‘The Rise of Skywalker’ Is What Happens When a Film Franchise Becomes Irrelevant

For decades, 'Star Wars' was the envy of Hollywood blockbusters. But with this limp finale, it’s clear how much the once-pioneering interstellar series now lags behind its franchise brethren.

I was speaking to a college film class a few weeks ago, and The Last Jedi came up. There’s been plenty said about that “controversial” edition of the Star Wars saga, both pro and con, but one of the students mentioned something I hadn’t heard in a while. “It’s a good movie,” he said, “but it’s not a really good Star Wars movie.” I didn’t have a chance to follow up on what he meant, but I think I understood. Since 1977, when the original Star Wars hit theaters, changing Hollywood forever and setting it on a course where event films would become its lifeblood, there’s been a certain idea of what constitutes a “Star Wars movie.” There are lightsaber battles. These is talk of the Force. Maybe there’s some romance. C-3PO and R2-D2 will provide some comic relief, of course. And you can be sure there’s gonna be some family drama and maybe some dark secrets revealed. You know, a good Star Wars movie. 

I suspect that, for a lot of fans, The Rise of Skywalker will be considered a good Star Wars movie. It checks off all the above boxes and does nothing to challenge audience expectations. (Plus, the Millennium Falcon does cool stuff.) But in a world of Marvel and DC — of Disney remaking their animated classics simply because they can — a Star Wars movie no longer feels especially mighty or special. The blockbuster landscape that George Lucas helped create 42 years ago now dominates everything. The Rise of Skywalker is what happens when a pioneering franchise can no longer keep up.

Because of the online brouhaha over The Last Jedi, it’s easy to forget that, from nearly the start, Star Wars has always pissed off some contingent of its fan base. The Empire Strikes Back was too “dark.” Return of the Jedi was too “cute.” (Those damn Ewoks.) The prequels were an insult to the original trilogy’s memory. (Jar-Jar?!? Midichlorians?!?) The Force Awakens was too fan-service-y. And The Last Jedi dared mess with our preconceived notions about this franchise, provoking complaints by some that it wasn’t Star Wars-y enough of a movie. But all that accumulated anger and sense of betrayal at least suggested that Lucas’ sci-fi series meant enough to matter — viewers cared so much that they felt they had a stake in the outcome. As obnoxious as online fan culture can be — just as obnoxious as the corresponding “Let people enjoy things” rallying cry that’s sprung up in response — if you’re making one of these big blockbusters, it’s ultimately better to have an engaged audience ready to dissect every second of your latest installment.

But although The Rise of Skywalker is meant to draw the curtain down on not just this most recent trilogy but on the central storyline that we first encountered in 1977’s Star Wars, the movie feels decidedly anticlimactic, even though there are plenty of momentous, dramatic things that happen. I’m tempted to say it’s a good Star Wars movie but not a very good movie-movie, but that’s not accurate — I just think it’s a bad movie, period. Not only can it not compete with the past films, it lags behind the major franchises that have cropped up over the last decade. After ages of cultural supremacy, Star Wars somewhere along the line became just like Harry Potter or Batman or The Hunger Games or Avengers: Endgame. Rather than rising to meet that challenge, The Rise of Skywalker decides to just be a Star Wars movie, swallowing its own tail and shrinking into nothingness.

I suppose I should mention the plot briefly, just to have it on the record. Turns out, the Emperor isn’t dead: Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back and in pursuit of the heroic Rey (Daisy Ridley). Also, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still a moody little shit who wants to rule the universe. And Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) both seem like they’re kinda into Rey, but it’s hard to say for sure. Much like every Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker insists that, this time, our rebel heroes will truly, definitely be wiped out if they don’t defeat the bad guys. Oh, and C-3PO and R2-D2 provide some comic relief. The film does lots of Star Wars-type things like that. I was reminded of Lucas’ comments after he saw 2015’s The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film he had nothing to do with. “There’s nothing new,” he reportedly said. “There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.” The Rise of Skywalker is more of the same, except a lot less good.

