Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker enthralls and frustrates in series finale
For more than 40 years, the specter of Star Wars has hung over the movie landscape like no other franchise. It has influenced countless filmmakers, showing up in big and small ways in multiple other works of art. Now, characters new and old are getting one last chance to add to the series' legacy with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Without getting into spoiler specifics, the Resistance — led by Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suatamo), and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) — are still facing the threat of the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). But a new danger has emerged, one that divides the focus of the Resistance and may also usurp the power of the First Order.
The previous film, The Last Jedi, was a divisive effort because of new elements that writer/director Rian Johnson introduced to the series. J.J. Abrams, who directed and co-wrote The Force Awakens, is back for Episode XI, and he brings with him both the familiar and unfamiliar.
There are plenty of recognizable settings and characters from previous movies to trigger nostalgia, but enough is different so as to not seem simply like a retread of things that have been done before. He also introduces some heretofore unseen elements that may have some purists crying foul.
That said, a lot of retconning is done to make sure plot points that were introduced in the previous two films fall into place. Some of them feel organic to an ever-evolving plot, but there are more than a few that come off as shoehorned in, putting a round peg in a square hole just to provide some sort of answer.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest of these is the presence of Leia in the film. Abrams and his team used footage from Fisher's work on The Force Awakens to make her a part of the plot, and a series of perfunctory lines fail to do justice for either the character or the actor, who died in 2016. Because of Leia's relationships with other characters, emotions do come, but they don't feel fully earned.
The connection between Rey and Kylo Ren was the overarching part of the first two films, and that bond comes to a head in The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams and Johnson have tried to make this relationship on par with that of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but it's never had that depth of feeling. Still, they do engage in some epic battles, and the way their story is wrapped up is fully satisfying.
Poe and Finn are crucial to the plot of the film, but neither feels as important as Rey. They spend most of their time ensconced with the rest of the Resistance, and their efforts are more part of the team than as individuals. They do get some fun and exciting moments, but nothing that makes them truly stand out.
Part of the reason for this is because the new characters in this trilogy have never been able to move out of the shadow of the characters from the first trilogy. The old characters are revered or reviled by the new characters for good reason, but the attention paid to them has prevented these new films from ever being able to establish their own identity.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a finale that is both enthralling and frustrating, feelings that could change in either direction on repeat viewings. One can only hope that, now that the Skywalker saga is finished, future Star Wars films can explore whatever direction they please without being as beholden to the legacy that came before.