However you felt about The Last Jedi, at least it had something to say. With the much-maligned Star Wars: Episode VIII, director Rian Johnson attempted to make a statement about the insipid allure of nostalgia and an over-reliance on the past. Many fans agree it didn't stick the landing, but the parts that arguably worked--like Kylo and Rey's intimate rivalry, or Luke's shocking cynicism and triumphant redemption--successfully remixed familiar Star Wars tropes into something that felt new-ish.
Unfortunately, The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams doesn't seem to have fully grasped Johnson's message in The Last Jedi--that we have to "let the past die" to move forward. Johnson sought to establish a fresh direction for the Star Wars saga, but in Rise, Abrams is interested in killing only the parts of the past that he disagrees with. Instead of continuing down the path that Johnson set, Abrams swerves the franchise into yet another hard u-turn, cramming enough story for two movies into one, and largely acting like the previous film never happened--or actively retconning it.
The result is a movie that feels less like the conclusion to a Star Wars trilogy, and more like the casualty of a behind-the-scenes battle between the visions of two diametrically opposed directors. Rise of Skywalker bends over backward to undo what The Last Jedi did, just as that movie subverted all the mysteries set up in The Force Awakens. But much more than its predecessor, Rise of Skywalker exudes petulance--like Abrams is mad someone played with his toys wrong, and his only remaining recourse is to scoop them all up and go home.
Rise establishes in its opening crawl that the galaxy has received a mysterious transmission from Emperor Palpatine (something that would have been exciting to actually see onscreen). Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her training under General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), while Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) rendezvous with an alleged First Order mole who wants to feed them information. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), meanwhile, searches for the former Emperor, who he considers a threat to his power.
From there, the story leaps at lightspeed between set pieces, from an alien version of Coachella to encounters with fantastic creatures that rarely last more than a few moments. As the movie progresses, it makes less and less sense. Rise takes great pains to hastily establish answers and payoffs for mysteries established in The Force Awakens, waving away plot points from The Last Jedi with repeated dumps of confusing dialogue. Events that should be monumental are immediately undercut or undone, without breathing room for the audience to absorb what's taking place. Characters you thought must certainly be dead pop up later inexplicably unharmed, while others simply keel over with little explanation. Uncanny CG puppets of familiar actors' younger selves haunt flashbacks to better times. What should be the movie's most emotional moments are undermined by the weight of exasperating absurdity.
Unsurprisingly, Rise of Skywalker is--like both movies that came before it--gorgeous to look at, beautifully scored, and extremely impressive in a technical sense. But to watch this movie for the first time while still harboring any small hope that it might pull the whole conceited mess together in the end is to subject yourself to frustration, disillusionment, and emotional whiplash.
There's a reason that hope existed at all: Flawed as it may be, The Force Awakens did a lot right in the world-building and character department. Beneath Episode IX's disregard for coherent storytelling are the bones--like the Death Star's sunken wreckage--of a compelling conclusion to this saga. Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo are great characters; what they lack are actual character arcs. Rey's life as a scavenger lends her some unique skills, for example, but she spends an inordinate amount of time in this movie simply wandering off, face vacant, while her friends are in danger. Or take Finn--these movies have never actually bothered to dig into his past as an indoctrinated Stormtrooper, and, in fact, Rise actively trivializes this backstory at a pivotal moment when it could have explored it further. The group's dynamic is strong when they're together, but fun banter isn't enough to cover for the fact that these characters have rarely spent actual time with one another onscreen or been fleshed out beyond the surface level.
Leia's presence is unsettling. Granted, it's no one's fault that the great Carrie Fisher was unable to complete this journey with us. But her scenes in this movie are filled with nonsequiturs, dialogue that was clearly ripped from previous films' unused footage and then re-contextualized with new conversations written around them. Other legacy characters, like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Chewie, are treated with varying degrees of respect, and their inclusions are often irrelevant and occasionally nonsensical (you'll struggle to figure out why Lando pops up where and when he does, for example). And don't forget about Palpatine himself (once again played by Ian McDiarmid), who has indeed returned, and--well, let's just say you're going to have a lot of questions when it's over.
And forget about any of the less central characters; Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who was introduced in TLJ, is present, but has about as many lines as the background character played by an actor from Lost making a cameo. New faces like Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell, whose face is never actually seen) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) get a few lines of dialogue each before being casually tossed into the blender and mixed into the background of the rest of the film. New creatures like the infantile puppet Babu Frik and the droid D-O (who turns out to be almost literally a kicked puppy) are charming, but lack depth. Like so much of what gets established in this movie, they're utterly pointless.
That adds to the sense that Abrams is trying to cram the plot of two movies into the space of one. In a hypothetical alternate timeline where J.J. kept control of the whole trilogy, he could have left room between this film's abundant reveals and introductions for the characters to interact naturally and for the weight of emotional twists and turns to settle in before yanking the rug out from under audiences yet again. Instead, Rise rushes at breakneck speed to end each scene and get to the next, never stopping to savor any victory or process any loss or defeat. It adds up to a pale cover of Star Wars' greatest hits--dramatic lightsaber duel, ancient artifact scavenger hunt, epic space battle--chewed up and spit out as a series of loosely related vignettes connected by clumsy dialogue and nonsensical plotting.
The icing on top is a layer of cloying, saccharine sentimentality that Abrams uses to messily spackle in the story's cracks. At one point the characters choose to rely on a plan that already failed them in The Last Jedi, and not only does no one acknowledge that--but it inexplicably works this time, because this movie's condescendingly optimistic tone demands that it must, continuity and logic be damned. At the same time, Rise gleefully plays fast and loose with rules and laws that earlier movies established decades ago, like Jedi and Sith powers, or the capabilities of "force ghosts." Rise even has its own version of the notorious Midi-chlorian--in other words, another new plot device that didn't need to be articulated in the first place getting over-explained to the point of self-parody.
In the end, it all feels simply empty. It should never be so clear to audiences that something in the filmmaking process has gone so terribly wrong--that the people who made the first film in a trilogy apparently didn't bother to sketch out a plan for the second and third, and that the movies' directors had visions for the series' future that were so fundamentally at odds. Star Wars deserved better.