Temptation and redemption. They’re at the core of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
Temptation: Can Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), full of rage and malevolence — a nightmare figure in black helmet and cloak goaded on by the cackling, rotted, resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) — seduce Jedi trainee Rey (Daisy Ridley), brave and virtuous, to the Dark Side?
Redemption: Can Rey, now nearly a fully empowered Jedi warrior, turn Kylo away from the Dark Side, and persuade him to shed the persona of Kylo and reclaim the name of Ben, given him by his parents, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford)? And in so doing, fulfill the dearest hope of his mother and father who cherished him?
It’s an epic struggle, which animates this final chapter in the “Star Wars” series. And epic it indeed is, full of magnificent set pieces — sprawling space battles and incandescent lightsaber duels — gripping performances and a number of truly stunning surprises.
The biggest surprise of all is the resolution of the mystery of Rey’s origins. Throughout “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” the movies leading up to this one, that mystery has tormented Rey. She has been told by Kylo that her parents were nobodies who threw her away as a child. Her strong connection to the Force has her questioning how that could be so. There surely, she feels, must be more to the story. There is. And the revelation is a shocker.
Props to J.J. Abrams. Returning to the director’s chair after being the guiding hand behind “The Force Awakens” (he also co-wrote the script with Chris Terrio), he understood that this installment, which concludes the nine-picture “Star Wars” saga, had to honor the legacy and wrap things up on a high note. He’s succeeded. “The Rise of Skywalker” rates right up there with the 1977 original, “A New Hope,” and 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.”
In “Skywalker,” Abrams has gathered the old gang together for presumably the last time: Chewbacca, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who has played the character in all nine movies), R2-D2 and Lando Calrissian (82-year-old Billy Dee Williams, back among them for the first time since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”). He has gathered them aboard the Millennium Falcon along with Rey, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Storm Trooper-turned-Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega) and fired them off into nearly nonstop galactic adventures.
On the ground on a forest planet where the remnants of the Resistance are headquartered is Leia, offering wise counsel and Force-fueled support. Fisher died before “Skywalker” went into production, but Abrams found unused footage from “The Force Awakens” and digitally integrated it into this picture. The fit is seamless and her scenes, especially those with Ridley in which Leia embraces Rey, are very moving. There’s sense of a grand summing-up here, with Abrams going to great lengths to touch almost all the significant bases in the series.
As is the case with all the “Star Wars” movies, Storm Troopers are terrible shots, routinely being blasted to oblivion by our heroes. The cutesy quotient is here as well with the beachball-shaped BB-8 droid now joined by a smaller and even cuter droid buddy. And of course R2 is still around. As is C-3PO, as fussy and cowardly as ever.
Darth Vader’s influence is acknowledged in a scene in which Kylo channels his grandfather’s evil spirit via his shattered Vader mask.
And at the end, Abrams brings the series full circle by staging its bittersweet conclusion on Luke Skywalker’s home world of Tatooine.
Luke’s presence is felt elsewhere as well, emphasizing another key “Star Wars” element. Throughout the saga, the memory of characters no longer among the living — Luke, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo — live on in the surviving characters. They inspire. They instruct. They point the way to the future.
They offer hope.
They’re the reason “Star Wars” resonates so strongly among millions of fans worldwide. It’s that hope for the future.
★★★★ “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Billy Dee Williams, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Ian McDiarmid, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels. Directed by J.J. Abrams from a screenplay by Abrams and Chris Terrio. 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action. Opens Dec. 19 at multiple theaters.