You might find it hard to believe but there are downsides to being the steward of one of the most successful cinema franchises of all time.
Star Wars, which took the world by storm in 1977 when George Lucas released his charmingly low budget swashbuckling sci-fi epic, A New Hope (then just plain old Star Wars) upon the world, is arguably one of the most consistently beloved series of all times, taking a slew of influences from Kurosawa to Metropolis and building them into one of the most accessible good vs evil stories of modern times.
Ask any fan, a loaded entry point to any paragraph since Star Wars fandom is hardly a unified bloc happily singing from the same Star Wars Holiday Special song sheet, and they will likely tell you that what are now referred to as episodes four, five and six – A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983)- are overall a seamless, neatly sewn together trilogy.
The later prequels – The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005)- far less so, with the generally lacklustre trilogy seen as a far poorer cousins to the sequels that rather oddly preceded them.
So when Disney, now owner of Lucasfilm, Lucas’s bright and shiny factory of galactic dreams, decided to add some more films into the mix, completing the long-envisaged seventh, eighth and ninth films, there was both great excitement and understandable caution.
Rather predictably, with the poor realisation of the prequels still burned into everyone’s retinas, The Force Awakens (2015) and Last of the Jedi (2017) were greeted with a little wariness but were generally reasonably well-received, bar some rather ugly online wars spearheaded by a minority of fans who believed a series about endless diversity had become, well, a little too inclusive.
But for all the happiness that greeted the return of the franchise to cinema screens, there was a lingering sense, for this reviewer at least, that while the first two films in the final trilogy were definitely, indisputably Star Wars-ish and it was delight to be in that galaxy again, neither of them were particularly stand out efforts.
Good and a pleasure to watch but a little too derivative of what had gone before and lacking a clear narrative cohesion, a sense that while they were honouring their predecessors that they were truly forging paths of their own and extending the franchise as they did so.
Along comes The Rise of Skywalker, which carries the unenviable burden of rounding not just a trilogy but all nine films, bringing George Lucas’s great arc of serialistic good vs evil to a satisfying conclusion.
Directed by J. J. Abrams who is widely considered to be master storyteller, combining depth with popcorn popularism, the ninth and final film comes groaning under the weight of so much expectation that it makes the invidious task of the freedom-loving New Republic trying to step into the power vacuum left by the forced departure of the Empire looking like a feather resting on an elephant.
And yet, while some, inevitably, have greeted The Rise of Skywalker with damning faint praise, hailing it as lacklustre an effort as those films that have gone before it, the truth, for this long-time fan at least who saw the first film in a cinema at the age of 12 way back when, is that it is the film that feels the most like the middle trilogy in scope and ambition and gee-whiz, take-me-away-from-reality adventuresome of any of the final trilogy.
It manages the uniquely difficult task of being both its own creature, featuring in Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) an all-new trio who have committed themselves to the very end of themselves, and it seems at times, to beyond to banishing the lingering of the Empire’s Sith backers, now taken the form of the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), estranged son of two of of the original heroes of the tale, Princess Leia Organa (the late, much-lamented Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) …
… while at the same time paying due homage to the films that have gone before it in ways that cannot be disclosed unless you want a lot of Port-shaped spoilers coming down upon your head.
Suffice to say, the story, which rips along at a most fearsome pace that sees our intrepid threesome, along with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and BB-8 racing from desert planet of Passana to Kijimi and Endor (yes, that Endor on whose moon a great battle once took place) and then to the hidden Sith homeworld of Exegol, where awaits a nightmarish evil long thought banished from the face of the galaxy, is a busy one, ticking fan-expectation boxes while trying, as much as it can to deliver upon as fresh a story as a franchise this weighted down by its history can manage.
Does it execute on everything perfectly?
Not exactly but then what film ever does? It is after all the ninth and final (for now) film in a franchise that’s happily rested on some very populist laurels from the beginning and which makes no bones about wanting to serve up good old fashioned whiz bang fun entertainment.
The Rise of Skywalker is epic in every sense of the word from battles which see Rey and Kylo Ren duking it out on the titanically big-waved oceans of Endor atop a relic of the Empire that comes with its own weighted resonance to emotional connections through to the presence of yes, Carrie Fisher as Organa who appears in the final film courtesy of leftover scenes from the previous two films.
Unlike The Force Awakens, which felt too much like A New Hope to be its own thing (good though it was) and Last of the Jedi, which had great ideas and massively-ambitious storytelling but which failed to satisfactorily connect the narrative dots, The Rise of Skywalker is a return to the joy and vivacity of the original films (now the middle three, of course) which took you on journeys that were as emotionally intimate as they were jaw-droppingly big and history making.
That it ends happily is pretty much a foregone conclusion and not even remotely a spoiler but that it accomplishes this with edge-of-your-seat escapes in the nick of time, nods to many favourites from the past films (not Ja Jar Binks, be not afraid), titanic battles that recall the tenor of past life and death struggles from previous films, and a palpable sense of friendships honoured, freedom won and hope restored, much needed in current times with its horrifying tilt towards neo-fascism, is something that is truly a pleasure to behold.
It is perhaps fair to say that Star Wars has been an unevenly-realised franchise, one which hasn’t always executed as well as it could have on its fertile promise, but at least in The Rise of Skywalker it ends with a pleasurable bang, evoking the themes, visuals and emotions of the past eight films while tying them up in a uniquely satisfying, epically straight to the heart and mesmerisingly resplendent way that will have you heartily glad, C-3PO quips and all (he is in devastatingly campily fine form), that you were along for the ride of yours and the galaxy’s life.