In “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” there’s a lightsaber duel that’s pretty fantastic — not because of any unprecedented whirling-action whoa! factor (we have, after all, been through one or two of these my-sword-of-electric-fire-is-mightier-than-your-sword-of-electric-fire duels in our “Star Wars” lifetimes), but because of the emotions it channels. Visually, it’s a splendid fight. Rey (Daisy Ridley), the Jedi Knight who’s in the midst of trying to figure out, you know, who she is, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the First Order commander who’s certain that he’s figured out the Dark Side badass he is, face off outdoors, standing atop the ruins of the Death Star, a wasteland of corroded metal that looks like the aftermath of some intergalactic 9/11.
As stormy black ocean waves crash and churn around them, like something out of “Wuthering Heights,” Ren uses his red Sith lightsaber, with the cross-handle that makes it look like a pulsating version of Excalibur; Rey uses her trusty blue Jedi lightsaber. After much fateful combat, a saber is plunged, and there’s a clear victor — but then something quite unexpected happens. It’s game-changing, it’s powerful and moving, and at that moment it’s everything you want from a “Star Wars” film.
In 1977 and 1980, “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” were two movies that the whole wide world agreed on (to put it in fanboy terms: that they were the greatest things ever). And that’s part of why they changed the world. The universality of the adoration for “Star Wars” became one of the cornerstones of its aesthetic. In the 40 years since, there has been less to agree on about “Star Wars,” which may be one reason why this distended-through-the-decades space-opera odyssey now feels, by turns, inspiring and dispiriting. Most agree, at least, that the George Lucas prequels were an eye-popping but empty experiment in technologically driven brand enhancement. Yet that isn’t exactly a consensus to take heart in.
And the last two films? Fans fell hard for “The Force Awakens,” until they woke up and realized that they’d been seduced by a kind of painstakingly well-traced “Star Wars” simulacrum. “The Last Jedi” was admired by some and disliked by many, with the divide often carrying an ugly subtext: a resentment at the film’s diversity casting, while others leapt to its defense for that very reason, turning what was supposed to be a piece of escapism into an ideological turf war as messy and overblown as some of us thought the movie itself was.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” might just brush the bad-faith squabbling away. It’s the ninth and final chapter of the saga that Lucas started, and though it’s likely to be a record-shattering hit, I can’t predict for sure if “the fans” will embrace it. (The very notion that “Star Wars” fans are a definable demographic is, in a way, outmoded.) What I can say is that “The Rise of Skywalker” is, to me, the most elegant, emotionally rounded, and gratifying “Star Wars” adventure since the glory days of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” (I mean that, but given the last eight films, the bar isn’t that high.)
It’s a puckish and engrossing movie, fulsome but light on its rocket feet. At two hours and 28 minutes, is it too long? Yes. Does it feature several dead characters coming all too conveniently back to life? Yes. (Actual dialogue: “Somehow, Palpatine returned.” “Wait, do we believe this?” And no, that’s not a spoiler. It’s revealed in the opening 20 minutes.) If you look past its foibles, though, “The Rise of Skywalker” has been directed, by J.J. Abrams (the script is by Abrams and Chris Terrio), with much the same neo-classic-Lucas precision and crispness and verve that he brought to “The Force Awakens,” though in this case with less of the lockstep nostalgia that made that film such a direct clone of the first “Star Wars” that the thrill of going back to 1977 was mitigated by the fact that the entire thing had been transparently engineered to give you that feeling. It was like a pharmaceutical drug called Starzac.
That said, maybe there’s no escaping that the final entry of this series, coming 42 years after the original “Star Wars,” is — at best — going to be less a brilliant piece of stand-alone escapism than a kind of exquisitely executed self-referential package. “The Rise of Skywalker” has rousingly edited battles, like the opening dogfight, with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) trading quips as they race the Millennium Falcon back from an intel mission. It has the irresistible presence of old friends, like Gen. Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), still guiding the Resistance and mentoring Rey, and an older and wiser but feisty-as-ever Gen. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, in his first part in the series since “Return of the Jedi,” wrapping his velvet baritone around lines like “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”), plus one or two other returning icons you might not expect.
