If one was to go back and watch the prequels ("...but why?!?" you cringe!) with as objective a perspective as possible, with the allowance of framing them in a new light given the events of the Star Wars universe that have unfolded since their release it's not hard to see that Emperor Palpatine has always played the role of puppet master, at first hedging both sides against one another before fully giving in to his true Sith tendencies and converting a young Anakin Skywalker to follow him on that path. And while J.J. Abrams initial film in this sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, seemingly had no interest in resurrecting the long, thought-to-be dead Emperor there is sound reason (believe it or not!) in bringing this antagonist back to round out all three trilogies in a way that makes for a resounding stanza...just as George Lucas always intended. It's about rhyme; a recurring metrical unit where the past predicts the future and the future dictates the fate of our favorite characters. There is a great sense of scope and history in these films and while Disney has admittedly fumbled a massive opportunity with these sequels, Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker, seeks to try and rectify the lack of cohesion in this latest trilogy and bring everything together through that aforementioned scope and history in a fashion that is both meaningful to our new heroes while imparting the identity of those original heroes to inspire this new generation to continue to work towards the betterment of the galaxy. Yes, The Rise of Skywalker more or less crams two movies into one and yes, it is genuinely disappointing that this series wasn't better constructed from the beginning given how much this world means to so many people, but taken what we're given Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio (Argo) are able to connect the dots in a satisfying enough way where the right questions are answered, some mysteries remain yet feel destined to be unraveled on Disney+ while other inquiries are made that no one seemed to be asking, but are quickly brought up and resolved just as swiftly that it's as if Abrams was taking out double coverage just in case. It's impossible to please everyone and as much as I hate to admit it as a long-time, but not die-hard fan of the franchise, the discourse around these films is often toxic and demeaning. It's okay to simply enjoy whatever brings a smile to your face and more often than not, as I sat experiencing The Rise of Skywalker for the first time, I had a smile on my face.

From left: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), BB-8, D-O, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) in The Rise of Skywalker.
 Photo by Lucasfilm/Lucasfilm Ltd. - © 2019 and TM Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
From the abbreviated opening crawl through to the first full sequence of the film it is apparent that Abrams and co. are not messing around and that the pace of this final chapter in the Skywalker saga won't be letting up anytime soon. It is also in the pacing that the film immediately finds its double-edged sword as the break-neck speed at which things are happening is equally as exciting as it is rushed. There is no time to bask in these new worlds, new characters and new conflicts that are being set-up while the main throughline of the plot unfortunately has to deal with tracking down a series of unnecessary MacGuffins that link our heroes to the mysterious location of this looming threat. While these MacGuffins are a weak and lazy storytelling device that Abrams has always leaned on a little too much they are mostly overshadowed (and thankfully, mostly forgotten about) by the time the MacGuffins go from strange little artifacts to pieces of information imprinted on the characters we actually care about. To get all complaints out of the way up front, it would be a failure in my own objectivity to not recognize how many excuses Abrams and Terrio must make in order to get to certain points in the plot and necessary character moments that must occur; ultimately falsifying much of the emotional impact of what should be genuinely moving scenes. All of that said, and I'm not making my own excuses for the film, but with those negatives in mind ones thought comes back to the oft-referred to "balance" Lucas liked to discuss in movies and in The Rise of Skywalker these counteractive measures are balanced out by the film's focus on identity and how Daisy Ridley's Rey, unbeknownst to her, was brought into this world with a heavy ancestral burden placed upon her. The film is about how, despite these assumptions/expectations and preconceived notions, a person or being isn't wholly defined by as much and that a lineage doesn't always dictate the line one must walk. The conflicts of the past continue to rage on in both Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) as this relationship-which has been the strongest throughline in each of these new films-continues to go back and forth around which side of history each might choose to fall. Kylo is the son of Han Solo and General Leia Organa whereas Rey's parentage remains if not a secret still very inconspicuous in terms of how the truth of the matter actually came to be. Either way, while Kylo undoubtedly felt a pressure to become a great Jedi in the tradition of his mother and uncle, Rey was afforded the gift of anonymity thus allowing her the ability to forge her own path and ultimately serving as the aspect Abrams and Terrio latch onto in this final film as they explore with Rey how this opportunity has allowed her to bring that much sought after balance back to the force.

