Few lines of dialogue are stupid enough to earn their own KnowYourMeme page, but “Somehow, Palpatine returned” claimed that dubious honor. Those three little words, spoken by Oscar Isaac with all the enthusiasm of an actor wondering when he can do a big boy movie again, symbolize everything wrong with Rise of Skywalker, a garish mess interested only in trotting out enough franchise staples to reassure Disney shareholders that toy sales will continue apace.
This can’t all be blamed on director and co-writer J. J. Abrams, who had to pick up the pieces left behind by Colin Trevorrow’s departure, work within Disney’s iron-fisted confines, and bring a coherent end to a billion-dollar trilogy that was apparently planned with all the foresight of a last-minute pub crawl. It was an unenviably high bar, but Abrams’ limbo act didn’t exactly threaten to touch it. Unlike the prequels, which were inept executions of intriguing ideas, Abrams’ sequels were technically competent potboilers with absolutely nothing to say. Watching Rise of Skywalker was like watching a passionless cover band play the hits to earn their dinner.
This likely didn’t surprise anyone who saw Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie so rushed it didn’t have time to put its punctuation on the title. J.J. Abrams’ first stab at the franchise, 2009’s Star Trek, was much like his first Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, in that both took pains to establish new heroes in new worlds. Star Wars jumped into the post-Empire future; Star Trek moved to the early days of an alternate timeline. Rey, Finn, Kick, and Spock had all been freed from the shackles of continuity, and could go on adventures unlike any you’d seen before.
Neither Star Trek nor Awakens told ground-breaking stories, but that was fine. They were flippant but fun, intriguing starts to new generations that set the stage for smarter, deeper follow-ups. And then, when it came time for Abrams to revisit the new worlds he’d created, to prove that these hoary franchises could move beyond nostalgia and firmly establish themselves in the 21st century, he … sent our heroes on adventures exactly like those you had seen before.
The problem can be summed up by Into Darkness’ marketing, which teased a new villain to disguise an old one. “What could Benedict Cumberbatch’s mysterious Commander John Harrison be hiding?” Abrams asked. “Probably the fact that he’s iconic Star Trek villain Khan,” fans answered. “What does Harrison want?” promos wondered. “Revenge, because he’s Khan,” increasingly insulted fans said. “Will Commander Harrison shake up Star Trek?” journalists wrote. “Oh my God, no, because he’s so obviously Khan, from Wrath of Khan, why are we doing this?” was the plaintive response.
Star Trek The Search for Colons has its charms, despite the big “twist,” of Cumberbatch growling “My name. Is. Khan,” hitting with all the drama of a pigeon slamming into your window and involuntarily enlisting you for corpse disposal. Cumberbatch brings a sneering elitism to Khan that’s properly villainous, Kirk and Spock’s rapport is fun, there are some decent gags and action scenes, and Abrams’ shiny Enterprise is an intriguing mix of futuristic and tactile.
But when your franchise has a famous “The odd-numbered movies are bad” rule, you’re grading on a curve. At one point, Khan shows off his supposedly superhuman prowess and infallible strategic mind by standing out in the open and shooting a big gun. At another, we pause the action to cram in a pointless Leonard Nimoy cameo. Chris Pine’s breezy charisma does a lot to paper over the flaws, but ultimately this is a movie where Kirk heroically sacrifices himself to save his crew, only to be resurrected with magic space blood a few minutes later. It’s an echo of Wrath of Khan’s famous moral — sacrifice is sometimes necessary for the greater good — but without the actual sacrifice, unless you count the sacrifice of good storytelling to the demands of leviathan franchises.
Kirk’s condensed resurrection story is a dumb presage of Rey accidentally killing Chewbacca while trying to rescue him, being forced to grapple with the harsh reality of her immense powers, then being told that Chewie is fine and she can cram her nascent character development down an exhaust port. It’s not that heroes have to be killed, but why even bother with the cheap fake-out? Why create a new world just to remix an old story? On that note, Nicholas Meyer, director of Wrath of Khan, cut through Into Darkness’ positive reviews with some pointed criticism.
“If you're going to do an homage, you have to add something. You have to put another layer on it, and they didn't. Just by putting the same words in different characters' mouths didn't add up to anything, and if you have someone dying in one scene and sort of being resurrected immediately after, there's no real drama going on. It just becomes a gimmick.”
Six years later, Abrams did not learn that lesson. Rise of Skywalker doubled down on Into Darkness’ empty callbacks and meandering plot, bringing Palpatine back to glower and exposit like Khan, but without action strong enough to make you forget the silliness of what you’re watching. Both films led their franchises to dead ends. The Star Trek reboot fizzled out after the forgettable Beyond, while Rise’s (relative) struggles led Lucasfilm to re-evaluate its cinematic plans. Both franchises found new life on television, and both will return to the big screen someday. When they do, J.J. Abrams shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them.
With a decade of hindsight, Into Darkness is a loud, messy voyage to nowhere. It’s a passable sci-fi adventure, and it sure looks neat, but it leaves one important question unanswered. Why did we bother with a reboot if we were just going to play the hits?