How do you wrap up a saga 42 years in the making? How do you deliver a finale that does justice to eight films before it? What film could satisfy both younger fans that latched on to recent installments in the franchise, and those that have stayed faithful since first watching the Rebels destroy the Death Star when “Episode IV: A New Hope” came out in 1977? “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is intended as the answer to all those questions.
Directed by J.J. Abrams, who kicked off the third trilogy with “The Force Awakens” in 2015, the new film ticks off all the things that we’ve come to love about this series – epic space battles and thrilling lightsaber duels, numerous hat-tips to previous episodes, a clutch of unexpected cameos, and some genuinely emotional moments involving key characters. Still there’s no way that the film will make all “Star Wars” fans happy. It’s just the nature of the beast…and a long tradition of nitpicking.
Because “Star Wars” to the true fan is more than a series of films. It’s a feeling, a collection of memories; it represents belonging to something bigger. There’s a sense of genuine ownership.
Speaking as one, I suspect that fan is unlikely to suffer convulsions over “The Rise of Skywalker”. This film never goes anywhere near the kind of bold swings that Rian Johnson admirably dared to take in 2017’s “The Last Jedi”. No, Abrams relies on nostalgia and big emotions to deliver the film’s most crowd-pleasing moments. If anything, “The Rise of Skywalker” is an exercise in pandering. The strain to cram in everything in the hope of pleasing everyone results in an especially bloated first hour.
Having said that the film is also a genuinely exhilarating adventure. Aided by the most sophisticated visual effects and by John Williams’ anthem score, Abrams stages truly stunning action scenes – there are laser-gun battles, speeder chases, inter-galactic dogfights, and one particular sequence in the second hour whose sheer scale and sweep makes your jaw drop. These set pieces are in service of a frankly standard issue plot.
The film opens with the discovery that the despicable Emperor Palpatine, who we thought was killed in “Return of the Jedi”, is somehow back and is threatening to resurrect the Sith and wipe out the Resistance. He dispatches Kylo Ren to kill Rey, the last Jedi Knight who he perceives as a threat. So Rey, along with Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and BB-8 set out to locate Palpatine’s hideout in order to stop the attack before it begins. Bring out the Millennium Falcon, please!
Some of the film’s best moments are the confrontations between Rey and Kylo Ren, particularly a sensational lightsaber match that takes place on the wreckage of the Death Star in the middle of a raging sea. One doesn’t exactly think of “Star Wars” as a ‘performance’ film, but Adam Driver brings the sort of commitment, consistency, and layering to Kylo as if he were making a Noah Baumbach film. It’s true of Daisy Ridley too, fully committed to the character of Rey as she finally comes into her own in terms of strength and spirit, even as a major sub-plot in the film concerns the revelation of her true identity and parentage.
Other pleasures include the moments spent with General Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher through unused footage from the first film. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio shrewdly tweak the script to fit pre-existing material featuring the actress into the narrative. It’s also no spoiler to reveal that Billy Dee Williams, now 83, returns as Lando Calrissian, who we last saw in “Return of the Jedi”.
Packed wall to wall with old and new characters, plus a handful of cameos thrown in expressly for the purpose of getting you all moist-eyed, the film also asks philosophical questions familiar to any “Star Wars” fans. Questions about lineage and legacy, about good and evil, about which side we belong to and whether that’s determined by one’s fate or one’s will.
Clocking in at 155 minutes, the film left me feeling exhilarated from its sheer energy, but also a tad melancholic for characters – no, make that friends – that one may potentially never see again. It’s a bittersweet takeaway as the curtains come down on what has been, for some of us, a significant part of our lives. “The Rise of Skywalker” may not be an extraordinary one. But it gets the job done respectably and respectfully. It’s a perfectly satisfying way to say goodbye.
I’m going with three and a half out of five. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan, there’s enough visual wizardry to keep you entertained for the duration of its running time.
Rating: 3.5 / 5