Whether you were around in 1977 when creator George Lucas first unleashed his cultural behemoth in theaters, or you just started binge-watching the whole thing yesterday on your phone, Star Wars is undeniable — just as skipping the ninth (and, so they claim, the last) is unthinkable. All that’s left is the rush to judgment on whether director and co-writer J.J. Abrams made sure Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is everything you want and need it to be. Short answer: Of course it isn’t. The impossible job of being all things to all Star-gazers leaves Abrams, who kicked off the third trilogy with The Force Awakens in 2015, straining to cram in everything. The result is often chaos, but it’s also a euphoric blast of pulse-quickening adventure, laced with humor and heart. Sure, you’ll nitpick the thing to death with your friends. But that’s the point. When it comes to Stars Wars fandom, the infighting is as crucial as the love.
Of course you have questions about the plot: Who lives, who dies, who tells their story? Will Rey (Daisy Ridley) join Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the Dark Side? Is Reylo a thing? Will there be an epic kiss? Who are Rey’s parents? How does Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016, manage to turn up one last time as Princess Leia? Will the ghosts of Han (Harrison Ford) and Luke (Mark Hamill) — now one with the Force — make appearances? And will Episode IX really be the end? The answers: It doesn’t feel like the end to me. And if I say anything more, the spoiler police will pounce.
Know this: There is no Baby Yoda (we have The Mandalorian for that). Rise of Skywalker comes in hot on a battle between Rey and Kylo. They use lightsabers (now and forever the coolest). Kylo, still fetishizing the headgear of his granddaddy Darth Vader, is pissed that Rey sides with the Resistance, and won’t take his hand (he uses that ardent phrase) and join him as Supreme Leader of the villainous First Order. “I killed Snoke,” snarls Kylo, “and I’ll kill you.” He doesn’t mean it. Or does he? He’s still taking orders from the hooded, ghastly-pale Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is determined to get Rey in his clutches before she can complete her Jedi training and Kylo can get too close to her. Driver is terrific at bringing danger and depth to the conflicted Kylo, born Ben Solo to his parents Han and Leia. His haunted presence makes the movie.
Bloodlines are a huge deal in the Star Wars canon. Rey still doesn’t know her parents (she’ll soon find out), but she’s loyal to Leia, now a general. Thanks to unused footage from 2017’s The Last Jedi‚ director Rian Johnson’s much-debated middle chapter in this final trilogy, Fisher is back in action, and the warmth of her presence raises the bar (and not a few tears). It’s deeply moving to watch Leia pass the mantle of power to Rey, whose rise the film documents. And Ridley comes into her own here as a soul-searching Jedi fighter who learns that nothing in the Jedi handbook can beat following her own gut.
The plot that Abrams cooks up with co-screenwriter Chris Terrio hinges on the fact that Rey and her Resistance team need to get their hands on a crystal that will show them the way to Exogol, the hidden land of the Siths, where Palpatine intends to establish himself as the leader of the Final Order. Got that? Doesn’t matter. It’s just an excuse to get the old gang together: Chewie, R2-D2, C-3PO, and BB-8. John Boyega doesn’t have much to do as Finn, the ex-stormtrooper who turned against the Dark Side. Oscar Isaac zips and quips dashingly as the pilot Poe Dameron, but his character is too closely modeled on Han Solo, and Poe’s flirtation with the armored and masked Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) seems extraneous. Things pick up when Billy Dee Williams, now 83, returns as Lando Calrissian, the smack-talking general we haven’t seen since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
Comparisons to the past history of Star Wars (let’s not dwell on the excruciatingly dull prequel trilogy that Lucas foisted on us starting in 1999) don’t really serve its final chapter. But there is a provocative theme at play: the attempt of the Emperor to make the Jedi feel alone in the galaxy and incapable of resistance (even a Wookie would get that Trump reference). There is also no disputing the fanboy reverence Abrams feels for what came before — the X-wing dogfights, the lightsaber duels, the camaraderie. Lucas recently expressed his disappointment that The Force Awakens was basically a remake of 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope. And others will never forgive Johnson for turning Luke into a mad nihilist out of Apocalypse Now in The Last Jedi. But there we go squabbling again. Flaws and all, The Rise of Skywalker is part of our film history and, when Rey and Kylo seize the screen, an indelible part of our hearts.