I'm in a bit of a conundrum, to be honest. It's well documented that I really, really like "The Last Jedi". Therefore, a movie that sets out to ignore the largest possible amount of storytelling from that movie gives me bad aches. I feel that right now, I'm not able to give "The Rise of Skywalker" a really fair shake and that I need to watch it again with perfect knowledge of what happens in the plot and without any hopes and preconceptions attached to it. For now, the phantom pains are contorting the picture.
Therefore, I shall turn the vice into a virtue and write a recollection of the movie through the prism of "The Last Jedi" and where the story went. So, take all of this with a Star Destroyer full of salt.
I want to go at this by character arc. This seems to make the most sense to highlight the departures Abrams took from Johnson, and to satisfy my own preferences. Given the convoluted plot we have to contend with, I'll also add some stuff about world building and said plot, but I want to keep with the characters for now. One last warning: Spoilers incoming.
Let's start with Poe Dameron. His arc in TLJ involved him learning to leave behind his "trigger-happy flyboy"-persona and to take on more responsibility as the leader of the Resistance. In the beginning of RoS, this is immediately thrown out of the window. Poe is a very trigger-happy flyboy. We meet him jumping the Falcon from planet to planet on some mission to receive intel. He later tags on several missions of the side-plot, but in what is indicative of the movie as a whole, he doesn't really have stuff to do for most of the plot, he's just there because why not. If there weren't contractual obligations to Oscar Isaac, I'd imagine Abrams could and would have reduced his role further.
Unfortunately, this doesn't get better in the third act. With Leia's death, he becomes the leader of the Resistance, a development that is so inconsequential that it's done in a half-sentence by what's basically a glorified extra telling him Leia left instructions to make him general. It's a well-established Star-Wars-tradition to treat ranks as more or less as honorific titles, but the callousness with which Poe treats the promotion is off-putting even by this standard. He then adds to this by co-promoting Finn, who could've give less of a shit in what is a great gag but is indicative of the problem.
In the final battle, Poe is reduced to essentially an observer's role: the Sith fleet is so ridiculously big that you can't take them serious as a threat, and Poe mostly moans how few people they are and what little chance they have until getting rescued by Lando and the gigantic fleet of "just people".
This is the first big breakaway from TLJ: The movie ended with the revelation that the Resistance actually needed to earn the support of the galaxy, that they need to spread hope instead of concentrating and heroic, self-sacrificing antics. In RoS, this is exactly what they're doing, only this time when they put out the call, it gets hand-waived. There are no stakes to anything Poe is involved in as part of his own plot, there's no character development, and for the most part he's just there, occasionally cracking meta-jokes (like the "They fly now" observation of Jetpack-Stormtroopers).
Finn is suffering from an equal problem. His arc in TLJ brought him to learn to actually fight for something (the Resistance and its ideals) and to become "Rebel Scum". Unlike with Poe's progression, this isn't walked back, mercifully, but neither is it expanded upon. Finn is in many scenes (again, I guess, because of contractual obligations more because the plot required it), and make no mistake, like Oscar Isaac, John Boyega is a welcome presence whenever on screen and a lot of fun, but he also doesn't really have something to do.
He's still very attached to Rey, running behind her all the time, but nothing ever comes out of it: Whenever something real is going to happen, he's seperated by her, either by a side-mission (as on Kylo's ship) or simply by fiat of a gigantic wave. His relationship to Rey also is just frozen in time; he's reduced to shouting "REY!" from the top of his lungs a lot, but since she doesn't care much for him, this is a very one-sided affair. Instead of expanding on Rose Tico, to whom we will turn shortly, a new character is introduced - a black woman stormtrooper who also deserted the First Order because she didn't want to shoot civilians and poses as a mirror image to Finn. Predictably, there is nothing between them that is interesting, nothing to play on. They're two former stormtroopers out to destroy the First Order, and that's that. I don't care for either of them. Finn doesn't even get an ending of his arc. He's just still around.
