Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Michelle Rejwan Director: J.J. Abrams Screenplay: Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Dominic Monaghan, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Ian McDiarmid Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
This, the third episode of the third “Star Wars” trilogy, brings the saga that began more than four decades ago to a close, resolving the plotlines of its two immediate predecessors—and the nine-movie series as a whole—while creating a springboard for inevitable continuations and spinoffs. What else would you expect from a picture that Disney is banking on to ensure a long future for one of its most important franchises?
As you might remember, “The Last Jedi,” which split Star Wars fandom rather badly, ended with the surviving members of the Resistance, led by heroic Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Princess (or General) Leia (Carrie Fisher), on the run from the evil First Order, the leadership of which had been seized by Han Solo and Princess Leia’s wayward son Ben, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who patterned himself after Darth Vader.
But there’s a wild card in the deck: as the usual opening crawl informs us, mysterious broadcasts have announced the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who was supposedly killed by Darth Vader in “The Return of the Jedi” back when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was just a youngster; he’s rebuilding Sith power and plans to restore his dark rule. The reports turn out to be true, and Palpatine, with his lightning-launching fingers and maniacal cackling, turns out to be a major figure here—so much so that a more appropriate subtitle for the movie might be “The Emperor Strikes Back.”
Palpatine’s pretensions to dominance irk Kylo Ren, who determines to seek him out and destroy him. Simultaneously the Resistance, as decimated as it is, launches a mission to find Palpatine too, with Rey and its head but also including ace pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), ex-Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega), Wookie Chewbacca (Jonas Suotamo) and chatty android C3-PO (Anthony Daniels). Their goal—to find the elusive planet Exogol where Palpatine lords it over his Sith disciples—is complicated by their pursuit by Kylo Ren and his forces, among whom Dohmnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant are the most notable officers, Generals Hux and Pryde. It’s also derailed by the fact that their only solid clue is written in the Sith language that C3-PO can read but is programmed not to translate, which requires a detour to a dangerous planet where the mechanical man’s system can be rewired, with major side effects, to reveal the message.
In working out these various juxtaposed plot threads, the movie becomes a succession of elaborate action sequences, including some light-saber face-offs between Rey and Kylo Ren that are pretty spectacular, if not unfamiliar. The effects throughout the breathless series of chases, explosions and air battles are fine, though perhaps not quite as impressively grandiose overall as the ones that filled “The Last Jedi.” An added benefit is a series of appearances by old friends—some in the form of ghostly apparitions (always impeccably timed to save things at a critical juncture, of course)—but in the case of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Carlrissian and Fisher’s Leia Organa, still very much alive although the actress had actually passed away before shooting commenced (dialogue filmed for previous installments but unused has been skillfully employed to create a performance, though in a few instances stand-ins were obviously employed). These—and one uncredited cameo—are undoubtedly designed to fulfill the nostalgia-fueled expectations of faithful fans.
There’s also a genealogical revelation intended to be as much of a shock as the famous one at the close of “The Empire Strikes Back,” as well as more than the usual quota of reversals, double-crosses, hair’s-breadth escapes and dramatic self-sacrifices. Expect also the obligatory moment when Rey decides to abandon her destiny; the character who recalls her to her sense of duty trumpets a line that seems to be something of a rebuke by Abrams to narrative choices made by Rain Johnson in “Jedi”—decisions to which many fans vociferously objected.
The culmination of all the hullabaloo, of course, is twofold. One part is a confrontation with Palpatine in his gloomy, cavernous throne room, an amphitheatre where he’s apparently surrounded perpetually by an army of cheering acolytes (the crowd looks enormous in distant CGI shots, less so in the rather puny close-ups). Whom he’s facing will not be revealed here, but McDiarmid certainly takes the opportunity to have the once (and perhaps future) emperor chew the scenery with unmitigated glee—though perhaps the phrase is misplaced, since the poor old fellow doesn’t seem to have any teeth, just that oily black fluid sloshing around in his mouth.
Then there’s the complementary battle in the sky between Palpatine’s vast armada and the ragtag group of fighters on the Resistance side. Will our heroes be able to overcome the might of the planet-destroying starships? Will reinforcements arrive in time, or at all? What do you think?
You can’t say that Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio haven’t aimed to hit all the bases in their summing-up project. In the process they’ve scrimped somewhat on the humor: the bickering among the principals, especially Poe and Finn, has a rather pro forma feel, and even C3-PO’s complaints are sometimes forced. There’s also a tendency to lay on the sentiment rather thick. Worse, they tend to ignore the responsibility to explain basic questions—how did this character escape, why didn’t that one do this, how is this guy still alive?—while allowing other elements (like Palpatine’s protracted revelations about his plans) to drag on needlessly. By the close you will probably be adding up plot holes in your mind even as the credits roll.
To compensate, Abrams, abetted by his editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube, adopt an almost relentlessly hectic pace, complete with some of those old-fashioned swipes, hoping that the kinetic energy will distract you from any such trivial concerns, and it mostly works. He also benefits from sterling efforts by the crafts team—production designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins, costumer Michael Kaplan and cinematographer Dan Mindel, as well as the huge team of special-effects artisans. And washing over the sumptuous visuals is the equally luxurious score by John Williams, which calls on his iconic themes to enhance every scene.
Abrams also gets committed performances from his cast, especially Ridley, who has to do most of the heavy dramatic lifting, and Driver, who tries to bring some real anguish to the conflicted Kylo Ren. Except for McDiarmid, whose outlandish villainy would make Ming the Merciless envious, the others give mostly utilitarian performances, though it’s amusing to see Grant doing what amounts to a snooty homage to Peter Cushing, who isn’t digitally resurrected this time around.
Despite all the efforts of cast and crew, “The Rise of Skywalker” doesn’t recapture the almost magical vibe that “A New Hope” (as it was retitled) and “The Empire Strikes Back” did in their time. But it’s really unrealistic to expect it to. With those films George Lucas initiated a retro type of Hollywood storytelling, refreshed with up-to-date technical wizardry, that’s now become the norm: every tentpole movie the studios turn out unrelentingly today is a descendent of “Star Wars.” One can’t blame Abrams for not being able to duplicate the spirit of juvenile rediscovery that seemed fresh in 1977.
What he’s delivered is a thoroughly proficient if rather mechanical capstone to a series that, despite its ups and downs, captured the imagination of generations of movie-goers.