Neither the best nor the worst episode of the series, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is like visiting an all-you-can eat buffet at one of those gigantic Vegas hotels on the Strip that’s teeming with tourists: It leaves your body overstuffed, your senses overstimulated and your patience on edge. It will also quite possibly make you yearn for the simpler meals of your youth.
As the long-awaited ninth and final chapter in the saga that began, at least in this galaxy, over four decades ago, Rise of Skywalker has a nearly impossible task: to conclude a franchise that has grossed over $9 billion worldwide and whose symbolic worth, to legions of fans, is incalculable. (See the fine documentary The People vs. George Lucas.)
As director Rian Johnson discovered with The Last Jedi, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. While that 2017 film added to the series some intriguing metaphysical underpinnings and more nuanced narrative, despite satisfying many critics, it divided fans. In contrast, J.J. Abrams opted for a safer approach with that film’s predecessor, The Force Awakens, by successfully (if not terribly imaginatively) resurrecting familiar tropes and themes from the Star Wars O.G.,1977’s A New Hope. After the palpable bitter taste left by the thoroughly unwatchable prequels, Abrams’ decision to shift Force Awakens to familiar territory was a safe and ultimately sound one.
Back to helm the final installment, Abrams appears to have followed an expansive mandate to include references to virtually everything from the Star Wars universe, and to omit nothing, thereby mitigating the inevitable objections of diehard fans. But not unlike a repackaged greatest hits album, this installment wants to be all things to all manner of fans. That’s practically asking for trouble, almost as if Abrams had made his way into Jabba the Hutt’s lair dressed as a paddy frog.
Because Disney has explicitly requested that critics not reveal major plot points (albeit in a time of swirling social media plot debates), this review will only briefly touch on those elements. Of course, the sequels’ plucky, camera-friendly young leads are all back, still fighting the monolithic First Order. Alongside former imperial army deserter turned earnest freedom fighter Finn (John Boyega), there are quick-thinking pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and scrappy orphan turned ultimate Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Also back is the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, having one hell of a year).
Ren, once Ben Solo, is Han and Leia’s wayward son who, you may recall, jettisoned his Jedi training and his parents for a walk on the dark side. His choice to embrace the legacy of his grandfather Darth Vader upended his parents’ marriage and prompted his uncle Luke to withdraw from civilization. During his years of self-imposed exile on a tiny windswept island accompanied only by the irritatingly cute, made-for-merchandising puffin-like Porgs, Luke was forced to contemplate just how he had gotten into that mess.
With Luke’s fate having been settled in Last Jedi, and Han’s in Force Awakens, General Leia Organa remains on hand to rally the Resistance. Although Carrie Fisher herself passed away in 2017, she appears in this installment (with her family’s support) via a combination of unused footage from The Force Awakens, digital enhancement, and the stand-in presence of her daughter Billie Lourd. (Lourd also plays a small supporting role.)
Other beloved characters also make a return — as noted, pretty much nothing is omitted — but to say much more would be to risk giving away some of the movie’s better surprises. Still fundamentally a battle of good against evil, the series has always been most entertaining when it balances the lofty mythological implications of George Lucas’ vision of the Force with a welcome, grounding dose of humor and the innovative special effects wizardry of Industrial Light & Magic.
As for the latest episode’s story beats, an object of mythical importance must be found, planets of varying topography are visited, and, advancing confrontations from the last two installments, Kylo Ren and Rey engage in multiple, spectacular battles. With discernible chemistry between Driver and Ridley, these fights, intricately choreographed and accompanied by John Williams’ expressive score, are among the very best in the franchise. Rise of Skywalker also features elaborate action sequences, a host of weird looking creatures, some — but not enough — humor, and at least one noble sacrifice. Oh, and Rey’s origins? Yep, they’re finally revealed.
Certainly, Rise of Skywalker is a massive technical achievement by any measure, yet one wishes Abrams had opted for simplicity of character and plot over the kitchen-sink approach. The editing, too often, is frenetic, as if to create a diversion from extraneous story elements that threaten to weigh down the action. And the sound mix at the screening I attended was intermittently muddy, rendering large swatches of dialogue essentially incomprehensible.
Still, this is a Star Wars movie, and it does offer some deeply satisfying moments that feel justifiably earned, occasionally edging toward sheer exhilaration. As with any storied movie franchise that sparks passion and eventual nostalgia, so much of our collective attachment has to do with wanting to relive the electrifying thrill of experiencing it for the first time. That may be an impossibility, but one way or another, the Force will be with us for a long time to come.
Lael Lowenstein is the Media Columnist for the Santa Monica Daily Press. She is the former president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and is a weekly contributor to Film Week on KPCC. She has been featured in the LA Times, Variety, and serves on panels on film from Seattle to Cannes. Her latest podcast can be heard here.