Adam Driver’s tortured villain Kylo Ren continues to be the most compelling figure floating through a galaxy long ago and far away. Brooding Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo, isn’t the only source of exhilaration or intrigue in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (★★★☆☆), though he does provide an enthralling piece in the puzzling web of relationships traced throughout this final trilogy of films in the long-running Skywalker saga.
Having murdered his father Han in The Force Awakens, then finding himself unable to pull the trigger on mother Leia in The Last Jedi, Ren now pursues scavenger-turned-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) through the galaxy with murderous vigor. Yet, he seems to have the hots for her, and the feeling might be mutual. Connected through the Force, Ren and Rey tease and seduce one another as much as they cross lightsabers in battle, both face-to-face and in the shared psychic space where their separate environments converge. The effect of these meetings is always potent, as the sound drops, the two contrasting locations intersect via sharp editing and CGI, and the friction between the Rebels’ great hope Rey and evil First Order commander Ren sells whatever beat of exposition is currently on tap.
Ridley and Driver play this tension with riveting ambiguity. Do Rey and Ren want to kill each other, kiss each other, turn each other? Also, given the series’ complicated romantic and familial history, might they be related? Rey notoriously knows next to nothing about her parents, except that they abandoned her on a desolate planet. Her brave and impetuous comrades in the Resistance — fighter commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Rebel pilot Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) — don’t know. Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) doesn’t know. But somebody might know.
Enter Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, perfectly repugnant in the role, as usual), the Sith lord last seen falling to his death in Return of the Jedi. “I have died before,” he croaks from some bleak, hidden planet, as the prima space gangsta apparently has just been biding his time, building what he calls the Final Order.
The Rise of Skywalker, though more effectively streamlined than either of the two previous entries in the franchise, spends too much of its running time on the Rebels’ search for a device that can lead them to wherever Palpatine is hiding. Then, whether or not they find the MacGuffin, they must reach Palpatine and rise up against his Final Order — all while outrunning the First Order, now under the command of Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), and skirmishing every ten minutes with Ren and his black-caped Knights of Ren.
J.J. Abrams, back at the helm after reinvigorating the franchise with The Force Awakens, then serving as executive producer on Rian Johnson’s busy followup The Last Jedi, juggles multiple plots and subplots adroitly, noticeably leaving a few out of rotation. Rose, who fought nobly beside her crush Finn in the previous installment, is mostly sidelined here. Finn might pick up another potential love interest in newly introduced resistance fighter Jannah (Naomi Ackie), or he might finally embrace his good bro Poe, whose leather bomber Finn still sports through hell or high water. The ambiguity act doesn’t work as well for Boyega and Isaac, but The Rise of Skywalker appears to offer Stormpilot shippers (and you know who you are) no definitive reason to jump ship.
However, truth be told, when he’s not in the midst of a spectacular dogfight, Poe’s eyes most often are trained fondly on leader and mentor General Leia Organa, portrayed one last time by the late Carrie Fisher. The Princess plays a prominent role, with the clear assistance of visual effects, stand-ins, and digitally altered previously-shot footage. Still, a real performance emerges through the technical fog, and Leia’s meaning to the story and the series is not lost. She is a beacon of hope that there are more courageous souls out in the farflung, flyover regions of the galaxy willing to rise up against oppressors.
The earned sense of nostalgia is strong with this one, and Abrams serves it well alongside lively action and dazzling scenery. The Rise of Skywalker captures the joy of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) copiloting the Millennium Falcon, the hard-won wisdom of Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the surprisingly moving depth of a Wookiee’s grief. And every thread, old and new, is joined in the central mystery of Rey and Ren, which drags on a little, but keeps the fire lit for future generations of high-flying, seafaring, nerf-herding, adventurers.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is rated PG-13, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, December 20. Visit www.fandango.com.
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