3 out of 5 stars.
How does one even begin to end the greatest cinematic franchise of all time, one that has been going for 42 years strong? It’s a herculean task, but it’s one that with “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker,” director and co-writer J.J. Abrams approaches more with the intent of trying to satisfy as many fans as possible, as opposed to telling a coherent story.
At the start of “The Rise of Skywalker,” it’s apparent that some time has passed since the end of Episode VIII, “The Last Jedi.” Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), that pesky old coot who Darth Vader threw into the core of the second Death Star at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” is back from the dead, and both the Resistance and Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are searching for him. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) is continuing her Jedi training under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), but is plagued by a darkness emerging from within her.
The aforementioned cast is joined by main characters from the previous two films in the sequel trilogy, including former First Order stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-hero Finn (John Boyega), hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and our droid friends BB-8, R2-D2, and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). There’s also a handful of new characters joining the action, like First Order Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), a sketchy figure from Poe’s past, and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who ends up joining the Resistance cause.
As you can likely tell from all that, this is a very full movie, and that is perhaps its biggest flaw. There is admittedly a lot of ground to cover, and the film drops us right into the middle of the story, but Abrams never gives the audience a moment to breathe. That’s all well and good for the action scenes, but there are several moments that should have had a lot more emotional weight than they do because Abrams blows right by them to move on to the next thing. Whereas “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” both felt more character-driven, “The Rise of Skywalker” is more plot-driven, with so much exposition that even the opening crawl feels like it has a lot of explaining to do. Even so, “The Rise of Skywalker” leaves the audience with more questions than answers, and some plot points and characters are sidelined in the process. One of the most frustrating of these is Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who played a major role in “The Last Jedi” but here is given literally nothing of importance to say or do.
But when the film does take a second to be in the moment, it’s really great, and a lot of those moments revolve around Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Their dynamic has been by far the most interesting aspect of the sequel trilogy since “The Force Awakens” and it continues to be here, with Rey and Kylo both struggling with the light and dark inside them, and the choices they made in the past. Their bond allows us to see the Force used in new and exciting ways, and Ridley and Driver give some of the best performances of the entire saga. The film also reaches an at least semi-satisfying conclusion to Leia’s story, using cut scenes of Fisher from “The Force Awakens” that look a little stiff but overall fit into the movie very well.
But there are also a lot of pieces of this movie that don’t fit together well, given what came before. Rather than continuing the story than “The Last Jedi” writer and director Rian Johnson set up in Episode VIII, Abrams, who wrote and directed Episode VII, seems more set on continuing his own story. There are things that are changed, issues that were explored and resolved in “The Last Jedi” that are reopened in this movie, and things that are just straight up ignored. It constantly feels like Abrams is bending the story to please every fan theory in existence, rather than tell a story that makes sense both on its own and within the scope of both the sequel trilogy and the entire Skywalker saga. Again, some of it is fantastic, and there is a beautiful scene toward the end of the film that feels like a culmination of what has come before. But there are a lot of things that aren’t great and come off as painfully fan servicey. Character choices feel more like regression than steps forward, and the inability to allow our protagonist to stand on her own is frustrating. And while the themes and messages of the previous Star Wars movies are clear, with this one, they are not.
“The Rise of Skywalker” is going to have its fans and its detractors. But then again, doesn’t every Star Wars movie? The constant discourse will never go away, and that, like this film itself, can be both a blessing and a curse. Right now, it’s a stretch for me to say that this is a satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker saga. But then again, this saga has technically concluded twice before. Who’s to say that in another ten years, Disney won’t want to revisit the Skywalkers? In the meantime, as a new era of Star Wars content looms on the horizon, we have this beautiful, flawed, maddening, and insane movie to keep us on our toes.
Runtime: 141 minutes. Rated PG-13.