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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review -- Everything fans could ask for, except heart

Spoiler-free review: Episode 9 ticks all the boxes, but there's way too much going on.

Walt Disney Pictures

Has there ever been a movie with as much weight on its cinematic shoulders as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? The film, directed by J.J. Abrams, has to wrap up a nine-movie saga four decades in the making, reward scores of beloved characters with a satisfying ending, and bring closure to billions of fans whose identities are inextricably tied to the world's most enduring modern myth.

And you know what? It succeeds. If you made a list of the stuff you want to see in the final Star Wars movie, it's all there. Space battles. Raging lightsaber duels. A galaxy-threatening climax. Jokes. And plenty of seriously cute aliens.

The problem is everyone has the same list. Which means the one thing The Rise of Skywalker doesn't have is the power to surprise. I'll lay off the spoilers, but in your heart of hearts you probably know everything that's coming.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a new evil threatens -- or rather, an old evil returns from beyond the grave. You'll know what that evil is if you've seen the trailers, obviously.

Now playing: Watch this: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - Official Trailer (2019)
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The villainous Kylo Ren, now Supreme Leader of the First Order, goes in search of this ancient threat. In hot pursuit is our rag-tag group of heroes: Finn, Poe, Rey and Chewbacca, with their trusty droid buddies, fussy C3-P0, beepy R2-D2 and ballsy ball-shaped BB-8.

Things are quickly off and running with a quest that takes our heroes to different planets, running helter-skelter speeder chases and searching dusty tombs for clues leading them to the saga-spanning showdown. There's plenty of running and gunning, quippy banter, wacky aliens and all the family-friendly adventure you could possibly hope for. And the hurtling action takes place on trademark Star Wars exotic planets, from a world wracked with raging tsunamis to a full-on Gothic horror hideaway, complete with jagged shadows and strobing lightning.

But there's something off from the beginning. The new/old evil is introduced in the opening text crawl, but its arrival is just too big, too jarring, too darn weird to be thrown out there in plain text. If, instead, we'd seen this evil appear and then seen the horrified reaction of the characters, it would have had infinitely more impact. As is, the sense of revelation is dulled, like the film has fast-forwarded past the important bit. 

The film stays on fast-forward throughout its 2 hour and 21 minute run time. Early on, Oscar Isaac's cocky pilot Poe demonstrates a technique called lightspeed skipping where he zaps the Millennium Falcon from place to place, never pausing for more than a few seconds. The film as a whole feels a bit like this, jumping around with hardly any time for characters or moments to breathe. There's always more. More ships. More battles. More backstory for the main characters coming out of absolutely nowhere. Stormtroopers on motorbikes, Stormtroopers with jetpacks, and everywhere you look, more characters. But so much going on at once lessens the punch.

John Boyega's time as Finn is finished.

Disney

Many of the characters, new and old, simply don't have space to breathe. Even the core characters are pushed to the sidelines or shuffled off with inexplicably muted endings. For example, there's no reason to introduce Dominic Monaghan as a new member of the Resistance while Kelly Marie Tran's established character Rose Tico is right there wondering why this new guy is getting all her lines.

Isaac and John Boyega's Finn get into the action, but Rise of Skywalker puts Rey and Kylo Ren front and center. The most completely satisfying -- and satisfyingly complete -- thing about the movie is Rey and Ren's tortured relationship building to a fever pitch. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver get the most room to bring their intertwined stories to a close, and that's what drives the film to its operatic climax.

Rey and Kylo Ren play a game of thrones.

Disney

Amid all this, the late Carrie Fisher's appearance is sensitively handled. But there's no hiding that her performance is assembled from a limited stock of previous footage, and it definitely feels like Rey's stuck delivering awkward feed lines to set up each piece of recycled dialogue.

Still, Star Wars has always been about characters who zip past in the blink of an eye leaving you to imagine their cool backstory. Which brings us to the very cool Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), no doubt destined to have her own spin-off comic series. Also grabbing attention despite limited screen time are teeny technician Babu Frik and snarling old-school Imperial officer General Pryde, played with typical gusto by Richard E. Grant.

The badass Zorri Bliss.

Disney

But with little time to dwell on any of the new characters' individual stories or the core characters' relationships or the escalating visuals, it's hard to get emotionally involved. The stakes never seem high, the challenges never seem insurmountable, the odds never seem overwhelming. 

On the surface, it's all there: the showdowns, the space battles, the historic characters taking a final bow. Stuff happens that's objectively spectacular and objectively kinda cool. Yet it's hollow. It's perhaps fitting that the film leads to the empty, echoing shell of the Death Star. For a movie that moves so fast, The Rise of Skywalker is frustratingly inert.

The Rise of Skywalker has a job similar to Infinity War and Endgame, the Avengers movies that capped 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel wisely trimmed the cast list to focus on the core players and their relationships. Rise of Skywalker just has too much going on to tie its endless threads together and relies instead on crowd pleasing empty spectacle.

It all culminates with a finale that builds to an apocalyptic frenzy. This is as much a metaphysical struggle as a physical one, but despite the jaw-dropping scale of the obligatory space battle it feels inexplicably small. The Rise of Skywalker's climax lacks the nail-biting focus of previous climactic space battles. 

After the audacious but divisive Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker will probably be a litmus test for fans. The breathless rush to tick every box on the wish list will leave some cold and others in floods of tears from the moment the opening fanfare blares. Whether it works for you or not, what's not in doubt is that this is an ending as huge as this momentous movie saga deserves.

Originally published Dec. 18.