Like Revenge of the Sith almost a decade and a half ago, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker comes into theaters with a whole lot of plot seemingly left to go before the trilogy can end. The Force Awakens offered many questions; The Last Jedi cast aside many of them. And going into the alleged “final” chapter we still don’t even know basic stuff like where the First Order came from, or what Snoke’s deal was. While trying to spoil almost nothing for our readers, I can say this: questions are answered. Some of those answers even come in the first five minutes of the movie. Is everything answered? Well, let’s just say anyone wondering where Jar Jar Binks or Boba Fett are can keep wondering. So not everything. At least for most things that matter, we get strong implications if not outright explanation.
How viewers react to The Rise of Skywalker can probably be predicted by which of the sequel trilogy movies so far they like most. Team Force Awakens should thoroughly enjoy, while Team Last Jedi may not. But don’t read too much into that — J.J. Abrams has not by any means tossed out or retconned everything Rian Johnson came up with. Indeed, certain moments here depend upon setups in The Last Jedi.
The distinction is more one of directorial voice. Abrams directs like Star Wars is more important than he is, while Johnson writes and directs as though his ideas take precedence over serving the larger franchise. That has not changed. Beyond that, The Rise of Skywalker is most comparable to the other “part 3’s” in the saga: Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi. There are elements of greatest hits and victory laps, and of course all three are enhanced by Ian McDiarmid’s effortless menace as Emperor Palpatine.
It is presumably common knowledge by now that Carrie Fisher appears in the new movie courtesy of deleted footage from the prior installments. Quite naturally, nobody involved wanted to suddenly kill Leia off just because Carrie Fisher died abruptly. Unfortunately, the newly created scenes play awkwardly, with the digital compositing not quite at a level it needs to be, and conspicuous cuts away from her face when an obviously new line of dialogue is used. As a technical exercise, it’s more successful than most of George Lucas’ Special Edition changes. Still, it’s hard not to wish Abrams had found a different way around the issue.
A finale needs to be epic, and Episode IX brings about a long overdue increase of scope. So far, the sequel trilogy largely stuck to sparsely inhabited worlds and deep space. Here, it returns to a populated galaxy of the kind we saw in the prequels and Rogue One. Granted, the planets aren’t very original this time — Another desert? Another winter world? — but their inhabitants are interesting.
Daisy Ridley does her best work yet in the series, partly because Rey is given more complex issues to work with. There’s more going on this time than simply being the last hero with a lightsaber. Plus there’s the whole dynamic with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren that needs resolving, and what Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio came up with feels just right. (It could have easily gone very wrong.) Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega have a nice easy chemistry with very understated hints at romantic tension. Lando Calrissian doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but it’s sufficient to give him the closure he deserves.
Of the new cast additions, Richard E. Grant unsurprisingly does the best. The man seems born to play an Imperial officer. Naomie Ackie and Keri Russell manage to do a lot with a little screen time, while a small puppet critter named Babu Frik (voice of Shirley Henderson) feels sure to be a hit with kids.
Larger themes at play might involve spoilers, and are best left for another day. There are, however, fewer here than in the last installment. Abrams is more interested in getting back to an adventure serial than dealing with the intersection of capitalism and war, or whether the past should die. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) doesn’t even lecture anyone anymore. Some key moments feel a tad too similar to things we’ve seen in recent superhero movies. But given the timing, that could be coincidence.
No conclusion to the saga can possibly please everyone, but the balance between spectacle and character on display here fits the bill. There might be small things that needed tweaking, but nothing as major as those Disney-cute street kids from Canto Bight. Yes, some secondary threads could easily inspire continuations in the future. But if it ends here, the Skywalker saga can rest easy in the Jedi afterlife, knowing a good ending was had.