Let’s just get this out of the way right up front — if you count The Last Jedi (2017) as your favorite Star Wars film then The Rise of Skywalker is going to feel like a pretty severe step down. It’s every bit cut from the same cloth as The Force Awakens (2015) and makes a point to not so gently walk back some of the big choices made by the previous film. Whether or not that’s a deal-breaker will be up to the individual, but it should surprise no one that a mixed bag of a franchise ends with a mixed bag of a final chapter. The Rise of Skywalker is ultimately an entertaining, affecting, and safe close to a massive, 42-year long story line. It’s fine.
The Resistance is crumbling, but Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) attention has been diverted towards a priority all his own. He’s seeking Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), long thought dead but actually still hanging on (quite literally via a contraption design straight out of 1988’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II), and his intention is murder. Palpatine has similar plans, although his targets are Rey (Daisy Ridley) and what remains of the Resistance, and the crusty meat bag in a cloak seemingly convinces Kylo that his way is the right way. Rey is soon on Palpatine’s trail too, but her race across the galaxy is threatened by the Emperor’s rise and a final battle to determine a victor between the Jedi and the Sith, good and evil, the light and the dark… you get the idea.
“The dead speak!” cries the opening crawl for The Rise of Skywalker, and while it refers to the echoing calls for revenge from a shrouded Emperor it could just as easily be a nod to original creator George Lucas‘ simpler takes on this galaxy far, far away. No, Lucas isn’t dead, but Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi made considerable shifts in the mythology (for both better and worse, depending) that are quietly pushed to the side or ignored all together here. The script, by director J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio, teases briefly with the idea that both good and evil can be contained in the same person before dropping it like it’s hot, and it’s even less interested in other murky unknowns. It’s a black and white galaxy with no time for shades of moral duality, but as much as some viewers may find that a disservice to the previous film it fits in line with the franchise as a whole. Temptation is one thing, but by the time the credits roll each person’s morality better be locked in place.
If that’s your jam then what follows will most likely satisfy as action sequences, epic space battles, and new creatures/bots share the screen with returning heroes and villains alike. While Rey heads off after her pyramid-shaped MacGuffin the rest of the gang tags along and prepares for battle. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are still prone to banter, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) get caught up in troubles, and both Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Maz (Lupita Nyong’o) get a few minutes each too. The passing of Carrie Fisher left the film forced to use leftover footage from previous episodes, and while it mostly works it almost feels at times as if she’s ghost projecting herself into a scene — but that’s actually saved for a couple other characters.
Everyone new and old does solid work, but the film belongs to Rey and Kylo & Ridley and Driver. It’s their narrative, but more than that, they’re responsible for the film’s most intense performances. Both shift between confidence and doubt more than once, and both capture the heart of everything that’s at stake here — a galaxy yes, but that galaxy starts and ends in each of them, and they know it. Both have been strong throughout this trilogy, but for the first time Ridley’s performance is every bit as captivating and impressive as Driver’s, and it works to make the drama land despite the CG world surrounding them. They share several fantastic beats together, but one standout, the film’s standout really, sees the two dueling with light sabers atop a star destroyer that’s crashed into a chaotic sea. It’s as close as Abrams comes to the throne room battle in The Last Jedi, and in addition to being beautiful and exciting the sequence also delivers the film’s most affecting emotional beat when their clash is interrupted.
This is still a Star Wars film, though, so there’s also more than a few dialogue clunkers and illogical choices. The great Billy Dee Williams returns as Lando, and while he’s as smooth as ever he’s also forced to deliver lines like “He was carrying a clue,” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Finn refers to “that ship” during a grand battle, and while he doesn’t point or identify specific markings the whole of the Resistance knows precisely which craft he’s referring to. A mission to disable a star destroyer’s antenna grows ever complicated rather than merely shoot it or crash a ship into it. And still no wifi?! Eh, it’s a Star Wars.
The Rise of Skywalker is a satisfying conclusion to the Star Wars saga even if it’s guaranteed to be a let-down for some as a direct sequel. Abrams and friends have made a film for the people who probably don’t list The Last Jedi as their favorite entry, but it’s fan service that provides closure for an epic that’s been kicking for over four decades. It was never going to check every fan’s particular boxes, but it succeeds in offering an end for characters you love, droids you inexplicably love more, and a story we’ve all shared for generations.