**_I enjoyed it, but I did so with a sizeable asterisk_**
>_I said to Rian, "_Jedis don't give up. I mean even if he had a problem he would maybe take a year to try and regroup, but if he made a mistake he would try and right that wrong_." So right there we had a fundamental difference, but it's not my story anymore. It's somebody else's story, and Rian needed me to be a certain way to make the ending effective. That's the crux of my problem. Luke would never say that, I'm sorry – well in this version. See, I'm talking about the George Lucas_ Star Wars_. This is the next generation of_ Star Wars_, so I almost had to think of Luke as another character. Maybe he's Jake Skywalker. He's not my Luke Skywalker. But I had to do what Rian wanted me to do because it served the story. But I still haven't accepted it completely._
- Mark Hamill; Official Press Tour for _Star Wars: The Last Jedi_ (December 18, 2017)
>The _Force Awakens_, _I think, was the beginning of something quite solid._ The Last Jedi_, if I'm being honest, I'd say that was feeling a bit iffy for me. I didn't necessarily agree with a lot of the choices in that and that's something that I spoke to Mark [Hamill] a lot about and we had conversations about it._
- John Boyega; "John Boyega Is on His Own Hero's Journey" (Isaac Rouse); _HyperBeast_ (December 8, 2019)
>The Last Jedi _is full of surprises and subversion and all sorts of bold choices. On the other hand, it's a bit of a meta approach to the story. I don't think that people go to_ Star Wars _to be told, "This doesn't matter."_
- J.J. Abrams; "Will _Star Wars_ Stick the Landing? J.J. Abrams Will Try" (Dave Itzkoff); _The New York Times_ (December 11, 2019)
Rian Johnson's _Star Wars: The Last Jedi_ (2017) was a film which divided critics and audiences to an unusual degree – on Metacritic it has a critical score of 85/100 (the second-highest in the franchise), with 53 positive reviews against zero negative, but its audience score is only 4.4/10 (the lowest in the franchise), with around 3,000 positive reviews against nearly 4,500 negative. In their (predominantly negative) reviews of _Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker_, many critics who championed _Last Jedi_ posit that the film was a great work of art, unfairly maligned by a toxic fanbase pissed off that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was in a perpetual bad mood and that Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) was unacceptable because she wasn't white. And certainly, there was an element of that in the reaction some diehard fans had to the movie – the racist and sexist abuse that Tran took from such fans was shameful, and the very definition of toxicity. However, these critics essentially argue that if you didn't like _Last Jedi_, the _only_ possible explanation is that you're a racist, misogynistic, reactionary, right-wing Neanderthal – it certainly can't have anything to do with simply disliking the movie because you disliked the movie. And of course, such critics don't mention the horrid screenplay that spends 40 minutes on a side-quest that has nothing to do with the rest of the film; they don't mention how Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) withholding her plan from Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) makes not a lick of sense; they don't mention Luke throwing away his lightsaber (to hell with that scene); they don't mention how General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) was turned into comic relief; and they sure as hell don't mention resurrected flying space Jedi (to hell with that scene too). The fact is, the film is an absolute mess, and it has zero to do with skin colour or gender.
And so, one must ask, is _Rise of Skywalker_ a course correction or a flat-out apology? I'm leaning to the former, but there can be no doubt that much of what _Last Jedi_ introduced into the canon has been unceremoniously discarded – Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is once more wearing his mask and the Knights of Ren are back; the Jedi child seen at the end of _Last Jedi_ is never mentioned; Rey's (Daisy Ridley) parentage, so casually dismissed in _Last Jedi_, is once again crucially important; Rose, that most maligned of characters, has gone the way of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and is barely seen. Indeed, _Rise_ is more of a sequel to J.J. Abrams's _Star Wars: The Force Awakens_ (2015) than it is to _Last Jedi_, one or two major plot points notwithstanding, and whilst _Last Jedi_ looked forward, clumsily introducing new concepts and themes to the franchise, _Rise_ follows _Force Awakens_ in doing the opposite – it looks back, and is chock-full of throwbacks and references to the previous films. And although I certainly enjoyed it as a spectacle (it looked and sounded exceptional in 3D IMAX), there's no doubt it's a deeply flawed piece of work. It's the kind of film that feels like it was created by a computer algorithm or a corporate committee trying to tick as many boxes as possible – rather than attempting something ambitious which fans _might_ not like, it's far more concerned with trying to please everyone without offending anyone. And this is only one of two impossible tasks it assigns itself.
