Not much has caused a disturbance in the â€œStar Warsâ€ galaxy quite like Rian Johnsonâ€™s â€œThe Last Jedi,â€ an erratic but electric movie that, regardless of how you felt about it, was something worth arguing about. The same canâ€™t be said for J. J. Abramsâ€™ â€œRise of Skywalker,â€ a scattershot, impatiently paced, fan-servicing finale that repurposes so much of what came before that it feels as though someone searching for the hyperspace button accidentally pressed the spin cycle instead.
A laundry list of plot points cluster like an asteroid field in â€œRise of Skywalker.â€ Itâ€™s a spirited, hectic and ultimately forgettable conclusion of the Skywalker saga begun 42 years ago by George Lucas.
It was also surely a lot to ask for. Abrams, having already ably and nimbly resuscitated Lucasâ€™ space opera with the far less cluttered â€œThe Force Awakens,â€ was brought back (like seemingly everyone is in â€œStar Wars,â€ dead or alive) with the task of not only wrapping up a trilogy but repairing the divides stirred up by â€œThe Last Jediâ€ and stabilizing the franchiseâ€™s revolving door of directors. Abrams here took over for the jettisoned Colin Trevorrow, who retains a â€œstory by” credit.
More significantly, â€œThe Last Jediâ€ had to solve the underlying existential crisis in â€œStar Wars,â€ a franchise in search of a reason beyond nostalgia (and, cough, billions of dollars) for continuing. The film, for sure, tries its damnedest to come up with something. It is one busy, hardworking movie. But if anything has been proven by the many attempts to rekindle the magic of the original trilogy, itâ€™s that Lucasâ€™ cosmic amalgamation of Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa isnâ€™t so easily refabricated.
As the trilogyâ€™s third act, â€œRise of Skywalkerâ€ takes the general shape of â€œReturn of the Jedi,â€ even resuscitating its villain: Emperor Palpatine (the very spooky Ian McDiarmid, now mostly a shadowy heap of CGI). He was last seen exploding in a Death Star air shaft, thrown to his apparent death by Darth Vader. Yet as â€œStar Wars,â€ the most forever war there is, marches into its fifth decade, the undying demands of a pop culture phenomenon and corporate revenue generator has led to some unsettling resurrections.
This third â€œStar Warsâ€ trilogy began with a plan: the first movie would belong to Han (Harrison Ford), the second to Luke (Mark Hamill) and the third to Leia (Carrie Fisher). Life interfered. Fisher, who along with Ford did more to enliven the original trilogy than any special effect, died of a heart attack in 2016. But she, too, has been brought back for â€œRise of the Jedi,â€ via bits and pieces of old footage. For an actress of such live-wire verve, the composite result – a handful of brief lines and gazes – is a hollow non-performance.
Palpatine, residing in a dark Sith lair, essentially sets the table. He summons Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) with an order to â€œkill the girlâ€ (Daisy Ridleyâ€™s Rey) and thereby inherit the throne. With the wave of his hand, Palpatine unearths an entire fleet of Star Destroyers. They rise from the depths, a new armada of doom for the First Order.
But this is only a piece of the movieâ€™s manic start. Abrams, who penned the screenplay with Chris Terrio (â€œArgo,â€ â€œJustice Leagueâ€), races to catch up with the many characters of the Resistance, among them Leia, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). From the start, thereâ€™s a rush to speed through a complex plot that sends a crowded Millennium Falcon in search of the hidden Sith base, a quest that includes a series of MacGuffins including – like a relic from a more earthbound adventure – a secret-wielding dagger.
â€œStar Warsâ€ has never lacked for velocity but the pace here is schizophrenic. The movie can’t sit still. Everyoneâ€™s yelling and most of the bits of humor along the way are too blandly inserted. (C-3PO, at least, is in fine form.) Part of the rush, it seems, is to dismantle some of Johnsonâ€™s groundwork and refocus the spine of the story on Reyâ€™s destiny and her complicated relationship with Ren. Whether thatâ€™s a gesture to the toxic fandom unleashed by â€œLast Jediâ€ or not, some characters suffer for it, most notably Rose. She was the highlight of â€œThe Last Jedi,â€ which stirringly realigned the traditional power dynamics of â€œStar Wars.â€ But sheâ€™s regrettably sidelined for much of the action this time.
Some of the tropes that Johnson deconstructed have been reassembled. Poe, the Han Solo heir apparent, is again central. New worlds bring new friends – a Stormtrooper-turned-rebel played by Naomi Ackie; an old rival of Poeâ€™s named Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell); a cute Muppet-like creature named Babu Frik – and old (Billy Dee Williamsâ€™ Lando). Many of them make a good impression but the encounters proceed predictably.
To go too much into the narrative of â€œRise of Skywalkerâ€ isnâ€™t necessary and, besides, Iâ€™m not totally sure I could explain it all, anyway. That, in itself, is one of the movieâ€™s most disappointing aspects: Itâ€™s trying too hard. What the streaming spinoff â€œThe Mandalorianâ€ has proven (besides that people will go absolutely gaga over infant Jedi Masters) is that simplicity of story line pays in â€œStar Wars,â€ just as it does in westerns. â€œRise of Skywalkerâ€ aims for the brilliant parallel action of â€œReturn of the Jediâ€ but ends up with mounted horse-like creatures charging on the wing of a Star Destroyer. Somewhere, Jar Jar Binks is celebrating. He might not be the most misplaced thing in the galaxy far, far away, after all.
But even if â€œRise of Skywalkerâ€ has its fair share of missteps, it gets some things right. The grief of a Wookie, for one. Kyloâ€™s new black helmet, laced with blood-red cracks, for another. A lightsaber fight amid the sea-strewn rubble of a Death Star swells with watery grandeur. And most of all, the anguished Rey-Ren duel finally takes on the mythical dimensions of earlier â€œStar Warsâ€ tugs between good and evil.
Yet for a movie predicated on satisfying fans, â€œThe Rise of Skywalkerâ€ is a distinctly unsatisfying conclusion to what had been an imperfect but mostly good few films. But hope springs eternal among â€œStar Warsâ€ fans. Some will likely emerge from this latest installment paraphrasing Leia: â€œHelp us, Baby Yoda. Youâ€™re our only hope.â€
â€œStar Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,â€ a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sci-fi violence and action. Running time: 142 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP