Following massive fan backlash around the previous Star Wars film The Last Jedi, The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams returns to—in the eyes of some—steer the trilogy back on course with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The film has the unfavorable position of not just closing a trilogy, but an entire nine-film saga, all in two and a half hours. Furthermore, actress Carrie Fisher plays a major role in the film, but sadly passed away before filming began.
The film handles some of these problems better than others. Abrams doesn’t entirely erase director Rian Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi, but quickly resolves some plot threads and glosses over others. The pacing is blindingly fast, with some deeply important scenes barely having any room to breathe. And the solution to capturing Fisher’s likeness is at best uncomfortable and at worst disrespectful.
The Rise of Skywalker is a bit of a mess, but that’s not to say that it’s entirely unenjoyable. The conflicted connection between the trilogy’s main protagonist and antagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) respectively, is one of the most important elements from The Last Jedi that The Rise of Skywalker keeps and develops. Ridley and Driver give excellent performances individually, but the chemistry between the two, whether with or against each other, is one of the film’s highlights.
Abrams starts with a major revelation in the signature text scroll: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the ultimate villain of the original Star Wars trilogy who was presumed dead, is alive and threatening to take over the galaxy once again. Whether that twist was intended from the beginning or not, it seems to have come out of nowhere. Nonetheless, McDiarmid makes a triumphant return as the evil emperor, and his character contributes to some of the film’s most intense scenes.
The creative tug-of-war within the sequel trilogy is highly visible, not just from outside sources but within the films themselves, none as much as The Rise of Skywalker. Previous twists from The Last Jedi are nearly reversed in some instances, and major characters from previous films—especially Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a major character in The Last Jedi—barely show up at all.
John Williams once again returns to compose the score, and it’s as grand as ever. Williams marries classic Star Wars themes with the newer medleys perfectly, making the soundtrack one of the few elements that is consistently excellent throughout not just The Rise of Skywalker but the entire Skywalker Saga as a whole.
One of the film’s most difficult faults to get over is its breakneck pacing. Even if intended to give a sense of urgency and momentum, the near-constant transitions and shifts to the next story take away from some of its best moments. Unsurprisingly, The Rise of Skywalker’s best scenes are ones allowed to breathe and let characters interact with one another in meaningful ways.
When discussing meaningful interaction, one cannot avoid the uncomfortable topic of how Abrams and Disney decided to have Fisher posthumously perform as Princess Leia. Instead of writing her character out of the script, they pulled unused recordings from Fisher’s performances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and they awkwardly wrote dialogue to give the recordings context. Leia’s screen time is limited, but every second with her likeness onscreen is painfully awkward and uncomfortable.
Although the film rarely allows for many laughs as it approaches its final act, one of its largest sources of comedy comes from an old favorite: C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), making him and R2-D2 the only characters to appear in every film of the Skywalker Saga. C-3PO’s tendencies to complain or tell the odds at inopportune moments offers a welcome change of pace. Buddies Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) have their moments of humor, but the fast pace and insistence on darkness give them fewer opportunities to crack jokes.
If you walk into the theater just hoping for cool lightsaber fights and space battles, you won’t walk out disappointed. As both characters reach their full potential, Rey and Kylo’s battles become more intense, as do space battles between the Resistance and First Order. The film’s final act can be visually stunning in ways that Star Wars has seldom been before, despite bordering on absurd at points.
It shouldn’t be understated how despite all of these very real problems, The Rise of Skywalker still contains some emotionally impactful moments. Even when the logic is surface-deep, many of these characters, both new and old, do their best with the script given, leading to some shocking and heartbreaking moments. In many cases, it is only until considering the film after the fact when the logic around the scenes starts to show its cracks.
Still, Star Wars deserves better than The Rise of Skywalker. As a film, it has its good and bad moments, but as the finale to the nine-installment Skywalker Saga, it is sorely lacking. It feels more content to follow the traditional “Star Wars-y” beats in a seeming apology for The Last Jedi’s break from the formula.
The Force Awakens was an enjoyable return to Star Wars’ far, far away galaxy, and The Last Jedi was a divisive film that at least dared to do something different (which this reviewer appreciated, despite a flawed execution). Instead of carrying what story it had forward and making the best of it, The Rise of Skywalker is a frenzied scramble to wrap up the trilogy’s messy story, in ways that even casual audiences are likely to notice.
The Rise of Skywalker has some excellent moments, and these are perhaps good enough to warrant seeing it at least once. Viewed holistically, however, it is too marred by poor storytelling and confusing choices to become as classic as the original trilogy remains to be this day.