‘Star Wars’ Closes Another Trilogy With the Kinetic Spectacle of ‘The Rise of Skywalker’
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” has on its shoulders the hard task of concluding yet another trilogy in one of pop culture’s great sagas. Even more than the last two entries, this one feels made specifically for the “Star Wars” fan base, those devotees of the Force who debate this cinematic universe as fervently as other people discuss the news. Even at 2 hours and 22 minutes it can have the feeling of being cramped, with director J.J. Abrams rushing along to seal fates, give us long foreshadowed showdowns and bring back from the vaults of pop memory another favorite face from long ago. It is a grand entertainment for sure, even as we feel a scorecard is required and the uninitiated may feel lost in space.
You know how it begins, in a galaxy far, far away. As tends to be the case galactic rebels, in this case the Resistance, are running around space evading the evil forces of The First Order, now led by self-declared Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Leading the Resistance are Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been secluded and continuing her training in the ways of the Force, on her way we presume to become a Jedi knight. But she’s pulled back into action by Poe, as they prepare for a final showdown with the First Order. Yet a new, greater terror has arisen. The long-dreaded Sith have reemerged on a distant planet, led by a reanimated Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Palpatine’s aim (and you might want to write this down), is to lure Rey to his side and replace the First Order with his own The Final Order and revive the old Empire.
J.J. Abrams directs “The Rise of Skywalker” like a tunnel-vision handyman, never wishing to experiment beyond what’s expected in a “Star Wars” story. In a sense this is a response to 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” where director Rian Johnson continued the narrative established in Abrams’s first entry in this trilogy, 2015’s “The Force Awakens.” While Abrams keeps the tone as a frenetic popcorn entertainment, Johnson had brought a visually awe-inspiring scope, self-aware humor and a more patient pace. The fanboys wouldn’t have it and the discrepancy between critical consensus and popular reception was large enough for Disney to bring in Abrams to make a by the numbers spectacle. The challenge is how to please the fan base while delivering simply a good movie.
For most of its running time “The Rise of Skywalker,” officially “Episode IX” in the whole roster, has little time to expand the story, what matters is the breakneck energy of the production. The screenplay by Abrams and Chris Terrio, who has penned other manic action fests like “Justice League” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” quickly revives old “Star Wars” favorites like Emperor Palpatine, who you may recall was killed off by Darth Vader in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” and even Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), still suave (“send Leia my love”). Lando is back to help the Resistance fight the First Order, he’s a bit hastily introduced during a desert festival where Poe, Rey and Chewbacca are roaming about as aliens in eastern garb emit friendly greetings while dancing. Yet it’s great fun to see him back for the purposes of nostalgia. Chewbacca actually does little in this movie except sit around, in the same way Finn (John Boyega) spends most of it running and shouting while being reduced to even more of a background character. Many of the plot details are basically old “Star Wars” elements updated. For example it turns out Palpatine has a fleet of Star Destroyers now all equipped with “planet destroying” lasers. So now they can all do what the Death Star used to accomplish by wiping out just one planet per movie. The Resistance has to again regroup to launch a massive, final assault to destroy this and other dangers posed by the Final Order (or is it the First Order?) to the galaxy. The beloved droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 are back, doing their usual cute buddies routine. Inevitably C-3PO will have his memory wiped out, which makes him more of a nuisance, especially for Poe, this leads to some very likeable moments.
All this is piled atop the key focus of the narrative which is Rey’s continuing transformation from scavenger to rebel to Jedi knight, and her evolving clash with Kylo Ren. What in the previous two films was set up as a complex relationship is stripped down to a very basic premise. Ren, estranged son of Leia and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who he killed off in “Force Awakens,” is tapped by Palpatine to become his new pupil. The only real change in Ren is that his Darth Vader-like helmet now has glowing red streaks. His chase of Rey results in an epic clash of lightsabers on top of old Death Star ruins amid crashing waves. It’s a wonderful set piece, though not as astounding as the lava planet duel from “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” in those pre-Disney days. The plot gets a bit hazy as to certain changes that later occur involving Ren’s personality. Certain moments like a sudden appearance by Han have little explanation (don’t only Jedis make ghostly cameos? How does it work for those outside of their circle?). Ren almost makes the whole Palpatine storyline unnecessary. He was a strong enough villain on his own with serious complexes as played by Adam Driver, who is getting acclaim for his wonderfully keen performance in “Marriage Story” and brings gravitas even to shallow moments in this movie.
Yet, “The Rise of Skywalker” still delivers spectacular sights and moments that will delight those who dearly love this world originally created by George Lucas. Abrams uses unused footage of Carrie Fisher from “The Force Awakens” to have some final moments of Leia, and her eventual departure, while abrupt provides some needed closure to the character. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) joins the old Jedi pantheon that includes Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda where he’s now a walking, blueish entity giving Rey advice. Palpatine, played once again by Ian McDiarmid with that evil warlock voice, spends the movie sitting in a dark chamber and later levitates before a coliseum filled with anonymous, hooded devotees of the Sith. They don’t do anything for the rest of the movie, but it’s a memorably cultish sight. More adorable little creatures are introduced too, including a tiny engineer named Babu Frik who does some cross-wiring on C-3PO. More human characters are also thrown onto the roster like Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who like Finn is a former Storm Trooper who defected. There’s also a masked female smuggler with some kind of unspecified, flirty past with Poe. And of course the great John Williams returns with another symphonic score full of lush flourishes and beloved classic themes.
Like many a third sequel, the last act of “The Rise of Skywalker” is a mad rush to close shop. A final showdown is combined with another gargantuan space battle. Surprisingly this is when it truly stops feeling like a classic “Star Wars” movie and more like another CGI fest of the sort we’ve become accustomed to. But Abrams eventually finds space to include a bit more real drama, including a kiss that is the film’s great shocker. The actual closing scene of the movie is Abrams’s best homage to the “Star Wars” legacy as well, shot with the kind of nostalgic pleasure missing from the more kinetic moments.
After “The Rise of Skywalker” Disney is planning to slow down what began as a hurried production of “Star Wars” movies. There was a general mood that with last year’s poorly-received “Solo” maybe the studio was reaching the overkill zone. Taking a break after this one is a wise choice. It closes a saga in the franchise while pushing it to the limit of what the story can continue saying or do. But fans will find much to cheer in it, because for them what counts is the myth itself.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opens Dec. 20 in theaters nationwide.