It's taken 42 years to get there, but the epic space opera that began with George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977 is finally coming to an end. Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is both the final film in the sequel trilogy and the ninth and final chapter of the so-called Skywalker Saga. Delivering a fitting conclusion was undoubtedly an unenviable task for returning director JJ Abrams (The Force Awakens), but arguably he's pulled it off, even if there have been some casualties along the way.
The plot begins not long after the events of The Last Jedi (2017). The voice of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been broadcast across the galaxy, threatening destruction at the hands of the First Order, with an enormous fleet of planet-busting Star Destroyers. Sensing her destiny, Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) boards the Millennium Falcon and sets off to find a clue that might reveal Palpatine's whereabouts, accompanied by former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), plucky pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), good old reliable Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) and droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8.
Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has declared himself the Supreme Leader of the First Order, where his orders are carried out by obsequious rivals General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E Grant). However, Kylo is increasingly troubled by his continuing psychic connection with Rey and becomes ever more determined to turn her to the dark side.
Given that Abrams was responsible for the enormous success of The Force Awakens, it's perhaps not surprising to find him returning to his instincts for The Rise of Skywalker. As such, his approach involves delivering a largely straightforward plot, on which he hangs several clever riffs on familiar Star Wars scenes (speeder chases, spaceship rescues, lightsabre duels with surprise revelations, that sort of thing). What's impressive is how he ensures that even the most egregious moments of fan service actually serve the plot.
Clearly there's nothing wrong with giving the fans what they want, particularly in a universe that invites as much investment as Star Wars. However, that's slightly complicated this time round because the previous film – Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi – made a number of bold decisions with regard to the overall mythology, some of which were decidedly unpopular with certain sections of the fanbase. Rightly or wrongly, Abrams has largely decided to either ignore or reverse a number of those decisions and that may well impact your enjoyment of the film as a result. (At the very least, it will ensure Star Wars-related pub arguments for years to come).
Still, when it comes to delivering the pleasures of the Star Wars universe, there's no question that Abrams knows what he's doing. The action set-pieces are genuinely thrilling, the landscapes and effects work are visually stunning and the character interaction is consistently delightful, with Abrams ensuring that almost everyone gets a moment to shine. Similarly, the fan-service moments (especially the return of a few familiar faces) are brilliantly handled, eliciting everything from gasps to big laughs to whoops of joy.
Abram's direction is assured throughout, maintaining a breath-taking momentum that doesn't let up for a second of the film's 142 minute running time. Essentially, he directs like he knows he has a lot of Star Wars stuff to pack into those 142 minutes, and damned if he isn't going to put in as much of it as humanly possible.
The performances, as ever, are wonderful. Ridley and Driver are both phenomenal as Rey and Ren, effortlessly carrying the majority of the film's big emotional moments and generating a palpable chemistry together. Other standouts include Anthony Daniels, who gives perhaps his most memorable C-3PO to date (he certainly gets more to do here than in previous outings), Richard E Grant as the delightfully stone-faced villain and Shirley Henderson as the voice of scene-stealing droidsmith Babu Frik, soon to enjoy Baby Yoda-like levels of popularity.
The film also does justice to the role of General Leia, thanks to material culled from out-takes from The Force Awakens and some seamless digital trickery. Through a combination of shrewd scripting and state-of-the-art technology, both Leia and Carrie Fisher get the send-off they deserve.
Admittedly, there are a small handful of stumbles, the most annoying of which is the way the character of Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran) is so blatantly sidelined this time round. It's not quite as in-your-face, but the same is also true of Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata, a character that seemed so important in the last film, here reduced to the same level of walk-on cameo as Abrams' mates Dominic Monaghan and Greg Grunberg (the latter, at least, gets a fan-pleasing moment it would be churlish to spoil here).
Ultimately, for all its flaws and its behind-the-scenes wranglings (including a departing director and a rapidly rewritten script), The Rise of Skywalker proves a fitting finale for the beloved nine-part space saga, delivering thrilling action, brilliant character moments, laugh-out-loud humour and powerful emotion, wrapped up in a resonant message for our troubled times. May the Force be with you.