“Don’t criticize a film until you’ve made one.”

That’s a snarky response I get from time to time — and I suspect that most film critics have heard it as well.

The fact is that there is a tremendous difference between having the skills and vision to make art and the skills and vision to write reviews of art. I’ve never directed a film, just as I’ve never managed my own restaurant or played in the NBA. But I think that I have enough understanding of what it takes to run restaurants well, or to play well in the NBA, that I can offer credible perspectives on both. So, yes, having seen several hundred movies a year over the last 30 years, and having taught courses on cinema and storytelling, I don’t feel like I’m being presumptuous writing film reviews.

And yet here, on the occasion of the final movie in the nine-film Star Wars saga, I feel like I have a different answer to that common retort: I have written a multi-volume fantasy saga. I have embraced the challenge of bringing a multi-chapter adventure series to a close, choreographing an epic fantasy that involves more than fifty prominent characters to a point of closure.

When I wrote The Ale Boy’s Feast, the fourth book in The Auralia Thread, I made myself several promises that would help me avoid the cliches of typical franchise finales: I would not deliver what I’d heard that fans of the series wanted. (Most prominently, I would avoid fulfilling the wishes of young readers who wanted to see so-and-so and so-and-so end up married.) I would avoid thrilling battle scenes that would satisfy the desires of some readers to see certain villains spectacularly destroyed. I would avoid re-staging any kind of scene that had happened before in the series. I would strive to maintain the focus of an artist: I would prioritize discovery over crowdpleasing. I would look for the deeper questions that the previous four novels have been leading us to ask, and then wrestle those questions seriously.

This week, having grown up with the Star Wars saga as one of my formative influences, I approached the final chapter with a familiar sense of apprehension — the same feeling I experienced as I began to outline the fourth and final book in my own epic fantasy.

And so, while I offer this humbly, as one moviegoer’s first impressions, I can say that I know a thing or two about the difficulty of concluding a series. And what I saw on Friday morning did everything that I’d sought to avoid in concluding a series of my own.


J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and (they tell us) final episode in the story arc of the Skywalkers, is like a Star Wars jukebox that suffers from ADD. It generates instantaneous remixes and medleys of the Top 250 moments from earlier installments in the Star Wars series, zigzagging between tracks in a desperate attempt to grant every viewer’s nostalgic wishes. Watching the movie is like watching a robot programmed to please fanboys stand at the jukebox and poke buttons rapidly, almost at random, until the audience is exhausted from dopamine hits.

“Do you like chaotic space battles? Ours is the biggest! Do you like jumping to hyperspace? In this movie, we turn that into a pinball-machine rollercoaster from one place to the next! Do you like lightsabers? We have so many, including multiple sabers for multiple characters! Cantina scenes? Check! Playing chess on the Millennium Falcon? Uh-huh! Do you like nostalgic cameos? We’ve got almost all of the previous ones again, and more besides! Heroes getting tazed by Force Lightning? Brace yourself — Force Lightning can do more than you’ve dreamed in your worst nightmares! Death Star cannons destroying whole planets? Oh, just you wait. The shrinking of the Star Wars universe with even more unexpected family connections? Hey, we promise to give you everything you’ve enjoyed before. New ideas? Um… well, we only have so much time, folks.”

That’s right. At no point from this ADD jukebox do we ever hear a whole verse, a whole chorus, or anything resembling a new melody sung.

Where the original Star Wars trilogy was inspiring, exciting, and innovative (and, for many of us who grew up with it, personally meaningful in ways that are difficult to quantify), it led to a series of consistently disappointing prequels and sequels. I’m among those who highlight one notable exception: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, a movie that rekindled my enthusiasm by making some brave and exciting storytelling choices and giving me a sense that Star Wars could still surprise me.

And now, the nine-film saga has “concluded” with its most preposterously derivative chapters, one of the most overstuffed franchise films, one of the most beat-for-beat frustrating movies I’ve ever suffered through. I doubt that I’ll ever bring myself to sit through it again — and that’s something I’ve never said about a Star Wars movie.


So, in the spirit of J. J. Abrams’s The Rise of Skywalker, I’m going to present the rest of this review as an imitation of the movie itself: That is, instead of writing an original film review of my own ideas, I’m just going to post a bunch of things that have been said about the film already, observations and opinions you can find elsewhere. I’ve chosen them because they resonate with my own experience of the film, just as Abrams has built his movie out of moments that he knows fans liked in other movies.

