**Minor Spoiler Warning: Anyone who has managed to avoid trailers, posters and any sort of promotional material for this movie so far, may as well turn around and keep it that way**
With the latest entry in the main STAR WARS series – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER – the final stamp is brought down on not only this new trilogy of movies that started back in 2015 with some fresh-faced heroes, but also the whole Skywalker Saga going all the way back to 1977. That is perhaps far too much movie for far too grand a canvas to bring it all to a conclusion that will make everyone pleased, but director J.J. Abrams and the team do their damndest to give fans as much as they can handle in the final stretch – even if that meant convoluting the journey to the eventually the mostly rewarding finish line.
Taking place some time after the events of THE LAST JEDI, the main cast of characters we’ve been following over the last four years have taken on expanded roles in their ranks. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are among the leaders of the Resistance, trying desperately to find any foothold over the dark and evil First Order, which now has Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) as its Supreme Leader. Perhaps overcompensating for the vulnerability he showed in the last movie and being one-upped by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ren is far more vicious in his goal of attaining absolute power, cobbling together his broken mask in his attempt to go full Sith Lord. Going through the largest transition since we last saw her, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is now in full Jedi mode, levitating with rocks like the best of them, capable of unbelievable acrobatics, and whipping out all sorts of Force abilities, old and some new. But soon the time for leaping around the woods and floating with rocks comes to an end, as Ren has earned the backing of classic STAR WARS baddie, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and it’s up to Rey and the gang to find the ancient Sith so as to stop him before he can unleash his mighty armada of new Star Destroyers, which even with 20+ years of building time seems like too daunting a task to have achieved. But best not to pull those threads.
The important thing to note is that the stakes are multiplied by 1000 going into this finale of the Skywalker Saga, and unfortunately the plotting plays out like a neglectful parent making up for lost time by bombarding you with a rushed trip through Disneyland. With Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewie, C-3PO and little BB-8 on the hunt for a mystic compass of sorts to find Palpatine, Ren is busy hunting down Rey, which means all everyone is doing is running around from point to point to point. The divisiveness of the previous movie – THE LAST JEDI – must be addressed in trying to point out the aim of this final outing, as the character-driven complexity of that movie’s best elements is skirted here in favor of more colorful thrills akin to THE FORCE AWAKENS. While director Rian Johnson explored the nature of what it meant to be a Jedi and a soldier fighting a galactic war – subverting expectations along the way – returning director Abrams aims for a sci-fi, race-against-time item quest story, one filled with exciting action, clever banter and mountains of messy exposition crammed in in order to make the final moments make sense and give diehard fans exactly what they want.
While this outing should be wrapping things up, so much movie is stuffed into the first half, with returning characters meant to elicit cheers from veteran fans and new characters alike coming and going in order to aid our characters and make the story feel connected to a great mythos. It’s fan service at some of its most entertaining, as Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio take us on a journey to new worlds on a galactic treasure hunt, but one that can’t help but feel slightly hollow despite its adventurousness. Our heroes venture from one gorgeous location after another, get what they need to get through one mode or another, and then blast off right when Kylo Ren comes stomping in to try and lure Rey to the Dark Side. Everything here feels so rushed in trying to establish information that there’s never time made for the rewarding small moments that allow the characters and actors to flourish. It’s all break-neck pacing and story threads that may make you more confused than not – and yet still entertaining in a way only STAR WARS can be.
The character work established in AWAKENS and expanded on in interesting ways with JEDI is tossed to the side during much of the runtime, with Finn and Poe merely along for the ride, both coming into contact with new characters totally inconsequential to the story other than to provide some padding and maybe even sell a few more toys. As for other side characters, C-3PO finally gets to be in a movie where he steals some scenes, and surely everyone will fall in love with the new droid D-O, who is delightfully neurotic and awkward. Fans of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a lovely character who smacked some sense into Finn once or twice last time, is sadly left on the sidelines, any arc for her squashed because, hey, there need to be some Resistance fighters staying at the base to, you know, watch stuff.
This new trilogy’s two strongest characters – Rey and Kylo – come out a bit better in the end, although to truly examine why would be to reveal all the movie’s surprises. But it is with them where Abrams seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it too, back-peddling from Johnson’s vision at the end of the second movie and yet still trying to drive home similar themes of carving out your own destiny. When the movie settles itself and gets into stronger character moments does that picture Abrams and the team set out to paint become a bit clearer. Come the end, it’s hard not to feel the emotional power coming from a duel with lightsabers, with the spirit that drives the heart of the whole saga shining out to make for a rousing, heartwarming finale.
As is the case for all STAR WARS movies, an endless amount of content will be written about RISE OF SKYWALKER’s place in the new trilogy and the saga as a whole. As a single film, you can see how those expectations weight it down, as Abrams spends so much time trying to get to the finish line with so much information stuffed in, that a lot of what’s happening can’t help but feel shoehorned in to give longtime fans something to be pleased with. Surely fans of the series who have been hoping for greater connections to the larger universe will leave pleased, with several surprises that may actually come off as a bit unsurprising to some. What RISE OF SKYWALKER does prove, undoubtedly, is even when STAR WARS is not at its best, and even damn near frustrating at times, there’s still loads to fall in love with and be swept up by, with the potential for enormous heart to shine through. If that’s the final note SKYWALKER is able to conclude the Skywalker Saga on, then that’s enough to make it a successful finale. Mostly.