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STAR WARS: VARIATIONS ON A THEME

I saw Star Wars in 1977 at the Loews State Theater in Manhattan, now long-gone. Little did I know that the universe George Lucas created would still be alive and well decades later. Diehard fans have a singular attachment to this series, and right after the new installment’s premiere I overheard debates arguing the pros and cons of what we’d just seen. I can only speak for myself.

I had a good time watching J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, even though I felt sucker-punched more than once. The filmmaker knows that this is the last time he (or possibly anyone) will get to play with George Lucas’s original concept and characters and his giddiness gets the better of him. Without spoiling any surprises, let’s just say that elements of identity, the powers of the Force and matters of life and death are toyed with in the name of “gotcha” entertainment.

At the same time, Abrams knows that diehard fans share his sentimental longing to spend a little more time with the people who first won our hearts in the initial installments of the Star Wars saga. He milks this for all it’s worth, and if he errs on the side of excess I bet there are lots of folks who won’t mind.

He also digs deep with Daisy Ridley as the intrepid Rey. You can’t go wrong focusing on intense close-ups of her face as he does. She personifies courage and determination without sacrificing her innate likability. When she battles Adam Driver as Kylo Ren the impact is tremendous.

Oscar Isaac has the unenviable job of channeling Han Solo in all his cockiness, but he’s such a talented actor he pulls off the gee-whiz dialogue assigned to him…and John Boyega makes a perfect partner.

The action and visual effects are of the highest order but the film doesn’t know when to quit. Abrams shares screenwriting credit with Chris Terrio, based on a story they devised with Derek Connolly and Colin Treverrow and apparently they couldn’t resist adding climax upon climax in the final act.

Still, there is so much to enjoy in The Rise of Skywalker that I don’t want to seem like an ingrate. It’s hard to resist the appeal of Billy Dee Williams, returning as Lando Calrissian, or pretend that it isn’t fun spending time with Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, BB-8 and his new companion D-O.

I didn’t approach this film with a checklist of do’s and don’ts. I just wanted to enjoy myself, and I did, albeit with reservations. I think the assets far outweigh the liabilities and fully expect The Rise of the Skywalker to be a giant crowd-pleaser. Whether or not it will meet the demands of long-term Star Wars fans as well as relative newcomers remains to be seen.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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