Star Wars didn’t have to end up this way. A few years ago when Disney purchased Lucasfilm, it was announced that the company would produce some spin-off films that were tangentially connected to the main storyline but not necessarily have the same feel or tone as the flagship films. Rogue One and Solo are far from perfect movies, but on the whole I enjoyed them, specifically because they didn’t feel so hemmed-in by Star Wars strictures. (Rogue One was far bleaker; Solo was far looser.) By comparison, The Rise of Skywalker feels like it should be called The Revenge of the Brand or Attack of the Status Quo. Lives hang in the balance in this movie, but very little gets risked. Not only does the film toe the line when it comes to Star Wars mythology, it seems to keep self-consciously looking over its shoulder to see how other big franchises did their series wrap-ups. 

The movie tries to reassert Star Wars’ cultural legacy, which suddenly isn’t as epic as it once was. If The Last Jedi was a movie worth debating, The Rise of Skywalker is the “This is fine” chapter of the franchise — an unspoken acknowledgment that, particularly in light of the meticulously choreographed drama of this spring’s Avengers: Endgame, which completed the herculean task of balancing myriad storylines and iconic characters after so many carefully constructed individual films, there isn’t anything particularly novel about Star Wars anymore. It’s just a space movie about a woman who doesn’t know who her parents are.

It’s strange to be alive long enough to watch this development. I was one of those Gen-Xers who came of age during the original trilogy. (At the premiere, Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams, who also directed The Force Awakens and is about nine years older than me, thanked George Lucas for giving him a childhood — a sentiment no doubt shared by copious fans.) Like any sane person, I didn’t much care for the prequels, but even they were groundbreaking in a way, setting the stage for the rampant CG environments that have become commonplace in studio tentpoles. And I have sufficient affection for The Force Awakens, a kicky, nostalgic treat, and The Last Jedi, which treated the franchise as a living document deserving intelligent scrutiny.

But ultimately, the new trilogy’s greatest achievement will probably be the money it makes — and its successful reinvigoration of a moribund intellectual property. Rather than remaining a trailblazer, the series is now part of a larger industry practice of recycling old hits into new product. Its triumph is its ability to perpetuate itself. We now have a Disney+ Star Wars show, and the old movies are on cable so often that they just blend into the background as we mindlessly flip through the channels on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Since Star Wars is now everywhere, we don’t even really notice it.

And part of the reason that we don’t is because the Star Wars strategy is habitually incorporated by every self-respecting new franchise. The cliffhanger mentality that Lucas created with The Empire Strikes Back, which left the world waiting breathlessly for Return of the Jedi, has been duplicated not just by Marvel but all the multi-part finales we’ve gotten in recent years, like Twilight and Harry Potter. The idea of the trilogy as a narrative framework — the exciting Part One, the dark Part Two and the concluding Part Three — has been usurped by The Matrix and Nolan’s Dark Knight films. 

The sense that filmmakers aren’t simply telling serialized stories but, rather, creating ever-expanding worlds that can be populated by more and more characters? That’s the template for the Fast and Furious sequels and spinoffs as much as it is the Conjuring cinematic universe. And as those other franchises borrowed from Star Wars, they modernized Lucas’ techniques, delivering hipper, edgier and more adrenalized event movies. Like the two films that preceded it, The Rise of Skywalker is trying to uphold a creaky mythology while advocating for an outdated, simplistic view of good and evil. Star Wars’ competitors all feel more attuned to modern life, while Abrams and his cast seem sadly devoted to an ancient religion. 

There will be Star Wars fans who won’t mind, of course — The Rise of Skywalker is a film designed to feed into what they’ve always liked about the franchise. It’s a Star Wars movie, after all. For years, few film franchises were more joyous, resonant, youthful — and even if you hated Star Wars and its nerdy fans on principle, well, that was fun, too. It was a cultural entity worth having an opinion about. These movies have always been obsessed with the battle between the light and the dark, but in The Rise of Skywalker, a weird sense of irrelevance finally emerges victorious. The movie isn’t just the end of the Skywalker saga — it’s the end of an era in which Star Wars itself mattered.

Here are three other takeaways from The Rise of Skywalker 

#1. How often does a deceased actor get top billing in a major blockbuster?

A couple months ago, the first Rise of Skywalker poster with credits attached hit the internet, and there was a surprise in store: Carrie Fisher was top-billed. This was unexpected for a couple reasons. The first was that Mark Hamill, who usually receives top billing over her in the Star Wars movies, was behind her. And the second is that Fisher died in 2016. While some speculated that Hamill agreed to switch places with her in the credits as a tribute to his deceased costar, as of yet there’s been no official explanation. (And it’s important to remember: Billing is often a contractual thing, so only the agents and lawyers know for sure.)

