Over the course of eight prior movies in 42 years, just about everyone in the world has found the “Star Wars” films to be a key part of their entertainment lives. Combining stunning space action, stirring Oscar-winning scores by John Williams and wonderfully iconic characters, these are events that deliver lots of fun no matter what happens (well, maybe except for Jar Jar Binks)!
The latest and last in the series, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” opens at nearly every theater in the galaxy this weekend. It follows 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” which left some of the series’ most hardcore fans upset by some offbeat plot choices by its writer-director Rian Johnson.
Now J.J. Abrams, who made the final trilogy’s first film “The Force Awakens,” is back at the helm, and fan hopes have been high that he can restore the magic and send the series off perfectly. Does he manage to pull it off?
Well, there’s lots of surprise appearances along the way that should make fans happy, though it’s a little top-heavy with exposition in its first half and has almost too many plot twists in the second. But overall, it’s a pretty satisfying conclusion since it’s still the biggest, flashiest entertainment to hit the screen this Christmas season.
The movie kicks off after “The Last Jedi” ended, with the heroic Resistance reduced to a hardy band of survivors who escaped in the Millennium Falcon. They are hit with the surprising news that the Emperor Palpatine has sent a mysterious message from far, far away, indicating that the newest version of his army is going to attack all free societies and restore the power of the evil Sith in a matter of hours if they can’t find and kill him first.
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the tormented lead villain of the new trilogy, finds Palpatine first in the hopes of taking him down for his own power-mongering ambitions. But he receives orders from the emperor to find Rey (Daisy Ridley), who’s of course the “Last Jedi” and destroy her.
Rey is continuing her training with the Resistance, who are led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, appearing via footage shot for “Last Jedi” but woven in here) – and include Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and the rest. When Rey discovers they have to find a special device called the Sith Wayfinder to track Palpatine down, the heroes embark on a race against time to find it.
There’s a lot of setup in the first third of the movie, but the movie kicks into high gear in the middle hour with a killer chase scene that is almost as intense as the stunning action in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” There’s also a lightsaber battle royale between Rey and Kylo that’s set amid a raging storm that’s amazing as well – and both scenes are helped by the fact that they’re able to breathe fully alive on their own terms. They’re just having fun, without the pressure to assure fans things are back on track after “Last Jedi” in the first third or the rush to wrap things up perfectly in the last.
The final stretch offers an ultimate showdown that finds a way to bring back all sorts of fan favorite characters, and had the audience cheering at a few key moments. There are also some gasp-inducing twists there, and part of the fun comes from hearing and seeing the surprise of people around you.
Of course, the effects are top-notch throughout, but the performances are also the best of the trilogy. Ridley and Driver have grown fully into their roles as opponents who have strong ties that provide a lot of emotional depth between them in their showdowns. While Isaacs and Boyega provide fun banter as the new-generation version of Han and Luke, bringing Billy Dee Williams back finally as Lando Calrissian is an especially welcome touch.
Put it all together, and “The Rise of Skywalker” can feel like it was a little bit over-planned and trying to be too perfectly in tune with fans’ wishes. But in a time when too many movies don’t try hard enough at all, that’s ultimately a welcome effort and should send most viewers home happy.