In The Last Jedi (2017), Rey (Daisy Ridley) is told by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that her parents were junk traders who sold her for drinking money. This scene was hailed by many critics as a departure from the usual Star Wars birth politics. To me, it seemed as impermanent a revelation as the superheroes turning to dust at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. For there are two things you can count on in Star Wars films. No matter how sophisticated a killing vessel is introduced, it will still have a conveniently located bridge or tower which, if hit, is liable to blow the whole thing up. And nothing, nothing, matters more than the family you belong to.
So there are further revelations about Rey’s ancestors in JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which carry the unexpected whiff of the Harry Potter books, with Rey as a brave orphan who has a psychic connection with a powerful antagonist. The reveal makes little sense when it arrives, but because Abrams connects it with the ancient history of the series, we’re supposed to just accept it. It’s a (presumably) wide galaxy, but the individuals who’ve decided its fate over nine films have been a tight-knit bunch.
After Luke’s sacrifice at the end of The Last Jedi, Rey is now trying to master the Force under the tutelage of his sister, General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher). She regroups with Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and they head, droids in tow, to find someone who’ll decipher a Sith code, which will help them find the evil emperor Palpatine. Kylo, meanwhile, has told Palpatine he’ll find and finish off Rey, though his looks of morose longing during their psychic conversations suggest he’d rather spend a quiet evening reading to her.
There’s a difference between a rich tale and a long one. Over nine films, Star Wars has revealed itself to be the latter. The films have rarely ventured beyond a few basic questions: Who’s your father? Can you resist the pull of evil? Will you listen to your teacher? The original films were made in the spirit of Flash Gordon and old-time Westerns, but escapism isn’t enough in an age which demands that franchise films be about something. But the Rey-Kylo films don’t resonate on any level except fandom – and with core Star Wars fans being what they are, this is a dubious achievement.
Abrams, who took over as director after Colin Trevorrow left the project citing creative differences, was the right person for The Force Awakens. The 2015 film had several throwbacks to the original trilogy, which seemed reasonable considering it was continuing a storyline from 1983. The Rise of Skywalker is also littered with throwbacks – Han! Lando! Luke! – but this time the trick feels tired. Unlike the original trilogy and the prequels, the three new films cannot stand on their own. It’s sad that the Star Wars franchise has aligned so smoothly with Disney’s number one agenda – to relentlessly market nostalgia.
This isn’t to say that the film is dreary or difficult to watch. Ridley, Isaac and Boyega are almost as winsome a trio as Hamill, Ford and Fisher. Abrams can’t match the strong visual flourishes Rian Johnson brought to The Last Jedi, but he does crowd-pleasing banter-punctuated action better than most. Still, it’s difficult to care for a film whose head is so clearly in the past. “You will find only what you bring in," Yoda once told Luke. As the Skywalker saga buries its lightsaber in the sand, it should be with the rueful knowledge that the new films, given a whole galaxy to play with, redrew the same boundaries, and left us with little to discover.