Marketed as the final chapter in the nine-film Skywalker saga that began with 1977's Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker arrives at a time when — Baby Yoda aside — there is a certain degree of consternation around the direction of the overall Star Wars franchise.
The 2015 J.J. Abrams-directed The Force Awakens was criticised for having an overly familiar story driven too much by nostalgia for earlier films.
The follow-up, 2017's Rian Johnson-directed The Last Jedi, was attacked for the exact opposite reasons — many complained it veered too far from classic Star Wars. There is no pleasing some people.
Both films made a lot of money, however, but there is no franchise subjected to more scrutiny by the audience.
So when Abrams agreed to return to direct Episode IX after the original director, Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World), left the project over creative differences with Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, he had a seemingly impossible task ahead of him: Abrams was expected to satisfy fans put off by The Last Jedi and also deliver a surprising and impactful finale to the most beloved saga in cinema history.
Against long odds (never tell him the odds), he has succeeded.
Although the current run of films has struggled to live up to the mythic power of the original trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker comes pretty darn close, and effectively carries the collective weight of the entries that precede it.
Abrams (who also co-wrote the script) "corrects" some of the more controversial elements of The Last Jedi without undermining Johnson's film, and his choices in this regard feel right. I also very much appreciated that Abrams included a big monster in the film, especially when the previous film featured none.
The plot is extremely fast-moving, with the first half seeing Resistance heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suatamo) hopping from one weird planet to another to try to find the location of an enormous fleet of universe-threatening Star Destroyers which were brought into existence by an old villain whose presence was suggested by the trailers. The group chemistry in these early scenes is a joy.
The emotional arcs start to satisfyingly coalesce in the second half, with most of this material falling on the able shoulders of Daisy Ridley, who really ups her acting game here. Her story feels just as important as that of Luke and Anakin's, and Ridley does an impressive job of channelling her character's dramatic heft.
It's nice that repurposed leftover footage of the late Carrie Fisher from the previous film allows Princess Leia to have a presence here, but the less-than-seamless integration of this footage somewhat betrays its nature.
One complaint might be the TV-bred Abrams' over reliance on close-ups — a few more wide shots would've been nice for the sake of visual clarity — but the film is definitely not lacking in an epic feel.
Indeed, a central lightsabre battle is the best one in the new trilogy by far.
The Rise of Skywalker is not perfect, and we may never truly recapture that original Star Wars' magic, but in this reviewer's eyes, balance has been restored to the Force.