That brings us to Rose Tico. She was the major other half to Finn in TLJ and subject to much hatred. Abrams either didn't know what to do with her or actively didn't want her in the movie, which amounts to the same thing. She's written out of the narrative in the crudest way imaginable - declining to follow along because she needs to study some plans, being an engineer and all - and is never even brought up again in the finale. Abrams couldn't even be bothered to let her phone in some information about a vulnerable spot she learned.
There is a major lost opportunity lost here, especially when it comes to Finn. He loses an established counterpart, that, even more perplexing, also was a potential love-interest (Oscar Isaac famously lamented in an interview that Disney didn't allow him and Boyega to go ahead with the obvious chemistry between them to make Finn and Poe gay). Instead, we get the non-descript First-Order deserter who does nothing of note other than serving as "the ground-team" that, in the end, proves utterly meaningless to the victory in the end. But more on that problem later.
Leia is, by necessity, much cut out from the movie. Her inclusion is very elegantly done, with great use of deleted scene material from the last two movies and some clever blocking. In what I guess is a holdover from plans they had before Carrie Fisher's tragic death, she is continuing Rey's training while also serving as a leader of the Resistance, but given the dearth of material, she can't really do much in either capacity, effectively being neutered a lot.
Her last act is to decide to "reach out" to Kylo, allowing Rey's later victory, which is an act born out more of the necessity to give her some worthy task to sacrifice herself because such a sacrifice was the only way to get the character out without replacing Fisher with CGI, which they committed to not doing. Given the limitations, Abrams can hardly be faulted for these choices, but they work only on a basic level at best.
With that, let's turn to Rey. She is the beating heart of the movie, and most attention is given over to her, which is the best decision for sure. Daisy Ridley kills it in the role and displays a wide range of emotions. But on to the character arc!
Rey's training remains, of course, unfinished. Another Star Wars tradition upheld. She is torn between her obviously great power potential on the one hand and dark visions of her on the Sith throne ruling over the galaxy on the other hand. She also still tries to bring Kylo Ren back to the light side and redeem him. This leads to her often not being quite "there" and being as much a danger as an asset to the team on their missions, which creates a really interesting and engaging dynamic. All of her scenes with Adam Driver's Kylo Ren are a marvel, as they were in the previous movies.
Unfortunately, in the end, it all doesn't amount to much. The danger of Rey's temptation is never really all that menacing, carried mostly by the stellar dynamic between Ridley and Driver. This comes to a head in the finale, where Emperor Palpatine's masterplan fails because Rey simply says "no" and joins forces with Kylo, creating a powerful band between the two that hasn't been seen ever before and is incredibly strong and that...is just hand-waived away because the Emperor has an even stronger ability to suck this force out of them. Rey then goes on to defeat him alone by looking determined and crossing two lightsabres, which is weirdly anticlimactic.
It gets worse by Abrams' decision to give Rey her tremendously powerful heritage after all. He wasn't able to retcon Johnson's reveal that her parents were NOT Skywalkers, which, from the way RoS plays out, had been Abram's inclination back in 2015 when he created the mystery box for her in TFA. It remains a bad idea, and the reveal that she is Palpatine's granddaughter comes out of nowhere, doesn't make any sense and doesn't advance the plot.
It's instantly stupid, plain and simple, on a level with "Leia is actually Luke's sister", and requires a lot of retroactive writing around the bushes, so to speak. It starts with the age of Palpatine's son: when the heck would he have sired that guy? As the half-corpse at the head of the Empire in RotJ? That's basically the only point that adds up, but that makes no sense and is never explained. And why did that son later simply marry and sell her off into the worst kind of slavery to "keep her safe"? The martyr death of said parents later is intended to pamper over this plothole but doesn't really succeed. So in the end, even Rey's arc doesn't work out well.
And don't get me started on Kylo. While his interactions with Rey with the Force, as established in TLJ, are just great and frankly the best part of the movie, Abrams opts to go for the most primitive resolution by hamfisting a redemption arc on him that comes by virtue of...getting stabbed by Rey. She literally stabs the Kylo Ren personality with a lightsabre, after which only the good Ben Solo is left to fight alongside her and heroically sacrifice himself in the end.
