The Rise of Skywalker and the Limits of J.J. Abrams

For as long as I’ve known him as a moviegoer, J.J. Abrams has done the impossible. He made me a fan of franchises like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. That may sound hyperbolic considering De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is as iconic as its centerpiece CIA heist sequence, and that Star Trek is as immediately recognizable in geek iconography as the mere parting of your fingers. But I was never a fan of either until Abrams put his stamp on both properties.

J.J. Abrams became THE go-to guy to resuscitate any dormant film franchise, and he’s since gone on to shape the modern blockbuster as we know it like a valiant successor to Spielberg. As a result, Hollywood has entrusted him with the reins of not one but two of its most sacred franchises in Star Trek and Star Wars. Needless to say, it’s been very easy to hop on the J.J. Abrams train.

The Force Awakens hasn’t held up for me on repeat viewings, but I still loved what Abrams did with this galaxy far, far away. He took the classic setup of an archetypal war between good and evil and refurbished the concept with his trademark flair and high-flying energy. That’s long been the appeal of Abrams’ style, the kineticism apparent in his execution, if not his storytelling.

Think Star Trek’s time travel plot in which Kirk needs to emotionally compromise acting-Captain Spock to take command. Kirk himself went from cadet to first officer in the space of an act break and that conveniently places him in the running to become captain. The logistics ain’t pretty, but the visual setup sure is— rife with kick-ass lens flares.

When the energy is there, you can tell Abrams is inspired. Mission: Impossible III’s bridge attack is insanely frenzied filmmaking, as is the batshit train crash that kicks the plot of Super 8 into hyperdrive. Which brings me to Abrams’ latest, The Rise of Skywalker and how much that enthusiasm, by comparison, just… isn’t there.

I’m aware this is all subjective. Many others attest to their love and praise for the film including those I saw it with, so, to each our own. The only thing I can do is be honest. So I’ll say this honestly: if Star Trek Into Darkness showed Abrams’ strain in crafting a middle chapter, then The Rise of Skywalker exposes his limits as a storyteller.

Abrams’ hubris is that he can’t help but be infatuated with mystery boxes. It’s the subject of his famous TED Talk, and the cornerstone of his whole approach to storytelling. In the conference, he talks so lighting fast that even he seems like he’s directed by J.J. Abrams. Speaking of a literal mystery box he bought at a magic store:

“I bought this decades ago, but if you look at this, you’ll see it’s never been opened, ever. Why have I not opened this, and why have I kept it? It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope, potential. What I love about this box, and what I realized I sort of do, in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility and that sense of potential. And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination… What are stories besides mystery boxes?”

Abrams is more fascinated by the idea of something rather than what that something might actually be. It’s how and why he can craft such huge deals out of MacGuffins, or plot devices – the potential they provide for the narrative. In Mission: Impossible III, it was the Rabbit’s Foot. Ethan Hunt needs to steal it to get his wife back, and this involves Ethan and crew to get disavowed, go rogue, and push the scenario to the last minute with escalating stakes. Whether said bunny appendage is a world-ending nuclear device is essentially beside the point. Because that mystery helped drive the plot as much as Ethan and his team do.

Casting aside his flair for the camera and his envious ability at staging full-tilt action, Abrams’ whole aesthetic hinges on mystery. Think Cloverfield’s marketing (which Abrams produced), teasing a monster we wouldn’t get to see until opening weekend. See also Super 8’s trailer, which spurred droves of hyper speculation: why did that truck veer onto the train tracks? WHAT THE HELL was in that shipping container? Is this connected to Cloverfield???

“For me, mystery is more important sometimes than knowledge,” Abrams says in his TED Talk.

Revisiting Force Awakens, you can feel how giddy Abrams is in setting up the mystery boxes that would define the sequel trilogy. Who is Rey? Who are Rey’s parents? Will Ben Solo be redeemed by the light? What has become of Luke Skywalker? The possible answers are titillating to Abrams; you can feel it in his blood stream as he takes us from one frantic set piece followed by another. So much of Force Awakens is spent in motion because Abrams is infected by the potential of the story, like a kid walking us through all of his favorite toys.

Abrams gleefully sets up all of these rolling questions then absolves himself of the responsibility in answering them. Because it’s not up to him—or at least it wasn’t at the time when Colin Trevorrow was then attached to write and direct Episode IX. The ending of Force Awakens is a literal handoff right down to Rey holding out an open arm.

Tasked with concluding the saga, it’s no wonder Abrams reignites the mystery of Rey. He needs it; the mystery is his lifeline. So it’s himself and his own impulses that Abrams has to contend with in The Rise of Skywalker. The mystery boxes have come home to roost. He’s now obligated to answer the threads he set up in Force Awakens while slowing down long enough to pave way for those revelations.

