Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Walt Disney Studios, PG-13)

It won’t be to everyone’s liking. It’s the end of a major franchise, so how could it? But from my perspective, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ends this decades-long saga in spectacular fashion, providing effective emotional payoffs and visual decadence that one has come to expect from the franchise.

The Rise of Skywalker takes place one year after the events of The Last Jedi. A galaxy-wide broadcast is sent out by the legendary Sith Lord Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is seeking to exact revenge, and using the First Order to do so. The Order has gained significant ground in their war with The Resistance, headed by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Palpatine’s return spurns Leia to send newly-trained Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), soldier Finn (John Boyega), pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), our lovable Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8 (Dave Chapman, Brian Herring), in search of the way to find him. On this quest, Rey continues to question where she came from, and still finds herself connected to First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who himself is questioning his purpose.

In many ways, this film has a difficult burden to bear. The preceding film, The Last Jedi (which I loved), was adored by critics, but to say it split the fanbase is putting it lightly. So now, returning director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriter Chris Terrio have a stressful decision to make: do they work to appease the fanbase soured by the last film, or continue with the risk-taking approach Rian Johnson took by flipping the Star Wars canon on its head (which would appeal to professional critics, but most likely continue to drive more of a wedge in the fandom)? In The Rise of Skywalker, they choose both options. This is a film that still takes some big risks in its storytelling, though considerably less than The Last Jedi. It is also heavy in fan service, regularly bringing back the legacy actors and characters we already know, like Fisher and Billie Dee Williams (returning as Lando Calrissian), and revisiting familiar locations. It is a difficult balancing act, and people who prefer one way over another will be either satisfied or disappointed.

In my mind, Abrams handles that balancing act extremely well. This film is respectful to what came before it, but at the end of the day, the focus falls squarely on the new characters introduced in this sequel trilogy. The first act, which is mostly made up of a fetch quest, does move a bit too fast, and one too many new characters are introduced to mostly forward the story, even though it’s still filled with snappy dialogue and great performances. It’s after that first act where this film really kicks into high gear. We are treated to plenty of twists, and the storytelling becomes more driven by emotion and character. One major area this film pushes the franchise forward in exponential ways is the visuals. Every set is eloquently and uniquely crafted, the visual effects are seamlessly woven into the world, and the cinematography by Dan Mindel is top-notch. The Star Wars films have been the only live-action franchise in Disney’s arsenal to craft unique visuals. This massive world is complimented by the true unsung hero of this franchise, composer John Williams. His music touches on many of the iconic themes he has established, but he is able to take those themes and make them sound brand new, as well as throwing in new material that keeps the soundscape fresh. Williams has said in interviews that The Rise Of Skywalker may be his last film in the franchise. Should that hold true, what a brilliant way to go out.

This sequel trilogy has been able to succeed creatively as it has, in my opinion, by not only crafting interesting new characters, but finding amazing talent to fill those roles. This series has mostly been about Ridley’s Rey and Driver’s Kylo Ren, how each grapple with their destiny, and the relationship that forms between them. Ridley and Driver have always been great in these roles, and they are at their best here. Both are given amazing emotional beats to play, as their destinies culminate into something quite beautiful and fulfilling. Boyega and Isaac continue to be our source of charm and humor, and their charisma truly stands out. Billy Dee Williams returns to his iconic role like he never left, and his presence is welcoming. Fisher is in this film through the use of older footage from the previous films (she passed away before production) and only for a short time, but her performance is as emotionally affecting all the same. She continually reminds us why we fell in love with her in the first place.

A little background on my history with the franchise: I’ve never been the biggest Star Wars fan. I did eventually see both the original and prequel trilogies, and while I like them and understand what they’ve done for cinema, I never fell in love with them quite like others have. I say this because I don’t want this positive review to come off as some super-fan hype. I wasn’t ever a super-fan. I’m positive about this movie, and its two predecessors, because they feel like they’ve pushed the franchise forward in new and exciting directions. They have felt like $200 million dollar-plus blockbusters that have been imbued with a sense of the director’s identity. The Rise of Skywalker is no different. It will not please everyone, but from my perspective, the Skywalker Saga has truly ended on a high note. | Bill Loellke

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