“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is the ninth and final film in what Lucasfilm is calling The Skywalker Saga. It’s the end of the story — that’s both its greatest asset and its heaviest burden.
Certainly, if you’re hoping that a single movie can effectively wrap up every storyline, complete every character arc and answer every lingering question from the eight preceding films, you should abandon that hope now. Director J.J. Abrams is pitching this as the culmination of a nine-film epic, but how could any single movie live up to 40 years of theories and daydreams from millions of Star Wars fans?
(This review describes the general plot of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” but contains no major spoilers.)
Yes, you’ll see some returning faces from the original trilogy, including Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, the late Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa (courtesy of unused footage from “The Force Awakens”) and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.
But their roles are pretty small. In fact, I’d argue that only Williams is used effectively. That’s okay, though — this isn’t their story anymore. They’re here to pass the torch.
So it’s the new characters who fully step into the spotlight this time around. More than anything, “The Rise of Skywalker” serves as one last chance for the new trilogy’s three main heroes — scavenger-turned-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-fighter Finn (John Boyega) and ace pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) — to go on an adventure together.
The film begins with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) having ascended to the role of Supreme Leader of the First Order (a.k.a. the new Empire). He lands on a mysterious planet to track down transmissions that appear to come from the long-dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, clearly relishing his return to the role).
It’s quickly established that Palpatine somehow survived his death at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” and he’s been the secret mastermind behind the First Order all along. Now he’s assembled a giant fleet of even deadlier ships — and if Kylo wants to take command, all he has to do is kill Rey first.
This scene sets the template for the rest of the film, combining moody, gorgeous visuals with a breakneck pace, while delivering any and all exposition with the absolute minimum amount of detail.
The first half of “The Rise of Skywalker” turns into one long chase, as our heroes search for an artifact that may be crucial to defeating the Emperor, while Kylo and his Knights of Ren are close behind.
It’s not hard to notice that many of these early plot developments seem designed to fill time, keeping our heroes busy before the grand finale. The film is both hurried and drawn out — constantly coming up with new destinations to visit, then rushing over as quickly as possible.
This didn’t bother me as much as I would have expected, largely because the plot transports us from one richly imagined world to another. They’re filled with some of the most delightfully bizarre aliens in the franchise, and they add up to the most expansive tour of the Star Wars universe that I can recall.
As for the film’s second half, you can probably guess where the story will end — especially if you’ve watched “Return of the Jedi” recently. But even if he doesn’t surprise you, you can still appreciate how Abrams has expanded on the older film’s scale and stakes.
When he revived the franchise in 2015 with “The Force Awakens,” Abrams seemed largely content to remix the original trilogy. With “The Rise of Skywalker,” on the other hand, he was apparently inspired to be more “daring,” and the film contains some of the most striking images of his career — a tiny skimmer struggling to stay afloat on an impossibly choppy ocean, a vast, ancient throne room filled with shadowy figures, a lightsaber duel amid the floating ruins of an old Death Star.
Sadly, Abrams the screenwriter (working with co-writer Chris Terrio) didn’t do quite as good a job. The dialogue is clunkier and more obvious than it was in the past two films, with jokes than feel like generic action movie quips.
There’s a slipshod quality to the plotting as well, with many major events seeming to transpire for no reason except that they have to, because it’s the last movie.
And while “The Last Jedi” tried to put the mystery of Rey’s parentage to rest, “The Rise of Skywalker” can’t quite move on. It takes up the question again, providing a final answer that’s reasonably satisfying on its own, but doesn’t really justify three whole movies’ worth of build-up and back-and-forth.
Ultimately, while I liked “The Rise of Skywalker” well enough, I also thought it was the weakest installment of the new trilogy. I’m particularly hard-pressed to recall any moments that moved me the way “The Last Jedi” did — there’s nothing here that can match the quiet sadness of Luke’s reunion with Leia, or his lonely last stand against the First Order.
But even if “The Rise of Skywalker” isn’t the grand culmination that I’d been hoping for, it’s still a diverting adventure, and a satisfying farewell to Luke, Leia and all the others. When the forces of good and evil lined up for one final battle, I felt that old Star Wars thrill. And when I saw the last shot, I knew the story was ending exactly where it was always supposed to end.