It’s no secret to anyone that Star Wars is in a very unenviable position right now. After JJ Abrams’ sequel/reboot/soft New Hope remake The Force Awakens was generally well-received by all, Rian Johnson’s follow-up The Last Jedi, however, caused the divide that launched a million arguments and thinkpieces.
Some (including myself, admittedly) enjoyed its subversive, anti-nostalgic stance, many others thought it spat in the face of everything Star Wars stood for. With Abrams back at the helm for The Rise of Skywalker, he has the massive task of following from where Johnson left off, winning back fans turned off by the last movie, and trying not to piss off even more fans.
In terms of plot details, it’s difficult to really say anything without avoiding spoilers, so the most I will say is that Finn(Boyega) and Poe Dameron(Isaac) are leading the charge of the Resistance as they continue fighting the First Order. Rey(Ridley) is resuming her Jedi training under General Leia (Fisher, via previously recorded scenes for The Force Awakens). However, everything changes when everyone hears word of the possible return of the long-thought-dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDarmid). All the while, Kylo Ren(Driver) has his own plans in order to take full control of the galaxy himself.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: How much does it backtrack from The Last Jedi? To that, the answer is: A whole lot and then some. For as flawed and divisive as The Last Jedi was, it added a layer of complexity to the main characters that felt refreshing, especially for a franchise as big as Star Wars. Rise of Skywalker essentially astroturfs all of that in favour of returning to a comfort zone. It becomes increasingly frustrating to see all those interesting ideas basically get reduced to “Yeah, I know we said this but we REALLY meant that instead”. The only one who still feels like their character has any real depth to them is Kylo. His character arc is still the most compelling out of everyone in the new trilogy, as he still internally struggles with his connections to both Rey and Palpatine.
Where The Rise of Skywalker does succeed is being an entertaining adventure in its own right. Despite the insane amount of exposition in the first act, the movie moves along at a speedy pace, the many action beats are satisfyingly thrilling, and there are a lot of genuinely hilarious back-and-forth bits of dialogue between the main heroes. Although there is an enjoyable mix new and returning characters, from Naomi Ackie’s resistance ally Jannah to Richard E. Grant’s turn as sneering First Order general Pryde, the movie’s generally at its strongest showcasing the strong chemistry of the main trio. That, and the grand return of the effortlessly cool Lando Calrissian(Billy Dee Williams).
The Rise of Skywalker is essentially a 2 and a half hour greatest hits compilation of Star Wars at its most classic form: A clear cut, crowd-pleasing, fanservice-filled battle of good vs. evil filled with more lightsaber fights and space battles than ever. At the same time, because of Abrams’ dedication to playing it safe and “course-correcting” the series, it still feels like a wasted opportunity to continue the newer direction hinted in the last film. Then again, it’s the ultimate “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.