It wasn’t until I was cruising down Lake Shore Drive, en route to the press screening of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that it really hit me — this is the last Star Wars movie I’m ever going to see. A lump formed in my throat.

Now, I know it’s not the last-last, in the sense that there will of course be other movies that have “Star Wars” in the title, but I actually do believe Episode IX marks the end of the saga that has influenced so much of my life, my friends’ lives, my friendships, and undoubtedly my children’s lives in the future. I don’t think these characters I’ve come to know and love will ever be revisited again on the big screen. So before we go any further, understand that you are reading a review from someone who is both a huge fan of the franchise and a huge fan of the man who was brave enough to both kick off and end the final trilogy: J.J. Abrams. I can be objective about most things, but I’m not even going to pretend to be objective today.

Having said that, I wrote my take on this film before looking at what other critics were saying, and after I saw the film a second time. Now that I’ve read other reviews, I am not surprised by the mixed reactions. Can you imagine bringing this decades- and generations-spanning story to an end in a way that was going to satisfy everyone? Impossible. But I believe that if you have a special place in your heart for that galaxy far, far away and its characters, and if you go into this movie unspoiled like I did (I watched the initial trailer that was revealed at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago this April — yes of course I was there — and that’s it), then you are going to be happy with how it all comes to a close.

Now let’s see if I can write this thing without spoilers, shall we?

The Rise of Skywalker revolves around the ongoing battle between good and evil, Jedi and Sith — represented physically in the final trilogy by Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). While Rey is a former scavenger who never knew her parents’ identities, Kylo (real name: Ben) is not only the son of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the grandson of Darth Vader, but also was trained by Leia’s brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) … and, um, that didn’t go so well. Kylo succumbed to the dark side of his lineage and at the start of this film is on a quest to rule the galaxy and destroy anyone who might stand in his way. Namely, Rey.

There are three things I love most about The Rise of Skywalker. The first is all of the scenes with Kylo and Rey. They have an incredible chemistry, and while I think this word has been grievously overused, one of their battles on top of wreckage in the middle of raging ocean waves is epic and jaw-dropping in its beauty. I think I even whispered “whoa” out loud. And can we just pause for a moment to revisit and appreciate Abrams’ knack for finding astounding leading women? Jennifer Garner (Alias), Keri Russell (Felicity… and also this film!), Evangeline Lilly (Lost) and now Ridley — who commands the screen and succeeded in pulling off a truly remarkable feat: taking over as the female lead of a male-dominated franchise (both in terms of cast and fandom), making everyone love her and inspiring millions of young girls in the process. If Rey hadn’t worked, would we have even made it to Episode IX?

The second thing I enjoyed most about The Rise of Skywalker is its unabashed fan-service. Yeah, I said it! Come at me, bro! Let’s be real: if Abrams HAD NOT filled this movie with callbacks, throwbacks, cameos and nostalgia, it would’ve been a travesty. We’re talking about an ending people have been anticipating for 40+ years and characters they’ve loved most — if not all — of their lifetimes. Who cares if much of it was predictable? When driving toward the conclusion of a story like this, being unpredictable for the sake of being unpredictable or trying to “surprise” audiences is not clever or creative, it’s obnoxious. If Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio had tried to mix things up or inject an unexpected twist into the saga, people would’ve been mad about that. So I was all-in for the many familiar faces and phrases and places and mirroring of the past films that we are treated to in this one, and was completely fine when the events I figured would happen did indeed come to pass. 

The third thing I love about Episode IX comes in the form of two quiet moments where a character chooses kindness and empathy in the face of raging anger and blind hatred. The world could use more of that right now.

There were only a few aspects of The Rise of Skywalker that gave me pause. One was what I felt was an unnecessary sequence (much like the entire casino subplot in The Last Jedi) where we’re introduced to Keri Russell’s character Zorri Bliss. It seemed like nothing more than a reason to sell a new action figure and confirm another character’s sexuality. But speaking of The Last Jedi, one of the strongest moments in that film was near the end when a no-name stable boy moves his broom with the Force. I loved that scene so much because it showed that you didn’t have to be born into space royalty to have that power. It brought, to be cheesy and recall Episode IV’s title, a new hope.

But depending on your interpretation of what happens in The Rise of Skywalker, that whole theme may have been dropped or at least pushed to the background, which I think is a shame. On a similar note, much was made of the relationship between former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) in the last installment, but not a heck of a lot happened with that this time around. We also witness characters doing things with the Force that we’ve never seen in any other movie to date. It is explained, but still seems a little … convenient.

None of these things prevented me from loving the movie — and loving it even more the second time around. However, The Force Awakens remains superior in my mind because I’ve always been a sucker for “origin stories,” and in that one we got to meet so many new characters and see them interact with our old favorites for the first time.

On the topic of old favorites, I have to talk about Carrie Fisher and her beloved Leia. If there was one serious worry I had going into the screening, it was how Abrams would incorporate leftover footage of Fisher before her untimely passing. In every Leia scene, I was watching like a hawk to see if I could spot funky CGI or find something amiss. I am relieved to report that the integration of her old scenes was seamless — I actually would’ve never guessed it was previous footage. Huge exhale. It’s also worth mentioning that another old friend, C-3PO (played by Anthony Daniels — the only cast member to have been in all of the Star Wars films), enjoyed a sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious arc in Episode IX as well.

But wow, I can’t believe it’s all over. Though I have to keep reminding myself that it’s really not. I have two kids who haven’t seen any of the movies yet, and we’ll finally be watching A New Hope over the holidays in preparation for taking them on the Millennium Falcon ride in Disneyland during spring break. I look forward to rediscovering the saga through them. But in the meantime, I’m incredibly thankful for the ride. The Force will be with us. Always.

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