I’ll never forget the first time I saw “Star Wars” in a theater with friends. I was in high school, and the “Special Edition” brought the original trilogy back to the big screen. I was born the same year that “Empire Strikes Back” came out, so I don’t have any memory of seeing the movies in the theater when they originally ran. Instead, I was one of those kids who wore out our VHS copies of Star Wars. My friends and I would make Star Wars adventures with the mountain of various action figures we had collected throughout the ’80s, replaying the films in our sandboxes. So when we had a chance to see “Star Wars” on the big screen, we snatched it up.
Now, these were the days before buying a reserved seat at the theater on your phone with the push of a button and a scan of your thumb, so someone had to go stand in line. Since we were all in school, that someone was my heroic mother. She got us tickets and a spot in line, which we all rushed to as soon as the bell rang. This was Star Wars, and the theater was buzzing as the lights went down. As the 20th Century Fox logo appeared on the screen, everyone clapped and cheered. Then as the theater went dark, one lone fan in the audience belted out the most perfect of Wookiee growls, and the entire room erupted in laughter. The excitement was palpable. When that showing ended, there was a standing ovation. We all leapt to out feet, not to leave, but to applaud the communal experience of seeing the original Star Wars adventure with like minded fans, some decked out in Star Wars t-shirts, some in costume. There was no one there to hear our applause, it’s not like George Lucas would dare attend a small showing of his film in Tulsa, Oklahoma after all, we were just celebrating what we had seen.
This morning, I saw the last Star Wars story in the Skywalker saga. There was no one dressed like a Wookiee, not a stormtrooper in sight, and there was no one who clapped at the end of the movie. Not a single cheer. We just all got up, and walked out. Halfway to the car, a middle-aged guy next to me turned to his wife and said, “Well, I’m glad that’s finally over. We can move on now.” That is what has become of Star Wars on the big screen.
“The Rise of Skywalker” is the third main saga film since Disney took over the franchise from George Lucas in 2012, and the second directed by J.J. Abrams. “Star Wars” isn’t just a movie franchise now, it’s also a multi-billion dollar amusement attraction at two of Disney’s premier parks. It’s a merchandising behemoth that even George Lucas couldn’t have envisioned, and it’s a series of TV shows on both traditional and streaming platforms. It is a product of its time. Huge. Corporate. Omnipresent. And it’s the worse for it.
I understand how difficult this film must have been to write. Having the responsibility to close out more than 40 years of the Star Wars story, satisfy the fan base, and the boardroom, is no easy task. This is not what everyone wanted though. “Rise” has a lot of ups and downs sure, it’s an amusement park ride more than a film really. The backbone of the story is weak, hampered in part by needing to include Carrie Fisher, but only having a few lines left from the cutting room floor of “Force Awakens” in order to fit her into the scenes. Her tragic death is felt throughout this movie.
To make up for her absence and the on screen passing of Luke Skywalker in the cinematic mess that was Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” the filmmakers cram in guest appearances, and teases all throughout “Rise.” It ends up being hollow. Sure there are some emotional moments, including the on screen passing of Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa, but there are also stretches of the movie that just get plain boring. It’s a Star Wars movie with little heart, and instead of leaving us with hope, joy and energy at the end of its two-plus hours, “Rise of Skywalker” leaves you exhausted, relieved, and as parking lot guy said, just ready to “move on.”