The Disney-owned trilogy of Star Wars films will be defined by the palpable tug-of-war between nostalgia and progressivism. The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams, kicked off the trilogy in 2015 with a near beat-for-beat remake of the first-ever Star Wars film, while 2017’s The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, proved to be divisive among fans for its attempts to break free from the franchise’s most tired tropes.
The Rise of Skywalker, touted as a conclusion to both the sequel trilogy and the nine-film Skywalker saga, tries to do both. With Abrams back in the director’s seat following creative differences between Disney and the original director, the film has a lot of ground to cover, especially with the lack of synergy between Johnson’s and Abrams’ entries. Episode IX mostly finds success, though it moves at a breakneck pace in its rush to deliver everything it thinks fans want. With a series as widely consumed and discussed as Star Wars, it’s impossible everyone will be happy with the final product – Episode VIII is proof of that. Skywalker is an imperfect, but earnest, and ultimately worthy conclusion.
Emperor Palpatine is back. It’s an odd story choice for Abrams and fellow screenwriter Chris Terrio to embark on – we last saw the hooded Sith mastermind getting tossed down a garbage chute by Darth Vader in 1983, and there hadn’t been a whisper of him in the new trilogy until this point. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is just as baffled – the conflicted son of Han Solo and General Leia has settled on the Dark side after the previous episode, and instantly seeks out Palpatine as a threat to his power. Meanwhile, the Resistance, which appears to have grown in the year following its near annihilation in Episode VIII, sends Rey, Finn, Poe and a crew of side characters classic and new to seek out a way to defeat Palpatine.
The opening act plays out like a series of video game fetch quests, with the gang of heroes sprinting through a tour of gorgeous but unmemorable new planets and finding predictable solutions to the predictable challenges as they go. It’s a decent way into the movie before the premise is set and the script can move into the meatier character beats – Daisy Ridley’s Rey is still trying to make sense of her lineage after the previous episode’s reveal, and a new revelation shuffles the deck once again.
Rey’s rivalry with Kylo Ren has been the shining highlight of the trilogy, and it’s never been truer than here – their chemistry and action beats crackle louder than Sith lightning. Ridley and Driver’s dynamic runs deeper than good versus evil – their characters are, in a way, the only ones who can understand what they’re each going through, even if they’re pitted against each other in this war. It’s a dynamic that twists the old Star Wars formula and has resulted in the best acting and most emotionally resonant beats three films in a row.
The Rey/Kylo bond is one of the thematic threads picked up from Johnson’s Last Jedi, while other gaping plot questions were cast aside here. At the end of the day, the trilogy’s biggest flaw will be the lack of planning story beats out across the three films cohesively. They presumably took the George Lucas approach of making plot threads up as they went (which gave the original trilogy the awkward-in-retrospect kiss between brother and sister Luke and Leia), and when Johnson tried to twist some of the franchise’s conventions on its head, Star Wars traditionalists created an uproar. Abrams plays it mostly safe here, delivering a product meant to be enjoyed by longtime fans, new fans and fans of Last Jedi (note that these groups are not exclusive).
But it hits the beats it needs to. The late Carrie Fisher is handled lovingly here, with old unused footage being inserted organically into the script. Billy Dee Williams returns and is just as debonair as ever as fan favorite Lando Calrissian, and classic characters like C3PO and Chewbacca have increased presence. Rey, Finn, Poe and Ren each have fully realized arcs, and by the bombastic finale they’ve each grown into characters worthy of being remembered fondly by fans.
But the response to fan reaction is evident here, and after the rush of excitement and new potential in Last Jedi, the first half of this entry feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon until the second half ramps things up. In an age where Game of Thrones fans can make the world know they are unhappy, or where an inoffensive franchise like Pokemon can face huge backlash from fans, it’s impossible for a franchise of this caliber to deliver a universally accepted product. That’s OK. But Abrams should stick to his guns (or in this case, blasters) instead of backpedaling and downplaying when the franchise needed it most.