“It’s an instinct… a feeling.
The Force brought us together.”
After 42 years of captivating audiences the world over, the story of the Skywalker family that began in 1977 comes to a close. While Disney‘s investment in Star Wars will most assuredly result in more Star Wars films, television shows, and books for years to come, that tale that evoked legends of old, all within intergalactic trappings that pushed the mediums of special effects and their usage in blockbuster film-making, finds finality within The Rise of Skywalker. The culmination of the “sequel trilogy” following 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2017’s The Last Jedi, it arrives following some unthinkable situations in the history of the franchise. The aforementioned The Last Jedi won over critics but has faced an unprecedented amount of critique and outright disgust from viewers in the last two years, and 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story performed well below company expectations after its costly budget and significant production problems. Pair this all with the runaway success of the first live-action Star Wars television series, The Mandalorian, and it’s easy to see that all eyes are on The Rise of Skywalker, not only because of its significance in cinematic storytelling, but also as a lightning rod for how Star Wars will develop in the future.
J.J. Abrams, returning to direct after beginning this trilogy with The Force Awakens, came on-board a project that had lost its original director, Colin Trevorrow, and one of its stars, the late Carrie Fisher, who died almost a year before The Last Jedi released. The fact he came back on as director here is commendable, because the difficulties of this production can’t be overstated. Tying together three films, let alone nine, would be difficult even without those issues. Layer on to this the extremely divided state of the fan base, and the odds against it all seem greater than even the ones faced by the Resistance in the films. That said, I think he fully succeeded as well as he could at completing what was began here. Is the film crammed (too) full of action and exposition? Probably, but when The Last Jedi diverged in so many unexpected ways and resolved most of the plot lines at its end, it left this film with having to establish conflicts, big and small, and a narrative impetus that would have usually been a carryover within any other third film and concluding chapter. That’s a lot of heavy lifting to do for any film, and this one did it without even the longest run-time for a Star Wars film.
I will completely leave out the plot in discussion, because, as I said, so much of what we get here begins and ends within this film. Recounting it could spoil too much, and honestly, taking in all the trailers did that too well. There are several emotional beats in the film that didn’t land, all because I knew what I had witnessed in trailers that promised more beyond those moments. The less said, the better, as this film does draw back throughout the franchise and even beyond the films in various ways. Granted, most of this amounts to fan-service and Easter Eggs, both visual and audible, so if one has a deep affinity for the franchise, it’s all here for you, and the filmmakers go all out. Honestly, cumulatively, this all accounts for the best part of it all. The entirety is a far better experience than a cohesive film. That isn’t backhanded criticism, as much as it is hopefully a calibration of expectation. “Space Opera” was always George Lucas’ intent with Star Wars, and honestly, that has never been more true than here, a decades-long crescendo of story coalescence.
The action set-pieces are massive in scale, and, yes, they attempt things we haven’t seen in Star Wars before. Beyond that, though, the most impressive thing is how Carrie Fisher was fully integrated into this film, even after her passing. Obviously, dialogue and plotting had to be devised around her absence on set, but I wasn’t prepared for more than a prolonged cameo. Here, she comes back to life for us all to enjoy Leia one last time. That devotion to the challenge of her realizing her character really bowled me over; as a fan, I have tremendous respect for all involved and deep appreciation for her daughter, Billie Lourd, in allowing it all to be done to the extent that it is. There are so many touching moments in this film, and yes, the pacing may take away from them, but I felt this film throughout, which is actually a narrative motif as well. Feeling typifies the strength of it all.
While the humor has been a source of contention in this series of films, I would say that this film is the most successful of the three in its consistency. That is largely due to us finally getting to see our core group of heroes be just that: a group. That humor and drama may consist primarily of quipping and griping, but in hindsight, I do wish we could have saw them all together more in previous films. That camaraderie is a huge strength in this film, and it made me care more about everything (even if most everyone in said group is loaded with plot armor and precision aim). That is truly saying something as the film rockets ahead at a break-neck pace.
Content-wise, there was some occasional language (not uncommon in all the films in sparring usage), and the dark imagery is higher than most entries in the series. Much of it may prove downright scary to children, but remember kids: confronting fear is the destiny of the Jedi. There were several prominent themes (that are very spoilery) that will surely make for great spiritual discussions; I can see this film being used for quite a few looks at destiny in the lives of individuals and how one can affect their own, and I can’t wait to talk about this film with those I know.
All-in-all, I commend J.J. Abrams for largely sticking the landing here. While The Last Jedi was undeniably made to buck convention and appealed more to the standards of film critique, this film, for better or worse, does its best to appeal to what fans love about the franchise as a whole. While it may seem unfair, I rate this film more as an experience than a film, because that is truly what it is. I enjoy Star Wars, across its various media forms, and this serves as a culmination of so much of that, as it largely succeeds in integrating everything into an even broader canvas than within the lifetime of Darth Vader. Just as the heft of the Millennium Falcon is swiftly fit into impossible spaces in the film, the nigh-impossible task of trying to please (most) everybody is navigated with finesse amidst the bombast of a fitting conclusion. So much of this film put a smile on my face, and I immediately wanted to watch it all again. The cottage industry of online Star Wars criticism (which I regularly and thoroughly consume myself) will have varying opinions of the film of every degree, surely, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone who lived first hand through the prequels. Still, I don’t see the cultural force of Star Wars fading away anytime soon, and if anything, this film serves as a visceral celebration of what came before it and a reminder of what drew us all to love it in the first place.