There are so many sequences of explosive, spectacular action in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that it's easy to be distracted from the fact that you're watching the conclusion to the largest pop-culture franchise of all-time.
Finales bear many burdens: to satisfyingly land major character arcs and tie up narrative loose ends, for starters. But in this case, the finale must also appease a rabid fan base, vocal contingents of which felt betrayed by the most recent installment. Given these burdens, The Rise of Skywalker, directed by J.J. Abrams, makes a heroic attempt to please and soothe. But in doing so, it feels like a limp and uninspired conclusion to something which has been almost biblical in scope and character since 1977.
The film just hit theaters in as wide release as logistically possible. It will screen in something like 15-second increments through the weekend at theaters across town. And it will probably make a billion dollars.
Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi in 2017 was wildly polarizing among the Star Wars faithful. J.J. Abrams, the Lost and Star Trek-reboot maestro who directed the 2015 smash hit The Force Awakens, was then re-enlisted to steer the new trilogy home. This was a signal from the Disney overlords, who by now actually have dollar signs for pupils, that they preferred safe fan service to controversial treatments of beloved characters and storylines. (Mark Hamill himself voiced his displeasure at the direction Johnson took Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi.)
There is joy in fan service, make no mistake. And Abrams, who makes his money rebooting beloved epics, is a skilled provider. He penned the script alongside Chris Terrio and filled it to the brim with cameos, gags and themes that lovingly recall the original trilogy. There are poignant and heartfelt farewells in spades, thanks in no small part to the splendid ensemble cast.
And while some may roll their eyes at the sentimental retreading — the film can feel like a Greatest Hits album — it's impossible to deny the magnificent visual effects throughout. The full force of Disney's technical wizardry has been brought to bear on the galaxies here portrayed, and the movie is repeatedly mind-blowing in the accomplishments of both its practical and digital effects.
One pivotal lightsaber fight, which was featured prominently in trailers and promotional images, pits Rey (Daisy Ridley) against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the sunken shell of the Death Star as enormous waves crash around them. It's an insane and majestic duel, the type of epic action sequence that's difficult to conceive of in anything other than a sci-fi/fantasy saga of Star Wars' caliber and ambition. Similar iconic moments and confrontations are stitched together through the two-and-a-half-hour run time.
And yet, this final episode is frequently annoying in the ways that it reverts to old tropes and beats. The franchise's relentless obsession with parentage is back, for one. Rian Johnson was castigated for daring to make Rey a central character without famous parents, and Abrams makes short work of retconning that decision. The return of Emperor Palpatine, also teased in trailers, and retroactive revelations about his influence on the Force Awakens and Last Jedi, seem pretty lazy, not least because Darth Vader's vanquishing of him in Return of the Jedi all of a sudden becomes way less consequential. A final battle is as over-the-top as the ultimate Avengers showdown and relies on some of the exact same dynamics to manufacture an emotional response.
Given the animosity that followed Johnson after The Last Jedi, Abrams no doubt had a mandate to stick to what worked. This means that the film has the vibe, under the surface, of something created out of fear of its own fan base. And despite really fun performances — Ridley, Oscar Isaac and Jon Boyega are every bit as lovable a trio as Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in the Harry Potter films — and truly breathtaking action, the narrative core leaves much to be desired.