It’s not easy to take on the finale of a trilogy of trilogies that unquestionably balances one of the strongest and heart-felt franchises known to cinema, but returning once again to combat the previous degrading development in The Last Jedi, J.J. Abrams miraculously leans in with his own to force to complete the much-beloved Skywalker Saga with a thrilling eruption of both action and discovery. First uniting fans and critics with his fantastic take on the galaxy in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams uncovers not only that stormtroopers can fly these days, but he starts a conversation that dives deep into Rey (Daisy Ridley)’s true lineage and the awakening of the franchise’s greatest Emperor through a series of countless new worlds and action sequences that eventually puts the epic chronicle to rest.
Following through after the events that took place in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, once again, the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance as The Resistance (still hugely outnumbered) and the First Order tighten grips for the last time. However, despite knowing all of this, the opening crawl flourishes and we are given little time to think about its information as the story gets moving quickly—barely pausing for breath. In the depths of it all, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is shown taking down unfortunate aliens on a planet called Mustafar (a place that fans will most likely recognize as the destination where Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi fought tirelessly in the final episode of the prequel series), outpacing his stormtrooper escorts as he mows his way through a path of destruction towards the crumbling ruins of Vader’s castle grounds. Depicted as quite a dark and calamitous scene for the creatures that are faced with the erubescent color of both Ren’s cross-guard lightsaber and fueled anger, the moment is ultimately a snow-driven fight that concedes the dark warrior’s possession of The Force with both determination and a temper that’s as fiery as his wielded weapon. Entering the decay of land with a purpose, the Supreme Leader discovers an artifact that will ideally lead him to answers throughout the film. From there, he goes straight to Exegol to meet the overarching return of the villainous and powerful Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), erupting us fans to witness the Dark Side’s progress through the understanding and shock that no one is ever really gone.
Back at the rebel base, our lovable freedom fighters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) have evolved to become a pair of great leaders among The Resistance movement, showcasing their joyous friendship and well-hearted chemistry through the countless hugs and praises that they shower each other in after every successful quest. During all of this, Rey, in the midst of the jungle moon on Ajan Kloss, is undergoing training from Leia (the late Carrie Fisher respectably brought back with uncut footage from the prior two films)’s vigilant guidance. Still linked—bound even—to Kylo Ren, Rey expresses herself to be more confident, in not only her power of the Force, but her capacity to resist the Dark Side and its cynical manners, allowing her to work harder throughout each session of mediation while levitating and learning to wield her lightsaber through dangerous obstacle courses—a parallel that swiftly takes us back to when Yoda trained Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.
Within the first act, the central characters Rey, Poe, Finn, and good old Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), along with everyone’s favorite protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), establish an easy and humorous closeness that fits well throughout each galaxy-trotting treasure hunt that falls into their hands. Accommodating some heartfelt character moments and laughs between the fivesome, whether it be from Chewie beating Finn and Poe in the holographic battle game ‘Dejarik,’ or C-3PO constantly reminding his friends that he is fluent in more than seven million forms of communication, the bond that they all share on the Millennium Falcon makes me wish that they’d spent more time together on screen. Moving from location to location, the tour that they savor is fleshed out with action set-pieces, new characters, plenty of attractive visual detail—and did I mention flying stormtroopers? Each exposition in every scene that they spend together is a surprise, and a satisfying reflection on what Star Wars should be: making your own path and finding your family. It’s all perfect—at least before a spy within the First Order delivers a terrifying message that quickly disengages the collection of happiness altogether.
Among the Dark Side, it is no secret that Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine is back in frame, urging Kylo Ren, whose cracked helmet hints all too obviously pointing at his bruised inner turbulence to seek out an obsessive search for Rey in order to wipe out the Jedi for good. The Rise of Skywalker proceeds to further explore the relationship between Rey and Kylo—their deepening connection growing stronger after their battle with Snoke in the previous episode; the taunting of one another through visions of the future that intertwine with what they each believe.
Corresponding to Driver and Ridley’s heart-wrenching and extraordinary performances, the film relies mostly on how strangely well-matched the pair are to one another. With Rey heavily invested in her friendships and her cause of protecting the Jedi and Resistance; Kylo is depicted as merely the opposite: a more-or-less cynical and suspicious Supreme Leader that has the everlasting impulse to control the impossible. But The Rise of Skywalker is simply a tale that embarks on two opposites attracting—a mysterious connection that is ultimately the most intriguing aspect of the new trilogy, and a hint of ambiguity and sort of eroticism that builds against the simplistic good-versus-evil themes to something rather fresh and contemporary. A reasonable thought out story that die-hard Star Wars fans would hopefully see as an achievement within the franchise, instead of a make haste trivial fan service that many are exploiting it to be.
While the performances for both Driver and Ridley come across with absolute commitment and genuine excellence throughout, taking center stage in a large chunk of the film’s ambitious drive, there are new additions in the form of General Pride (Richard E. Grant), Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) that might as well not be there. Among the snow-flecked world of Kijimi, the remnants of the second Death Star, and the towering waves that craft into a level of visual gorgeousness, there sure seems to be a lot of distraction on our heroes’ journey—much too often feeling like a swift way to harvest information for the story to move on, which often encompasses it to feel more indulgent to generate a humorous curve in the tale. But despite its too many characters and all too much pandering that results in the film feeling less than its run-time, The Rise of Skywalker still doesn’t fail to astound me. With the colorful festival of desert planet Pasaana and the cinematography that follows its stunning visuals, there was no doubt in my mind that I would leave the film without picking up adoration for what lingered on screen. And the tiny droidsmith Babu Frik did just that.
The Rise of Skywalker delivers the answers to the questions we’ve all been asking, and despite it not being discussed further, it ends the Skywalker Saga with an exhilaration that may be inconsistent and unparalleled to how The Last Jedi took to it. To me, I saw Abrams finale as a sequel to The Force Awakens—a thrilling eruption of high fantasy, emotional punches, final goodbyes, and a visual pan on the light winning for the last time.
Ultimately, I see this film as a love letter to Star Wars. The franchise has always been about finding who you are and finding your family, combined beautifully with the themes that lean towards heroism, sacrifice, and friendship. Abrams still stays true to that in some beautiful ways, and with his graceful outlook on the galaxy, reminds fans of the much-beloved universe that the ever-present, all-powerful force remains strong—and will be for a long, long time.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is now in theaters worldwide