Picking up the story a few months after the events of _Last Jedi_, the war between the Resistance and the First Order is still raging. However, a recent development has altered the playing field and taken both sides by surprise – Emperor Sheev Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) has returned, having survived the events at the end of Richard Marquand's _Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi_ (1983). Revealed to have literally created Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) in a lab, Palpatine has been manipulating events from behind-the-scenes for years and now plans to harness the immense combined power of every Sith who has ever lived. As the film begins, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren, who assumed the mantle after he murdered Snoke in _Last Jedi_, is making his way to Palpatine's base on the 'hidden' planet Exegol, which can only be reached with the use of a powerful Sith Wayfinder, of which there are only two in existence. Seeing Palpatine as a threat to his leadership of the First Order, Ren is planning to kill him. However, rather than doing so, he watches in awe as Palpatine reveals a massive armada of hundreds of fearsomely powerful _Xyston_-class Star Destroyers. He then orders Ren to find and kill Rey. Meanwhile, with Luke dead, Rey is continuing her Jedi training under his sister, Leia Organa (a cobbled together 'performance' by Carrie Fisher, comprised of a combination of unused material from the previous films, body doubles, and CGI). When Poe and former First Order stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) discover that Palpatine is on Exegol, Rey learns of the necessity of the Wayfinder from Luke's notes. And so Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and the droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2, BB-8, and D-O set out to find it.
_Rise of Skywalker_ is directed by _Force Awakens_ director J.J. Abrams (_M:i:III_; _Super 8_; _Star Trek: Into Darkness_). Colin Trevorrow (_Safety Not Guaranteed_; _Jurassic World_; _The Book of Henry_) was originally hired as writer/director, but he left/was fired from the project after clashing with franchise producer Kathleen Kennedy, who seems to have a bit of a thing for firing directors, and who was dissatisfied with the script by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly (_Kong: Skull Island_; _Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom_; _Pokémon: Detective Pikachu_). In the credits for _Rise_, Abrams and Chris Terrio (_Argo_; _Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice_; _Justice League_) are credited with the screenplay, working from a story credited to Trevorrow, Connolly, Abrams, and Terrio, although Terrio has said in interviews that the Trevorrow/Connolly credits were a legal requirement, and nothing of their script remains in the final film.
And this brief bit of background chaos serves to help illuminate what is probably the biggest problem with both this film and this new trilogy as a whole – lack of narrative through-lines. At no point during _Rise_, not for one second, did it ever feel like the culmination of a nine-film arc. Hell, it barely felt like the culmination of a three-film arc. As already mentioned, _Rise_ seems more like a sequel to _Force Awakens_ than it does to _Last Jedi_, but the problem runs deeper than that; not only is there a modest disconnect between the three films in the sequel trilogy, but there's a much more important and sizable disconnect between this trilogy and the previous two – George Lucas's _A New Hope_ (1977), Irvin Kershner's _The Empire Strikes Back_ (1980), and Marquand's _Return of the Jedi_ and the Lucas-directed prequel trilogy; _Episode I: The Phantom Menace_ (1999), _Episode II: Attack of the Clones_ (2002), and _Episode III: Revenge of the Sith_ (2005).
Love them or hate them, the prequels do feel like they take place in the same narrative space as the originals; they not only form a coherent and logical trilogy in and of themselves, but (Midi-chlorian foolishness aside), they also form a coherent and logical six-film arc with the original trilogy. In short, the prequel trilogy has very strong and narratively organic connective tissue to the original trilogy. Lucas himself has spoken to this connective tissue, pointing out that when you watch the originals, it's Luke's story, but when you watch the six films, it's Anakin's story. When you factor in this third trilogy, however, despite Disney dubbing the nine films the "_Skywalker Saga_", the overarching story essentially becomes Palpatine's, as he's the only constant in all three trilogies (apart from C-3PO and R2-D2). However, whilst Palpatine's presence in the first two trilogies is integral, woven intricately into the fabric of everything that happens, his appearance here is…less so. This has the effect of making the nine-film sequence feel unbalanced, with the last three never really managing to feel like a valid continuation of the previous six. At best, they feel like a spin-off, with thematic connections and recurring characters occasionally shoehorned in to try to establish narrative continuity, but, by and large, they're their own thing – which is not how Disney has sold them at all.