But for me, what’s especially striking is how rare it is for a movie to come out whose main star is gone. When Furious 7 rolled into theaters in 2015, Paul Walker was second-billed — he had died two years earlier. (In 2014, he was the lead in Brick Mansions. They actually gave out tribute pins for Walker at the press screening I attended.) Inevitably, there’s an air of melancholy in these instances — it’s, frankly, hard to see a name of a dead actor pop up in the onscreen credits alongside everyone else. This is even more difficult when the actor died during the movie: 1994’s The Crow was a starring vehicle for Brandon Lee, who was killed during an accident with a gun on set.

Action movies frequently flout life-and-death conventions, putting their characters into harrowing situations that no normal person could actually survive. As a result, we start to think of these actors, like their characters, as being indestructible. I won’t reveal Leia’s role in The Rise of Skywalker, but archival footage was used to bring the Princess back. If the film is meant to represent the end of an era, then seeing Fisher’s name at the top of the actor credits only makes that more true. Her passing breaks your heart all over again.

#2. It’s so weird not to hear the Fox Fanfare before the new ‘Star Wars’ movies.

For generations of Star Wars fans, part of the fun of settling in to watch one of the films was to see the 20th Century Fox logo and hear this song:

Although the instrumental theme was used in front of plenty of Fox films, it has become synonymous with Star Wars — so much so that it’s always been a little jarring with this new trilogy that we don’t get that audio adrenaline rush at the start. 

Last year, the Los Angeles Times wrote up a history of what’s commonly known as the Fox Fanfare. It was the brainchild of Alfred Newman, who wrote it in 1933 to serve as the then-new studio’s theme. A nine-time Oscar-winner, Newman is the father of fellow composer Thomas Newman (Wall-E, 1917) and the uncle of Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Randy Newman, and he’s generally considered royalty among film composers. (He died in 1970 at the age of 69.)

When Star Wars was set to make its debut, Lucas wanted the Fox Fanfare to open the movie, even though the song had fallen out of favor. But much like the use of an old-school symphonic score, courtesy of John Williams, Lucas preferred the hint of bygone glamour that the Fox Fanfare would confer on his escapist epic. Not having that fanfare — and the iconic Fox logo — as part of the new trilogy makes the new movies not feel entirely like Star Wars.

“[The logo] represents a golden age of what it was to write music for movies,” Thomas Newman told the L.A. Times. “And when I go down to the Fox stage and record now, there’s a real sense of history I get there — mostly when no one’s in the room. You just kind of feel the ghosts, and so much happened in that space. I think, on that level, that association might go away, sadly, for me.”

With Fox shutting down as a movie studio, we won’t have many more opportunities to hear that fanfare. I miss it. We’ll have to content ourselves with a few clever riffs on that instantly recognizable theme that happened at the start of Bohemian Rhapsody and The Simpsons Movie.  

#3. This might be my favorite scene in any ‘Star Wars’ film.

Over at Vulture, Sean T. Collins put together a pretty comprehensive list of the 50 greatest Star Wars moments, and it’s hard to argue with his choices. After all, he nails every iconic scene, plot twist and action sequence. But during The Rise of Skywalker, knowing that this would the finale of this grand Skywalker narrative, I started thinking about my own personal favorite moment — something that might not be legendary but nonetheless fills me with endless satisfaction whenever I watch it.

And then it hit me: My most beloved Star Wars scene comes from The Empire Strikes Back.

Since I was a boy, this brief little interlude has always made me laugh very hard. I think it’s the way that Yoda just keeps wailing on R2-D2 with his little stick that brings me such joy — and the fact that he can’t resist throwing in one last whack after the matter’s been resolved. It’s one of the few instances in the Star Wars mythology in which Yoda is actually kind of a petulant dick. He hardly seems like the wise Jedi master who will train Luke in the ways of the force. That said, it is kind of rude for Artoo to try and take something from him.

Sorry, I need to watch it again.

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God, that’s some great slapstick comedy. Yoda rules so hard. Star Wars used to, too.