Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review – fan service brings balance to the Force

The final episode in the beloved saga leans heavily into nostalgia but it also makes the series feel whole again

If The Force Awakens was essentially a thinly-veiled remake, and The Last Jedi was a subversion of everything we thought we knew about the franchise, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives in what is sure to be the most controversial guise of all: an unashamed exercise in fan service. You can understand how it happened – how “Episode IX” came to exist as a result of a meeting in which producer Kathleen Kennedy and director JJ Abrams found themselves pondering the lukewarm reaction to the mythology-smashing antics of Last Jedi. Here, then, is a film that brazenly sets out to overwrite the changes that writer-director Rian Johnson spent a whole episode implementing, to the extent that The Rise of Skywalker essentially has the air of a two and a half hour-long apology.

Who, you have to wonder, ever thought it was a good idea to construct a trilogy this way, with different writers vying with storylines on an episode-by-episode basis, totally independent from one another? Yet for all the praise The Last Jedi gets for “trying to do something different,” large spells of that film were boring, repetitive, and subversive for the sake of it. It was also a Star Wars movie that seemed ashamed to be a Star Wars movie. And that’s where the true joy and success of Rise of Skywalker lies: it isn’t ashamed to be a Star Wars film. If anything, it’s too enthusiastic, like a person whose close call with death has allowed them to walk the Earth with an added vigour for life.

The Rise of Skywalker picks up not long after the events of The Last Jedi, where the famous opening crawl informs us that the voice of Emperor Palpatine (it’s that kind of finale) has been calling out to Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Meanwhile, Rey continues her training under Leia (Carrie Fisher), whilst Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are busy tracking down a mole within the First Order. Yet the plot itself – an uninspired fetch quest in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows vein – is mere window dressing for a series of frantic set-pieces, reunions with old friends (hello, Lando), and big reveals about Rey’s mysterious heritage.

Right away JJ Abrams – whose direction here feels more economical than the sweeping Spielbergian approach he adopted on The Force Awakens – establishes a rhythm that sets a precedent for the rest of the movie, and that precedent is insanity. This is a film that tries to jam pack so much into its runtime that it almost feels like an entire trilogy unravelling in a single film – and in a bid to make every single fan happy it basically delivers on everything. To get what you want, you have to accept everything else, too.

It has to be said: there is a lot that’s wrong with The Rise of Skywalker, from its frantic pacing to its unnecessary introduction of new characters to the detriment of older ones (sorry, Rose). Yet this film has the bravado energy of a classic Star Wars film, embracing a swashbuckling, freewheeling, galaxy-touring sense of fun that felt totally absent from The Last Jedi. It’s packed with amazing new planets, practical puppets, and non-CGI droids that brilliantly evoke the feel of the classic trilogy.

It’s also a film that actually delivers on many of the promises laid out in The Force Awakens. Our main trio, for example, finally get to spend almost an entire movie together and – as they planet-hop with BB-8, Chewbacca and C-3PO for company – possess a lived-in chemistry that lights up the screen. Poe, especially, settles into the swaggering hero we’ve always known he could be, almost stealing the movie. The film even does justice to some of Force Awakens‘ biggest injustices, like the underwhelming death of Han Solo, whilst drawing together all the loose, wayward elements long thought abandoned. At the very least, Skywalker leaves the franchise feeling a lot more like a “whole” – a series of nine films connected by an overarching storyline.

Many will argue that this method of pandering is a step backwards. But just because Rian Johnson tried to make Star Wars into something else, it doesn’t mean it was necessarily the right move for a series packed with giant space worms and walking carpets. Who decided we needed to take this series seriously in the first place? Why was Last Jedi seen as a step forward, when for so many Star Wars has always been about the reoccurring themes and patterns and motifs, the synchronicity of the Skywalker saga playing – and replaying – itself out across multiple generations? George Lucas based Star Wars on the pulpiest material imaginable and a final film that completes its hero’s arc, ties everything up with a neat bow, and delivers heaps of fan service isn’t exactly ill-fitting.

What is made apparent – what has been made slowly apparent over the last 20 years – is that nobody really understands Star Wars; not George Lucas, not Rian Johnson, not JJ Abrams, perhaps not even the fans. But this is a picture that fundamentally gets to the essence of Star Wars. Ultimately your level of enjoyment will come down to what kind of fan you are. If Star Wars makes you think of goofy one-liners, lightsaber duels, loveable droids, and triumphant musical cues – silliness playing out in the far reaches of space – then this episode delivers on that front, and then some. In the end, it all comes down to a feeling. And for all its faults, something about this final episode just feels right.

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