Few, if any, films in cinematic history face the scrutiny of a "Star Wars" film, and one can feel the added burden weighing on "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."
After launching the current trilogy with 2015's "The Force Awakens" and sitting out Rian Johnson's 2017 "The Last Jedi," director J.J. Abrams must bring satisfying closure to this trilogy's younger generation of characters -- most notably Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren -- and their current conflict between the righteous Resistance and the genocidal First Order, while also honoring the previous two trilogies overseen by franchise creator George Lucas.
Post-Lucas production company Lucasfilm reportedly picked Lucas' brain for story ideas before commissioning the film's script, which hasn't stopped the rumor mill from churning with unsubstantiated tales of disastrous test screenings, reshoots and an unused cut purportedly supervised by Lucas. I didn't encounter any of these rumors before watching the film, but they would explain a lot about the disjointed narrative of "The Rise of Skywalker," which at times feels wet with spackle. The inclusion of previously unused Carrie Fisher footage, while welcome, sets the film's awkward tone with General Leia Organa appearing to have been Photoshopped into her scenes.
More than ever, "Star Wars" ostensibly exists for the fans, those who care deeply about the sprawling mythology, its worlds and its characters. Any rube could have walked into 1983's trilogy-ending "Return of the Jedi" as their first "Star Wars" movie and had a popcorn-munching good time, but in this era when peak-TV has become cinematic, and cinema has become episodic, "The Rise of Skywalker" plays to the well-informed blind-faithful.
Yes, screenwriters Abrams and Chris Terrio pack in the requisite lightsaber battles, blaster shootouts, space dogfights, whooping critters and fretfully chirping robots, but a lugubrious sense of duty hangs over the proceedings as the writers try to rescue the hash Lucasfilm has made of a Lucas-less "Star Wars."
The die-hard fans, who have the best shot of actually enjoying "The Rise of Skywalker," are likely to have some serious complaints, and it's not inconceivable that it may be received as warmly as the finale of "Game of Thrones." A hard-to-resist but creatively thin nostalgia machine, Abrams' "The Force Awakens" overdosed on comforting call backs, while "The Last Jedi" stepped lively in its own direction, with encouraging results. "The Rise of Skywalker" mostly rolls back Johnson's improvements.
"The Rise of Skywalker" nearly gets by on its visual dazzle, toy-line-ready production design and big action set pieces: The money is definitely all there on the screen (plus, cute banter). But even at its best, this franchise-capper struggles to raise a pulse to make its audience feel or care about the specifics of its complicated plot beyond pre-existing goodwill for "Star Wars" itself and the saga's first female protagonist. For a brief, shining moment, "The Rise of Skywalker" perks up with a Lucas-esque twist of fate and good-evil duality, but the intriguing idea sorta just disappears into the film's creative quicksand along with everything else.
If Abrams has topped himself, it's by making a "Star Wars" film that's even more of a multiplex-filling Hollywood widget than his first. It's a product through and through, and no amount of "voices of Jedi past" and unimaginative guest shots can disguise the new trilogy's critical lack of a unifying vision. The big thematic takeaway from the new trilogy and the saga itself? You can write your own ticket. It's gonna cost you, and even more if it's in IMAX, but you can write your own ticket. And your own fan fiction, which is liable to be as good as, if not better than, the real thing.