The saga comes to a conclusion that is largely satisfying and mostly entertaining, but The Rise of Skywalker features its fair share of rushed storytelling and tries its hardest to undermine previous instalment The Last Jedi.
In 2012, the world was shook as Disney bought Lucasfilm – and with it, the rights to the Star Wars franchise – for approximately $4bn. Though it would pave the way for a whole new batch of Star Wars films, the potential for creative filmmaking and lucrative business opportunities was at the time intangible – new stories, worlds, and characters to discover, and new merchandise, theme parks, and video games to sell. Seven years on, Star Wars as a series has turned into somewhat of a poisoned chalice after the mixed reception of The Last Jedi amongst die-hard fans and the underwhelming box-office performance of Solo. Disney were clearly nervous about a similar reaction to the latest and final instalment of the sequel trilogy, and the final chapter of the newly coined ‘Skywalker saga’, The Rise of Skywalker. The jury is still out on whether it has pleased the wider fanbase but, without spoiling any major plot details, The Rise of Skywalker is simultaneously Star Wars at its very best and its very worst. Returning director J. J. Abrams has provided an entertaining, satisfying conclusion to the sequel trilogy, but whether it is a fulfilling end to all nine films is debatable. Moreover, the clunky storytelling of Abrams and Chris Terrio’s script attempts to ignore the previous film as much as possible and incorporates elements that will absolutely frustrate many fans.
After the events of The Last Jedi, the surviving Resistance are rebuilding their depleted forces so that they can face up to the sinister First Order once and for all. Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training under the watchful eye of General Leia (Carrie Fisher), while something menacing is emerging as rumours of the long-dead Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) return circle the galaxy. An evil plan is brewing that could spell the ultimate end for our heroes.
As we’ve come to expect from Star Wars, there are new characters to enjoy, new worlds to discover, and fresh revelations to be unveiled. Unfortunately, so much is packed into the first hour due to the unbalanced script that the new additions to the story and the stunning production design are not given enough service. The first-third prioritises a fast-paced scavenger hunt that is exhausting and not particularly engaging. Although there was a similar plot in The Force Awakens, at least that film took its time to immerse the audience into each new planet and its culture – rather than running around in search of an item that leads to a person, who then points you toward another location where the item could possibly be that leads to another person, and so on. Because of this barrelling momentum, some of the action sequences in the first half barely hold any tension. While it may look exciting, these have more of an effect similar to when you sit down on the London Underground: you know it will be quick and lively, with plenty of bumps and sways, but at the same time it is predictable and mundane.
As is usual in Abrams’ films there is fan-service and nostalgic references to previous franchise additions. Some of these hit well, others fall flat. Admirers of writer-director Rian Johnson’s risk-taking in The Last Jedi might feel alienated by these moments; they could be interpreted as the former Star Trek director essentially showing Johnson the middle finger. The film does build upon some key character revelations from The Last Jedi but, instead of producing suspense with these moments, what The Rise of Skywalker has to say about its predecessor all comes out in one big info dump that has little momentous value. One of the major questions that has been teased throughout this sequel trilogy is definitively answered, though the manner in how it is revealed feels incredibly rushed and will leave some bewildered.
All of this will may sound ominous, yet there are positives to be had with this final episode – especially in the characters who hold it together. The relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) is deepened in surprising ways. There is a moment that threatens to derail the dynamic entirely, but both Ridley and Driver excel in this movie. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are as charismatic as ever, despite Finn and Poe Dameron sadly never reaching the full potential of their characters. It could be a fun watch if Disney chooses to revisit the pair in the future. Carrie Fisher’s presence in the film, thankfully, is carefully handled and our beloved Leia is treated with the utmost respect. The baddies are excellent in The Rise of Skywalker, with familiar face Richard E. Grant having tons of fun as Allegiant General Pryde, the cold, calculated opposite to Domnhall Gleeson’s enraged, petty General Hux. The questionable return of Palpatine will forever be debated, yet it is undoubtable that the cinematography, mise-en-scène and McDiarmid’s chilling performance, sinking back into the role with ease, evoke an effective atmosphere of gothic horror in his scenes.
Most importantly, the final act manages to encapsulate everything that is great about Star Wars and why the series has amassed such a devoted fanbase. This is a grand space opera with high melodrama and suspense, exciting set-pieces, big character moments, and soaring music from legend John Williams, all delivered with a joie de vivre that creates a rousing finale just before the lights come up. The Rise of Skywalker may be massively flawed; it will likely receive much derision from a slice of the fanbase and has been met with a varied critical reception. Nonetheless, it is fun popcorn entertainment that is in the main thoroughly enjoyable. Whether it sits right with you or not, there is a sense of finality to this chapter of the Star Wars universe. George Lucas’ vast creation will continue to live on in other forms, but how this sequel trilogy will come to define Star Wars‘ legacy is still to be seen.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, directed by J. J Abrams, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, certificate 12A.