Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It's been true for a while now that big tentpole movies require of their viewers an enormous amount of what I guess you'd call "extra-textual" knowledge — homework, basically, about whatever "cinematic universe" you're about to enter — but Rise of Skywalker is unique to my knowledge in that it doesn't merely require expansive "in-universe" extra-textual knowledge (of characters, groupings, history) but also "real-world" extra-textual knowledge. If you want to understand this movie — not just if you want to get the in-jokes and the Easter eggs and the sly references, but if you want the movie to be legible to you at all — you have to be aware of the meta-narrative: Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi represented an unforgivable betrayal of fans, and J.J. Abrams was brought back to rescue to the trilogy from its deconstruction. Skywalker has a plot and characters, technically, but all of its dramatic energies are devoted to reversing choices made by Johnson in Jedi; chunks of dialog are effectively incoherent unless you are aware that Abrams is specifically countermanding Johnson's vision, and that the actual story of this movie has nothing to do with a Sith wayfinder, or whatever, but is in fact about restoring order and balance to the Star Wars intellectual property.

Maybe that's not particularly groundbreaking. Movies like this are always liberally self-referential and in some ways beside the point; action movies have been accused of being lengthy toy advertisements for many decades now. But I've never watched a movie that felt so extraneous to the vast intellectual-property apparatus that supposedly depends on it. It's not just that everyone involved seems incredibly bored, or that the movie produces no new ideas, even accidentally. (The emblematic shot is of a Star Destroyer falling on to Jakku behind a Star Destroyer that had already crashed there, a literal recreation of one of the few striking images from The Force Awakens and a visual admission that Abrams had produced nothing new from what he'd been given.) The movie is so much more focused on recalibrating the Star Wars brand and conveying to consumers an apology for the sins of The Last Jedi than it is on delivering even a baseline coherent narrative conclusion to the trilogy — let alone an idea, even just a single one — that it can't even be defended (in that back-handed way) as, actually, a meta-commentary on the cultural myth of Star Wars, like The Last Jedi was. It feels instead like a corporate statement meant to provide some clarity on the direction of a global supply chain — a "brand guidelines" memo that lasts two and a half hours.

Given all that, it almost doesn't make sense to engage with Rise of Skywalker "as a movie," except to say that it's strange and incomplete and doesn't really make sense. I find myself drawn to it anyway because the dork in me thinks it's interesting to think about movies as the nightmare secretions of the global movement of capital or whatever, but you'd think a nightmare secretion of the global movement of capital would be at least a little bit fun to watch.

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