Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

3 stars

Faced with the herculean task of tying together the eight earlier episodes into a satisfying conclusion of the 42-year-old Skywalker Saga, director JJ Abrams has basically just made a slapdash sequel to his 2015 reboot The Force Awakens, somewhat hilariously dealing with the challenge of following Rian Johnson's controversial The Last Jedi by pretending it doesn't exist. Yes, it's been that kind of trilogy.

Johnson inherited from Abrams an unoriginal set of peppy puzzle pieces and then Johnson made it his mission to unravel Abrams' mysteries and scatter his pieces across the galaxy. Now, Abrams has returned for this final installment and he quickly reconstructs what Johnson already deconstructed, replacing recently slain Emperor Palpatine stand-in Snoke with the actual Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is apparently alive just because.

Those looking for an explanation regarding Palpatine's resurrection will be left searching in vain. The ex-Emperor got a bit banged up during his fall down the reactor shaft decades prior in Return of the Jedi, but otherwise his lightning-controlling Sith powers are still going strong. This is all pretty silly, of course, but Abrams at least milks the opportunity for all its moody visual worth. The villain is hiding out inside a huge stone structure on a planet ruled by a perpetual electrical storm and Palpatine himself is as nightmarishly decrepit as ever, his eyes glazed over and bony digits deformed. McDiarmid hasn't missed a step since last playing the role 14 years ago in Revenge of the Sith, comfortably donning his cloak of ham again.

Palpatine's return may feel like an eleventh hour course-correct, but Abrams attempts to justify the decision by making the Sith lord's presence a primary plot point. Sure, he's an afterthought, but a very important afterthought! Suddenly, all roads lead back to him, including those that cover rekindled reveals, large-scale space battles, and final showdowns.

It's a lot to rest on one character's shoulders, especially someone who's been thought dead for decades both in his reality and ours, but this is a classic Abrams approach, recycling relics robotically. To be fair, The Rise of Skywalker has a lot of loose ends to tie up and that involves numerous callbacks and cameos crammed into every corner of this thing. See the Death Star wreckage one moment and Han's buddy Lando the next!

There's also the problem of Carrie Fisher's sudden passing three years ago, which led Abrams to pick up scraps from the cutting room floor of The Force Awakens to give Fisher's Leia a few send-off scenes. Integrating the previously unused footage into a story that needs to move quickly forward certainly limits Leia's involvement, but Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio do their best with what they have to work with.

That's the prevailing impression that blankets the entire movie, except that Abrams' "best" is just not particularly well equipped to handle the narrative and thematic pieces that Johnson has left him. It's a case of warring approaches and the victim is the overarching story piled high with new characters, old faces, and a strong sense that the running time can't properly contain the many twists and turns considered by Abrams to be necessary in order to conclude the saga in a manner that somewhat mirrors Original Trilogy closer Return of the Jedi.

Thankfully, The Rise of Skywalker is less a Return of the Jedi clone than Abrams' The Force Awakens was a copy of A New Hope and many of the parallels either make sense or were too tempting to pass up. Like the Original Trilogy, the Sequel Trilogy has been a hero's journey tale, so a climactic clash where good triumphs over evil and the galaxy celebrates was inevitable, no matter who was calling the shots on this ninth Episode. And Abrams actually introduces some new concepts surrounding Force abilities in this movie, all of which are appropriate, well-developed additions to Star Wars lore.

Such newness shines bright in a sea of familiarity and predictability. Equally enjoyable is the sheer amount of different worlds the various groups visit on this adventure. There are forest scenes, of course, to remind of Jedi's Endor setting, and the umpteenth return to sandy Tatooine, but the addition of a crystallized ice planet, a cramped, labyrinthine city, and the angular chilliness of Palpatine's lair provide quite a travelogue of the fantastical galaxy.

On another note, getting this far into a review without even mentioning the Sequel Trilogy's main characters is probably a pretty clear indication that the concluding adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) aren't the most interesting aspect of the movie. Despite all being played by strong actors and each contributing to the plot in some way, they're left to struggle since Abrams just can't shake the fact that he wants to ignore The Last Jedi as much as possible, which essentially resets the cast to the early part of their arcs in The Force Awakens. Rey is still training, Poe is still a star of the Resistance with Finn in tow, and Kylo gets his mask back since he looks cooler with it than without.

That's about the extent of it all, except that Finn's charming Last Jedi partner Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) has been pitifully sidelined in what amounts to a depressing appeasement of the vocal subset of toxic fans that bullied Tran off social media in the wake of Last Jedi's release. And it's not like Abrams just couldn't find room for Rose in the midst of such a busy story, because he adds a new character (Naomi Ackie's Jannah) for Finn to interact with, as well as masked smuggler Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), an old flame of Poe's.

It's certainly no surprise that the protagonist and antagonist roles are treated with very little originality. Rey's journey is as inextricably linked to Luke's in the Original Trilogy as Kylo's is to Darth Vader's. Any divergences here stem from the new Force powers or the narrowed age gap between hero and villain, but it's here at the heart of the next generation conflict that The Rise of Skywalker most aims to mimic Return of the Jedi.

This is all the result of immense effort to excite fans and overwhelming confusion about how to achieve such a goal. The pressures of telling a new story that must portray the galaxy's future while being tied to the past in a nostalgic manner have taken their toll on the Sequel Trilogy, which never quite formed its own identity in the end.

The Force isn't exactly strong with this one, but The Rise of Skywalker is still a genuinely gargantuan goodbye that symbolizes both the longevity and the fragility of the Star Wars franchise. Whether that's worth a whole new trilogy plagued by contradictory visions is up for debate. What seems clear is that this saga will always give the fans an enormous amount to debate and discuss, even when the end result is not nearly enough.