After eight movies and 40 years, I think we can all agree that certain rules apply to the “Star Wars” universe. Death is a temporary inconvenience. Everyone in the galaxy is related. The Force can work miracles except when it can’t. No imperial stormtrooper can shoot worth a damn. Inexplicably, all characters are able to speak Wookiee.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” ticks off these tropes as if they were printed on a bingo card. The final entry in what has been promised — no, really — to be the last of the three canonical trilogies originally envisioned by George Lucas long, long ago in a Hollywood far, far away, “Skywalker” delivers it all without ever truly figuring out what “it” is. Arriving with a blockbuster sound and fury that has been dialed up to 11, the movie is a dismayingly safe act of franchise closure. In terms of pure narrative, it’s satisfying. What it very rarely is is inspired.
What makes this especially disappointing is that the previous installment, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017), took genuine chances. That’s why the fan-boys hated it, those diehards who saw the first “Star Wars” when they were in footie pajamas and have since demanded that the other films live up to the expectations of their childhoods. The series’ producers gambled on a writer-director-craftsman, Rian Johnson, who had the nerve to break the rules, and the result was the first “Star Wars” movie with a real visual beauty and a subversive sense of play (not to mention fair play). Rey (Daisy Ridley), the new trilogy’s savior Jedi, turned out to be related to nobody — which meant that anybody could be a hero. Acts, not destiny, were what counted here.
J.J. Abrams, who directed the first in the new trilogy, “The Force Awakens” (2015), returns for the finale, and he brings this precious pop-culture property back into the barn. He’s the series’ producer as well, and, fittingly, “The Rise of Skywalker” feels as if it has been produced rather than directed. The sharp edges of the last movie have been sanded down into a busy but generic scramble. The character of Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), so offensive to certain fans, has been sidelined. You thought Rey came out of nowhere? Not so fast.
The good news is that Abrams is nothing if not professional, and “The Rise of Skywalker” handles multiple strands of characters and complications while keeping the battleship moving forward with due appointed speed. But the promises of Johnson’s movie have been reneged upon. (Some descriptions of plot ensue, so the spoiler-sensitive may choose to avert their eyes.)
The first shock — delivered in the opening title crawl — is that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who appeared to be quite dead at the end of “Return of the Jedi” (1983), is very much alive and preparing a vast fleet of warships, each with its own planet-killing cannon, to wipe out the Resistance. He’s headquartered on a super-double-secret planet called Exegol — it only sounds like a dietary supplement — which can be reached if you have one of two rare directional beacons called a Sith Wayfinder, which only sounds like a sport utility vehicle.
Somewhat in Palpatine’s corner is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), sporting a nifty new red-veined helmet to make up for killing his father, Han Solo, in “The Force Awakens.” Kylo is still locked in an ongoing mind-meld battle/teenage crush with Rey, who at one point sneaks into his bedroom while he’s out laying waste to civilization. To the disappointment of all, she does not find a diary entitled “My Darth Thoughts.”
Rey is still an uneasy figurehead for the ragtag Resistance army under the leadership of General Leia Organa. Remember what I said about nobody dying in ”Star Wars”? That extends to the actors, since the late, lamented Carrie Fisher is present in what feel like editing leftovers from the 2015 film.
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are still splitting the hero duties and have developed a nice banter, even if Abrams and his co-writer Chris Terrio are too scared to do anything about the torch Finn carries for Rey. They do introduce a fierce lady warrior of color (Naomi Ackie) — like Finn, a renegade stormtrooper — and sort of pair/not pair the two up. Other new characters include Zorii Bliss, a rebel who appears to be Keri Russell under a sleek Deco headpiece, and Richard E. Grant (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) as a stiff-backed imperial general.
Returning players include Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, standing in once more for the late Peter Mayhew), the digitized Yoda substitute Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), Domhnall Gleeson’s weaselly General Hux — honestly, he’s my favorite in the whole trilogy — and others Who Must Not Be Named. It’s useful to remember that while characters may pass away in the “Star Wars” movies, their holograms linger on.
Anyway, it’s not worth spoiling the plot of “The Rise of Skywalker” because there really isn’t one, other than the heroes having to figure out how to get to Exegol while Kylo and Rey work out their issues. The former has a crew of masked fighters called the Knights of Ren — it only sounds like a lost post-punk band — but neither they nor the hissing Emperor seem able to resolve his adolescent identity crisis. Driver is acceptable in a role he seems to have outgrown; what he’s doing in the current “Marriage Story” seems much more, well, universal.
By contrast, the new trilogy is lucky to have Ridley, who handles Rey’s physical action with agility while simmering with the character’s inner conflicts; the digitized Götterdämmerung of the film’s final half hour acquires what impact it has through Rey’s dramatic journey. “The Rise of Skywalker” puts her and all the other heroes through a gauntlet of interplanetary threats, including a bout of quicksand that recalls some of the Saturday-matinee perils of the very first “Star Wars.” The new movie, in its bid to do everything yet still leave the characters vulnerable, also gives Rey miraculous healing powers and the ability to swoop through the air — except when the plot calls for her to tortuously climb the side of a fallen Death Star with her bare hands.
There are other “oh, come on” moments in the new film, like a knife blade that delivers a crucial clue by lining up perfectly with a distant horizon — but only if the heroes happen to be standing in just the right spot, which they are. More dispiriting is the sense that Abrams is bringing in this story for the least controversial, most audience-placating landing he and his Disney sovereigns can manage. Yet for all the caution, the only two moments in the entire 2½ hours of “The Rise of Skywalker” that genuinely moved me involve a grieving Bigfoot and a tin man’s farewell.
Abrams has done what was required of him, and you feel shaken and rattled but never truly thrilled — never lifted up into the fizzy pop-movie stratosphere of the original “Star Wars.” With “The Last Jedi,” Rian Johnson took us there with daring and wit. In “The Rise of Skywalker,” the empire strikes back.
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Abrams and Chris Terrio, based on a story by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Keri Russell, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid. At Boston theaters, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 141 minutes. PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action).