With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, J.J. Abrams had the unenviable task of not only concluding the sequel trilogy, not only concluding the entire Skywalker Saga, not only following Solo: A Star Wars Story — the least successful Star Wars movie, but also delivering a follow-up to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is largely considered the most divisive entry in the franchise. In an attempt to deliver a fulfilling conclusion, Abrams gave audiences a number of things, from entirely expected character reveals to major deviations from its predecessors to cameos from fan-favorite characters to impressive action sequences. If all that sounds messy, it assuredly is, resulting in a single film that feels more like a compilation of exciting sequences than a cohesive journey, yet has enough payoffs scattered throughout to make for a thrilling and emotional experience.
Kylo Ren continues his quest to rule the entire galaxy, with a number of threats, both fresh and familiar, standing in his way. Meanwhile, the Resistance is still in shambles after their battle on Crait, leaving them in desperate need of any assistance they can get, all while Rey struggles to find where she fits in the world.
Over the course of his career, Abrams has regularly impressed fans with the ways in which he can craft exhilarating set-pieces and how he never shies away from embracing his nostalgic loves. In the case of The Rise of Skywalker, both of these facets of his filmmaking are on display, as audiences witness one riveting action sequence after another, making it difficult for us to catch our breath and digest what we just witnessed. The moments in between those sequences offer the exact blend of emotional exchanges and witty banter that you've come to expect from the franchise. Characters like Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Finn (John Boyega) inject the film with its funniest moments, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) offering the most complex emotional arcs. What makes the film so joyful are the interpersonal relationships, adding a bittersweet feeling to those scenes, knowing we'll never see these characters share the screen again.
Characters like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and most of the film's villains serve as little more than cartoon characters, appearing to heighten or alleviate the stakes as necessary. What is truly impressive is that, despite Abrams only having access to unseen footage of the late Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa, her role in the film feels fully earned and never like her exchanges only existed on the cutting room floor. If for no other reason, Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio deserve accolades for pulling off a seemingly impossible task of giving Fisher the sendoff and position in the saga that she deserves.
Despite all of the character moments feeling genuine and charming, the overall narrative will leave many audiences bewildered. Abrams is no stranger to leaving his audiences guessing and, while a number of important reveals are somewhat explained, many feel as though they exist merely because you wouldn't have this story otherwise. While it had two and a half hours to find opportunities to even hint at major plot reveals, we are given nothing more than a handful of jargony phrases that we've heard throughout the saga and are left having to put those pieces together ourselves to justify seemingly impossible occurrences. In other instances, it feels as though, when the writers found themselves in trouble on a sequence, they resorted to, "Well, what would the fans want to see happen here?" instead of delivering what would be the most earned development. While this will surely delight some fans, it will frustrate many others, though only time will tell how fondly the fan base will look upon those moments throughout the years.
Something that can be incredibly difficult to keep in mind as a fan is that the films in the Skywalker Saga don't exist in a vacuum and instead are just parts of an overall continuum. While we might instinctively compare each film to what came directly before it, we need to remind ourselves that each chapter is only one-ninth of the entire journey, both for better and for worse.
Instead of embracing all eight films that came before it, The Rise of Skywalker picked and chose what parts of the saga it wanted to embrace while completely ignoring others. Sadly, this will assuredly lead to more division among fans, as those who see the elements they enjoyed about the saga being omitted from its conclusion will be left feeling disappointed, while others will love to see what thematic and narrative pieces are pulled from the toy box of the franchise to bring to a new level.
Much like The Force Awakens was chided by fans for feeling too similar to Star Wars: A New Hope, The Rise of Skywalker will draw ire for leaning so heavily into what came before it. The structure of the sprawling, planet-hopping adventure is reminiscent of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and its many alien worlds, while the promise of a "final conflict" and its entire third act will conjure memories of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Given that this is the end of the line for the Skywalker Saga, it would be expected that the film would embrace its past, yet leaning so heavily into certain installments and so far away from others makes the experience feel just as safe as Abrams' first entry into the galaxy far, far away.
Missed opportunities for ambitious storylines aside, it's hard to deny the effectiveness of much of the film. Whether it be Poe and Rey butting heads about the condition of the Millennium Falcon and Lando commenting on Chewbacca's height putting a smile on your face, Leia's attempts to instill wisdom on members of the Resistance igniting an emotional reaction due to the real-world loss of Fisher, or the conflict of following the path of who you want to be instead of being the person you're told you are evoking philosophical questions, The Rise of Skywalker offers audiences a worthy and, at times exceptional, conclusion to the end of a 40-year journey, though the various missed opportunities will surely stick with some audiences longer than the film's accomplishments.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker lands in theaters on December 20th.
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