There’s nothing I like less than beginning a Star Wars review with a negative, but I have to say this: if you were a fan of Rian Johnson’s risk-taking approach to The Last Jedi, chances are you’re going to come away disappointed with The Rise of Skywalker. Let’s face it, JJ Abrams had an impossible task ahead of him no matter what he chose to do. Wrapping up a 40-year odyssey that millions have been invested in since childhood is a weight you can feel in virtually every scene. So Abrams took the easy way out. He gave fans a safe, comfortable story that checks all the necessary boxes, answers questions that have been fanboy fodder since 2015’s The Force Awakens, and delivers moments that are undeniably breathtaking. The Skywalker Saga has been brought to an end, and sadly that was the only goal The Rise of Skywalker seemed to have.
It really does feel at times like Abrams is just trying to get this movie over with while annoying as few people as possible. The pacing is weird, to say the least. Both too busy and at times pretty shallow, it mirrors The Return of the Jedi as a conclusion which is…well, merely okay and not that taxing. Unlike that movie, though, The Rise of Skywalker is so indebted to its fans, the ones who Johnson pissed off two years ago, that it flows by in paint-by-numbers fashion. There’s absolutely nothing that will surprise anybody here. Some will find that comforting, to know that all of their favorite characters end up exactly where they were expected to.
And I’ll admit, that’s pretty hard for me to deal with after The Last Jedi, which upset the apple cart in ways I never knew I wanted. It set up a massive conflict between the trilogy’s two Force powerhouses, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). It set forth on a number of character connections that were fresh and new, plot points that deviated from the norm established by two prior trilogies. It even redefined the way we look at the Force and what it means to the universe.
That stuff is way too complicated for Abrams to deal with, though. He keeps it simple, and to be fair, there is tremendous enjoyment seeing the band reunited. Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are the heart and soul of this latest stretch of films, and when together so much feels just right. They have a chemistry that matches Hamill, Fisher, and Ford; you truly believe these three can take on an unstoppable evil and win. Some of their interactions are a little too heavy, as if they all know they’re in the final chapter of a movie (I kept waiting for someone to literally say “It’s the rise of Skywalker!!!”), but that’s just Abrams wringing every bit of emotional juice from this monumental story that he can. Most of the time it works. Others, you can tell there is simply too much to do in the 140-minutes they’ve got. Some huge emotional beats get lost in the sauce, and sadly one of those is the final appearance of Carrie Fisher as General Leia. Leia’s arc was meant to be crucial to this story, but her untimely death forced Abrams to change course. While the footage of Fisher used works sufficiently for Leia’s brief scenes, there’s so much going on that it’s cut haphazardly. The full impact of her time on screen is never truly felt. Other characters don’t fare so well, either. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is basically brushed aside early on, a sign of things to come for anything created by Johnson in The Last Jedi. She still pops up every now and then but her journey is off the rails and should prove free from controversy. Keri Russell as cool-looking new character Zorii Bliss will probably need to have her story told in a Star Wars novelization, and the same goes for Naomi Ackie as the promising Resistance fighter Jannah. Abrams does something odd with her at the end which suggests a much-larger story to tell, but then ideas like that pop up often and then go absolutely nowhere. There is simply too much going on.
On the other hand, Adam Driver (who is having a Jedi-level year, by the way) makes the most of his time as Kylo Ren, even though his storyarc ends in a less interesting place than where it was headed. Driver still manages to project Kylo Ren’s pain, desperation, and confusion, even behind his newly-rebuilt mask. A new dynamic between Kylo Ren and Rey, as well as that of the revived Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), has allowed Driver to show a much fuller range than in the previous Star Wars films.
Those looking for action will be happy to know this one picks up some of The Force Awakens’ rhythms, bounding from one big setpiece to the next in rapid fashion. In particular, the early part of the movie jumps to so many locations and introduces so many “important” items to find it’s like something from out of a Star Wars video game. But these scenes are also a lot of fun and display the colorful array of planets and species we’ve come to love these movies for. Lightsaber fights have been better in this trilogy than in any of the earlier ones, and that continues here. Rey and Kylo Ren have an incredible fight in the heart of a raging ocean that is simply beautiful. Later on, it does seem as if Abrams gets less interested in the visuals. By and large, this is the least impressive of the three films, with even the gigantic final battle, fought in the blackened atmosphere of a long-hidden planet, coming across as dull on the eyes.
But what are you going to do? It’s Star Wars! How can you not yelp with glee at the return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian? His joy at being back in the Millennium Falcon cockpit is so infectious. Will the flash of a lightsaber ever not be cool? The sound of an X-Wing locking into attack position always gives me chills. There are times when The Rise of Skywalker delivers on those things that we love so much about Star Wars, and it makes you forget that it can be more than that. It can create something new. But maybe the end of the Skywalker Saga isn’t the place for that. It’s just the place to say good-bye, and saying good-bye is always hard.