The Star Wars series doesn’t really end, but given the elegant decision to tell this epic in chunks of three movies, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker marks a stopping point for the films that began four years ago, and I find it to be a satisfactory conclusion. That might sound like lukewarm praise to you, but don’t underestimate the difficulty of doing that in a series that has spanned so many decades and is freighted with so many expectations from billions of fans.
The film begins with Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) returning from the dead, where Return of the Jedi seemed to have left him. He’s planning on re-launching the Sith order from a planet that’s off all the star maps, with an army of star destroyers that all have the capability to blow up worlds. With less than 24 hours to do so, Rey (Daisy Ridley) goes after him to stop a galaxy-wide apocalypse. Oddly, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is also hunting down the emperor, because he’s just been made supreme leader and has no intention of giving up the sweet job he just got.
My biggest issue with this is Palpatine himself. His resurrection is announced brusquely in the prefatory crawl, and you’d think that someone conquering death would be a bigger deal. He was an uninteresting villain in Return of the Jedi, and the passage of 36 years has done nothing to make him less so. His harangues about power and destiny are thankfully not as lengthy as the ones he gave Luke Skywalker back then, but we still don’t receive much sense of the temptations of the Dark Side that he offers to Rey. If we’re going to be in suspense about whether good characters might turn evil, the evil should be more alluring. The climactic showdown between her and him doesn’t have anything like the massing of forces that Avengers: Endgame gave us. As a matter of fact, the whole Star Wars saga as a whole has blown chance after chance to use the different sides of the Force to comment meaningfully on the struggle between good and evil in all of us, despite a development at the end that partially makes up for that.
Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams does manage to spike the proceedings with humor, even if he hurries through the jokes to bring the film’s running time down to 141 minutes. The Star Wars saga has always been good for presenting us with unimaginable vistas, and this one has a ragtag band of ex-Imperial stormtroopers launching a raid on top of a star destroyer while riding the backs of tusked horses. Even better is the extended duel between Rey and Kylo Ren on top of a wrecked airship in the ocean, with both combatants being soaked by the surf and being worn down by the length of the fight. That scene also includes Rey’s backstory being revealed, one that resembles not only Luke Skywalker’s but also Jesus Christ’s and explains why she has so much power and is able to communicate with Ren across star systems.
That fight also goes really dark when Leia (Carrie Fisher) intervenes. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that she dies in this film, and while this development may have been forced by Fisher’s real-life death two years ago, it’s done with enough skill that it feels organic to the story. One of the themes of this recent trio of Star Wars films is that the old order passes away and a new group of people have to take up the fight. Abrams and Rian Johnson have managed this beautifully, and when Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) joins the Resistance as the last leader from the old days, he has some sage words for the new leaders. The script is full of callbacks and references to the previous films, and yet even if the bulk of them go over your head, they won’t hold up the pace. The Rise of Skywalker’s epilogue brings things back to Tatooine, the desert planet where all this started, and if we’re all back here in 20 years for another trilogy, we’ll be lucky to have storytellers as skilled to lead us through it.
Starring Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio. Rated PG-13.