When the movie ended and the credits rolled, the whole theater was just a smorgasbord of emotions. People were cheering, clapping, whistling and wiping tears from their cheeks. What a way to end one of the most popular movie franchises in history. Mind you, I’m describing the crowd reaction at the end of Avengers: Endgame earlier this year, not Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Disney has made it clear that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the last Star Wars film, and anything moving forward is a solo movie or a new storyline. You’d think that the crowd would have been more excited or emotional seeing the end of a beloved 40-plus-year, multibillion-dollar franchise. Instead, people in my theater in the Northwest Washington, D.C., suburbs just murmured a bit and walked out of the theater. The Star Wars franchise didn’t go out with a whimper; Rise of Skywalker is actually a pretty good movie. The problem is it’s the only good movie in the final trilogy and was burdened with having to make up for all the garbage films that came before it.
(Slight spoilers in this review, but let’s be honest, it’s a Star Wars film, so you know there’s some talking CGI muppets, a hero, some lightsaber fights and a big battle at the end.)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker feels like a total departure from the two previous films in the final trilogy, which is both the movie’s greatest strength and weakness. The Force Awakens (2015) was a terrible rehash of the original Star Wars: A New Hope. The Last Jedi (2017) had slightly better action, but the climax was basically a space version of O.J.’s low-speed Ford Bronco chase. The Rise of Skywalker is visually stunning, the set pieces are amazing and the character development is funnier, deeper and more interesting than any of the previous films. Heck, there are actually three whole black people who get to speak!
The Rise of Skywalker’s action sequences are filmed with a crispness missing in all of this generation’s Star Wars films except Rogue One. There is an intricate plot, aliens that step in the name of love (literally), a mystery villain, Rey gets her chain snatched, and there is a big family reveal to boot (I have no idea why every Star Wars trilogy has to have some big “You are the father!” moment. Star Wars baby reveals could totally be a new show on Disney Plus. The Maury-lorian...but I digress). In other words, The Rise of Skywalker feels nothing like the two previous films, especially the Last Jedi, and director-producer J.J. Abrams said as much in interviews—a situation that causes a number of narrative problems.
Even though Last Jedi ends with the rebellion down to a YMCA pickup basketball team flying around in a 35-year-old Millennium Falcon, and Rose (the first Asian-American woman with a speaking role in a Star Wars film) finally swiping left on Finn (played by superstar John Boyega), absolutely none of that plays any role in The Rise of Skywalker.
Scenes that are supposed to have emotional resonance fall flat because the relationships between the main characters haven’t been built up over the previous movies. Guest appearances by famous Star Wars cast alumni seem forced because they don’t add anything new to the plot. Deaths don’t mean anything when you reverse them three scenes later, or worse, we never connected with the character to begin with. The personal relationships in the new Star Wars trilogy have always been a mess of fan service, racial and cultural cowardice and rehashes. Are Finn and Poe Dameron a buddy cop movie? Are they Star Wars’ first queer couple like so many online folks were begging for? Does Rey know that Finn has been sweating her since the opening crawl of Force Awakens? What’s really up with Kylo Ren and Rey?
The two previous Star Wars movies had no idea what to do with the relationship dynamics of the lead characters, let alone supporting aliens and guest stars. The result is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker just makes it up from scratch. Suddenly Rey and Poe have this flirty argumentative relationship, Finn and Poe are swapping one-liners like the intergalactic version of Ride Along, Rey has the hots for Kylo Ren and it takes you until halfway through the movie to realize that Rose and Finn have “taken some time off” from each other. Given how much internet racists went crazy about an Asian woman in the rebellion and a black stormtrooper, it’s pretty cowardly that Disney just Judy Winslowed the whole relationship and expected black fans not to notice. Even Boyega pointed that out in a post-movie interview. It’s not that these characterizations were bad, they were actually really interesting and welcome, but several times throughout Rise, I kept wondering if I had missed a whole other movie in the series because characterizations were coming out of nowhere.
Nowhere is the narrative disconnect of The Rise of Skywalker more evident than with Finn, the lone black guy in a galaxy far, far away. After wasting Boyega’s talent (seriously go watch Attack the Block; you’ll realize he’s a star) playing comedy relief and token sidekick black guy for two movies, he is a completely different character in The Rise of Skywalker. Suddenly he’s competent, funny, a leader in the rebellion and he exudes a kind of black masculinity that Hollywood is usually terrified of. Maybe that’s why they Thanos-snapped his relationship with Rose—I mean she at least deserved the cliched, action woman movie scene where she says, “Look, I love you Finn but you been chasing that white Jedi girl in the toga for two movies now, go...go be with her...I’ll be OK.”—it would’ve made more sense. This especially since Finn spends the whole movie chasing after Rey, who used all of her Force powers to knock him into the ESPN Friendzone since The Force Awakens. Maybe Victoria Mahoney (the first black woman to work as a director on a Star Wars film) peeped this dynamic because she has Finn meet Jannah (played with a ton of spunk by Naomi Ackie), a former stormtrooper like him, and the two totally hit it off on the Millennium Falcon, which makes you wonder why Finn hadn’t logged onto BlackPeopleMeetinSpace.com eons ago. Finn and Jannah’s chemistry leaps off the screen, and when they team up for the final assault on the First Order (or Second Order; you’ll get it when you see the movie) it’s obvious that these two have a whole Mr. and Mrs. Smith thing going on (we only acknowledge the black Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Dr. Who, not that Brad and Angelina nonsense.)
Unfortunately, because Star Wars has to wrap up a dozen plot points and do fan service and presumably set up television shows, Jannah and Finn’s relationship goes nowhere. It always galled me that Disney was more comfortable with the idea of showing an interracial LGBT couple in The Rise of Skywalker, or shipping Finn and Poe than a straight relationship between Finn and a white woman, an Asian woman or a black woman. I guess if they can’t make the lone black guy in space pansexual or gender fluid, they don’t know what to do with him.
All in all, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an entertaining movie and an above-average Star Wars movie. If you want to see a Star Wars movie where black folks actually get to save the day and do some real damage, it’s worth your time. If you want to feel nostalgic and moved by the end of a decades-long era of films, just watch Rogue One and Star Wars back to back; you’ll enjoy that more.