42 years in the making, the Skywalker Saga draws to a close with its ninth and final Episode. So will fans be pleased with "The Rise of Skywalker"? There are MILD SPOILERS to follow, so prepare yourself...
J.J. Abrams has made a career as a creator, and has shown to be a master at reinvigorating franchises. Most recently, he breathed new life into a re-imagined "Star Trek" movie franchise starring Chris Pine, and then in 2015 he was given the daunting task of relaunching the Star Wars movies when he took the helm on "Episode VII: The Force Awakens." Abrams has shown an impeccable knack for knowing how to tap into the nostalgia of these franchises, while maintaining the ability to build something brand new. In other words, he's respectful of what has come before, and has a keen understanding as to what made these sagas good in the first place, and to relate them in new ways to modern audiences.
But now, Abrams is given a new task: A closer. With "The Rise of Skywalker," he is not mapping out a new franchise, charting its course for the future. Instead, he's being asked to end something, a series and a story that he helped birth. Not only is he putting a wrap on the newest Star Wars Trilogy, but he's bringing to a close a story and characters that has spanned eight previous films, 42 years and several generations of loyal fans. And not just that, but he's picking up the pieces that previous writer/director Rian Johnson scattered across the galaxy, in his expectation-busting "The Last Jedi," a film that divided fans and critics alike and made the anticipation of this new film even more unbearable then it already was.
The good news is that - as Disney knew already - the series is in good hands with J.J. Abrams. With "The Rise of Skywalker," he manages to tell a deeply emotional and thrilling story that feels every bit like a Star Wars movie, and gives audiences an incredibly satisfying ending to a series that began in 1977. However, up next to "The Last Jedi," this movie doesn't feel as brave, as daring (or perhaps as polarizing) as the last chapter, but fan-service sometimes crosses over with character-service, and "The Rise of Skywalker" in that sense, feels aligned.
The movie further explores the yin-and-yang relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (future Academy-Award winner Adam Driver), as they fight to keep their respective demons from consuming them entirely. The famous "opening crawl" delivers a big spoiler right of the bat that I won't ruin here, but this revelation brings the saga full circle. Back of course are ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), his trusty droid sidekick BB-8, former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), the handy Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and the franchise favorites Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo) C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, whose performance in this film was pieced together with archival footage from the prior two, an amazing and seamless achievement in and of itself). Fisher's real-life daughter, Billie Lourd, has an expanded role in this film as well, as Resistance Lt. Connix, and there's more than a few returning heroes from previous installments that make appearances throughout...each occurrence made fans in the screening room I was in clap and sometimes gasp.
A choice is made by Abrams early on in the film that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, and I think it was the glaring mistake for this closing chapter. Rey, in a struggle with Kylo Ren, is overcome by her anger and destroys a ship, with a beloved character on-board. In that moment, Abrams had a chance to show us that there were serious stakes, as there should be with all that we've gone through as audience members, since the days we met young Anakin Skywalker back in Episode I. Losing an ally to friendly-fire would have really been an interesting emotion for Rey to deal with as she fights to figure out her place in the universe, and would have added some emotional heft. And for a moment, the audience is led to believe this character has perished as well. Turns out, all was OK...this character ended up being on another ship entirely. At that moment, it was clear that Abrams didn't have the bravery to make this closing chapter great...he can create blockbusters with the best of them, but he clearly didn't feel as energized as Rian Johnson did to blaze forward into unexpected directions.
Speaking of Rian Johnson, Abrams blows off and breezes over a lot of what Johnson had set-up, which I guess is fair considering that Johnson did the same to what Abrams had set-up with "The Force Awakens." But there are more than one "less-than-subtle" jabs thrown at Johnson's take on Star Wars, culminating in a moment where a lightsaber is saved from destruction and someone says, "we need to treat the weapon of a Jedi with the respect it deserves." A pointed reference to "The Last Jedi," where Johnson had Luke merely toss his fabled lightsaber over his shoulder without a second thought.
There are countless parallels to previous films in "The Rise of Skywalker," and maybe a few too many lines of dialogue that are repeated from prior installments as well. And it takes a bit too long to get all of the characters in the needed places for the climactic, final showdown. But wow, do things come together, in an explosive, electric and emotionally powerful final act.
It's the getting there that is problematic, and some of the story-telling doesn't quite match up with what has come before. Take for example, a key plot point that Luke had been in search of a mysterious Sith planet...the last installment would have you believe that Luke was shutting himself off from the world. Then there's the film's antagonist, who is given even a quicker brush-over, as we're to just accept plenty of important developments without any real explanation, because trying to think through it would reveal several obvious holes.
One too many times, it feels, the franchise sets the characters up on parallel missions, where the air force must destroy something while a ground crew works frantically to disable a shield, or something. Where "The Last Jedi" zigged every time the audience expected a zag, "The Rise of Skywalker" follows to a tee nearly every single familiar beat.
The movie also tries to shoe-horn in a few new characters, and one old one, without much luck. Too much of the film is spent running, evading or attacking to really slow down for some good character moments...that is, for everyone except for Rey and Kylo, whose story weaves together in what is unquestionably the most complex and nuanced relationship of the saga's entire run...this makes it also the most rewarding to have followed.
But that final hour simply rocks, even if Abrams showcased the lack of stakes earlier in the film. To say that the ending is "satisfying" doesn't quite give the story justice, and surely it will have fans sobbing as they begrudgingly exit the theater, for the very last time from an episodic Star Wars film.
There are probably some more plot holes along the way that will be scoured over online for the rest of eternity, but none of it will matter. As the sun (or two suns, depending on what planet you're on) sets on Star Wars, the newest trilogy will stand as a stunning achievement: It brings back every feeling of nostalgia that original fans had, and it erases (for the most part) the sting of the prequel trilogy. All that, and it managed to act as the defining film trilogy of yet another generation of movie-goers who undoubtedly feel for Rey, Finn and Poe the way that their parents felt about Luke, Leia and Han.
As I found myself shaking in anticipation when the blue words "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." faded onto the screen for perhaps the last time, it occurred to me just how special this and every other Star Wars film has been. Somehow, someway, this "once-in-a-lifetime" phenomenon that took place in the 70s was bottled-up and preserved, and new young Star Wars fans can drink from the cup and get a taste of what it was like.
Picking through "The Rise of Skywalker," you're bound to find several flaws and imperfections, but with the broader strokes, J.J. Abrams paints a fantastically-rendered picture...it's hard to imagine them ending the saga in any other way. In the end, it's better to have landed safely than to have crashed and burned, and when it comes to a franchise as near-and-dear to our hearts as Star Wars, I think most people will be happy that reward was valued more than risk.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy.
Run Time: 2 hour 22 minutes.
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Ian McDiarmid, Keri Russell, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong'o, Billy Dee Williams, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Richard E. Grant.
Directed by J.J. Abrams ("Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Super 8," "Star Trek," "Mission: Impossible III").
"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" is in theaters on Friday, December 20th, 2019.
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