Few franchises have such enduring longevity and cultural awareness as Star Wars. For those either brought up on the affairs in a galaxy far, far away, or new to the series, the anticipation (and expectation) of a saga-capping generation-defining final chapter have rarely been higher. And it’s not like the creative team didn’t know that going in.
In parallel to the climatic battle between good and evil on screen, there exists a struggle with similar stakes happening behind the scenes. To some, a great many if we’re being honest, this film is less about what happens to our beloved characters. It’s more about whose stamp and style and understanding of this property will be on display until the final credits roll: Rian Johnson or J.J. Abrams?
To try and encapsulate this series, which has been around for more than 40 years, I can’t help think of the famous words of Obi-Wan Kenobi (brilliantly played by Alec Guinness). In the Spring of 1977, Luke took his “first step into a larger world.” Well, so, too did we. While Luke’s story was finite, this film, its sequels and everything to come after it – books, toys, vernacular, people’s opinions, and on and on – was splayed out in an ever-widening arc; it was a literal blast which we could not escape.
In its wake, the likes of J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson specifically were changed forever. The former, as my friend Bryan says, “likes Star Wars“, and the latter “gets Star Wars“. Each has taken the series in drastic and impressive new directions. But their driving wins some fans while losing others. So how does this final episode fare having the wheel passed between the two? Well, if my opinion counts for anything, it should make you happy.
The entire cast and crew of The Rise of Skywalker came out in full force, and showed us how this universe has grown over the decades. The things we thought we knew were expanded upon – from Jedi powers, to technology, to creature and character quirks, motivations and convictions. While The Force Awakens reinvigorated the series with a soft reboot, everything after that seemed like too many hands trying to grab the above-mentioned wheel. It wasn’t righted, or over-corrected this time out, Episode IX is more or less an amalgamated mess which crosses the finish line…and it is comforting in a number of ways.
Sure, there are problems. It is not the most exciting entry in the series, it is not the most ambitious, it isn’t even a bad film. Some characters get cast aside, others get more time then they need, and several locations, motivations and plot beats are all questionable in relevance and necessity. The story’s main focus is to tie things up, overwrite things that didn’t go over well in the last film with the overriding goal to appease fans, and earn smiles. It does. We’re even asked us to shed a tear or two. We do. And all this feels like a hug from an old friend.
Clocking in at 2-1/2 hours, J. J. Abrams doesn’t waste a single second of time. The first act is insanely frenetic (add to that being messy and rushed), establishing, again, the plight of the resistance who still needs to stay one step ahead of the First Order. And to up the stakes, certain characters are put in real danger over and over. You know what they say about making an omelet, right? If the last two films told us anything, it’s that death is as surprising as it is swift. So try to say your good byes to the characters you care about early…just in case.
As is his calling card, Abrams puts elements and objects into play that don’t always get a payoff or even an explanation. But this film does get back to the sprawling story lines we’ve come to love and expect, the inner struggles of the characters dealing with their duty and/or purpose, the spirit of hope, jaw-dropping action and scenes/settings and imagery that have defined the franchise. And then there’s hero’s journey. Not just for one person, for an entire galaxy.
For those curious, Abrams doesn’t bypass everything from Episode VIII or act like it didn’t happen – remember, they are on the same team under the same umbrella – and hopefully what is carried into Episode IX, fan service and all, will please many fans of The Last Jedi. Admittedly, it’s a tough act to follow. This isn’t not exhaustive damage control; this is a hybrid of everything that come before it. Even if the team played it safe, and retconed several plot points, a story of this magnitude is not easy to handle successfully.
How can you channel so much content into one final film, with plenty of narrative shifts, and not lose things that people are passionate about? There is payoff for some plot threads and characters (Rey and Ben especially), and in my eyes, this whole film is reminiscent of Eddie Murphy talking about how his mother was going to make a hamburger better than McDonald’s. Sure, this big green pepper, onion, egg and paprika burger looks funny, and not like how you might envision your hamburger. It may taste funny, or have ingredients you would never put between the bread, but it is enjoyable. Take comfort, this is entertaining on a galactic level.