[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; you have been warned!]
Well, to quote the late Orson Krennic: “We were on the verge of greatness. We were this close.”
I’ve been a staunch supporter of Disney’s Sequel Trilogy since the release of its first installment back in 2015. Despite its superficial flaws (particularly regarding its underwhelming antagonists) The Force Awakens’ compelling visual motifs actually inspired me to start writing reviews and essays again following a prolonged motivational drought, and although The Last Jedi was a bit… controversial (but let’s face facts: this fandom has been irreparably toxic since the Special Editions hit theaters, at the very least), I found its rich thematic subtext to be absolutely captivating. Unfortunately, the Skywalker Saga’s alleged grand finale—apparently representing a deliberate attempt by J.J. Abrams to “clean up Rian Johnson’s mess,” to paraphrase one especially venomous, but not entirely inaccurate, Twitter post that went viral (a ridiculous sentiment, by the way; contrary to popular opinion, there was nothing for Abrams to “fix”—because Johnson never “broke” anything!)—is more flash than substance; stylistically, The Rise of Skywalker is certainly a thrilling adventure, but its efforts to resolve nearly every lingering plot thread while simultaneously expanding upon the established lore leaves the story too muddled, jumbled, and busy to be completely satisfying.
[FINAL WARNING: SPOILERS DIRECTLY BELOW!]
Let’s address the most glaring blemish right off the bat: all of the film’s major revelations are predictable to an almost insulting degree; indeed, a savvy viewer might initially dismiss the blatant foreshadowing as misdirection because the implications are too obvious. This isn’t necessarily unusual for the franchise, which generally utilizes twists in order to streamline the mythology (Vader becomes Luke’s father, Leia becomes Luke’s sister, we learn that Vader built Threepio in his youth, et cetera); thus, the idea that Emperor Palpatine somehow survived the destruction of the Death Star and went on to orchestrate the rise of the First Order (right down to growing Supreme Leader Snoke in a test tube) honestly feels… fairly typical.
The developments surrounding Rey’s “true” parentage, on the other hand, are significantly more frustrating. The Last Jedi’s approach to the character—positing that she was merely the child of nameless scavengers that “sold her for drinking money”—was a powerful statement, making her choice to join the battle against tyranny… well, a genuine choice, rather than the inevitable outcome of some prophecy tied to her bloodline. Abrams’ decision to essentially reverse Johnson’s interpretation, instead turning Rey into Palpatine’s granddaughter, greatly diminishes the overall stakes, depriving our heroine of any sort of agency and reducing the galaxy-wide conflict to yet another family feud—a new generation putting on an encore performance of the same old melodrama.
Ultimately, Kylo Ren’s mask perfectly epitomizes the movie’s underlying shortcomings: in The Last Jedi, he shattered it in a fit of rage, symbolically abandoning his aspirations to become a worthy successor to Darth Vader; here, however, he needlessly and haphazardly reassembles it—an empty gesture that serves no real narrative purpose. The visible seams where he welded the fragments back together remain as evidence of his lackluster craftsmanship.
Then again, Wedge Antilles shows up for five glorious seconds—a welcome cameo after his absence from the previous two episodes. So all is forgiven, I suppose.
Seriously, though: my objections to its core concepts notwithstanding, The Rise of Skywalker’s smaller, subtler pleasures—Chewbacca’s heartbreaking reaction to Leia’s tragic demise, the unexpected return of Han Solo (as either a literal ghost or a Force-induced hallucination) and his subsequent reconciliation with his son, the diminutive Babu Frik’s numerous legitimately humorous moments (the series has rarely been this effortlessly funny)—were strong enough to redeem the experience for me. And isn’t Star Wars all about redemption?