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Review: "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," less a film than "content"

All good things must come to an end, even "Star Wars" movies, which Lucasfilm and Disney resurrected four years ago with the release of "The Force Awakens." This latest trilogy built upon George Lucas' monumental series introduced new characters into the story of Luke Skywalker, a Jedi instrumental in a galactic war which — despite stunning victories by rebel forces — hadn't quite ended. Even as the technology of the oppressive Galactic Empire and its offshoot First Order became more powerful, it was how the Force would be deployed that would determine the fate of the universe.

Sadly, Episode IX of the trilogies, "The Rise of Skywalker" is predicated upon the return — from the dead! — of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who was actually the weakest link in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, notable mainly because he was holding Darth Vader's leash (until the Dark Lord had had enough and tossed him down an air shaft in an act of sacrifice for Luke Skywalker).

[Note: Relatively spoiler-free discussion below.]

Palpatine, of course, was responsible for the creation of Vader, having turned his acolyte Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, but it was Vader whose family history had been chronicled by Lucas through the original six films. Palpatine's appearance here, and his plans to obliterate all planets that do not succumb to his nascent Final Order, seems an arbitrary recourse to wrapping up the nine-film saga, especially after the last two movies showed the ragtag Resistance adrift and under the heel of the fascistic First Order (here now under the command of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren). The discovery of a secret fleet of a thousand Star Destroyers ready to decimate planets left and right poses a physical threat, but the Emperor's warning to Rey (Daisy Ridley) that she stands to become one with the Sith (which doesn't make much sense) is later ignored, so how big a deal is it, really?

"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" final trailer released

While Rey is continuing her training to become a Jedi, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), accompanied by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), are busy tracking down a First Order spy who may have information that could spell disaster for the Resistance, now just a smattering of pilots hiding out on a forest planet. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, still torn between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force, is on the hunt for Rey, and in the film's opening scene slaughters an array of fighters who stand in his way, just because.

Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams (who directed "The Force Awakens"), the narrative of "The Rise of Skywalker" is busy without being particularly awe-inspiring; most characters are not enlarged in ways that make them question their purpose, or doubt their role in the grand scheme of things. Rey has the most to risk, as she is tempted by both Palpatine and Kylo Ren to turn to the Dark Side, but her quest to find out her origin, her bloodline, keeps pulling her back. Ridley's charisma is so strong, it over-compensates for the thin writing. Isaac and Boyega also aren't required to bring much more to their roles, which rely heavily on their camaraderie. 

The cute new droid, D-O, doesn't really have anything to do, except underscore the sad lack of development given to some of the new human characters. Keri Russell's Zorii Bliss, an old acquaintance of Poe Dameron's, nicely hints at a backstory, and her costume (which resembles a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger) will excite cosplayers, but she serves more as a convenience to the plot than a motivator. And Naomi Ackie's Jannah, a former First Order stormtrooper and mutineer who comes to the aid of Finn, shows promise as someone with her own Imperial axe to grind, but her deployment of forces against the First Order comes off as kind of ridiculous.

One new character who does come across very well is Richard E. Grant's General Pryde, an oily First Order bootlicker who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty.

Where the film works best, surprisingly, is in how it uses Carrie Fisher's General Leia Organa, three years after the actress' death. Abrams reworks footage originally shot for "The Force Awakens" but unused then, and it fits well into the narrative, and the relationship between Leia and Rey, without looking doctored or out of place. And there is a lot of it — Fisher earns her top billing here, overseeing Rey's Force training and the desperate moves of the threadbare Resistance fighters. Her tragic early passing reportedly limited Leia's function in the saga's conclusion from what was originally planned, but it is far more than a cameo, and the filmmakers thankfully did not go the uncanny valley route of CGI-ing her à la Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin in "Rogue One."

Mark Hamill returns as a spectral Luke, and he continues to be the most puckish and enjoyable element of the latest trilogy. But Billy Dee Williams, as the reformed scoundrel Lando Calrissian, is way underused, primarily dispensing a few plot points and then leading an armada, which, this being the "Star Wars" universe, could have been handled by a glob of ectoplasm.

Visually, the most successful scenes include Ray's duel with an incoming TIE Fighter; Poe, Finn and Chewbacca's race through the corridors of a Star Destroyer, with bodies falling all around them; and the shattered remains of the "Return of the Jedi" Death Star, on which a special Sith artifact may be found, which becomes the setting for a light saber duel, and an intriguing reunion. But an early scene of "lightspeed skipping" — which looks extremely hazardous and probably illegal — lacks a true sense of danger. We get two scenes of Rey and her compatriots walking over a rise to view a busy landscape below — one on Pasaana, a desert world where a lavish festival is taking place, and then on a moon of Endor, overlooking the Death Star wreckage. But there is less of wonder to gaze upon for us. For example, the Emperor's desolate lair on an off-the-charts planet, surrounded by the Ghosts of Siths Past, is kind of sad — this is where the most threatening being in the universe resides? This is what the Dark Side gets you?

Adherents of the Force iterate and reiterate that one should not think, but feel. OK, the feeling derived from the battle scenes is that they unfortunately appear claustrophobic, even on an Imax screen, where the camera seems positioned too close to its subjects to afford them the grandeur and epic sweep they deserve; most shots look suitable for an iPhone.

And that sadly reiterates that this grand wrap-up of the Skywalker saga is less a film than "content," something made to be programmed into a queue rather than giving one's self over to in a large, darkened room — a story unto itself that also serves an overarching, epic tale about war and honor, enlightenment and self-actualization. Like a majority of the Marvel Universe titles, it sees itself as a future viewing selection on Disney+. Next to the original "Star Wars" film and its best follow-ups ("The Empire Strikes Back," "The Last Jedi," and "Rogue One") or the series "The Mandalorian," it can't help but look smaller.

"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" in now playing in theatres. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, some of it quite nasty, though not always undeserved. Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes.

To watch a trailer click on the video player below:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker | Final Trailer | Experience It In IMAX® by IMAX on YouTube
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