Before I proceed any further, this is a spoiler-free review. That means I won’t be discussing any specific plot points related to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
This is it. The Star Wars sequel trilogy has finally come to an end, with director J.J. Abrams replacing original helmer Colin Trevorrow (2015’s Jurassic World) due to creative differences. Re-hiring Abrams seems like a safe bet for Disney — at least from the business point-of-view since he previously helped to steer Star Wars: The Force Awakens to a larger-than-life box office glory at a still-unbeaten US$936.6 million (at least for the domestic grosses) four years ago.
But at the same time, getting Abrams to wrap up not only the Star Wars sequel trilogy but also the whole Skywalker saga in its entirety is bound to evoke controversy one way or another. This is especially true if you have followed Abrams’ career stretching way back to his TV stint in the early 2000s. Those who have seen the entire seasons of Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010) would know that his signature “mystery box” storytelling method were often intriguing at the beginning, only to falter during the payoff with a largely mixed result. For the uninitiated, Abrams’ “mystery box” storytelling actually refers to the way he introduces a story that piles up with mystery after mystery, leaving the audiences to guess or debate what’s going on until certain crucial moments are eventually revealed at a given time.
The same thing happens again in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Four years ago, Abrams did a good job introducing the audiences a new set of characters, namely Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) while expanding the Skywalker saga beyond George Lucas’ original and prequel trilogies. Then along came Rian Johnson, as he is tasked to pick up from Abrams’ groundwork and developed further in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). That sequel was, of course, turned to be the most divisive Star Wars movie of all-time, even though I happened to be one of the minorities who enjoyed Johnson’s bold creative decision in subverting most of the fans’ expectations.
Coming back to The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams chose to course-correct whatever Johnson did in The Last Jedi. It was a decision that set to divide both sides — one who actually applauded Johnson’s work and the other one who is more eager to see what Abrams can do to retcon Johnson’s mistakes.
Now, even if Abrams decided to retcon Johnson’s work, at least have the decency to do so that feels justifiable. Unfortunately, what I got here is messy and convoluted storytelling from Abrams himself as well as Chris Terrio, who served as the movie’s co-screenwriter. And it feels oddly rushed, particularly how the movie chose to resolve certain conflicts and payoffs that end up either terribly mixed (the whole Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren story arc) or rightfully earned (the emotional send-off of the late Carrie Fisher’s General Leia comes to mind).
New characters are also introduced — among them include Naomi Ackie’s Jannah as the ally of the Resistance and Keri Russell as Poe’s old friend Zorri Bliss — but largely forgotten since Abrams and Terrio’s script don’t really spend sufficient times to develop their roles. Then, there’s the ill-fated decision of reviving Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in The Rise of Skywalker, which feels more like forceful fan service than a total necessity. Last I checked, his character got thrown off by Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) deep down into the Death Star’s power core in Return of the Jedi (1983) and that’s the end of him.
The recurring characters, in the meantime, is a mixed bag with Abrams’ decision of bringing back Billy Dee Williams to reprise his iconic Lando Calrissian role is another mere fan service than giving him something worth remembering for. Both Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and R2-D2, as well as Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico from The Last Jedi, are largely relegated to background roles. It’s kind of a pity that Domhnall Gleeson’s role of General Hux isn’t given much to do here while a certain revelation about his character feels like it was shoehorned in the last minute. Still, Daisy Ridley along with Adam Driver as well as John Boyega and Oscar Isaac remain decent enough with their respective roles.
From technical point-of-view, some of the lightsaber battles are reasonably thrilling (the one where Rey and Kylo square off against each other atop the ruined Death Star while waves crashing around them is worth mentioning here). But others like the desert chase scene involving flying Stormtroopers is sadly framed in a rapid-editing mode.
If you are just casual viewers, you might find The Rise of Skywalker‘s overall fast-paced and busy visuals are more than enough to keep you engaged throughout its 142-minute running time. But the way Abrams and Terrio’s script wrap up the entire Skywalker saga in this final chapter of Star Wars sequel trilogy left me both baffled and yes, a mixed feeling.