JJ Abrams selects Star Wars’ greatest hits in The Rise of Skywalker

The grand finale of the franchise’s central saga plays like an overturned fanboy suggestion box.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that one of the foundational moments of how I’ve come to understand movies came from reading a leaked draft of Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The script, while clearly unfinished, was filled with Apatow’s improvisational cues: a scene would just finish with Apatow stating “and Adam says something hilarious here.” This upended my view of how movies were made. I had spent years in school being told that every single thing in a movie is a deliberate decision, that every minute detail that came across on-screen was workshopped and fine-tuned by an enormous creative team. Apatow, on the other hand, was telling me there’s an aspect to filmmaking — big, broad, audience-pleasing filmmaking — that hearkened back to the way children assume movies are made. It suggested that there was an aspect to filmmaking that was literally a bunch of friends showing up somewhere and making it up as they go along.

What does any of this have to do with The Rise of Skywalker? Well, JJ Abrams’ supposed cap-off of the Star Wars mythos has upended another notion that I had of cinema. It’s the first film I’ve seen that seems to have been driven entirely by emptying the contents of a hypothetical suggestion box onto a table and placing them in approximate order. Of course, I’ve been aware that blockbuster filmmaking kowtows to decision by committee and aims to please the largest swath of an audience imaginable; I’ve just never seen it done in such a brazen, openly sweaty way. It’s true that The Last Jedi displeased a bunch of people who weren’t ready for the comfort provided by their space friends to be compromised by pesky things like storytelling and narrative construction, but for The Rise of Skywalker to so methodically course-correct everything that happened in that film feels like a pathetic act of contrition. It’s a grand apology that no one ever expected, and that results in a flat, lifeless puck of fan-service meant to appease — never a great creative boundary.

It has been a year since the events of The Last Jedi. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is out in a bog somewhere, practising the Force; Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are still working for the Resistance under Leia (Carrie Fisher, Frankensteined together from old footage); Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has to deal with the return of major Force daddy Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is apparently unkillable. The return of Palpatine has also spelled the return of the Empire, which has rebranded as the First Order for maximal evil domination powers. The return of Ren and Palpatine sends Rey and her friends on a quest for a particular Sith-related doohickey that can help them locate Ren and destroy the First Order before it destroys everything.

Saddled with video-game-adjacent plotting (go get this thing and bring it here; whoops, turns out that thing you’re looking for is elsewhere), The Rise of Skywalker turns into a surprisingly straight-forward adventure almost immediately. All the characters are together and constantly reiterating how they’re all friends; any character “death” is handled so nonchalantly that it’s impossible to fall for them for even a second. Pretty much every twist laid forth by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi is contradicted, making the first hour or so a tedious parade of exposition. There’s a way, I think, to make all of this work, but Abrams comes across with such pathetic hat-in-hand contrition that nearly every narrative beat feels forced and stagnant.

That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker is truly without merit. When it isn’t bogged down in narrative acts of punitive self-flagellation, it’s a fine Star Wars movie: decent action scenes and charismatic actors doing their best with generically smart-alecky one-liners provided. The entire middle act, though not devoid of boneheaded decisions, is entertaining in the same way that every Star Wars movie is entertaining. They even introduce one of their ever-famous cuddly lil’ characters meant to sell toys – this time it’s a tiny mechanic named Babu Frik who looks like a cross between Seymour Cassell and the Crazy Frog, and it’s kind of loveable and cool in a way that usually makes me want to bash my head in, even in the Star Wars movies I love. It goes without saying that, if this entry really is a sort of suggestion-box compilation, some of the suggestions are probably all right.

But what really bothers me more than anything — more than the frantic attempt to tie off every narrative idea ever put forth in the franchise, more than the way the film constantly stumbles upon the threads it sets up for itself — is the way that it somehow squanders the richest universe in blockbuster filmmaking in an attempt to just round the bases over and over again. I’m aware that Star Wars is, above all, a corporate product that will always ultimately have the goal of selling plushies and bananas and action figures and enemas with Yoda on ’em, but a Star Wars movie could be anything with a nearly bottomless amount of lore to cull from, and it decides to just show us all the shit we’ve already seen before because that’s what people want to see. Frankly, the idea of spoilers for this movie is far-fetched: think of a Star Wars thing, and it’s in here. Think of something that you think might happen in the last Star Wars movie — it happens. 

Maybe, in a sense, it’s not really JJ Abrams’ fault that this is such a tired, repetitive retread; he’s only a craftsman serving the needs of the people. The Force Awakens was somewhat similarly a victim of slavish adherence to the beats of the very first film, but that was before fans started realizing that they could just hissy-fit their way into getting the safe, predictable movie they want. The fact remains that, to so many people, it won’t matter at all that The Rise of Skywalker is a bad-faith act of contrition, because it’s the movie where all your favourite guys (and, I suppose, the gal, though it sounds like most people could take or leave Rey) are together zip-zop-zapping the bad guys that look like the bad guys you remember. Finally, a Star Wars movie for people who wear the band’s shirt to the concert and marvel at said band’s capacity at playing the songs exactly how they sound on the record. ■

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 20. Watch the trailer here: