There is a way to enjoy “The Rise of Skywalker,” a film that feels like a to-do list made a wish to become A Real Movie, with all the drama of an escalator ride. You know where you’re going, you get there at a steady pace, and even if you’d be hard-pressed to describe the inner workings of the conveyance, it doesn’t leave any question as to whether you’ll arrive. Go ahead and zone out! Relax a spell. And forget everything that happened in the previous film, and your part of the $1.3 billion box office haul, because none of that matters now.
The 11th Star Wars film supposedly culminates the story that began in 1977 as George Lucas’ weird indie-tinged smash. Remember the days? This installment, directed by J.J. Abrams, has the same ingredients as the past. You have rakish space pilots, powerful space wizards, a dark-helmeted villain, a Wookiee, charismatic robots, the voice of Frank Oz, a fun pantomimed strangulation, scary finger lightning, a speeder bike scene, an exploding planet, laser battles among spaceships, laser battles inside spaceships, a cute space animal who manages to steal the show, Death Star ruins, and dozens of dead stormtroopers whose armor is the only thing that sucks worse than their aim. Shake it all up with some John Williams strings to draw out the emotions and blammo, another billion bucks at the box office.
Maybe it didn’t have to feel this formulaic. Definitely it didn’t have to take what is ostensibly a kids’ story and spin it off in more directions than a “Rick and Morty” marathon till none of it made any sense. The previous installment in this saga, “Last Jedi,” directed and written by Rian Johnson, didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it did tilt weird at turns, turning a slow-motion game of cat and mouse into a race against time, and featuring some genuine moments of pathos. “Rise of Skywalker,” like 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” is a J.J. Abrams joint, and it zags back to the mush center that Johnson tried to zag away from. The price of Disney not establishing a single director or overseeing producer to guide the films is, as you might guess, the lack of any sense of narrative continuity or coherent artistic vision.
Abrams yanks his characters so frantically from planet to planet, from emergency to emergency, that they don’t get time to do anything that lets you become attached to them. The reformed stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) has little to do except yell at other characters that a new enemy has arrived. Oscar Isaac’s pilot Poe, sort of a store-brand Han Solo, interjects a couple of li’l zingers but mostly explains events as if he’s reciting a series of iPhone alerts. The only hero who manages to reveal some of her character over these 152 minutes is Rey (Daisy Ridley), a bona fide badass who still sprints ahead without ever making a choice you could describe as difficult or even morally complex. The best moment of the film comes when she believes she has accidentally killed someone. Then, switcheroo! That character is fine. Also, the big emotional reveal in “Last Jedi” about her parents being nobodies? That quietly titanic shift in the Star Wars universe that suggested anyone could be born into a life of the Force? Yeah, they went ahead and threw that out, too. Seriously, lol, nothing matters.
You can totally just zone out and get your Star Wars-flavored sugar hit from “Rise of Skywalker.” It’s a star war! Heroes, droids, lightsabers, pew pew pew! But as a capstone on the most legendary movie franchise of all time, this is a thorough disappointment. The cast is fine. The effects are fine. The sense of wonder and adventure and beauty are all fine. What’s missing is any sort of payoff that suggests the keepers of these stories cared about them as anything other than an ATM. In the 42 years it took to get from “A New Hope” to now, you’d have been forgiven for expecting a genuine buildup to larger joys or revelations. Instead, you find a franchise content to coast off its savings. The real gift of “Rise of Skywalker” may be that it finally frees a generation of fans from holding their breath for another Star Wars flick, possibly ever again. It says: Look backward to the good ol’ days. Or: It’s time to move on. This is the empire now. There is no rebellion here.