It’s well known that, in creating "Star Wars," George Lucas drew on American Westerns, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures, and Flash Gordon serials’ ray guns, space cruisers and damsels-in-deep-space-distress.
Indeed, when asked to give advice in a lawsuit Lucas brought against Universal studios for "Battlestar Galactica" in the late 1970s, British sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss noted that both adventures drew on space opera tropes that were there long before either property existed. As he once wrote, "The lawyers’ first formal question to me was this: ‘What was your initial response to Star Wars?’ I replied, ‘I experienced the delights of recognition.’ They thought about it. Then they smiled." (The suit was ultimately dropped, possibly for being too stupid for words.)
Audiences around the globe will likely experience the delights of recognition at "The Rise of Skywalker," but it will be the recognition of, say, "Return of the Jedi" rather than another genre. Much in the manner that director J.J. Abrams seemed to draw heavily on images and themes from "Star Wars: A New Hope," "The Rise of Skywalker" leans heavily into locations, visuals and themes from "Return of the Jedi."
Related: ‘The Last Jedi’ puts incredible moments in an incredibly long movie
To wit: the Rebellio— sorry, the Resistance is on the ropes. Turns out a baddie thought long dispatched is, in fact, quite alive and building a very large fleet indeed. In fact, said fleet isn’t content to be called the First Order. Nah, this is the Final Order, the thing that (checks "Return of the Jedi") will crush the Resistance once and for all.
Meanwhile, young Jedi Lu— argh, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is completing her training in a large forest with a tiny Jedi master possessed of great wisdom. Yes, I’m talking about General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher — Abrams utilized unused footage from the "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi").
While she is doing that, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Issac), who act like an old married couple in everything but name, undertake various missions for General Leia, often with Chewbacca and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, given a surprising amount to do) in tow.
But our good ol’ conflicted-as-hell big bad, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, emoting like a madman and insanely entertaining to watch), has taken over the First Order fleet, fixed his old helmet and surrounded himself with his old crew, the Knights of Ren, who end up just doing a lot of standing around and occasionally losing fights.
After assassinating Supreme Leader Snoke in the last movie, Kylo installed himself as Supreme Leader and is determined to find Rey so they can rule the galaxy as Darth’s grandson and ... well, you’ll see.
There are about six plot lines and many, many character arcs that Abrams is trying to tie up here, so let’s look at "Jedi" again for what turns out to the be the rough structure. Epic space battle? Very. Teary sacrifices? Check. Lando (Billy Dee Williams) in the Falcon? Yep. Final showdown between good and evil? Of course.
Between a volume of coincidence and convenience that is positively Dickensian and a range of (occasionally extremely) unexpected cameos, this flick might as well be called "The Rise of Fan Service" — this is self-consciously a specific type of Star Wars fiction, the kind designed to satisfy an extremely online social media-abusing fanbase.
Which is to say, "Rise," uh, let’s-call-it-reverses much of the character work and trope-destruction that made Rian Johnson’s "The Last Jedi" a controversial yet fascinating entry into the Star Wars canon. (Note that you cannot currently find "The Last Jedi" on Disney+; yes, it’s on Netflix, but come on, that’s just rude.)
What "The Last Jedi" posited as random, "Rise" makes deliberate. What "The Last Jedi" called growth and change, "Rise" deems incorrect. "The Last Jedi" attempted to complicate the Skywalker saga by making it less a of the story of one or two families; "Rise" swings back in the other direction. The word "Skywalker" is in the title for a reason.
In fact, as one character says of his arc in "The Last Jedi": "I was wrong." Ouch.
"Rise" is also by far the most openly Disney film in the franchise. From syrupy strings, loving hero shots, an emphasis on family both chosen and blood and a surprising amount about the power of friendship, it’s near impossible to imagine, say, Han Solo’s cynicism, Lando’s betrayal or the smoking corpses of Luke’s aunt and uncle in this often deeply treacly movie.
Some video game, McGuffin based plotting makes "Rise" feel padded here and there, and the fan service is almost tangible, but there are interesting, even epic moments.
The Jedi act more like gods than ever, light saber battles are pitched between the original trilogy’s shuffle and the prequel’s digital freneticism, Rey and Kylo’s arcs reach a satisfyingly (space) operatic crescendo.
But even then, there is something crabbed and almost desperate at work here. No matter how many star destroyers are in the frame, the feeling is claustrophobic rather than epic.
Familiarity breeds safety and "Rise" is a very safe ending to this story; it is deeply comfortable. Given the age of both the original "Star Wars" fanbase and those that were kids when the prequels were in theaters, perhaps this is appropriate. At its best, childhood feels safe.
So "Rise" will work for lots of folks. But what once felt expansive now feels hermetic, referring only to itself. That happens sometimes, even to families that once seemed so vital and fascinating to outsiders.