All of which leaves _Rise_ with not one, but two impossible tasks – 1) to somehow conclude this trilogy in such a way that it also works as the satisfying closing chapter to the nine-film _Skywalker Saga_, and 2) to somehow conclude this trilogy despite having to abandon and retcon much of what the second film did.
The importance of this trilogy's disconnection from the others was brought into relief for me by something my uncle said when we were discussing _Rise_. He's a fall-down drunk who talks to trees and may be involved in a plan to resurrect Hitler as a gay sushi chef, but he has a very interesting perspective on the _Star Wars_ films. To paraphrase, he said that to him _Force Awakens_, _Last Jedi_, and _Rise_ never felt like _Episodes VII_, _VIII_, and _IX_ – rather they felt like _Episodes X_, _XI_, and _XII_, and the "real" _Episode VII_, _VIII_, and _IX_ were never made. This isn't him arguing that Lucas's ideas for the third trilogy (which were rejected by Disney) should have been used and would have been awesome – rather his point is more structural; this trilogy is built on a serious of major events which take place between _Return of the Jedi_ and _Force Awakens_, which we never got to see and which fundamentally divide this trilogy from the other two. Had we been made privy to these events, however, these last three films would have had a much easier task of integrating into and ending the twelve-film _Skywalker Saga_. I have to admit, it wasn't something that had occurred to me, but the tree to whom he pitched it really sold me on the idea when it told me over the phone, and it does make a lot of narrative sense – had this been the fourth trilogy rather than the third, its connection to the first six films would have been much more organic, the story much more contiguous, and the task of bringing the entire saga to a close considerably less daunting.
Of course, a big question is whether or not Disney had a specific narrative plan going into this thing, with many arguing that the lack of coherence between the three films proves that they did not. But that seems somewhat unbelievable to me. Rather (and again, I have to credit my uncle with this), it's more likely that Abrams laid groundwork for a coherent three-film arc, but Rian Johnson was more concerned with making a Rian Johnson film than a _Star Wars_ film, and ignored (if not necessarily undermined) much of Abrams's preparatory work. This also feeds into the criticism that the first hour of _Rise_ is too plot-heavy and expositionary; which could be explained if he was essentially in a position of having to do two films' worth of work in one, because plot points that should have been emphasised in _Last Jedi_, to set up the events in _Rise_, simply weren't.
The big thing here is the return of Palpatine, which has been argued to be completely arbitrary, a desperate bit of fan service from a filmmaker trying to win back fans, and which doesn't make a whole lot of narrative sense. I can certainly sympathise with those sentiments, and I agree that his return negates Vader's sacrifice at the end of _Return of the Jedi_ and makes a mockery of the whole "_restoring balance to the Force_" prophecy in the prequel trilogy. However (and this is the final reference to my uncle), there were a number of hints in _Force Awakens_ (that I did not pick up on) that a big bad was pulling the strings and that that big bad was Palpatine. To explain any more would constitute spoilers for _Rise_, but there are videos on YouTube posted shortly after the release of _Force Awakens_ which speculate (correctly, it turns out) that Palpatine might be involved. Taken together, it's enough to convince me that his return wasn't as arbitrary as it may seem. And although the fact that it seems that way at all is still a major problem, that's more likely the fault of Johnson rather than Abrams.
There are some smaller issues with the film, however. For example, there are far too many shots of Rey staring off into the middle-distance as she senses something (usually connected to Ren). The film also tends to treat death less than reverentially; no less than six characters die, only to return in some form or another, which cheapens and undermines both the goals of the characters and the inherent risk in attempting to achieve those goals. The quartet of main characters also remain as insipid as they were in the previous two films – Rey never gets beyond the reluctant Jedi trying to wrap her head around everything; Finn never gets beyond the token good guy who used to be bad template; Poe never gets beyond Han Solo-lite; and Ren never gets beyond the moody emo who hates his parents and so is rebelling against them by hanging out with a questionable crowd of intergalactic fascists. As you do. The structure of the plot is also poor, far too repetitive, and relying too heavily on coincidence. The biggest problem is that the whole film is built around the Resistance trying to get to Exegol. To do so they need the Wayfinder, but to get that they need this other thing, but to find that they need to go here and speak to him, but to do that they need a mystical doohickey but to get that they have to…you get the picture. The whole film feels like a series of video game quests.