If that weren’t enough, Abrams adds more mysteries to his slate AND takes us through a greatest hits run of the original trilogy. It feels a lot like narrative procrastination: Palpatine made Snoke, WHY? Jannah is Lando’s kid, HOW? Also, Lando’s back! Who are the Knights of Ren supposed to be again? And how the hell do Star Destroyers now have planet-killing technology? (Thus rendering the Death Star and Starkiller Base to a factor of LAME. My head hurts.) The plot of Episode IX isn’t just frantic, it’s mainlining cocaine. Everything that came before is exaggerated to the point that Rey, Finn, and Poe don’t have conversations anymore, they just scream at each other.

Abrams, too, goes back to using literal devices. Wayfinders are the top-secret gems that reveal the path to Exegol, Palpatine’s Airbnb whereabouts for the last 30 years. (Why this galaxy is populated with characters who go away in hiding yet love to compulsively leave behind bread crumbs is beyond me.) Wayfinders, in a sense, are the mini-mystery boxes for the larger one in play: WHO IS REY? The problem with this particular box is that the possibilities are limited— the exact nature of a box. Rey is either a Skywalker, a clone, an offspring of a key character in any of the prequels. Or a Palpatine. But that’s hardly the disappointing part.

It’s that these choices were interesting speculation following The Force Awakens. 4 years later, it’s a lot like Star Wars finally catching up to the chatter rather than a cleverly constructed reveal. The irony is that if Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio took Rian Johnson’s lead and threaded the needle of Rey being a “nobody” following The Last Jedi, it would’ve opened a treasure trove of narrative possibilities, which could’ve pushed Abrams’ storytelling to evolve.

This is the same problem Abrams ran into with Star Trek Into Darkness. So much effort went into misdirecting audiences that Benedict Cumberbatch’s one-man army villain WASN’T Khan when, in fact, HE WAS. (There were only 2 possibilities in that scenario: remake Khan, or create an entirely different baddie.) So when the reveal finally came in the movie, it landed with a resounding thud. Like overstating the obvious, or like the movie acknowledging something that fans knew from the freakin’ plot synopsis. Ironically, Abrams’ Star Trek reboot opened the door for possibility with its time travel/alternate universe plot. That possibility was swiftly rendered inert with Into Darkness going back to canon. Sound familiar?

The end revelations in Rise of Skywalker, sadly, aren’t all that revealing. Abrams obviously has a reverence for the big reveal of the original Star Wars trilogy – Darth Vader turning out to be Luke Skywalker’s father. (Even better, that reveal was a two-fer.) It’s clear Abrams was gunning for his own game-changing reveal, but imitation has its limits.

Admittedly, Rey being a Palpatine services how intertwined this saga is and how this galactic conflict was doomed to recur – the dark side of the force rising in the child of rebel royalty and the light awakening in the offspring of sith royalty. But the reveal in the end makes this galaxy seem woefully small and narrow, and frankly elitist. The possibilities have dwindled down, one mystery box opening after another like Russian dolls, and what we’re left with is more or less of what came before.

Abrams is aces when it comes to rebooting or kickstarting a new chapter. As far as providing a thematic wrap-up, the mystery box approach doesn’t serve him well. It’s a lot like finding yourself crash-landed on an island, terrorized by a weird smoke monster and some polar bears, then stumbling upon others who also inhabit the place, and are then subjected to flashbacks galore while trying to maintain the curiosity of said island alive and finally answering why we’re all here in the first place… lost. Abrams is lost in the mystery box that is no longer Star Wars once it has reached its conclusion.

2 thoughts on “The Rise of Skywalker and the Limits of J.J. Abrams

  1. Jade says:

    Great write-up, as always! I have similar thoughts on the reveals. RoS’s familial plot twist pushed the franchise back to square one after TLJ dared go new places, even if not all of it worked.

    Then again, JJ Abrams is in a rather precarious position, given how divisive Rian Johnson’s take had been. SW fans are terrifying, and who know what might’ve happened if he followed through with Johnson’s plotting, haha!

    • adrianvstheworld says:

      It’s kinda funny how Abrams and Kasdan left Rian Johnson in a precarious place with the ending of Force Awakens, all the characters separated and disparate; he essentially inherited these mysteries and went on to deal with them in a totally subversive way. But it’s almost as if Johnson returned the favor lol.

      I’m still surprised even now that Abrams wanted to conclude the saga. I think the sequel trilogy could’ve benefited from new filmmakers each episode just as the original trilogy had done. I agree, the fandom noise is EXHAUSTING. The fervor is too much like Game of Thrones where fans just want to see their reddit theories serviced in full. I am ready for a break from this far away galaxy. I’m so much more interested in talking about Knives Out or something.

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