If you haven’t yet seen latest ‘Star Wars,’ it’s worth seeing but don’t expect original magic

‘Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’

Rated PG-13: Sci-fi violence and action.
Playing at: Alamo Drafthouse, Premiere Cinemas, Cinemark Tinseltown 17, Cinemark Movies 16 and Stars & Stripes Drive-In.
Directed by: J.J. Abrams.
Writers: Screenplay by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams. From a story by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow and Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams. Based on characters created by George Lucas.
Stars: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Anthony Daniels, Jimmy Vee, David Chapman, Brian Herring, Joonas Suotamo, Domhnall Gleason, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomie Ackie, Kelly Marie Tran and Keri Russell.
Music by: John Williams.
Cinematography by: Dan Mindel.
Edited by: Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube.
Production design by: Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins.
Costume design: Michael Kaplan.

Bill’s rating: Four of five stars

And so the Star Wars saga concludes, with nine promised episodes demanding more than four decades in real time, not to mention multiple writers and directors.

With J.J. Abrams at the helm a second time, the “Star Wars” saga – which began with George Lucas’ history-making “A New Hope” in 1977 – ends with “Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.” In the process, Abrams finds a way to conclude the adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and several more.

Not all were expected to again take part … even a full cast listing for Episode IX would include spoilers.

Yet with 16 years separating 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” and what today can only be termed an unfortunate prequel trilogy, even Lucas lost touch with the individual spirits of all-ages fun and friendship, loyalty and adventure that fueled primarily the first two episodes in the “Star Wars” saga.

While I was thrilled that Lucas vacated the director’s chair on set when Disney pushed for production of the long-awaited sequel trilogy, I worried that the final three episodes would not reflect a planned story path.

Abrams did share a familiar “Star Wars” spirit within “The Force Awakens.” Of all things, his film was accused of being too much like the original “Star Wars” when, in my thoughts, fans had been waiting too long for this precise Force to awaken.

Filmmaker Rian Johnson directed “The Last Jedi,” and it seemed painfully obvious he purposely displayed wide detours away from tales introduced or developing in the preceding film.

Only recently did actress Daisy Ridley reveal Abrams had written a detailed script for “The Last Jedi” and, when he passed the directing reins to Johnson, the latter wasted no time in trashing Abrams’ script and writing a new one.

Well, two can play at that game, at least to a point. Simply watch Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) looking for missing dialogue as much as the missing Finn.

Thankfully, it also becomes obvious Abrams was intent on placing “Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” back on track and his script also made use of Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” – especially the bond, connection or force shared by Rey and Kylo Ren. Abrams even expands upon the bond which allows them to share separate locations in the universe during dialogue or saber battles.

So is “The Rise of Skywalker” a mess, as it has been described?

How can it not be a bit of one, with so many different viewpoints tossed as ingredients into this stew? But only a small mess and one which Abrams manages to fix in tasteful fashion.

For those who dearly loved the original “Star Wars” trilogy – and even if they disliked all three prequels – it’s doubtful a more intelligent and exciting concluding episode than “The Rise of Skywalker” could have been filmed.

Answers definitely will not always accompany occasional questions which arise within Episode IX, not immediately anyway, and fans at times are simply expected to go with the flow.

It brings to mind a scene in which a Stormtrooper is launched from a pursuing speeder. “What? They fly now?” asks Finn. To which the reply is, “They fly now.”

Just. Accept. It.

The same goes for “The Rise of Skywalker.” Simply accept it, don’t question everything – and a diehard  “Star Wars” fan just might have the time of his or her life.

Sure, also keep in mind “Star Wars” disagreements have continued for too many years. Who besides Abrams could have produced an Episode IX that comes this close to uniting all Jedi?

At least Abrams has tried to keep Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe and Chewbacca in the same vicinity, even with the villain never a huge reveal.

Come on, was there really anyone out there who did not recognize the cackling laughter of Emperor Palpatine as the closing sound in the trailers for Episode IX?

And no, I have not forgotten the telling scene in 1983’s “Episode III: Return of the Jedi” when, after Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fails to lure Luke to the Dark Side, it was Vader, Luke’s father, who kills this same evil emperor by throwing him down a reactor shaft aboard the Death Star.

Or so we assumed anyway.

And yet, the first three words of the new film’s opening title scroll inform us, “The dead speak.”

One could guess at Sith clones, but expect no deeper explanation than those words “the dead speak” for the ruler of the First Galactic Empire now in control of The Final Order, if generally looking the worse for wear.

Regardless, such evil does not return without huge secrets, along with a possible McGuffin being a wayfarer crystal that can lead rebels to the planet Exogol and, in turn, a hidden Sith fortress.

Only partial directions previously were found by Luke and, when vital further directions are inscribed on a lost dagger, it turns out that even C-3PO has been programmed not to translate them if written in the Sith runes. The only way to gain the vital directions is to strip the droid of his memory.

Thus, C-3PO, as all most intimately know him, must be sacrificed for the greater good.

Try not to weep as the droid gazes for likely the final time at those he considers friends. Consider also a wail emitted in the background by Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) upon learning that Princess turned General Leia is no more.

More than once, the fall of longtime friends will bring tears.

