The end of a nine-film, three-arc saga that’s been around for more than 40 years, for some people, Star Wars – and specifically the Skywalker story – has been with them their whole lives. So it’s perhaps not surprising there’s a lot of emotion riding on JJ Abrams’ The Rise Of Skywalker. Even more so, perhaps, after some of the discourse surrounding The Last Jedi.
Abrams has obviously taken that knowledge to heart, creating a film that – for better or worse – should play better with some fans than Rian Johnson’s divisive predecessor. And there’s the rub…
“This is not going to go the way you think,” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) infamously growled in The Last Jedi, a thinly veiled mission statement of sorts for Johnson’s riskier approach, which sent the series in a bold new direction. By contrast, The Rise Of Skywalker plays out more or less exactly how you’d think, give or take a few surprises. If The Force Awakens was Abrams’ take on original trilogy opener A New Hope, this new trilogy capper is his Return Of The Jedi reprise – and not just because it features a returning big bad.
To try and sum up the plot is to wade too far into spoiler territory, given the fact that the ins and outs of the story have been kept tightly under wraps – and rightly so, packed as it is with fan-pleasing moments. The set-up, though, is laid out in a three-pronged opening that quickly reintroduces our heroes and villains: Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training under Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) tutelage; Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are on a dangerous mission to steal secrets about the First Order’s next moves; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is seeking out a new (old) phantom menace that could snuff out the Resistance for good.
It’s that opening act that proves to be the film’s biggest weakness, with Abrams and his writing partner Chris Terrio (Argo, Batman V Superman) chucking so many new ideas and developments at you in such a short space of time that it essentially serves as a sort-of exposition-laden asteroid field. The frenetic editing between the three story strands and the swirling camerawork don’t help, either – it’s a pacey start, sure, but it doesn’t leave much time to take it all in.
Luckily, the film settles into its groove once our heroes are reunited and sent off on a quest to find an ancient artefact that will set them on another collision course with Ren and the First Order. Even if many of the film’s new characters (including Naomi Ackie’s Jannah, Keri Russell’s Zorri Bliss and new mini-droid D-0) fail to make much of a mark, it’s great to spend more time with Rey, Finn and Poe as a trio, while Ridley and Driver truly spark whenever they’re on screen together.
Most notably, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) has a greatly expanded role here, providing much of the film’s humour and, ironically for a robotic sidekick, some of its more tender moments. Elsewhere, original trilogy hero Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) gets a pleasingly triumphant homecoming, while Leia’s story – made up of existing footage and stand-ins after Fisher’s tragic passing in 2016 – is handled sensitively.
As with the previous two films, The Rise Of Skywalker looks absolutely stunning, seamlessly merging cutting-edge CG with grounded, practical visual effects (keep an eye out for a veritable menagerie of scene-stealing puppeteered alien critters). And Abrams once again proves himself skilled in the art of set-pieces, too – from a storm-lashed lightsaber duel atop the wreckage of the second Death Star, to a thrilling “ground assault” on the wing of a Star Destroyer, the film is stuffed full of exhilarating action and even a couple of punch-the-air moments, too.
Trying to neatly tie up 40 years worth of storytelling while aiming to please everyone is an impossible task, it seems – and one that Abrams tackles admirably, if not wholly successfully. If you’re a Last Jedi fan, you might feel short-changed at how some of that film’s risk-taking has been scaled back, especially in the overly familiar third act. If you’re not, you might appreciate some of the more traditional elements but, even so, there are still several developments that will likely provoke just as much fierce debate (make no mistake, there’s a lot to unpick here if you want to).
As a huge, sci-fi blockbuster, then, The Rise Of Skywalker is a mostly satisfying spectacle – it’s fun, entertaining, visually dazzling and, yes, emotional in parts, too. But as the grand finale of the Skywalker Saga, it falls somewhat short of the mark.
Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker is in UK cinemas from 19 December