The force was not strong with “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” as reviews flooded in Wednesday for the saga’s buzzy finale.
While some hailed director J.J. Abrams’ final “Star Wars” outing as a satisfying bookend to a series more than 40 years in the making, many dismissed it as a disappointing retread too desperate to appease the franchise’s notoriously finicky fans to add any real value. Or, as The Times’ Justin Chang put it, “another endless replay of ‘The Skywalking Dead.’”
The film stars Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac’s new class of resistance fighters in their ongoing quest to defeat the corrupt and deadly First Order, led by Adam Driver’s perpetually moody Kylo Ren. It’s the ninth installment in the decades-old canon, immediately following 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” which was directed by Rian Johnson.
As a point of comparison, several critics referenced Johnson’s controversial installment, which polarized audiences by upending “Star Wars” conventions, insulting purists and pleasantly surprising those who thought Abrams played it too safe with “The Force Awakens.” Opinions of Abrams’ latest entry seemed to hinge in part on attitudes toward Johnson’s.
“‘The Rise of Skywalker’ nakedly offers itself up in the spirit of a ‘Last Jedi’ corrective, a return to storytelling basics, a nearly 2½-hour compendium of everything that made you fall in love with ‘Star Wars’ in the first place,” Chang wrote. “The more accurate way to describe it, I think, is as an epic failure of nerve. This ‘Rise’ feels more like a retreat, a return to a zone of emotional and thematic safety from a filmmaker with a gift for packaging nostalgia as subversion.”
Some had a more glass-half-full take on how Abrams received Johnson’s risky serve.
“‘The Rise of Skywalker’ has to deal some of with the anti-Lucas curveballs that director Rian Johnson introduced into ‘The Last Jedi,’ and it may actually be a better movie for it,” wrote Variety‘s Owen Gleibeman, who also regarded Abrams’ entry as “the most elegant, emotionally rounded, and gratifying ‘Star Wars’ adventure since the glory days of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’”
One major point of debate surrounding “The Last Jedi” was the addition of the earnest and loyal Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, whom cyberbullies infamously and relentlessly attacked after the sequel’s release. Rose returns in “Rise of Skywalker,” but, as Chang cynically notes, her “minimal screen time here will surely delight some of her more racist detractors.”
“The way this film handles the unfairly maligned ‘Last Jedi’ character played by Kelly Marie Tran — which is to say, by completely sidelining her for this last outing — feels like a bad concession to bad people,” seconded Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson.
Another returning character who sparked discussion was, inevitably, Gen. Leia Organa, reprised posthumously by Carrie Fisher via archival footage, which Chang called a “poignant trick.” Others were less kind.
“I don’t really know how Fisher’s appearance was created,” wrote Entertainment Weekly‘s Darren Franich. “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.”
Several also pointed out the nonstop, hyper-speed pace at which “Rise of Skywalker” moves, which some lauded as a visually entertaining feast for action fans, while others were left wanting more.
“The massive jumble of standoffs, near-misses, tense confrontations, narrow escapes and slick victories, while momentarily exciting, can lack plausible motivation and credibility,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “More often than not, one wonders not so much what just happened but why, and what was at stake.”
The film’s “credibility” was also threatened, for some, by (light spoiler) the fact that “death here is never quite a permanent condition,” according to Chang.
“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,” Franich added.
Almost all criticized the era’s end for focusing too intently on fan preferences, accusing Abrams of sacrificing innovative storytelling to appeal, in true Disney form, to the widest possible audience.
“If anything, the director has overcompensated, practically tripping over himself in a mad-dash effort to deliver the expected goods and then some,” McCarthy wrote. “It’s easy to conjure up the image of him as a beleaguered chef in a large kitchen preparing a huge banquet, trying to satisfy lots of customers in the ways that count and not goof up anything too important.”
“J.J. Abrams has delivered a costly tribute to the tribute, with reverse-engineered payoff for anyone invested in these movies but wary whenever they take serious risks,” noted IndieWire‘s Eric Kohn. “It’s spectacular and uninspired at once, playing into expectations with a gratuitous fixation on the bottom line.”
The fans will ultimately get to decide whether Abrams’ dutiful attention to their expectations paid off when “The Rise of Skywalker” hits theaters Friday.