After J.J. Abrams reignited the “Star Wars” franchise for a new generation in “The Force Awakens” (2015), Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” (2017) didn’t quite deliver, as Luke Skywalker told Rey he had three lessons to teach her, but only revealed two.
This weekend, Abrams delivers a hard course correct in “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker,” fulfilling every promise with plenty of fan service and wrapping things up without ambiguity. If anything, the movie plays it too safe with everything tied up too neatly, but as a final chapter for these characters, it’s a solidly satisfying conclusion.
After the defeat of Snoke, Rey (Daisy Ridley) joins back up with Resistance pals Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Hasan Taj, Lee Towersey), BB-8 (Brian Herring, Dave Chapman), Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher). Rey still suffers visions connecting her to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who wants her to join the Dark Side where Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) returns to lead the Sith army’s First Order.
This closing chapter smartly focuses on the mental bond between Rey and Ren, as Ridley and Driver take center stage. Ridley starts out running a training course in the woods like Clarice Starling, reminding us how she’s become an inspiring heroine for young girls growing up with Katniss Everdeen and Wonder Woman. Driver has become an even bigger star, earning Oscar buzz for his role in “Marriage Story,” but first fusing together his Darth Vader-style dark helmet for a cool new mask of molten welding.
Their spiritual connection of crossover communications is the most visually compelling element by Abrams, who works with editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube to intercut Rey and Ren’s shared experiences when they are in different locations. They can even affect the other’s world in tangible ways, a fascinating addition to the powers of The Force, which has always been the strength of George Lucas’ genius creation.
Co-written by Abrams and Chris Terrio (“Argo”), the script offers plenty of popcorn munching delight. Babu Frik hilariously mumbles for comic relief like Baby Groot, Poe trades sassy banter with Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell) and Rey wages two killer lightsaber battles. At one point, a weapon becomes a clue-finder like something out of Indiana Jones, while John Williams reminds us he can still provide nostalgic goosebumps.
On the downside, the script practically abandons the romance between Finn and Rose, which is odd considering it was such a driving force of “The Last Jedi.” In fact, Rose is barely on screen at all, while Finn starts to offer a confession but never finishes. Other characters like Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata appear briefly to show face but without much plot involvement, while Domhnall Gleeson gets a laughable line as General Hux.
Amid the catchphrases, a great screenplay should most importantly keep us guessing. Here the “surprises” may be satisfying in closing the story loop without rocking the existing canon, but they are underwhelming as a viewer craving twists and turns. This is partly due to over exposure by trailers already revealing the biggest moments.
It’s great to see Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian for the first time in 36 years, but it would have been much more exciting if we didn’t see it coming. The same goes for the trailers revealing the return of Emperor Palpatine. It’s a pretty lazy choice to bring back the villain from “Return of the Jedi,” feeling like we’ve seen it all before with Ewoks. It makes the 1983 victory less important now that we know Palpatine survived. The writers should have built a new foe, rather than rehash an old one.
Alas, at least we get closure to Rey’s long-debated identity crisis. Don’t worry, we won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say that it is definitively answered. That’s not to say it’s very rewarding, considering all of the juicier fan conspiracies since 2015. The result is more of a shrug than a shocker, no where near Darth Vader’s iconic “I am your father” reveal from “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), which remains the franchise’s best installment.
Now, after nine official episodes, this is the curtain call for these characters as the end of the franchise’s third trilogy. Looking back, I wish they had waited three years in between chapters like the original trilogy. Even the disappointing prequel trilogy made us wait several years in between releases. Instead, they rushed out “Rogue One” (thumbs up) and “Solo” (thumbs down) as in-between offshoots that diluted the brand.
Disney will now pump the box-office brakes by focusing on the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian.” This is probably the best medium for die-hard fans to continue exploring the “Star Wars” universe as old-school fans jump off the ride with fatigue. Regardless of which camp you’re in, we can all agree that the big-screen installments should go away for a while and make us miss them. Then, if a new movie ever does arrive, let’s leave Luke, Leia and Solo in the past and explore a new galaxy, far, far away.