There's a host of side characters, so many in fact they seriously weigh down the movie, including Chewie, C3P-O and Lando, but one can't really say they have any arcs. C3P-O is the closest, but in the first half of the movie, he's constantly crapped upon by everyone and even complaining about this several times, only to then need to lift the whole emotional weight of having his memory deleted - a sacrifice that is quickly walked back by R2's storage only half an hour later.
With the characters therefore dealt with, let's move to plot.
The major problem here is that there is way too much of it. The movie is overly long, especially in its second act, and the plot dictated way too much of what characters are doing. Oftentimes, there is a feeling that stuff happens so people have something to do, the character's actions and movements being entirely random and dictated by a ceaseless hunt for MacGuffins, none of which ultimately amounts to much.
The third act entirely falls apart. On paper, its structure is solid. There's a ground mission for Finn, a space battle for Poe and a mental battle for Rey and Kylo. This three-part setup workes as well for RotJ as it did for Rogue One, but here, it falls flat. There are just no stakes. The fleet is so huge that there is no question the Resistance could actually achieve anything, which makes it feel like just treading water until something else happens.
Finn's mission is handled with the same callousness. First they're to take out the one tower powering the entire fleet of thousands of Star Destroyers, but the Imperials sensibly detect that it's a vulnerable point and shut it down, whereupon Finn decides to attack the comms tower ON the Star Destroyer - because he "has a feeling". This trope of "having a feeling" is deployed not once, but several times! It's lazy screenwriting in the extreme, and the result is a boring mess. We get cavalry on horses attacking a Star Destroyer, and I feel nothing.
All of this leads to simultaneously a lot happening and not much happening at all. And that's just the worst place to end up in, as the discussion of the character arcs showed. So, let's quickly turn over the page and jump to world building.
First, I really like what they did with the Force powers. The new ability to heal people is introduced competently in a three-fold-revelation, heightening the stakes every time, which is just solid and competent storytelling there. The Force conversations between Kylo and Ren that were already great in TLJ get expanded even further and with great imagination, letting them even swap items and stuff (also introduced by three-fold-revelation). So, nothing to complain here.
I can also hardly complain about the Knights of Ren, because they're barely in the movie. Here, Abrams mystery box is catching up to him; he introduced them in TFA after all. They don't do shit other than stand around trying to look badass and utterly failing, with their dab browns and blacks and medieval weaponry, and then get womped by Kylo in like 20 seconds in the end. Good thing that fandom got hyped about these guys, because it really feels like Abrams shitting in everyone's faces for thinking one of his reveals could actually be interesting or something. I feel almost insulted.
The most grievous world building feat, however, is to completely drop everything that is related to Canto Bight and Krayt from TLJ. You know, that whole part about the Resistance needing to become a popular rebellion, spreading hope and fighting for the things we love.
Nothing of this is in here. The Resistance is still tiny - 20 ships at best and perhaps 200 people, if one is feeling generous - and they're making no effort to expand the operation, still killing their own associates left and right for irrelevant tactical victories. Everything from TLJ has been unlearned. So when, in the end, Poe despairs that they're alone and then a ridiculously large fleet is brought in because Lando set off a message in the Core Systems (did no one before get the idea to send the message where actual people live?), it didn't register at all with me.
Then there's part about the Force being in everyone of us to a degree, and not just fucking bloodlines. This is my biggest problem with the approach I have, because I can't impartially judge the movie, at least not yet. I think the idea to make Rey a Palpatine is fucking daft, and there's nothing interesting coming out of it at all, whereas it forecloses several directions the story could've taken. But I'm always scolding people for hating on movies for the directions they didn't take, so I'm going to restrain myself here, bite my teeth and rewatch it without expectations and hopes before I come to a final judgement.
Which leaves us with Palpatine. As the big baddy, he's a reveal as boring as he's irrelevant. His plan, powers and army are just made up as they're required, and his presence never carries the oomph Abrams thinks it does. It was his plan all along? Okay, great. And now? If you've been thrown down an elevator shaft by your student once, I find it hard to take you serious the second time around. Palpatine is a lot of dead weight pulling the movie down, and ultimately doesn't amount to much.
So, that's my contorted first take on the movie. I'm sure we'll revisit the topic soon. What did you guys think? Use the comment function liberally, and let's get that discussion going!