This review does not contain any spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker beyond what is revealed in the trailers for the film.
The heroes of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker talk so much about endings and last chances you’d swear they know they’re involved in the final movie of a 40-year mega-franchise. They talk about taking “one last jump” to lightspeed on the Millennium Falcon, and refer to Rey as their “last hope,” and wistfully announce they’re taking “one last look” at their friends before saying goodbye. The burden of wrapping up a 40-year franchise weighs heavily on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, an overstuffed chase film that barely lets up from its connect-the-dots MacGuffin-heavy plot for even a second or two. In dialogue like these examples and many more, the movie wears that burden on its sleeve, hoping to suck every last drop of nostalgia and affection for these characters and their galaxy out of the audience.
That the movie is even occasionally successful in that endeavor, even in the face of some truly clunky plotting and a dreadful ending, is a credit to the strength of those characters and that galaxy. If this really is a short-term farewell for Star Wars, it’s a bittersweet one. It’s sad to say goodbye to these people in the first place, and it’s even sadder to do so in what’s by far the weakest installment of the trilogy inaugurated in 2015’s The Force Awakens and continued in 2017’s The Last Jedi.
Unlike both of its predecessors, which blended enormous sci-fi action set pieces with a lot of quieter character moments and serious contemplation about the nature of good and evil, The Rise of Skywalker is basically one action scene after another. Even before the famous Star Wars title crawl, evil Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the Star Wars prequels and Return of the Jedi returns from the dead to pose a new threat to the galaxy and the heroes of the Resistance, including former scavenger turned Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and hotshot X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Palpatine’s return also has major implications for the First Order and its leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who naturally forms an alliance with Palpatine. Their relationship is more complex than it initially appears — and in fact the connections between several characters evolve in unexpected ways over the course of the film as long-buried truths come to light.
That style of storytelling is a trademark of director J.J. Abrams, who returned to co-write and direct The Rise of Skywalker after inaugurating this Star Wars trilogy with The Force Awakens. Since his days in television, Abrams’ has loved to layer mysteries, conspiracies, and secrets through his stories. The Force Awakens dangled all kinds of tantalizing plot threads, he can now dutifully tie together in The Rise ofSkywalker — even when that means ignoring (or outright negating) some of the story developments in the trilogy’s middle chapter, The Last Jedi, which was written and directed by Rian Johnson.
Johnson’s film was beloved by many fans, and disliked by others. It would seem, based on The Rise of Skywalker, that Abrams largely agreed with the latter group’s complaints. For better or worse, his Rise of Skywalker gives the vocal naysayers precisely what they asked for in an Episode IX. At times, the film literally announces its intentions to (sky) walk back The Last Jedi, as when the trio of Resistance heroes loudly declare they are going on this big adventure together, and that they will win this time by sticking together, after one of the criticisms of The Last Jedi was that the heroes spent too much time apart.
The results overall have a real be-careful-what-you-wish-for vibe. The team stays together — and most of the movie strikes the same, loud note over and over, with Rey, Finn, and Poe getting into one interchangeable shootout after another. The characters literally say they want to have conversations with one another about important topics and then never do — they simply don‘t have the time amidst all the plot machinations. And without spoiling them, Abrams’ big galaxy-rattling revelations retroactively make a lot of the events of The Force Awakens more implausible, and more coincidental.
A final battle meant to evoke the conclusion of Return of the Jedi contains so many unmotivated twists and surprises that the whole film nearly collapses just as it reaches what should be the emotional climax. The only thing holding it together is the wonderful cast, particularly Daisy Ridley as the soulful Rey and Adam Driver as the conflicted Kylo Ren. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio’s script pushes Kylo in some questionable directions; Driver’s full-throttle performance sells every single one of them. His work here, in comparison with many of the most infamous moments in the Star Wars prequels, does make you realize how much of the material in all the Star Wars movies is very silly. Sometimes the only difference between the stuff that works and the stuff that doesn’t is the quality of the actors involved.
Even if The Rise of the Skywalker is a disappointment, the recent trilogy produced the very good Force Awakens and the great The Last Jedi — and introduced a host of new Star Wars characters who’ve brought new life to the franchise. The survivors will almost certainly return again, in some movie or Disney+ TV show; I’ll be happy to see all of them. Despite its underwhelming ending, I’ve enjoyed a lot of the time I’ve spent in this galaxy. There’s a saying in Star Wars that feels applicable here: “The journey is often more important than the destination.”
-Fans of Rose Tico, the inexplicably controversial supporting character introduced in The Last Jedi, will not be pleased with her role (or lack thereof) in The Rise of Skywalker.
-The best new cast addition — really the only new cast addition that makes any kind of impression — is a droidsmith named Babu Frik, a tiny critter who plays an important role in extracting a vital piece of information from a robot. He’s little! He’s funny! He’s a cool practical effect!
-The biggest returning name in The Rise of Skywalker has to be Billy Dee Williams, playing Lando Calrissian for the first time since Return of the Jedi. He’s charming! His part is small! It’s nice to see him back in the Falcon again!
-Top-billed credit in the film belongs to Carrie Fisher, even though she passed away before principal photography on The Rise of Skywalker even began. General Leia’s role in the movie, mostly cobbled together from deleted footage from The Fore Awakens, is larger than I expected and mostly unnecessary to the story. It’s a shame Fisher didn’t get to perform whatever ending Abrams and the rest of the creative team initially had in mind. Maybe that goes for the film as a whole as well.