While Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues struggling to master her Jedi skills under the tutelage of Leia (Carrie Fisher), her friends Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) uncover news about the First Order's final, terrifying onslaught against the heroic but out-gunned Resistance. Elsewhere a now even more fanatical and driven Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) confronts the architect behind the whole sinister scheme, the newly-risen Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Which sets in motion a chain of events leading to the final showdown between good and evil for the fate of the galaxy.
Every fan has their own perfect Star Wars sequel existing inside their head. Something that renders even attempting to craft a storyline that satisfies everyone completely impossible. On top of that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives amidst a climate very different from the relative ebullience and openhearted atmosphere that greeted Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Lingering toxicity over Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), the film that launched a thousand YouTube video essays lamenting either its 'misplaced' progressive agenda or what naysayers perceive as 'poor' creative choices or 'bad' filmmaking', seems to have punctured any hope for the concluding chapter even before its arrival. If with the original trilogy George Lucas set out to craft the Great American Myth is it any wonder that as America stands divided so too does the fandom around its finest pop cultural artifact. Yet leaving all such nonsense aside, how does Rise of Skywalker stack up as an actual movie? Is it a perfect film? No. But it is a great Star Wars movie: polished, compelling, consistently entertaining and, unlike hollow note on which the prequels ended, wraps things up with an emotionally resonant, uplifting flourish. Completely in line with the original classics.
Faced with the near-Herculean task of concluding not one but three trilogies, tackling unanswered questions and plot threads left dangling in previous chapters, introducing new characters (hello Naomi Ackie as Jannah, Richard E. Grant as General Pryde and Keri Russell's permanently masked yet inexplicably sexy bounty hunter Zorii Bliss), reviving old favourites (welcome back Billy Dee Williams as the suavest man in the galaxy: Lando Calrissian and Ian McDiarmid's somehow even more odious Palpatine), pulling off grace notes for fan favourites Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, snagging several of the most gut-wrenching moments with a remarkably emotive turn) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, on similar career-best form, relishing his big monologue), along with y'know telling an actual new story, J.J. Abrams' assembles a film that is miraculously well-paced and light on its feet. Co-written by Abrams and (unsung hero) Chris Terrio the script has characters grappling with the legacy of their illustrious fore-bearers (especially Rey and Kylo Ren). Just as Abrams and co. grapple with the legacy of Lucas and an increasingly tangled mythology.
The video-game plotting (a staple of the saga, which is fine) stumbles in some areas, back-tracking on Rey's origin story to tie things more closely to the saga and painfully sidelining Kelly Marie Tran's plucky Rose Tico. Although one could argue The Last Jedi pretty much concluded her limited character arc. Compared with the sprightly charm of The Force Awakens, the humour in Rise of Skywalker is more laboured and hit and miss. Some of the dialogue is also a little clunky although solid performances across the board go a long way towards ensuring the film never creaks like, sorry to bash them again but, the prequels. Amongst a roster of suitably stellar performances: Oscar Isaac's indefatigable charisma bolsters Po, arguably the least clearly defined character in the new trilogy. John Boyega truly comes into his own as a genuine movie star. Meanwhile Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren/Ben Solo produce a combustible dynamic that continues to serve as this trilogy's beating heart. Thanks to the miracle of recycled footage and (minor) digital trickery we also have a resurrected Carrie Fisher as Leia. Its artificiality noticeable only to those deliberately searching for it.
Most importantly, where lesser examples of blockbuster filmmaking too often sink into a morass of digital sterility, Rise of Skywalker foregrounds humanity with an affecting storyline that invests viewers in its emotional highs and lows. Pulling off moments both ominous (scenes with the Emperor have a visceral horror movie intensity especially remarkable on the big screen) and utterly magical in grand style. Listen out for the re-purposing of a certain iconic Star Wars line aimed at Kylo Ren. In its insistence that no-one is beyond redemption and that even in our darkest moments there is always hope, Rise of Skywalker remains one-hundred percent pure Star Wars.