The story, abetted by trademark John Williams music cues that always manage to drop in at the perfect moment, is a digressive but satisfyingly forward-hurtling MacGuffin that stays on course. It follows Rey and her team as they bop from one planet to the next, all in order to locate the wayfinder crystal that will lead them to Exogol, the hidden land of the Siths where Palpatine, bent on domination of the galaxy, has set up his stone-throned, dark-shadowed supervillain hell cave. They find a dagger inscripted with the information they need — except that it’s written in the forbidden runes of the Sith, which C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is programmed not to translate. So they have to travel to a renegade planet to find a black-market droid tech, who has to erase C-3PO’s memory.
This may sound like a fancy form of time-killing, except that Isaac’s Han-lite renegade Poe, Boyega’s loyal cut-up Finn, and the usual nattering gang of rubbery cute beasts have now gotten into enough of a groove to evoke the “Guardians of the Galaxy” crew (who, of course, were a knockoff of the “Star Wars” team). “The Rise of Skywalker” also features what is far and away Daisy Ridley’s most accomplished performance as Rey. After all her Jedi training, Rey now has powers so advanced they’re dangerous (she detonates a spaceship with her grasping hand — and, it appears, blows up one of her comrades). Ridley wears Rey’s mission with furious charisma, bringing a possessed quality to the character, never more so than when she learns who she is. What makes her performance so much more than “diversity” casting is that “The Rise of Skywalker” pointedly completes the “Star Wars” saga as a myth embracing the rise of women.
What no contemporary “Star Wars” movie can have, no matter how slavishly it imitates the template that Lucas invented, is the primal awe of the original films’ space battles. At the time, the gritty-yet-frictionless, zipping-through-the-canyons joystick stuff was miraculous. It anticipated the digital era, and the only place you could see it — could live it — was at a “Star Wars” film. But “Star Wars” turned Hollywood into an industry devoted to space-race fantasy and action candy. So the only real dimension of “Star Wars” that’s defining anymore is…the cosmology. No wonder the thrill isn’t there the way it was.
“The Rise of Skywalker” has to deal some of with the anti-Lucas curveballs that director Rian Johnson introduced into “The Last Jedi,” and it may actually be a better movie for it. Rey and Ren, locked in mortal combat, commune through the cosmos, as if both were linked up to some advanced communication system called ForceTime. Ren’s murky moral ambivalence has been clarified — he now presides over the First Order in a mask modeled on his grandfather Darth Vader’s, though this one has glowing red cracks and a chrome grill that make it look like something off a ’70s album cover. And where, in “The Last Jedi,” Mark Hamill’s Luke was practically a doomsday nihilist, inviting the eradication of the Jedi (which was a bit loopy), Abrams draws his movie back from that ledge.
He also does not send his characters on too many disparate missions, the way “The Last Jedi” did. For all its sprawl, “The Rise of Skywalker” is all of a piece. Palpatine is indeed alive, with Ian McDiarmid returning to play him, looking more like a rotting monk than ever. His desire to squash what’s left of the Resistance, and to establish a reign of total terror, may seem standard issue, but now, for the first time, it has a jolting topical resonance. The villainous forces of “Star Wars” were always a sci-fi variation on 20th-century fascism, and that made them, at the time, seem ominous but historically distant. But in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the fascism looms, for the first time, as something more real; it’s what we’re now facing. The film keeps repeating that though the forces of the First Order are actually outnumbered, those forces work to make the Resistance fighters feel isolated and alone, as if they had no power. And you’d better believe that’s a pointed and timely statement. In its way, it’s also a tip of the hat to George Lucas, who in the “Star Wars” saga drew on the pop culture of the past to create a revolutionary new pop culture, and in doing so foresaw the future. Maybe more than he knew.