Something else that bothered me is a semi-spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you wish. Mimicking the scene in _A New Hope_ where the _Millennium Falcon_ swoops in to save Luke in the final battle, there's a shot towards the end of the film where a massive fleet of thousands of Resistance ships is revealed, led by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). But where did such an armada come from? How was Lando able to assemble so many ships in such a short space of time (he has no more than a couple of days)? If such a fleet exists, why not use it before now? Visually, it's a spectacular shot, but the grandiosity is achieved by sacrificing logic.
For all that, however, I have to admit, I enjoyed _The Rise of Skywalker_ for the most part – it's a fine spectacle taken on its own terms, very loud, very over-the-top, and very entertaining. One thing that's come in for a lot in criticism is the number of callbacks to previous films. And there certainly is a lot, but, generally speaking, I thought they were fairly well-handled, logical enough and reasonably organic. For example, Palpatine tells Ren that some people consider Sith abilities to be "unnatural", which was exactly what Palpatine told Anakin (Hayden Christensen) in _Revenge of the Sith_; Poe and Finn are shown playing the holographic chess game on the _Falcon_; the turret gun on the _Falcon_ still has the old-school graphic readout as seen in New Hope; during her training, Rey uses the blast shield on her helmet whilst fighting a flying bot, another reference to _New Hope_; characters sink into quicksand in a scene reminiscent of the garbage compactor scene in _New Hope_; a character Force-lifts an X-Wing from a swamp just as we see Yoda doing in _Empire_; there's a scene of Palpatine and Rey watching a nearby space battle, just as Palpatine and Luke do in _Return of the Jedi_.
Aesthetically, as one would expect, everything looks and sounds great, particularly Palpatine's base on Exegol. Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel (_John Carter_; _The Amazing Spider-Man 2_; _Pacific Rim: Uprising_) shoot these scenes like it's a horror movie – deep chiaroscuro shadows, ominous caverns disappearing in the background, unnaturally powerful lightening flashing from above. This tone is helped immeasurably by the production design by Rick Carter (_Forrest Gump_; _A.I. Artificial Intelligence_; _Avatar_), which really sells the vast otherworldliness of the place. Equally important here is the sound design by David Acord (_Guardians of the Galaxy_; _Avengers: Age of Ultron_; _The Secret Life of Pets_), which features a constant chatter of unearthly and disembodied voices, like a thousand ghosts all whispering at once.
The whole thing has a dark vibe the likes of which we've never really seen in _Star Wars_, and the scenes here are probably the best in the film, from a craft perspective if nothing else. The scenes showing Rey and Ren speaking to one another via Force Dyad are also excellent. These scenes were easily the best part of _Last Jedi_, and they're just as good here, as we see the background of one character's location appearing behind the other character, with the backgrounds shifting from one to the other as the scenes play out. A lightsaber fight makes particularly good use of the Dyad, with events in one location having an unexpected effect on events in the other.
So, all things considered, although I enjoyed _The Rise of Skywalker_ and found it a vast improvement over _Last Jedi_, it never touches greatness. Everything feels workshopped and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, and the spark of originality that was so prevalent in the original trilogy and less so in the prequels seems almost extinguished. It looks great, and it's both exciting and entertaining, but it's also safe and predictable in a way that none of the films were when Lucas was still in charge. And sure, you might say that fans rejected _Last Jedi_ because it took too many risks, and now they reject _Rise_ because it doesn't take enough, and there's probably some truth to that. But the fact is that the film never feels like a closing chapter, not because it looks like there'll be more chapters, rather because it never seems to know how to conclude the story with much in the way of satisfaction. I enjoyed it whilst I was watching it and it's a decent enough _Star Wars_ movie, with some terrific individual scenes. But as the final entry of a 42-year-old franchise (the most popular franchise in any medium in human history), the whole thing is, perhaps inevitably, a little disappointing.