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Movie Review: 'The Rise of Skywalker' is one last look at all your Star Wars friends

'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' poster art.
'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' poster art.Lucasfilm Ltd.

by Jay Gabler

December 18, 2019

To generate excitement in the lead-up to The Rise of Skywalker, Lucasfilm shared poster images from all nine features in what's now being styled "the Skywalker Saga." Offering a charge of nostalgia for fans of all ages, the posts were also a reminder that the saga stretching from 1977 to 2019 encapsulates an entire era of mass entertainment.

After Jaws (1975) demonstrated the potential of a summer blockbuster, Star Wars took the concept, as it were, to lightspeed: a complete franchise of undeniable quality, with merchandise items outnumbering the stars. With his controversial prequels, George Lucas reinvented Star Wars for the CGI era; while those films didn't stand up to those that used the new technology more judiciously, they succeeded in keeping the story alive for millennials and their parents.

Unafraid to retread well-loved territory, Disney resumed the series in this decade without Lucas's involvement, and this time a well-primed audience wasn't disappointed. Director J.J. Abrams teamed a diverse new cast with returning stalwarts, and if The Force Awakens was in many ways a remake of A New Hope, what was that first film if not a freshening up of the Saturday serials Lucas grew up with?

Now, fantasy franchise heavyweights like Avengers: Endgame and The Rise of Skywalker are starting to feel like the last movies standing. That is, if you even consider them "movies," which Martin Scorsese may or may not...but he's effectively ceded the field, making his latest Oscar contender with a streaming service that dropped it straight onto small screens with only a token theatrical run.

At first flush, The Rise of Skywalker isn't particularly inspired. Compared to the best films in the franchise (including standalone "story" Rogue One), it's not a lot of fun. Star Wars was a movie for everybody, and The Rise of Skywalker is a movie for Star Wars people. There are a lot of us...but that's not quite the same thing, is it?

There was no such thing as a Star Wars person in 1977, which is why the original film confounded so many of its backers and even its stars. Now, Star Wars fans are legion — literally so, in the case of the thousands of fans who wear screen-caliber costumes to public events. Rise may be coming out at Christmas, but it's really made of Easter eggs, with untold allusions to all eight "saga" films that preceded it as well as deep-canon references that Star Wars nerds like me are already cataloging.

I won't spoil the plot, but the plot is almost beside the point. It matters little what this year's MacGuffin is, or even what the answers are to some burning questions that you may not have realized were still open. Abrams — who returns as director and co-writer, after handing 2017's The Last Jedi to Rian Johnson — knows that what matters is how the movie feels.

It feels pretty good, in the end, if only because it makes you feel seen. Whatever you were hoping for in this final Star Wars movie, you'll find it. Our heroes are back together, more of them than ever before. The burning love-hate relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) takes center stage, with twists and turns that you can freeze-frame wherever you want. There's not just a space battle, there's the biggest of space battles. There's not just a lightsaber fight, there's the ultimate lightsaber fight (at least conceptually). Far be it from me to tell you who comes back and who doesn't, but suffice it to say, the original-cast cameos are far from neglected.

There are also moments where the film drops that weight from its shoulders and lets itself just work on its own terms. A non-climactic saber fight between Rey and Ren uses crashing waves to create unique confrontations, and if there's one thing the Disney-era Star Wars films have learned, it's that this universe looks best when it's out in the elements. There's a snowy city under First Order siege, there's a jungle base with a Pitfall-style obstacle course for Rey to run, and there's a subterranean throne room that will remind superfans of Lucas's original concept for the Return of the Jedi throne room that ultimately landed on the Death Star.

Tying it all together is the masterful John Williams, whose involvement as composer means that the lifeblood running from the classic fanfare through the Dagobah rain and Cloud City into the Naboo showdown and the lava battle and Rey's desert adventures is still flowing. At this point, Williams's themes are so distinctive, and his compositional strategies so recognizable, that just listening to the score might spoil some surprises. Just as Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio plum previous films' depths for callbacks, so does Williams deconstruct his epic score to lend weight at every turn. (Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan may be the most-missed collaborator on this film, which has a distinct dearth of quotable dialogue.)

After press screenings, critics are asked to fill out cards that provide just a couple lines' space for hot takes. On my Rise of Skywalker card, I wrote, "a complex and challenging, but ultimately satisfying, finale." My friend read it and said I must have liked the movie more than he did, and there will be viewers who emerge from The Rise of Skywalker feeling more stuffed than satisfied. There will be critics who say the franchise has gone too far up its own mythology, and there will be those who rave about Abrams's bold vision. Fans are still debating whether Last Jedi was a travesty or a triumph, so I'm inclined to reserve judgment.

For now, I'm happy to enjoy the simple pleasures that The Rise of Skywalker -- for all its vaulting ambition -- does achieve. As C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, the saga's other great perennial) observes in a touching moment from the trailer, it's one last chance to see all your friends. What's more, your friends appear in an inclusive universe that reflects the real world around you much more than the first films did. Even the evildoers have now decided there's strength in diversity, maybe because of the management training Kylo Ren so amusingly received on Saturday Night Live.

This fall I visited Galaxy's Edge, the new Star Wars attraction at Disney World. It was tremendously moving to see a Rey actor walking hand-in-hand with a little girl dressed in her signature earth colors, and the most affecting moments in Rise of Skywalker involve that character's continuing journey. When developing Star Wars, at one point Lucas considered making his hero a woman. He decided otherwise, but ultimately the future was female. As Yoda tells his weary apprentice Luke in The Last Jedi, "we are what they grow beyond."