When the Star Wars sequel trilogy launched with The Force Awakens in 2015, it was full of possibilities. Sure, the film directed by J.J. Abrams recreated a lot of the story beats of George Lucas’ 1977 sci-fi classic, but it also introduced intriguing new characters while paying tribute to the franchise’s history. Things have been a bit bumpy since then, and bringing Abrams back to direct the trilogy-concluding Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has both resolved and highlighted a lot of the series’ issues. Rian Johnson’s ambitious but muddled second installment, 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, was divisive among fans, but delivering something more familiar and predictable doesn’t necessarily make The Rise of Skywalker an improvement.
It doesn’t make it a failure, either, and while much of the movie occupies a sort of uneasy middle ground, it does provide some of the rousing moments that Abrams proved he could pull off in The Force Awakens. As an exercise in brand extension, The Rise of Skywalker does what it’s meant to do, wrapping up the nine-film “Skywalker saga” that encompasses Lucas’ original trilogy and his prequel films, with plenty of fan service and requisite marketing opportunities for current franchise owner Disney. It also gives at least one character a satisfying emotional arc, even if that’s cobbled together from conflicting visions, and pays a nice tribute to departed star Carrie Fisher, who died before she was able to film any of her scenes as Leia Organa (her performance is somewhat awkwardly constructed via unused footage from The Force Awakens).
As far as following up on the events of The Last Jedi, though, The Rise of Skywalker largely sidesteps the narrative elements that Johnson left behind. While The Last Jedi sent core characters Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) on separate missions, Abrams wastes little time in getting the gang back together, reteaming the core trio along with beloved Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to track down a doohickey that will allow them to locate the hidden planet where angsty villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has connected with the resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), former leader of the evil Galactic Empire.
Bringing back Palpatine, who was dramatically killed at the end of the original trilogy, feels like a desperate move to give the whole series a sense of grand destiny, and the sequel trilogy in general has an issue with shifting villains, since Kylo Ren has always been a more sympathetic figure. The movie’s first half is a bit repetitive, as the heroes travel to a new planet, encounter old allies (including the much-hyped return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian), clash with Kylo Ren, and then narrowly escape, all while the secret to locating Palpatine remains just outside their grasp, over and over. The story picks up in the more action-oriented second half, but as cluttered as the plot is, it never quite achieves the epic scope that Abrams is aiming for.
There are some pretty exciting and expertly staged action set pieces along the way, though, including multiple light-saber battles between Rey and Kylo in a variety of settings, plus an opening space chase that manages to find something new to do with one of the series’ signature elements. While Ridley gets by far the most substantial role as Rey, making it clear that the trilogy is ultimately about her inner conflict (as Kylo continues to lure her toward the Dark Side of the Force) and heroic rise, Boyega and Isaac get a chance to play up the action-hero team of Finn and Poe in a way that was missing from The Last Jedi, and there’s some solid (but not overbearing) comic relief from side characters. The biggest casualty of the shift in focus is Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose Tico was a breakout character in The Last Jedi but here has almost nothing to do but cheer from the sidelines.
Trying to serve too many competing interests makes The Rise of Skywalker feel tame, but tame is probably what this series calls for as a crowd-pleasing, fan-driven product. Abrams has gotten very good at weaponizing nostalgia, and he deploys it here with maximum impact, especially in one particularly shameless (but thrilling) moment toward the end. For better or worse, The Rise of Skywalker gives this saga exactly the finale it deserves.