This review does not contain spoilers for the plot of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Early in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” Kylo Ren reconstructs the Darth Vader-esque helmet he shattered in 2017’s “The Last Jedi.”
This scene, whether intentional or inadvertent, serves as a metaphor for exactly what director J.J. Abrams is trying to do in Episode IX. Just like Kylo and the remnants of the mask Abrams once gave his character, the director is attempting to piece together the fractured Star Wars fandom after the fallout of “The Last Jedi.”
For the most part, Abrams goes about this reconstruction by doing his best to act like the series’ previous film never even happened, and the result is a mixed bag.
On its own, “The Rise of Skywalker” is an enjoyable Star Wars film that’s overflowing with exciting action, lovable characters and, of course, an overwhelming amount of fan service. But when “The Rise of Skywalker” is taken into consideration as a part of the wider Star Wars storyline or examined critically, that’s when the problems begin to arise.
Writing an ending is never easy, and when you add in the fact that this particular finale is the culmination of a nine-film, 42-year epic that will go down as one of the greatest pop culture phenomena in the history of entertainment, that makes things a little bit more complicated. No pressure, right?
“The Rise of Skywalker” picks up about a year after the events of “The Last Jedi” and quickly establishes the fact that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the scheming evil mastermind from the original and prequel trilogies, is back from the grave. The rediscovered presence of this villain initially threatens the story’s current big bad, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but the two quickly team up to rule the galaxy together. At the same time, Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the rest of the Resistance are out to destroy the Emperor before he can put his plan for galactic domination into action. That’s about as much as I can reveal without venturing into spoiler territory or getting too bogged down in plot details, because let me tell you – there’s a lot to unpack here.
Right from the start, “Skywalker” comes out of the gates at a breakneck pace. Less than 10 minutes into the movie, you’ve already visited four new planets and had an entire film’s worth of plot points dumped on you. For a franchise that’s so traditionally based in methodical, deliberate pacing, “Skywalker” bucks the system in favor of a whiplash-inducing first act that feels entirely overwhelming and rushed. In the case of “Skywalker,” which runs 142 minutes, an extra half hour could have gone a long way to help explore the details a bit more and slow down the pacing. In the era of the modern blockbuster, fans would hardly bat an eye at a three-hour movie – especially for a Star Wars finale.
Whereas “The Last Jedi” was an extremely character-driven film, it’s clear from the jump that “Skywalker” will be adventure driven. The characters spend a majority of the film’s first act searching for a MacGuffin to help them reach the Emperor, jumping from checkpoint to checkpoint along the treasure hunt. Once they find it, things finally slow down allowing the film to settle in a bit, and pumping the breaks works wonders. Instead of frantically chasing after characters splitting off in every which direction, the film’s second act actually provides the chance to further explore the characters we’ve come to love over the course of the series.
One of the few benefits of the frenzied first act is the sightseeing throughout the Star Wars galaxy. The practical effects and real-world locations provide a stunning backdrop for the story to unfold, filled with striking colors and beautiful scenery.
With a cast as talented as “Skywalker”‘s this is where the film – and the sequel trilogy as a whole – truly shines. No disrespect to the legendary Darth Vader, but in Kylo Ren, Driver has established arguably the greatest villain the Star Wars universe has ever seen. Of course, it helps when you have an actor of Driver’s caliber portraying the character. Over the course of the sequel trilogy, Driver has channeled an emotional range never before seen in the franchise as the sinister yet conflicted Supreme Leader. The internal struggle Driver depicts is everything Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker wanted to be.
On top of Driver, Ridley brings a magnetism and likability that raises the question: How is she not already a major movie star? After anchoring one of the biggest franchises of all time, she certainly has the star power and the following to propel herself to superstar status now that she’s free from her Star Wars obligations.
Throw in the other leads of the sequel trilogy like Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) as well as a smattering of classic characters like Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and the return of fan-favorite Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and now you’re in business.
The one character that doesn’t seem to work this time around is the late Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia Organa. After Fisher’s passing in 2016, it was announced that archive footage from “The Force Awakens” would be used to finish out her character’s arch. Due to the limitations of the footage, Leia is relegated to a secondary role in the film, and when she is on screen, it just doesn’t feel right. Instead of flowing naturally, the dialogue sounds more like pre-recorded catchphrases awkwardly inserted into the film. For a character as beloved as Leia, the final chapter in her story feels mishandled.
When dealing with a finale as enormous as “The Rise of Skywalker,” it’s often difficult to separate the instant gratification of a thrilling lightsaber duel or a bit of fan service with whether or not what is happening actually makes sense. This dilemma is why finales on the scale of “Skywalker” require multiple viewings to create fully-formed opinions – to allow viewers to put aside the initial shock or excitement of a scene and truly think about it.
Despite being overwhelmed by two films worth of exposition and plot condensed into one, “The Rise of Skywalker” provides enough satisfying moments to pass as an acceptable finale to the Skywalker Saga. It’s sure to be controversial, revealing rewritten answers to some of the franchise’s biggest questions, and perhaps raising more than it answers – but there’s enough fan service and nostalgia inside to make it work, as long as you don’t think too hard about what actually happens.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.