Much of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker watches like a greatest hits collection of everyone’s favorite space opera from that long ago, far, far away galaxy, collecting, revisiting, and rearranging bits and pieces from previous Episodes. And much like a best-of album, you get all your favorite tracks, as well as a bunch of lesser numbers. Overall, this is a wildly mixed bag. The film is often thrilling and adventurous, especially the final act, though it takes a bumpy, hurried road to get there.
The story picks up some time after The Last Jedi. It’s been a rough go for the Resistance. The First Order, now firmly under the control of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), consolidates power. While Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training under the guidance of Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca, and others desperately search for any way to defeat this rising galactic fascism. And there’s a new threat. Well, an old threat really. Palpatine (Ian McDairmid) is back—don’t worry, not a spoiler, it’s in the trailers, the opening crawl, and one of the very first scenes—and the withered old bastard has nefarious plans of his own. The minutiae of the plot mechanics get much, much more convoluted, but these are the basic building blocks.
It’s no stretch to say The Last Jedi continues to divide the Star Wars community. (Cards on the table, I love it, but we’re not talking about that movie.) Regardless of your stance on Episode VIII, much of Rise of Skywalker plays like a reaction to or even erasure of Rian Johnson’s film. (The script does Rose Tico real dirty, she has nothing to do.) A lot of what we see feels like J.J. Abrams, back in the director’s chair for the first time since The Force Awakens, trying to play both sides of the divide.
It’s like he pathologically can’t stand for anyone not to love his movie and attempts to please everyone. A strategy that often doesn’t work. We can’t get into it without revealing too much, but how Rise of Skywalker deals with Rey’s parents is a prime example—it becomes readily apparent when you see the movie. A number of moments play like appeasement meant to soothe vocal critics of the previous film, and many decisions skew toward unsatisfying compromise.
And it’s not just here that Rise of Skywalker plays the both-sides game. Multiple times it delivers what should be shocking, franchise-altering, fan-devastating moments, only to walk them back shortly thereafter like they never happened. At least three times, the script offers up big, bold, emotional events, but not really—the filmmakers want to have the action but not deal with the consequences. It gets to the point where when something major goes down, instead of reacting to it in a natural fashion, you pause to wonder if it’s real or another psych-out moment.
One of the big criticisms of The Force Awakens is that it often plays like a rehash, like a retelling of A New Hope. We have a baddie in a black mask, Starkiller Base reminds us all of the Death Star, the whole thing revolves around a desert orphan who finds their power. Rise of Skywalker has a fair amount of that as well—it follows Return of the Jedi template—and like Episode VII, some of it successfully touches on poignant bits of nostalgia, but much of it doesn’t.
Remember the awesome speeder chase on Endor? We’re going to do that, but in a desert this time. How great was Han and Leia’s super combative relationship in Empire? What if Rey and Poe have that same dynamic? Their banter is actually really fun, though it really only lasts for a scene and is very familiar. Similar instances litter the movie.
Some of this obvious fan service works. We get the return of long-lost characters that are fantastic and everything you could hope for. It’s hard not to get a little misty every time Carrie Fisher takes the screen. Sure, there are a couple of cutesy, Ewok-style add-a-kid creatures to sell toys, but also a couple of strong, interesting new characters, like Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and Zori Bliss (Keri Russell). It does, however, often veer away from homage so far it verges on fan fiction wish fulfillment.
For all its flaws, and there are many—a ticking-clock set up falls by the wayside without much fanfare, too often the plot drives the characters instead of the other way around, and it’s messy in so many ways—Rise of Skywalker still feels like Star Wars. Some of the character motivation and stakes may ring hollow, and there are questionable plot choices, but J.J. Abrams knows how to stage a massive space battle. Your pulse races as the Millennium Falcon blasts across the galaxy, a John Williams score in your ears, a swarm of TIE Fighters on its tail, a fleet of Star Destroyers hanging ominously in the sky. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but that doesn’t make it any less electrifying. And though it’s a jumble of threads and strands, the climactic battle should sate the audience’s appetite for soaring sci-fi action.
As the ninth and final chapter in the saga, Rise of Skywalker carries a lot of weight and pressure. It needs to wrap up a story 40-plus years in the making. To be honest, it would have been better served to focus on concluding the new trilogy rather than the entire saga. The story attempts to do far too much and rushes from action scene to action scene, skipping over characters, places, and the roiling conflict between good and evil the franchise is based on.
Still, there are plenty of thrills and excitement. The core trio has great chemistry—and Ridley, Isaac, and Boyega share a significant amount of screen time in this Episode. Adam Driver continues to be the standout newcomer, evolving from moody underling to brooding, smoldering leader who feels legitimately threatening. And they give Chewie a moment that nearly killed me.
There’s so much about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that promises to be super divisive to fans—like I said, it’s a wildly mixed bag. While some arcs conclude in a satisfying fashion, others are hasty, don’t stick the landing, or try to please everyone—my own feelings are already shifting and evolving. We can’t get into specifics here without revealing major spoilers, but don’t worry, there will be ample opportunity to dissect, digest, and debate every aspect of Episode IX before long. People are going to have a lot to say, which will surprise no one.