To follow a much-debated middle installment in a trilogy is a big task, and to wrap up a nine-film saga is a big task, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is better at one of those things than the other. As a conclusion to the “Skywalker Saga”, it is mostly satisfactory, tying to together all three trilogies in a way that isn’t really necessary but sort of works anyway. But as a sequel to The Last Jedi it doesn’t really work at all. Skywalker ignores Jedi, for the most part, and when it isn’t ignoring it, it is undoing Jedi plot points (however you feel about The Last Jedi will inform how much you like these decisions).
The Rise of Skywalker is much more a sequel to The Force Awakens, which makes sense as JJ Abrams co-wrote and directed both. Also, just as The Force Awakens is a remix of A New Hope, The Rise of Skywalker is a remix of Return of the Jedi. To most fans, I imagine, this will feel comforting and only enhance their enjoyment of Skywalker. But it is a little bit of a bummer that a movie that had a chance to build on The Last Jedi’s big swings chooses instead to play it safe and stick to fan service and mystery box payoffs.
One thing Skywalker does that is WONDERFUL is finally unite the new trinity of Rey (Daisy Ridley, who has never been better), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac). They have such great chemistry—Rey and Poe have developed a super fun screwball routine—that it is just DELIGHTFUL to watch them together. (Also, they have such great chemistry together that you will never convince me that Rey, Finn, and Poe are anything other than a devoted throuple.) One of the best things about Skywalker is finally seeing these three characters share space together. Their energy fuels the admittedly rough and exposition-heavy first half of the movie.
All that exposition is one of the not-so-good things about the movie, though. Skywalker is A LOT. It is three entire movies shoved into one, and it feels like Abrams & Co. only just figured out the story they’re telling right at the end. It doesn’t even connect perfectly with The Force Awakens, so you can’t say it’s a matter of just skipping over The Last Jedi. It really feels like this is the first movie in the trilogy where everyone is on the same page about who these characters are and what they’re doing, and it’s the last movie in the trilogy, so that’s not great. Poe has basically been a different person in every movie, and it’s really only Oscar Isaac’s charm that is consistent. And Finn has a new talent that comes out of nowhere which is super fun with the zero context and build up it doesn’t have. On the flipside, Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are still fascinating together, and their story gives Skywalker its heart.
Now we must talk about Kelly Marie Tran. Introduced in The Last Jedi as plucky Resistance mechanic Rose Tico, Tran is completely sidelined in Skywalker. It is VERY clear Abrams had no idea what to do with her, or any interest in figuring something out. Tran has maybe, generously, ten minutes of screen time, and nothing meaningful to do. It comes off like they knew it would be worse to exclude her entirely, but still didn’t bother working out a purpose for her. There are a few moments in Skywalker that explicitly roll back decisions made in Jedi—a couple of which feel a little shady—but nothing irks as much as pushing Rose Tico out of the story. It feels like surrendering to the worst elements of the fandom. Rose was always a bit of an awkward character, filling the Rey-shaped hole Rian Johnson inherited in Jedi, but after Tran was treated so horribly in the wake of that movie, sidelining her here is craven. But that is The Rise of Skywalker for you. It’s trying to please everyone, even the most toxic fanbros, and when you get down with the toxic fanbros, you’re going to get some of that radioactive waste on you.
There is a lot to enjoy in Skywalker. There are some big moments that really land with impact. There is an incredible lightsaber duel—arguably the best one in the entire series, more viscerally dangerous and powerful than anything in the overly choreographed prequel lightsaber bonanza. The way that Leia, created from unused footage of Carrie Fisher, is integrated is the most emotional element in the story. There are thrills, there are laughs, there are heartfelt moments. But there are also multiple “just kidding, they’re not dead!” moments, the exact same kind of cheap, manipulative, no-stakes storytelling Marvel is frequently accused of. Rey’s lineage is back on the table and it only halfway makes sense and wasn’t ever necessary, and I GUARANTEE nerds will get hung up on the finer points of her Force-famous relative. The ending renders her family moot anyway, so that was just a stupid mystery box no one ever needed to open.
But JJ Abrams knows how to do spectacle, and he does it very well here. He also knows how to approximate effective storytelling, so at least while you’re watching it, Skywalker is engrossing. But just like The Force Awakens, the more you think about it, the less it holds up. The Rise of Skywalker is an unwieldy mix of fan service, mystery unboxing, and actual, effective character moments. Parts of it work, other parts don’t, and the parts that do work generally cover for the parts that don’t. On the whole, The Rise of Skywalker is about as good as it can be, given everything it has to accomplish. I’m just not convinced it’s memorable.