Star Wars: The Last Jedi was always going to be a tough act to follow, much like The Empire Strikes Back was in 1980. Both films raised the bar on what a sequel to a popular franchise could and should be; both elevated the saga’s space-opera and serial roots and both were the exception to the rule that a trilogy’s second chapter is just a placeholder for the grand finale. But while The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kirshner, is now a beloved entry to the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, was, and still is, the subject of much derision from a small, rather vocal and, when it comes to storytelling, incredibly conservative, risk averse and backwards looking portion of Star Wars fandom. The Last Jedi was bold: Johnson may have added sprinkles of past Star Wars films here and there but, like Alfonso Cuarón in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (another film frowned upon by a different but equally conservative set of fans), he was interested in finding new, daring ways to tell this centuries-old story about tyrants and empires and a generation of rebels keen on overthrowing them and bringing freedom and justice to their corner of the universe.
But, alas, given the fan response, this new direction was not to be (and it remains to be seen how much freedom and flexibility Rian Johnson will enjoy once he starts working on his own Star Wars trilogy). After director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was fired by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy after working for two years on the project, J.J. Abrams (who directed The Force Awakens, the first chapter of this final trilogy) was hired to take over the film, giving him carte-blanche to finish the story he started. There is no doubt that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will please the franchise’s hardcore base. And there IS a lot of good stuff in this final chapter, especially in the film’s first hour and a half. Like The Return of the Jedi before it, The Rise of Skywalker needed to tie the plot elements of the first two films while concluding an entire nine-chapter saga as well as contending with the death of Carrie Fisher (who was originally going to be the focus of this third chapter). It needed to end triumphantly. And, in the eyes of the franchise’s stakeholders, it also needed not to be The Last Jedi.
Palpatine is back: that is no spoiler, the trailers after all gave it away. And he’s been plotting his revenge ever since Luke Skywalker and his band of rebels brought the Empire down a while ago in a galaxy far, far away. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, now more confident in the role), Supreme Leader of the First Order, is after him because there can only be one Supreme Leader and that’s Kylo. Palpatine makes him one of those offers no one can refuse: find Rey (Daisy Ridley) and bring her to him or, if that doesn’t work, kill her, and Kylo will be master of all (or at least most of it) when the Final Order takes over. The Resistance has also found out that Palpatine is alive and kicking and planning a grandiose comeback and to stop him and his new fleet they must go out in search of a Sith Pathfinder. Rey drops her Jedi training with Princess Leia and joins the old gang —Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB8 (poor R2D2 is relegated to the background during most of the film)— on the quest.
For this is what the new trilogy was all about in the end: a quest. A quest for identity, a quest for knowledge and a quest for thingamajigs that will move the plot forward. This quest takes them to planets and star systems far and wide with the First Order on the tail (it helps little that Rey still has a telepathic link to Kylo), among them an old familiar: Endor, where most of Return of the Jedi took place. Along the way they run into some old familiars like Lando Calrissian (always great to see Billy Dee Williams on the big screen) and some new characters like Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), a gun-for-hire with whom Poe had a fling in the past. This first hour and a half is so packed with plot, with incident, that at times you wish Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio had slowed down the action to let their characters smell the proverbial coffee and to let these worlds fully sink in in our imagination. Yet, even with the rushed pace, you can steel appreciate that special bond, that special camaraderie and chemistry that has grown over the years between Boyega, Isaac and Ridley. You want to spend as much time with these three actors and their characters, as you did with Luke, Han and Leia way back when. And even as the film rushes from plot point to plot point, from terrestrial chases to sidereal ones, you still feel a vibrancy, a lightness, a sense that the stakes have been raised, that is missing from most of the film’s climactic sequence.
It is here, in these final 45 minutes, where J.J. Abrams goes full blast in his fan servicing by mimicking the beats (and even revamping scenes) from Return of the Jedi’s grand finale (brief glimpse of the Ewoks at the tail end included). He spices them up with a Dunkirk-like moment, and even another which some Doctor Who fans (including yours truly) found too close to comfort to a recent episode of the revived series (I am looking at you, “The Witch’s Familiar”). It does feature two extraordinary action sequences, one of which made me smile (I am being deliberately vague in order not to spoil the sequence; let me just say that it involves Finn). But compared to the razzmatazz thrills of that first hour and a half, I felt slightly underwhelmed by this finale.
Most of the new characters’ sole function is to move the plot forward, except for one: the cold, ruthless, lizard-like Allegian General Pryde who, as delightfully played by a truly menacing Richard E. Grant could and should have been the rightful heir to Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin. It is sad to see Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico relegated to the background throughout most of the film after her brilliant turn in The Last Jedi (another victim of the fan recon that afflicts most of The Rise of Skywalker) and I wish Abrams had given Billy Dee Williams more to do especially after all the hype surrounding his return. While one should be grateful that Adams and his production team decided against using a digital avatar for Carrie Fisher and she is given a fitting farewell, one can’t help but acknowledge that her scenes do belong to a different film.
I enjoyed most of The Rise of Skywalker the way one enjoys part of a double bill on a Saturday afternoon (remember those?). But did I feel like going back to it immediately the way I did with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi? No. In its resolve to wipe out most of what Rian Johnson accomplished with The Last Jedi and turn this third entry into an outright sequel to The Force Awakens, and in its desire to please that minor and very vocal corner of Star Wars fandom, The Rise of Skywalker ends playing it safe. The film is perfectly crafted but it ends somewhere between a bang and a whimper.