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Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

*** (3 out of four)

“Something old, something new” seems to be the defining philosophy behind the third and final(?) trilogy of films set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and now Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker have all cannily placed familiar motifs in new packaging, a mixing and matching that has drawn praise in some quarters while earning vilification in others.

Lifelong Star Wars fans have perhaps been more lenient while naysayers have definitely been more critical — those factors clearly come into play with this new picture, which is the least of the three yet still manages to send the series off in a satisfactory manner.

Spoilers are an absolute no-no when it comes to this franchise, but, since it’s revealed in the opening scrawl and even some of the marketing, it’s no shock to learn that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow returned from the dead and seeks to reclaim his position of prominence among the galaxy’s foremost evildoers.

Realizing that something is afoot, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), accompanied by Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8, set out following a trail of clues while General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, courtesy of carefully arranged footage left over from The Last Jedi) and R2-D2 remain with the troops. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to pursue his own claim to absolute power.

That’s a frightfully short synopsis, but the more surprises, the better when it comes to this latest endeavor. Certainly, there’s much about the picture that annoys and might even infuriate. Starting with Palpatine, the dead have a way of returning with absurd frequency — Star Wars has always been about sacrifice as much as anything, but when characters can repeatedly bounce back like video game avatars, it takes away much of the meaning and import.

The delicious tension between Kylo Ren and the easily agitated General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) has been a constant highlight of this trilogy, and the manner in which it’s suddenly truncated is extremely disappointing.

While Palpatine is certainly a fan favorite (albeit not a fave of mine), he’s basically the same one-note villain as before — like one of those dolls where you pull the string and it repeats the same five or six phrases, he seems capable of only uttering dialogue along the lines of “Come to the Dark Side” and “Give in to your hate.”

And speaking of dialogue, some of the lines placed in the mouths of other characters (courtesy of director J.J. Abrams and Argo Oscar winner Chris Terrio) are awfully clunky, recalling George Lucas’ lesser moments with the prequels.

But the nitpicks are small compared to what the film gets right. The relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren remains suitably complex and conflicted, and this storyline plays out in deeply moving fashion. Rey is provided some essential backstory that allows her to come into clearer focus, while Poe Dameron is finally allowed to fully evolve as a character.

Aside from a ghastly CGI rendition of a youthful Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Leia, the effects are outstanding. And Lando Calrissian! While the character was noticeably MIA in the first two pictures, that enhances his belated appearance here, and Billy Dee Williams is clearly having the time of his life.

Lando isn’t the film’s only blast from the past. Since this is (supposedly) the final chapter in the Skywalker saga, there’s a “Greatest Hits” feel to the film, with all manner of past players making cameos: a veteran X-Wing pilot, disembodied Jedi masters, even those infernal Endor furries.

And the final shot is perfect, invoking a bit of John Ford mythmaking while bringing the saga full circle in a way that’s immensely fulfilling rather than forced.