As written two years ago, Star Wars fans are notoriously hard to please. It seems as though, with every new release, the Fandom finds some aspect to develop disdain for as though these films are serious dramas and not space operas for kids inspired by the Western serials creator George Lucas enjoyed as a child. Yet, here we are again, with a new film which shall undoubtedly inspire new hatred because the already divisive final trilogy of the Skywalker Saga ends by seeking to stick a landing rather than tell a compelling story. Now, some of this is conjecture as it’s impossible to know the inner-workings of returning director J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens), but considering the sheer amount of nostalgia in his film, as well as it’s too-close familiarity to ‘77’s A New Hope, it’s not surprising that The Rise of Skywalker seems to coalescence into more in that same vein. This does result in a cinematic experience offering moments unlike anything seen before in any Star Wars film yet, while reaching a conclusion that is deeply satisfying. But by hewing so closely to what’s come before, The Rise of Skywalker lacks any real surprise or weight.
Sometime after the small contingent of Resistance fighters escaped from the Battle of Crait, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are on a mission from General Organa (Carrie Fisher) to find intel on the First Order’s plans while Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains in the ways of the Force. Things seem bad when news of an imminent attack reaches the Resistance, but they become worse when they discover that the only way to prevent it is to head straight into the heart of the Sith.
On the one hand, longtime Star Wars fans will have all of their pleasure centers tapped, rubbed, and lovingly massaged for nearly the entire 2hr 21min runtime. This isn’t just because it’s the final film and Abrams proved in Awakens that he knows which nostalgia buttons to press. It occurs because Abrams and screenplay co-writer Chris Terrio (Justice League) mine the entire Saga to close any loops created at any point in Star Wars’s 42-year history. Treating the films as a living-breathing world, you’re bound to see returning faces or observe references to places from long ago. If they were significant in the previous films, they are significant now. Things as small as hearing familiar call signs or as large as seeing Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), these are things which audiences have formed an emotional attachment to and the inclusion of them makes even the oldest audience member feel young again. Like the films before them, Abrams and Terrio take what was established in the ways of the Force previously and build upon them in ways heretofore unseen or thought of, creating audible gasps from the audience. Additionally, Abrams and Terrio manage to close box of mysteries opened in Awakens with minimal disturbance to the overall narrative of the film. As mentioned a moment ago, Skywalker closes the loops, so questions that the audience didn’t even think to ask are explained simply, quickly, and then are moved on from with specificity and haste. There is only one question which lingers throughout the whole of Skywalker and it’s that of Palpatine. The answers have been provided throughout the Saga going back as far as 2002’s Attack of the Clones and have been expounded upon in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. If you don’t want to rewatch the films or don’t possess the deep lore of the Emperor, take some time to go through film critic Adam Frazier’s The Emperor Reborn series on /Film. Even if you don’t do any of those things, Abrams and Terrio keep things neat and clean, offering a conclusion that’s as big a star war as audience have ever seen with stakes larger than that of ‘83’s Return of the Jedi.
On the other hand, for the first time in Star Wars history, the middle film is not used as a spring-board for the final trilogy arc, but is largely erased. This will come to the delight of those who, how to put this delicately, disliked writer/director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. The unexpected fallout is that Skywalker sometimes feels in discord with what came before. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren no longer seems comfortable without his helmet, Rey is in a constant struggle for her identity, Finn and Poe possess trust issues, and other little aspects which generate great character drama on screen that are, in the mere act of being, a show of placation to those who took issue with the films thus far. To be fair, there appear to be several moments purposefully designed to respond to the qualms, concerns, and outright anger-inducing moments of both Awakens and Last Jedi, but, more often than not, Skywalker appears keen to alter, adjust, or disrupt Johnson’s work. As satisfying an end as Abrams and Terrio create, one which fits so nicely and neatly into Lucas’s original method of echo storytelling in which each film bares rhythms and traits of the same numbered film in any of the other trilogies, it does so at the detriment of the current trilogy. This isn’t the time or place to argue about whether Last Jedi is akin to ‘80’s The Empire Strikes Back (which it is in many ways), but it’s worth noting that the viewpoint of Last Jedi — a stark recognition of the failures of the Jedi, that luck isn’t enough, that our personal truth matters — is largely shunted in favor of laser swords, pew-pew guns, and empty heroism. So while Skywalker does feature some of the best sequences in the entire Saga in terms of size, scope, and spectacle, Abrams never seems intent on doing anything surprising, daring, or new. Instead, he tracks directly to where you expect, leaving little to the imagination.
Buying a Star Wars ticket is purchasing a promise of action and adventure, of daring deeds by heroes, of swashbuckling with laser swords against cruel doers of evil. It is, ultimately, a tale of good versus evil on a galactic scale told through the microscopic view of one genealogy: the Skywalkers. Since 1977, audiences have gone on this journey and, though it ends, countless families will relive their exploits for generations to come. Truly, Abrams and his team are to be applauded. For all the quibbles, the obvious placations, and the countless moments of fan service, Skywalker truly feels like a conclusion, a final act that puts to rest three generations of combat. The most loving part of the entire film is how the late Carrie Fisher is honored with a narrative arc that makes the best of a heartbreaking situation while also adding more to the myth of General Leia Organa, a feat which certainly seems impossible until Abrams and Terrio accomplish it. Then again, so much of The Rise of Skywalker appears impossible, even likely improbable, until it happens and then, once more, we are returned to a childlike state, in awe of the mysteries of the Force.
In theaters December 20th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.