new spin-offs. Unsurprising, maybe, that his tale requires rigid focus on inheritance and legacy. “I will earn your brother’s saber,” Rey tells Leia, still obsessed with another man’s weapon.

There is one exciting planetscape, where greatwall waves crash skyscraper-high. A couple rando stormtroopers jetpack skyward off speeder bikes. “They fly now?” asks Finn. “They fly now!” says Poe. It’s way cool; they never fly again. Unlike the graytech sci-fi of the other recent Star Wars entries, Rise of the Skywalker embraces the operatic possibilities of spaced-out fantasy: hidden planets, forbidden deserts, a dark pyramid. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) has a moving speech that dissipates into plotstuff. One nefarious character announces the First Order’s intention to “harvest more of the galaxy’s young,” a rather reflexive sub-subplot for a Disney movie. Domhnall Gleeson is off in his own mad farce as officious snarlfart General Hux, who gets the best line in the film.

The story concludes (sure!) the nine-part saga that famously began with a tax dispute on Naboo. The final act aims for tearjerkery with sincere appreciations of franchise lore. Don’t buy it. There’s always been a secret cynicism underpinning Abrams’ Star blockbusters, which adrenalize the pop-est culture of his youth and avoid anything requiring originality or imagination. Now he’s left grasping for source material he hasn’t already replicated — and one late montage even copies a sequence added into Return of the Jedi’s 1997 Special Edition. We need a new franchise designation for this stumbling, bloodless conglomeration of What Once Was. Rise of the Skywalker isn’t an ending, a sequel, a reboot, or a remix. It’s a zombie. Grade: C

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Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker

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  • Movie
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  • J.J. Abrams

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