As assured, calculated and predictable as a railroad timetable, “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” brings the trilogy of trilogies into the station with precision, hitting moments of grandeur and betrayal with brutal efficacy in a galaxy far, far away.
For many audiences — “Star Wars” devotees and dilettantes alike — director J.J. Abrams’ singular devotion to delivering unto them exactly what they came for will be enough. Alliances are forged and betrayed, planets are destroyed and destinies are fulfilled, all set to the irresistible sweep of John Williams’ legendary score.
But like the saga’s many acolytes who struggle to meet the expectations of their teachers, Abrams never quite manages the alchemy of his own mentor, maestro of manipulation Steven Spielberg. In Spielberg’s best work, even when we know exactly what’s coming, or when we in the audience know we’re being played, there’s still a delight in having our buttons pushed so masterfully.
Abrams certainly knows how to manipulate, but when he does it, you can see the strings. How much or little you enjoy “The Rise of Skywalker” will rely almost entirely on whether or not you mind that every laugh and tear and jolt feels like it’s coming right off a spreadsheet.
It has become forbidden for reviews to discuss the plot of films like this in any detail, so suffice it to say that an ancient evil resurfaces, forcing rebel leaders Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) to do a lot of going to The Place to get The Thing so they can fight The Guy. Along the way, Rey will continue to grapple with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the guy she literally can’t get out of her head.
Fans will be relieved to know that there’s no new Death Star this time around, but Rey is still seeking her place in the universe, even as she’s pulled toward both the light and the dark, much in the same way as her father figure Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was in the middle trilogy. And since the ninth chapter of a nine-chapter story isn’t unlike the series finale of a TV show, many of the franchise’s venerable players pop up for one last goodbye before they head over to the cast party.
Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio introduce some new characters — including Keri Russell as a woman from Poe’s criminal past and Naomi Ackie (Hulu’s “The Bisexual”) as a freedom fighter — as well as a new droid, but for all their actual involvement in the story, they seem to be there mostly for the action figures and to seed new storylines in future movies. (We probably won’t see Richard E. Grant again as one of Kylo Ren’s generals, but it’s his most satisfying villain since his wild turn in the underrated “Hudson Hawk.”)
The screenplay also undoes what was, for me, one of the best ideas of “The Last Jedi,” in what would appear to be a pandering piece of fan service — although in this movie, it’s hardly alone in that regard.
“The Rise of Skywalker” is, without a doubt, a well-oiled machine, zipping us from deserts to cliffs to the most wave-tossed ocean you’ve ever seen without a single green-screen seam showing. I don’t want to know how much or how little of the late Carrie Fisher’s appearance as General Leia Organa was actually filmed by the actress – I assume it’s mostly post-production wizardry – but the character manages to remain just outside of the uncanny valley. It’s probably more an indication of the script than of the talented players that two of the movie’s most moving moments belong to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels).
Rest assured that there’s nothing in this final “Star Wars” that would prompt the eye-rolls or the snickers of Episodes I-III; Abrams is too savvy a studio player for those kinds of shenanigans. But his slick delivery of a sterling, shiny example of what Martin Scorsese would call “not cinema” feels momentarily satisfying but ultimately unfulfilling. It’s a somewhat soulless delivery system of catharsis, but Disney and Abrams are banking on the delivery itself to be enough.