Ars Technica takes spoilers seriously in film reviews. After this article’s opening section, minor plot details are revealed to explain certain opinions, but we otherwise do not include any “major” spoilers. Deeper spoilers will likely appear in the comments section upon the film’s launch, usually posted with spoiler tags.
The best thing about Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is that it concludes the latest trilogy much in the same way it began. This new trilogy has all the trappings you’d expect in a Star Wars film wishlist: droids, Wookiees, blasters, lightsabers, epic space battles, wacky new characters, and on and on.
But the beating heart of this film, and the biggest reason I recommend it, is the evolving and intriguing relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rise of Skywalker is often a turbulent ride, usually to its detriment, but the storytelling conclusion for these eternally linked rivals (and the performances that carry these characters to their most powerful moments in the Star Wars series) eke this film across the “good enough for fans” line.
Without that quality (an admittedly large percentage of the film), Rise of Skywalker might otherwise serve as proof that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams was the wrong person to finish the latest trilogy. The film rushes between plot points, overuses certain characters, and wastes others. And whether you loved, tolerated, or hated 2017’s The Last Jedi, it’s easy to conclude that the previous film’s most intriguing developments and concepts were abandoned—and without any convincing proof that Abrams had better ideas in store.
“I’ll go without your blessing”
From here on out, the review is more specific about Rise of Skywalker‘s successes and failings, so while it is mindful of spoilers, you’ve been warned.
Let’s begin with the biggest failing of the film by far: how the character of Princess Leia awkwardly fits into the plot.
Shortly after the tragic passing of actor, writer, and activist Carrie Fisher, Lucasfilm announced that she would appear in Rise of Skywalker as Leia and that the film would use her real-life footage, as opposed to a CGI-ified Fisher. The resulting footage is perhaps the worst-case scenario Star Wars fans could have imagined: cookie-cutter dialogue against a green screen that could conceivably be slapped into any plot, devoid of the heart or humor that consistently marked Fisher’s work in the role of Leia.
One example of her toothless dialogue, transcribed verbatim from the film: “This mission is everything. We cannot fail.” Notice how spoiler-free that sentence is? Sure, that sounds like something Leia might say while serving as a general on a Resistance outpost. She offers slightly more specific dialogue in one interaction in the film, to set a major plot point into motion, but even that sequence has a jarring disconnect between herself and the character in question—and fails to sew together her character picking up a baton that was dropped at the end of Last Jedi. Everything about Leia’s appearance in Rise of Skywalker is rough, and it forces at least one other character to awkwardly produce the exclamation point that she was clearly set up to do herself.
In late 2017, I suggested recasting the role of Leia. I really wish someone at Lucasfilm could have either done that or jettisoned certain plot threads.
Instead, in order to make Leia’s limited appearance work, the film begins with a blur of fetch-quest activity. A pair of early sequences include striking visuals as heroes whiz through a variety of worlds, but these differ from the slowly unfolding opening sequences that have marked the best Star Wars films. Abrams frames every major player on their own separate journey, instead of letting us take our time to see each hero’s progress since the last film and how their individual progress has affected the others. We see a brief in-fighting outburst that hints to this sort of dynamic, but it’s quickly interrupted by a forced Leia-nization of the plot.