Some of these quotations may contradict each other here and there… like the movie does. There may not be much rhyme or reason to the pace of this quotation collection, and transitions may be be jarring. The movie’s like that, too. And while you may at times be entertained by what these critics say, you will probably end up exhausted by just how many links I’m offering. (The movie exhausted me by busying itself with links to earlier ideas.)

This is what happens when a movie that is made by an artist interested in discoveries and challenges is followed by one carefully calculated by a committee to reproduce things that have happened before. In the committee’s desperation to please everybody — “You love this kind of thing, don’t you? Well, here it is again, but super-sized!” — they end up embarrassing itself.

Here we go.

And no, I didn’t go looking for negative reviews. I just walked around the neighborhood of critics — professional and otherwise — whose perspectives have won my respect over time. This is what they’ve said so far:

Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:

If I sound exhausted, it’s honestly because I am. Is this what audiences demand from franchise movies? Films that cater to what’s comfortable and capitulates to the most unimaginative fans? That feel as if they’re just ticking boxes on a checklist? You could say I’m taking this too seriously, but I think a series as important to movies — and to millions of people — as Star Wars deserves to be taken seriously.

I could say some other stuff about The Rise of Skywalker. About its insistence on a morally simple universe where you’re either dark or light, but you only get to be on one side. About its continued mixing of gnostic and biblical imagery, but without a lot to say about either. About how it could have said something intriguing about our contemporary culture, power, or empires, but just doggedly insists on broadcasting the same two messages that Disney movies fall back on time and time again: first, that you have to believe in yourself, and second, that the real Force was the friends we made along the way.

Joel Mayward at Cinemayward:

If the dead speak in Rise of Skywalker, they have nothing bold or interesting to say. I find its lack of faith—in its audience, in its predecessors, in itself—disturbing.

Calum Marsh (often published at The National Post, Variety, The Guardian, Pitchfork, etc.) at Letterboxd:

I don’t want to sound melodramatic — and I say this as someone who found The Last Jedi wildly misjudged and frequently ridiculous — but I really think this might go down as some kind of pop cultural turning point or (more optimistically) the nadir of a corporate-minded, focus-grouped, fan-indulging age. Boring and utterly abysmal. Glad this is over.

Sarah Welch-Larson at Letterboxd:

I think the problem with Star Wars in general is that it has a scale problem. If the last movie had a Death Star, the next one needs a bigger badder one; if the bigger badder one got blown up, then we should miniaturize the Death Star tech and bolt it on the outside of a cruiser. The problem with this approach is that there’s nowhere to go once you’ve decided to raise the stakes by amping up the scale of destruction. What good is ruling the galaxy if all you’re going to do is actively destroy it, planet by planet?

The problem with this Star Wars in particular is that it, to quote Palpatine, suffers from a lack of vision. The scale problem is partially to blame, but the more disappointing issue is that the script ties itself into knots trying to get Rian Johnson’s wild left turns back under a control that they never needed. The Last Jedi was so brilliant because it abandoned the Star Wars playbook. It tried new things; it left the calcified idea of the Force as an inherited trait behind. Anyone could be a Jedi again, including street urchins and nobodies. The Rise of Skywalker throws all that away for a plot twist that is uninteresting and obvious. I don’t want to know how Rey got her potential. I just want to know what she’s going to do with it now that she’s tapped it.

Vadiim Rizov at Filmmaker:

A serial of serials, The Rise of Skywalker is a calamitously overstuffed series of exposition dumps, relentless incident and canon box-checking, like watching someone who’s on four hours of sleep and three Red Bulls try to do an immense task in as little time as possible so they can crash again—the movie is barreling through about three times as much information as it could reasonably bear.

Scott Renshaw at City Weekly:

… [T]he elephant-in-the-Throne-Room problem with The Rise of Skywalker is that it’s not so much Abrams’ attempt at wrapping up Star Wars’ Skywalker saga as it is his cover-band attempt to play all of the hits, specifically the hits from Return of the Jedi. … The Last Jedi divided fans because it broke with the idea of destiny, and placed characters in the position of challenging their preconceptions to make hard choices. The Rise of Skywalker simply puts those characters through the motions of character arcs we’ve seen before, meaning that we all get a comforting pat on the head without any surprises. It’s a story that’s frantic, frustrating and, most disappointingly, absolutely conventional in every possible way.