At the same time, a deadly connection remains between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, the latter obsessed with resurrecting grandfather Darth Vader’s helmet even as he promises Palpatine he will drive his own light saber through Rey.

Both Ridley and Driver deliver their best performances in this film and Billy Dee Williams, now 82, remains perfect as smooth-talking Lando.

This is, like the best “Star Wars” adventures, an ensemble production dependent upon performances of those representing Light and Dark, including characters already met (Maz Kanata, an unrecognizable Lupita Nyong’o), an enchanting new warrior (Keri Russell as Zorii Bliss) and bow-and-arrow hunter Jannah (Naomi Ackie). It would be such a shame if we never met them again.

Nevertheless, give the casting directors a star of their own.

Too, it must be mentioned light saber duels waged by Rey and Kylo Ren are, far and away, the most driven and exciting viewed since the first trilogy.

The characters can commune across the galaxy. Each can foresee danger from afar, although the most dramatic battle is held back until surrounded by black waves crashing upon the deck of the Death Star’s remains.

Yet even when a clear victor is declared, jaws drop as it is clearly not  Game Over.

A scripted spoiler as simple as who wins only leads to jaw-dropping – and impossible to predict – conclusions, introductions and promises. Nor would any sincere “Star Wars” fan want these surprises to be given away.

Be assured the haters will follow with such words as, “But what about … ?”  Theirs are responses best ignored.

The beauty of this episode must also include the return of familiar characters, one who had to know Rey’s history but saw more in her than bloodline, another advising Rey not to repeat his own mistake and another providing a forgiveness thought impossible.

The importance of scenes in past films arise more than once, including Rey’s decision to protect the droid BB-8 in “The Force Awakens.”

More than once, Abrams’ big reveal is that one is not confined, or defined, by bloodline, whether Jedi, the Empire or Sith lords.

Rather, one wonders about the importance of something as simple as individual decisions between right and wrong – second chances, if you will – where the heart comes into play.

Bottom line, it was not possible for any “Star Wars” movie to recapture the imagination, originality and thrills found in Lucas’ original trilogy in 1977, 1980 and 1983 – not with so many varied viewpoints, screenwriters and directors tossed into the mix.

Yet this final episode, co-written and directed by Abrams, comes closer than anyone would have predicted.

Gage’s rating: Three of five stars

2019 will be known as the end year.

It marks the end of the 2010s, the end of the Marvel Comic Universe, aka MCU, and now the end of the Skywalker saga.

But will the inevitable hype attached to “Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” finally improve on the standard set by the original films and be better than just OK?

Answering that question depends on how you viewed “The Last Jedi.”

After all, “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” almost completely ignores what happened in the last movie. So if you loved director Rian Johnson’s episode 8, you almost certainly will not enjoy director J.J. Abrams’  closing chapter.

However, if you are like me – and I hated “The Last Jedi” – then you will undoubtedly like this new movie. It calms the fans ticked off by Johnson’s “Star Wars” decisions.

So when the iconic film score begins and you begin reading the crawl, you will feel right at home.

Yet that opening crawl blatantly opens by revealing that “yeah, the emperor is alive” – OK, even though we already had that idea from the trailer. (The laugh was a dead giveaway.) I still didn’t like how the final episode began; I wish it had begun at an earlier point.

Then the movie kicks off, then it starts slow and then it picks up the pace after about 20 minutes. Inconsistency.

The stars are good, not great, referring to Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac playing Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron, respectively.

The trio attempts to recreate magic shared by Han, Luke and Leia — to no avail.

It’s not their fault, it’s just a ridiculously high standard to be asked to live up to.

Seeing Carrie Fisher play Leia one last time is a touching tribute to her, a great show of respect and, honestly, maybe the best part of the film.

Even so, I have not been able to forgive the clumsy manner in which every film in the closing trilogy tries to force humor into scenes. “Star Wars” isn’t an MCU film, it is “Star Wars.” And while I can appreciate the occasional wisecrack from Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, the attempts at humor become annoying after a while.

“Star Wars” is simply not a franchise that needs this brand of jokes and humor pried into the script. That may appeal to some; but to others, it is distracting.

However, I was surprised by how much I liked Kylo Ren’s story. It was not great but, considering all of the character’s temper tantrums with his light saber in “The Force Awakens,” this is an improvement. Adam Driver was selling his role, delivering the best version of Kylo Ren we’ve seen on screen.

I still don’t like the character overall, but watching Driver work on a character arc was entertaining.

While the movie does answer a lot of questions, the final 30 minutes surprisingly falls flat. As mentioned, director Abrams answers a lot of questions and fixes a lot of things, including surprises that are good to see. His twists and turns also are good, but the ending left me disappointed.

For that matter, none of the characters come across as invincible. One never worries about their safety, which is another problem.

Both the prequel trilogy and the sequel trilogy struggle to match the phenomenon of the original trilogy.

To be blunt, no other movie in the “Star Wars” universe can match the excellence of the original trilogy: episodes 4 through 6.

“The Rise of Skywalker” arguably is the best episode in the closing trilogy – and that means something – but even this film fails to equal any of the first three films.

Filmmakers can introduce characters who want to be like Han, Luke and Leia. They can take advantage of all the fan service in the world. Still, those same filmmakers inevitably will fail to scale the original “Star Wars” mountain.