As Rey, Ridley feels more in tune with the character than ever. It's clear from the first image we see of our protagonist in The Rise of Skywalker that not only is Abrams going to deliver on what traditionalists of the franchise hoped to see after the character's introduction in TFA in terms of her development as the obviously skilled Jedi she was meant to be, but that her abilities have already grown exponentially since we last left her a year before when she and Leia were recovering after escaping the Battle of Crait. Rey is more confident, more assured in her control of the force if not yet having mastered the use of her lightsaber at the level she desires. As Oscar Isaac's Poe and John Boyega's Finn along with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) are lightspeed hopping in an effort to outrun First Order ships after having retrieved information on Kylo Ren's whereabouts, Rey has remained at the Resistance base with Leia and is training for the inevitable. It is upon Poe and Finn's return and the then follow-up mission where Rey is going to chase after the MacGuffins she's discovered in Luke’s Jedi texts that might lead them to Palpatine as it seems Kylo Ren has already aligned with the former Emperor. What this does for Abrams and his actors is finally allow for the opportunity for this core group of heroes we've been rooting for in the previous two installments to finally go on an adventure together. Sure, they're chasing down some kind of "wayfinder" and then find an admittedly nonsensical dagger that supposedly has been of great importance to the Sith for centuries and is inscribed with a Sith text that C-3PO makes way too much of a fuss about translating just so Anthony Daniels can grab some more screentime, but they're together. It is through this "togetherness" that much of the satisfaction with the film as a whole comes into play. That is, whereas The Last Jedi seemed to intentionally separate the characters not for the purposes of function or natural progression, but more out of a desire to force them to find their own way on their own terms (which, again, felt counter-intuitive to the dynamic established in TFA) The Rise of Skywalker almost immediately gets the band back together and while I don't really understand the exclusion of Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico (or Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata for that matter) from this adventure I can see why Abrams might have been keen to simply close out the arcs he oversaw from the beginning.

Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continue their battles with themselves and with one another over who they are and who they were meant to be.
Photo by Lucasfilm/Lucasfilm Ltd. - © 2019 and TM Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
This is a movie of contradictions though, as for every point that Abrams and his crew get for attempting to bring balance, leverage nostalgia or retcon elements from TLJ without making such retroactions insanely obvious there is the counterpoint that either the story element, character arc or flat-out reasoning for doing so are both nonsensical and rushed. If one was going to go back and try to complete what would have been their own trilogy of films in two features rather than three it would seem obvious there would be no time or room for extraneous locations and characters like Kerri Russell's Zorii Bliss. Or Naomi Ackie's Jannah. Or Dominic Monaghan's Beaumont. Or Richard E. Grant's General Pryde. Or even Billy Dee Williams' reprisal of Lando. If you want to tell a specific story and get your heroes from one point to another while still maintaining a sense of continuity and coherence amongst the films making up said trilogy then tell that story and don't worry about the stipulations of how many new characters each Star Wars film must introduce in order to meet a toy quota. Babu Frik can stay, but the rest of them are useless. Furthermore, if the revelations that come to light are to be bought into in any credible send of the word then focusing on going to get a thing that will tell them how to find another thing doesn't feel like the best use of the film's ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-TWO MINUTES. None of these "things" that we've never heard of prior to this film (and yes, I realize some of these "things" might be present in the extended versions of Star Wars stories that are technically canon, but if this is your defense then you're part of the problem) matter as much as the central journey of our heroes who are each dealing in their coming to terms with their identities and how they've grown or the core conflict that persists between Rey and Kylo Ren that deals in this one unifying theme that guides the film throughout even when it wants to try and distract itself. Poe is discovered to have been what is essentially a drug runner in the Star Wars universe while we learn that not only is Finn a reformed member of the First Order, but could potentially be force sensitive as well. And while the characters of both Bliss and Jannah are meant to lend further facets to Poe and Finn's backgrounds it all just feels tacked on in the wake of Rey's plight to figure out why her connection with Kylo Ren is so meaningful and what she must do to ultimately lead him down a path of redemption; the path opposite her (whisper, whisper) led Kylo's grandfather down.

I also realize that so much of this sounds like frustrated criticisms and that's largely because that's exactly what it is. Much of this has to do with the fact that, among many other examples, is that instead of Kylo's journey becoming more fleshed out and his history with the Knights of Ren being epically drawn out across a sweeping montage we instead are treated to the most depth they are given in a scene where the mythic Knights of Ren stand in a circle and watch a monkey repair Kylo Ren's helmet. These are frustrated criticisms because The Rise of Skywalker feels like a frustrated movie; one that is making up for lost time and continuing on without any consideration for the legacy it will leave (and tarnish). Abrams finale to the Skywalker saga is a movie that knows what it wants to say and knows what it wants to do, but it does too much to ensure the audience knows exactly what its doing and saying. It's an apology of a movie that sports all the gifts and treats one might hope will be enough to smooth over whatever issues a relationship might have had to endure in the past. A movie that is admittedly satisfying as you consume it, but leaves you feeling empty and craving more-not necessarily of the same-but something more fulfilling once the realization of how fleeting that satisfaction was. This is a conclusion I didn't want to type, but it bears noting that these are the memories that come to mind when reflecting on it and not the ones of how great the film looks, how impressive the scale is and how wonderful John Williams score continues to be. It's not so much about how fun and energetic the movie can certainly feel in moments or how solid some of the performances are-Ridley and Driver obviously being the stand-outs-but instead it's more about how much the film falls short not because of its own doing, but by the doing of the overarching trilogy it's forever a part of. No, it isn't that The Rise of Skywalker is an all-around bad film, but it is a film that could have and should have been better than what will go down as this final chapter in a saga that began some forty-two years prior. It's a fine enough movie for the moment, but it's not the cultural milestone (no matter how unfair those expectations are) it needed to be.

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