Sean Burns at North Shore Films:

The elephant in the room here is that they accidentally made a real movie last time. So of course J.J. Abrams was brought back on board to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. Alas, we’re back to the monomyth and old, tiresome prophecies about chosen ones who will bring balance and everyone in this entire universe is f—-ing related.

David Ehrlich on Letterboxd:

spiritually corrupt, but — BUT! — also flat and artless in a way that not even the worst Star Wars movies have been before.

thanks to paternity leave, i have no professional obligation to keep thinking about this hugely disappointing capitulation to the most feckless elements of studio filmmaking. and so i won’t.

Jake Cole on Letterboxd:

Kennedy’s shepherding of Lucasfilm has been so profoundly mercenary that not only has nearly every filmmaker tapped to helm one of these features stepped down or been removed for having the audacity to try to bring a personal voice to this franchise, but all of them have subsequently been the targets of entire PR campaigns meant to discredit them. Rian Johnson somehow slipped under the radar with a truly unique, worthwhile contribution to George Lucas’s unwieldy universe, and he has been rewarded for it with years of navigating fan backlash on his lonesome and a press rollout for this follow-up that has taken numerous potshots at his film to reassure angry fans that things will end “correctly.”

That spirit infuses The Rise of Skywalker, the most soulless entry of the Disney era of Star Wars and perhaps the new prime example of how this age of filmmaking has brutally jettisoned vision and surprise for slavish devotion to IP and what a bunch of executives think you, the stupid public, want to see. This is two and a half hours of nonstop stuff, incessant exposition that flits through scenes designed to micro-target every possible fan-service desire at the expense of coherence or meaning. It actively unravels The Last Jedi‘s bold revisions and thematic questions, cooing into the audience’s ear that everything will be as they want again, like massaging a pill down a dog’s throat.

Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com:

Opinion is going to be shaped a lot by the fact that JJ made a sequel to his Star Wars film instead of the last Star Wars film.

Josh Larsen at Larsen on Film:

Rise of Skywalker is a mess in terms of actual plot. It gets off to a clunky start, with frantically paced table-setting scenes that offer a lot of CGI and action but never really capture the imagination. The movie then proceeds to assign a series of busy tasks to its ensemble cast, who are sent across space in search of various MacGuffins, doohickies, and dongles. (At one point, they need to retrieve a dagger because it offers a clue to a “wayfinder” that will guide them to a hidden location.) After all that is accomplished, the film works its way to a convoluted, confusing climax that nonetheless restages the finale of 1983’s Return of the Jedi….

And I’ll give the last word to Steven D. Greydanus at The National Catholic Register, with whom I’ve been arguing about Star Wars since before The Phantom Menace:

Abrams … seems bent on undoing his own actions, on avoiding meaningful narrative choices of any kind. Again and again he seems to cross a line only to backtrack, until it becomes comical.

Perhaps the film’s one real creative goal is not to alienate or upset anyone, which sometimes means alienating everyone. … It’s a film not only at war with its predecessor but also with itself.

This eventually becomes a fatal problem as it becomes clear that Abrams has no clear idea how or why good triumphs over evil. George Lucas’ conceit in the original Star Wars was that Imperial military-industrial groupthink discounted the power of the individual. In Return of the Jedi, the power of love proved stronger than the dark side (and low-tech indigenous resistance proved more creative and adaptable than technologically superior but less nimble imperial occupiers).

Two ideas wrestle in Rise: Does good triumph over evil through the power of friendship or does everything come down to the awesomeness of special people from special families? I’m not saying it can’t be both, but Abrams trips over his two ideas and one of them falls flat before being crushed by the other one.

The wrong one, in my opinion.

I’ll add more as I come across them.

But I’m not going to put myself through the painful process of cataloguing all of the ways in which this movie falls short. It staggers the imagination that a movie like this, which could have brought some of the greatest imaginations in the world to the table, and which could have drawn upon nearly infinite resources to achieve a great vision, could end up such a mess. But it’s Christmas, and I intend to focus on what I’m thankful for — including other new movies like Knives Out, A Hidden Life, I Heard You Paint Houses, Waves, Dark Waters, the new version of Little Women that I can’t wait to see.

As I walked out of the theater, I had to stop and pay my respects. There was a spectacular Knives Out display right there beside the exit. It was salt in the wound, reminding me of all that might have been.

I think I’ll go see Knives Out again. Happy Life Day, everybody!

Bea Arthur a

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