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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

(2019) ** 1/2 Pg-13
142 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: J.J. Abrams. Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong'o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams.

/content/films/5191/1.jpg"The dead speak!" Those three words—the first three words of the last "Skywalker Saga" Star Wars film—will be the only spoiler in this review. I won't even say to what those three words literally refer, but they also carry a figurative promise of revival. J.J. Abrams has returned to the pilot's seat, steering the ship again toward old-school Star Wars faces and places, the better to conclude the nine-film cycle dealing with good-and-evil star wars and the rising and falling fortunes of the Skywalkers—Anakin, Luke, Leia, and Ben—with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Few if any films in cinematic history face the scrutiny of a Star Wars film, and one can feel the added burden weighing on this "concluding" chapter. Abrams' return to the franchise, after launching the current trilogy with 2015's The Force Awakens and sitting out Rian Johnson's 2017 The Last Jedi, must bring satisfying closure to this trilogy's younger generation of characters—most notably Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren—and their current conflict between the righteous Resistance and the genocidal First Order, while also honoring the previous two trilogies overseen by franchise creator George Lucas.

Post-Lucas Lucasfilm claims to have picked Lucas' brain for story ideas before commissioning the film's script, which hasn't stopped the rumor mill from churning and churning with unsubstantiated tales of disastrous test screenings, reshoots, and even a fabled unused cut purportedly supervised by Lucas. I didn't encounter any of these rumors before watching the film, but they would explain a lot about the disjointed narrative of The Rise of Skywalker, which at times feels wet with spackle. The inclusion of previously unused Carrie Fisher footage, while welcome, sets the film's awkward tone with General Leia Organa appearing to have been Photoshopped into her scenes.

More than ever, Star Wars ostensibly exists for the fans, those who care deeply about the sprawling mythology, its worlds, its characters. Any rube could have walked into 1983's trilogy-ending Return of the Jedi as their first Star Wars movie and had a popcorn-munching good time, but in this era when peak-TV has become cinematic, and cinema has become episodic, The Rise of Skywalker plays to the well-informed blind-faithful and surely would have a non-initiate staring blankly at its fast-moving nonsense. Yes, screenwriters Abrams and Chris Terrio (Argo) pack in the requisite lightsaber battles, blaster shoot-outs, space dogfights, whooping critters, and fretfully chirping robots, but a lugubrious sense of duty hangs over the proceedings as the writers try to rescue the hash Lucasfilm has made of a Lucas-less Star Wars.

The die-hard fans, who have the best shot of actually enjoying The Rise of Skywalker, are likely to have some serious complaints, and it's not inconceivable that it may be received as warmly as the finale of Game of Thrones (just six weeks ago, the Game of Thrones writers parted ways with a planned future Star Wars trilogy; draw your own PR conclusions). A hard-to-resist but creatively thin nostalgia machine, Abrams' The Force Awakens overdosed on comforting callbacks, while Rian Johnson's divisive The Last Jedi stepped lively in its own direction, with encouraging results. The Rise of Skywalker mostly rolls back Johnson's improvements, even as it makes a defensive "meta" joke in reference to The Force Awakens' copycat reputation: after our first look at an outdoor festival with dozens of line-dancing aliens, Rey remarks, "I've never seen anything like this!" (In keeping with this film rejecting The Last Jedi like a bad organ transplant, Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico gets demoted to a not-too-tiny-to-offend, not-too-large-to-rankle nothing part.)

The Rise of Skywalker nearly gets by on its visual dazzle, toy-line-ready production design, and big action set pieces: the money is definitely all there on the screen (plus: cute banter!). But even at its best, this franchise-capper struggles to raise a pulse, to make its audience feel or care about the specifics of its complicated but slapdash plot beyond pre-existing goodwill for Star Wars itself and the saga's first female protagonist. For a brief, shining moment, The Rise of Skywalker perks up with a Lucas-esque twist of fate and good-evil duality, but the intriguing idea sorta just disappears into the film's creative quicksand along with everything else. With IP this big, "It's fine, I guess" just doesn't cut it as a reaction: once the initial excitement wears off and this one takes its place on the shelf, it's probably not going to get the kind of true love its predecessors enjoyed.

If Abrams has topped himself, it's by making a Star Wars film that's even more of a multiplex-filling Hollywood widget than his first. It's a product through and through, and no amount of "voices of Jedi past" and unimaginative guest-shots (the original stars showing up for two strictly limited purposes: fan service and inter-generational pep talks) can disguise the new trilogy's critical lack of a unifying vision. The big thematic takeaway from the new trilogy and thus the saga itself? You can write your own ticket. It's gonna cost you, and even more if it's in IMAX, but you can write your own ticket. And your own fan fiction, which is liable to be as good as, if not better than, the real thing.

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