I'm just going to come out and say it: The Star Wars films aren't exactly the sexiest movies that ever got made. Leia's golden bikini aside, things typically tend to stay pretty tame in the galaxy far, far away. Speaking at SXSW last year, Rian Johnson — the director of The Last Jedi, which preceded The Rise of Skywalker, out today — even quipped that a moment when Rey and Kylo Ren brush fingers is "the closest thing we'll get to a sex scene in a Star Wars movie."
He's not entirely wrong. But the problem with The Rise of Skywalker isn't that it's prudish, exactly. Rather, Star Wars seems terrified of committing to the very relationships it spent three movies, and half a decade, constructing.
Back when director J.J. Abrams kicked off the sequel trilogy with The Force Awakens in 2015, he introduced audiences to a cast of new characters: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who discovers she has the powers of the Force; Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper; the Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac); and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Han Solo and Leia, whose been seduced to the Dark Side by a Voldemort-looking fellow named Supreme Leader Snoke. Within that movie alone, it was clear that the characters were, while maybe not stunningly complex, at the very least worthy successors to the original trilogy's Luke, Leia, Han, and Darth Vader.
Still, it took until Johnson's The Last Jedi to really get a sense of the newcomers' chemistry. Finn's devotion to Rey clearly went beyond being merely collegial, and he was also given a new companion in Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who nearly dies trying to protect him. Plus we get that more-steamy-than-it-deserves-to-be finger-brushing between Kylo Ren and Rey (who, lest you need a reminder, also happens to see her enemy half-naked after a shower). Heck, even old Han Solo and Leia make googily eyes at each other!
This is notable in and of itself, because Star Wars has long shied away from anything that suggests an intimate connection between two characters. The original series might best be remembered for its central relationship being ruptured by the revelation of relation; Solo: A Star Wars Story had the opportunity to explore Lando's pansexuality but chickened out with queerbaiting; and a recent plot of The Mandalorian literally had the title character shut down a woman asking him to take off his armor. "The hottest couple in Star Wars" is a human and a robot.
And sure enough, along comes The Rise of Skywalker, and in it Abrams squanders all of The Last Jedi's romantic groundwork. The first and most egregious of Skywalker's crimes is dispensing with Rose. Despite having been one of the most important people in The Last Jedi, she gives an unconvincing excuse for why she's being written out of the script (something about needing to go study Destroyer designs to prepare for the battle), then almost never appears in the movie again. While many critics have complained about The Rise of Skywalker feeling overstuffed and rushed, that is still no excuse for shunting off Rose and giving screentime in her place to, say, a random and virtually inconsequential new droid that looks like the Pixar lamp.
Which brings us to Finn. The sidelining of Rose might have been at least tolerated if it were a technique to leave Finn as an available partner for Rey. The script even seems to flirt with this idea: When Finn and Rey are sinking in quicksand, Finn gasps that he has something to tell her — an obvious wink at the trope of the dying declaration of love, which Star Wars has deployed before. But Finn never finishes the thought. Ever. For the rest of the movie. Instead, he is inexplicably paired up with a new partner, Jannah, who is mortifyingly underdeveloped, not to mention redundant. Again, where the heck is Rose?
Rey's romantic arc is at least a bit more satisfying. "Reylo" fans finally got the kiss they'd been yearning for, but it's quickly followed by Ben dying, which frees up Rey to potentially get with Finn. The whole execution feels like Abrams is trying to have his cake and eat it too by pandering to both fans who wanted Rey to end up with Ben, and fans who wanted her to end up with Finn. What's even stranger is, with Rey symbolically embracing Luke and Leia as her parents at the movie's end, Star Wars walks straight into another incest conundrum since that makes Ben her ... adopted brother? Meanwhile Poe, who never had a love interest beyond possibly Finn, is hastily given a former lover, Zorii Bliss, who, as a non-character, is an insult to the immensely talented Keri Russell.
To its credit, The Rise of Skywalker doesn't dutifully pair off all its characters at the end in any obvious way, which is an obnoxious and persistent anxiety shared by basically every other movie that gets made. But there is a happy medium somewhere between making Star Wars an R-rated sex romp and obliterating every relationship that made it so special. Even the platonic friendship between the heroes seems forced, rather than organic, by the movie's end.
Somewhere along the way, the team behind The Rise of Skywalker forgot why people go to the movies: not simply for watching dogfights in space, or marveling at cool alien creatures, or applauding beloved faces when they reappear on screen (all of which, I might add, Skywalker does well enough!). Rather, the bond between characters is the real emotional currency of the cinema. If someone is willing to throw that all away to stuff a few more bit parts and flashy battles into their movie, then I suppose it is no surprise that, in the end, they can't buy love.