Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker -- Can J.J. Abrams stick the landing?
Commentary: The final chapter of the epic nine-movie saga is almost here, but I may be too old and cynical to enjoy it.
Rick BroidaSenior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
This week, after a staggering 42 years, the
trilogy of trilogies comes to a close. With J.J. Abrams once again at the helm, the ironically titled Rise of Skywalker marks the end of the nine-movie Skywalker saga. Here's the big question: Can Abrams stick the landing? After his generally well-received first Star Wars effort, The Force Awakens, and the decidedly controversial Rian Johnson follow-up, The Last Jedi, Abrams has the chance to send the trilogy -- and the entire series -- out on a high note. Maybe the highest note.
Can he do it? Will he tell a story that's at once thrilling and satisfying? Give us answers to burning questions? Drop a few surprises along the way?
Let's discuss. Don't worry, no spoilers. But to fully understand my predictions and perspective, you need to know me a little better. Here, then, is my Star Wars origin story.
It's 1977. I'm 9 years old and dragging behind my parents, who have told me nothing about the movie we're about to see. Star ... Wars? Sounds wholly uninteresting. Granted, movies hadn't yet played a formative role in my life. I remember laughing at Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak and Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. In fact, the latter opened the same weekend as Star Wars, and I'm sure I saw it first.
But on that fateful day, I'd experienced precious little science fiction, save perhaps for a few Star Trek reruns. I liked the spaceships, sure, but beyond that it held little appeal. Hence it was a very glum little Ricky who plopped down in his seat. No runaway trains? No Trans-Ams? No, thanks.
I don't remember how long it took for my brain to catch fire. Was it when the Laurel and Hardy robots strolled through a flurry of blaster fire, causing the theater to erupt with laughter? Or when the monstrous figure in a black cape hoisted a man by the neck, causing a collective gasp? My overall memories of that first viewing are a blur, but I know this for certain: Two hours later, I emerged transformed. Overnight my world became Star Wars and every ancillary aspect of it: computers, robots, technology, outer space, spaceships, movie tie-in books, magazines, action figures, soundtracks.
I distinctly remember going batshit crazy when a TV commercial announced The Star Wars Holiday Special. (Little did I know what I was in for.) I distinctly remember arguing with friends who insisted the movie was fantasy, not science fiction. (Technically, they were right -- because The Force -- but they were also snobby dorks. When I think of sci-fi, I think of Star Wars.)
Flash-forward to 1999. I'm 31 and, like everyone else on the planet, holding a ticket to see The Phantom Menace, the first of three Star Wars prequels. Three! If the original movies looked incredible with 70s and 80s technology, imagine how they'd look on the cusp of the 21st century.
Two hours later, I emerged... well, like everyone else on the planet, confused and disappointed. What... the hell... was that? Trade disputes? Midichlorians? Jake Lloyd?
Eh, OK, even George Lucas can whiff once in a while. He'll pull it together for Attack of the Clones. And Revenge of the Sith.
Nope. And nope. I'm not saying the prequels are bad, just that I have no desire to watch them ever again. They're dull and soulless and dumb and I hate them I hate them I hate them.
Flash-forward to 2015. Star Wars continues! Blessedly, with George Lucas' misguided pen nowhere in sight. Instead, The Force would reawaken under the careful eye of J.J. Abrams, the man behind Alias, Lost, an excellent Mission: Impossible outing and a damn fine Star Trek reboot. This is gonna be good.
But it wasn't good. Although The Force Awakens had more nuance in its pinky toe than all three prequels combined, it gave us flat characters and a nonsensical (to say nothing of rehashed) plot. It asked us to love Rey and Finn not because we felt for them or identified with them, but simply because they were the stars of a Star Wars movie. Nothing about the story felt organic; instead, we were force-fed (sorry) our heroes, villains and plot points. The Millennium Falcon is just sitting around with the keys in the ignition? Finn and Poe Dameron are BFFs after spending, what, five minutes together? And, come on, another Death Star?
Watch this: Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker trailer tees up saga's culmination
I won't say much about The Last Jedi, because that was a Rian Johnson joint and we're here to talk about Abrams' latest. I'll give it praise for at least trying to mix up the formula, even if it failed miserably at times. Its worst offense: turning our innocent Tatooine farmboy-cum-Jedi, our beloved hero, into a dick. If you're going to dig up Luke Skywalker, don't make him grumpy and unlikable. And if you're going to kill him at the end, figure out a way to do it that doesn't leave everyone scratching their heads. "Huh? He died from... Force-projection exhaustion?"
Watch this: First look at D-O, the interactive Star Wars toy droid
So here we are, one movie left, with Abrams quarterbacking again. Sure, I'm hoping it'll be great, or at least good, but my inner child -- who's been sulking in the closet ever since 1999 -- is dubious. The truth is I have low hopes for The Rise of Skywalker, in part because Abrams has a mixed track record when it comes to closure (see: Alias, Lost, etc.).
But the larger problem might be the script: Abrams co-wrote it with Chris Terrio, who penned Batman v Superman and Justice League -- a pair of incredibly bad films. Some (maybe most) of the blame there goes to director Zack Snyder, but I fear The Rise of Skywalker has rot in its bones. There's no solid foundation on which to build, no way to conclude a story which, let's face it, concluded at the end of Return of the Jedi. Where I'm aching for something original, or at least logical, I expect we're in for more nonsensical moments (a decades-dormant R2-D2 suddenly wakes up because ... the movie's about to end and it's time to find Luke?) and intelligence-insulting action sequences (the First Order's fleet can't catch the Resistance ships until they run out of fuel?!).
Ah, but what about the trailers? They look cool, right? I'll have to take your word for it, because I don't watch trailers. Trailers ruin movies. I don't want any jokes spoiled, visuals revealed, surprises telegraphed. I want to go into the movie cold, with close to zero idea what's coming. The more you've seen in advance, the less you're going to enjoy the film. Period.
Full disclosure: I briefly broke my rule, only because I'm feeling pretty "over it" about the whole franchise. I watched the first teaser, the one with Rey staring down, then running from, a land-skimming TIE Fighter, which just seemed ridiculous out of context.
Then I heard that familiar, menacing cackle at the end, and that's when I knew I was in for another disappointing Star Wars outing. So Emperor Palpatine is alive, apparently? How original. The Force Awakens gave us Death Star 3.0; looks like The Rise of Skywalker is going for Big Bad 1.0. Yawn.
There's another shadow looming over The Rise of Skywalker, one that's sad and inescapable: However the movie handles the death of Princess Leia, it'll feel artificial and contrived as it forces us to remember dearly departed Carrie Fisher. It'll take us out of the story for that collective in-memoriam recognition.
Think of Star Wars' best moments. Luke and Leia swinging across the chasm. Han appearing at the last second ("Yee-haw!") to give Luke the all-clear. Yoda raising the X-Wing from the swamp. Darth Vader spilling the beans; Luke's gut-wrenching reaction. The shock of Lando's betrayal. Vader saving his son from the Emperor (before George Lucas ruined it with that insipid "Noooooo!").
No modern Star Wars movie has given us a single goose-flesh moment to rival any of these, and that's all the evidence I need that the Skywalker saga will go out in a blaze of Force-push, with very little pull. Prove me wrong, Abrams.
See a galaxy of new Star Wars toys from Rise of Skywalker, Mandalorian and Fallen Order