A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it sure was a whole lot easier to put a damned bow on a franchise. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, director J.J. Abrams’ return to the trilogy he kicked off with The Force Awakens, is clearly facing some monumental pressures in its quest to deliver a satisfying ending, with a litany of production woes ranging from the passing of Carrie Fisher, the dismissal of the original director, and the ire of random goons on the internet. Given all of the agita, the fact that the final movie comes off as something other than a clear victory lap is less than surprising. What’s odd, though, is how much of the narrative chaos feels self-inflicted. This is a finale that somehow registers as both flabby and rushed, expending at least as much energy in rubbing out perceived past snafus as in moving forward. I mean, it’s still better than Attack of the Clones, but the line is perilously close at times.
Picking up seemingly as far as possible from where the last entry left off (more on that in just a bit), the story finds the good guys mobilizing their last few assets against yet another galactic threat from a not-entirely dead Sith Emperor (Ian McDiarmid, still blessedly putting English on every evil utterance). Meanwhile, developing Jedi Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) quest to discover her origins keeps her pinballing up against conflicted villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, eerily recreating Harrison Ford’s clear boredom with the third part of his trilogy). Chewbacca and C-3PO both have things to do, which is always nice.
It’s impressive, really, how Abrams and scripter Chris Terrio take pains to systematically torpedo the paths opened by writer/director Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi. While that movie suffered from middle installment open-endedness, it also had some intriguing ideas about the weight and aftershocks of heroism, infusing George Lucas’s iconic black and white hats with compelling grey tones. Nuh uh, not so fast, says The Rise of Skywalker, which quickly slaps the masks back on, tamps down the newly developed characters (Kelly Marie Tran, who brought such an optimistic spark to the ensemble, is relegated to restocking X-Wings in the background), and lets the main players relax back into action figure poses. Whatever your feelings about the previous film, the sense of Dad exasperatingly turning the car around may still rankle.
Here’s the thing, though: Even with all of the takebacks and fumbles, it’s still a Star Wars movie, you know? As a director, Abrams knows how to make things hum on a large scale, and the sequences where the film finally stops tripping over itself and gets down to mythic business rank among some of the best of the series, particularly when the action moves to the Emperor’s drippy Gothic marvel of a home base. Once McDiarmid reaches full hammy cackle and the lightsabers start humming, the escapist magic that got so many people invested in these movies in the first place somehow comes roaring back. (A late force lightning blast is wonderfully, appallingly LOUD, in the way that blockbusters in the heyday of THX often felt like they were doing permanent tooth-rattling damage.) By the time the John Williams score swells over those familiar blue end credits, it somehow becomes possible to forgive quite a bit of the missteps along the way. Hey, I don’t make the rules.