It ends just as predictably as it began, a trilogy of “Star Wars” movies built on George Lucas’s Greatest Hits.
J.J. Abrams produced three of the biggest blockbusters in screen history, and with “The Rise of Skywalker,” directed two of them. But deja vu, corporate demands for characters, living and mechanical, suitable for toy shelves and his own intimidation by the scale of it all produced the two worst movies on Abrams’ action-packed resume.
As somebody who has been pounding these films as unoriginal “glib facsimiles” of the “New Hope” trilogy, at first as a lone voice, eventually joined by a growing chorus of others, I’ve taken no pleasure in that complaining, and not much more in the movies.
So no spiking the ball in the end zone, no more “I TOLD you so’s” about “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
The endless pandering, “fan service,” reviving favorite characters for a final bow, bringing back beloved bits of tech, means “Skywalker” will make another mint. But those simple happy patrons loudly proclaiming “critics are IDIOTS” as they blissfully exited the opening night showing I caught have some explaining to do.
You’re not under the illusion that the plot Abrams concocted to confine this trilogy to was anything fresh or surprising, that casting blunders at the outset haven’t grown more obvious with each film, right?
Tell me you didn’t see a mid-space rescue mission straight out of “A New Hope” coming. Darth Vader choked and tossed around a member of the Empire’s Joint Chiefs of Staff once upon a time. Kylo Ren does it here.
The villainous Sith are revived, the monstrous Emperor returns to venomous life — soap opera style. “The Force” isn’t the only thing that “will be with you, always.” It’s all a rehashing.
Because, hell, they couldn’t come up with anything better and were afraid to try out anything new that wasn’t a Jetski on tracks on sand, a trimaran to pound through alien seas or a droid (D.O.) that Amazon couldn’t deliver by Christmas.
Let’s introduce another badass bounty hunter type, cast Keri Russell in form-fitting jumpsuit, give her a past with the rakish space pirate Poe (Oscar Isaac), and keep her damned helmet on for the entire movie.
Deaths that aren’t really deaths, light saber duels showcasing the growing supernatural skills of the young Jedi? A desperate, pull-out-all-the-stops final battle? Exactly the same action beats that Lucas introduced over 40 years ago.
The story here drags everybody off the laurels they were resting on, because the hapless Vader Lite Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has been lured into teaming up with a supposedly dead blast from the past, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDirmid).
“The First Order” of the Sith didn’t work out. Let’s gather “The Final Order” together and pose them for some cowled Blue Oyster Cult album cover scenes.
“Don’t Fear the Reaper,” J.J. But nobody fears Emperor Palpatine either, for Pete’s sake. Not any more.
Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her pals Chewie, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe and droids must figure out where the voice of Palpatine is coming from, a “hidden world of the Sith” where he’s been amassing hardware as the Empire has set out to “harvest more of the galaxy’s young” to fill those storm trooper ranks.
No wonder none of them have ever been able to shoot straight. They were conscripted.
Rey figures out, from Luke Skywalker’s old treasure map, that there are these magical compasses straight out of Hogwarts that will guide them to the planet X-Egul. They take on a quest just to set up another quest that will eventually get us to the Big Space Battle.
Meanwhile, half-siblings Rey and Kylo are swapping ESP light-laber blows and disembodied trash talk.
“I’m going to find you and turn you to the Dark Side!”
Three films in, and Ridley has mastered the fierce scowl and “stick the landing” poses of a superhero movie. She has not, in any sense, created a character who moves us with her expressions of fear or grief. Every time somebody she cares about dies, it’s dry tears all around.
Driver is going to get an Oscar nomination for “Marriage Story” and never look back on these movies (he hates looking at his performances) ever again. He has reason. He’d have been better served playing Kylo in a helmet the entire time. His facial expressions trying to capture the character’s conflicted nature, with even his flashes of temper looking like he’s about to cry, are risible here — laughably off.
The casting issues aren’t limited to the poor actress Boyega, playing the ex-storm trooper who cries (Finn), threw under the bus in interviews about the end of the trilogy. Boyega is adequate, no more, in the action scenes, and he and Isaac (as smuggler/rogue/substitute Han Solo, Poe) have a sparkle to their bro-banter.
But pairing them up as co-equals and co-“generals” only lets Isaac upstage Boyega in every single second of screen time they share.
The high-mileage “original stars” fare little better, although Billy Dee Williams still twinkles with charisma. Digitally reanimated Carrie Fisher is a drab, unemotional shell of the real thing, and Mark Hamill literally shrinks in his Wise Old Dead Jedi robes in scenes where he’s advising his protege.
New addition Richard E. Grant makes little impression, but as I said, Isaac and Boyega manage their banter well.
And the movie’s message, “They win by making you think you’re alone” has a “resist” resonance in today’s world.
A clue as to where all this went wrong, where the stumbling began, might be in Anthony Daniels’ new book,”I Am C-3PO.” J.J. Abrams wrote the preface to it, and he reiterates his connection, as a 10 year-old, to “Star Wars.” When I interviewed him for “Star Trek” he declared he’d never paid the TV show any mind in reruns and wasn’t invested in it in the least.
Perhaps, with all the Disney memos and marketing meetings and focus-grouping, he was just too close to “Star Wars” to give it an arm’s length look and the shot in the arm that it needed. Perhaps TV, where “Baby Yoda” rules “The Mandalorian,” is where this never-ending story really belongs.
If you want to be delighted by “Star Wars” again, pick up Daniels’ delightful memoir.
But after heroically reviving “Star Trek” and managing impressive “Mission: Impossible” moments, in “A galaxy far away,” J.J. Abrams went 0 for 3.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Keri Russell, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill,Ian McDermid, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant and Anthony Daniels.
Credits: Directed by J.J. Abrams, script by Chris Terrio and and J.J. Abrams. A Lucasfilm/Walt Disney release
Running time: 2:21