You've got to hand it to the Walt Disney Company: in only four years and two days, they managed to completely slaughter the golden goose of Star Wars. Like, the strongest brand name in the history of popcorn cinema. That Star Wars.

I say this on the occasion of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, because what the hell else are you going to say? The film completes the "Sequel Trilogy" that began and, somehow, peaked with the very neutered Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015 before swinging for the fences, missing, and hammering itself in its own balls with Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017. I don't love either of those films; fuck, I don't really even like either of those films. But at least they're both doing something. I mean, The Rise of Skywalker is definitely doing something; doing what feels like dozens of things, really, across its heaving, bloated 141 minutes. But I could not tell you what the point of doing any of it was. The film does not seem to have a personality, an overall theme, or a point of view. It doesn't even have a clearly-defined conflict and narrative situation. By the end, I suppose one could say "well, they had to beat X to stop Y", but the only reason X and Y showed up is because the screenwriting team of Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams (with additional story credits for Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly, but I believe we know this to be a contractual thing, rather than anything to do with who actually did creative work) declared by fiat that X and Y would appear at point Z, rather than because they were the inevitable point of the film's organic development from B or C.

Indeed, given how the film has been loudly trumpeted as the conclusion to the nine-film "Skywalker Saga" - a saga that came to a fairly rock-solid end with 1983's Return of the Jedi, and three whole feature films later, I still don't think anybody ever explained how it was dramatically satisfactory to get these stories in the way of that film's finale, but if Disney cared about my opinion, they'd be a very different company - it's annoying how little it feels like The Rise of Skywalker is bringing the plots of the previous eight movies to any sort of conclusion. It doesn't even feel like it's part of its own trilogy: when the opening crawl bombastically sets up the conflict of this entry (and after 20 years, we've found an opening crawl more instantly deflating than the "hey kids, wanna hear about TAXES?" gambit that opens Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace), it does so by introducing a brand-new plot that in no way follows naturally from The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, and goes in further in making the events of Return of the Jedi and thus the entire original trilogy irrelevant. Turns out that the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is back from the dead, and he's decided to broadcast his existence, and his plans for universal domination, on a galaxy-wide channel. "The villain we last saw explode in a cloud of purple energy after being thrown into a miles-deep abyss leading to a thermonuclear reactor is actually alive" is the kind of thing I'll accept as the result of bald-faced creative desperation. It's the broadcasting that really gets up my ass. Why he would do this is not explained; why the plot mechanics require him to have done this is not explained. He's just there, and he's broadcasting, and we've got us a Star War.

The story that derives from this inciting incident is mostly easily described as a fetch quest: the heroes who have been established in the last two movies have to go here, then there, than the third place, and find the thing, and the other thing, and along the way they encounter various new creatures and even a couple of new environments amongst the usual desert planets and jungle planets. What there is not, is a clearly-defined set of dramatic stakes: at one point, a character declares that there are only eight hours left, and I was a little put off to find that I didn't know what would happen in eight hours, nor how many hours it had already been.

With that level of sloppiness, it's no surprise that The Rise of Skywalker ends up feeling like a bunch of random stuff being pitched at the viewer with only the loosest motivation, or that it ends up having no momentum or pacing to speak of. The best one can hope for is that some of the individual moments are interesting by themselves: maybe they introduce a fun sci-fi conceit or location (this happens several times), or maybe they have a good joke (this happens twice). Or maybe they do something productive with the characters - the character, rather, since by this point the film has given up pretending that either generic hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) or goofy comic relief figure Finn (John Boyega) are in any way compelling figures, and conflicted bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is undergoing such a crazily predictable arc that the movie seems mildly embarrassed to cut to him. All of the film's energies are focused on Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has firmly emerged by this point as the only character worth spending any quantity of time with, and outside of a few good reaction shots of Driver, Ridley's performance is doing virtually all of the work of bringing a human element to the boilerplate adventure shenanigans.

Ridley's warm, troubled performance of Rey's self-doubt and propensity towards ill-advised outbursts are the film's main strength; not quite its only strength, since this is still a Star Wars picture, and that means that there are space battles, lightsaber fights, and scenes of people firing blasters in hallways. In none of these cases does The Rise of Skywalker find the franchise operating at its peak, though there are some especially neat ideas in the big space battle in the last half-hour. A lot of it feels more like a Star Wars video game than a Star Wars movie, frankly, and that's true of the plot as well as the construction of action sequences (there's a strong "one mission per location" vibe). Also, the film suffers generally from flat-footed execution of its visuals. In addition to writing, Abrams directs - the first person other than series creator George Lucas to have directed two Star Wars movies, sadly - and he's regressed from The Force Awakens and his two Star Trek movies that were Star Wars in all but name. I would call none of those a masterpiece of film directing, but all of them, The Force Awakens especially, knew how to muscle themselves into some iconic imagery. The Rise of Skywalker has what certainly ought to be some iconic imagery, and in its final new location, a giant arena that speaks of great ancient evil, it even manages to get some. But otherwise, this film is bizarrely close and constricted: the bad old Abrams of Mission: Impossible III is back with a vengeance, the one who has television so deep in his bones that he can only think in terms of close-ups and medium close-ups, and maybe when he's feeling really sassy, he'll break out a medium shot to show how the characters relate to each other. For a film about marvelous other worlds and startling aliens - and I think The Rise of Skywalker probably has as many alien creatures with speaking roles as any Star Wars ever has - this is strangely allergic to spectacle. It hates wide shots, it hates pulling back to gawk, it hates holding on a single shot long enough to let us appreciate any given visual effect or creature design (this is by far the worst-edited film in a franchise that I have generally looked towards to find some real fine cutting). It's a hollow film on top of being a sloppy and aimless one, a scrawny little space opera that once again makes the universe seem smaller rather than vaster, a grandiose myth that feels detached from history, and a hero's journey where every emotional developed is predigested and badly telegraphed. Star Wars has been worse than this before, and I am enough of a pessimist to assume that Star Wars will be worse than this in the future, but as the self-conscious Ultimate Star Wars Movie, it's hard to imagine this being more deflating and bland.

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (Lucas, 2002)
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019)