The opening crawl for this, the final act in the world's longest space opera, begins with a declaration worthy of the National Enquirer: "The dead speak!" It's a reference to the film's unlikely return of Emperor Palpatine, the Big Bad in half of the first eight Star Wars installments. That he survived after being hurled into the core of the soon-to-be-destroyed Death Star 2.0 by Darth Vader back in Return of the Jedi, only to remain in hiding for the next thirty years while the rest of the galaxy went about its business, is a testament to the One Great Rule of Star Wars: That which is written can always be rewritten, especially if it suits a sequel's or prequel's storyline.
"The dead speak!" also references – unintentionally, I'm assuming – the on-screen resurrection of Carrie Fisher, three years after her untimely demise. Her General Leia was very much in charge at the end of The Last Jedi, so she couldn't just disappear from the grand finale. Abrams and his team did their best to cobble together unused footage of Fisher from The Force Awakens in order to construct a workable arc for her character, but the effect, for me, was distracting and eerie. I kept imagining Abrams, et al, combing through that old footage and saying, "Look, here Carrie says 'No' – we could write something around that!" Oh well, I suppose it beats an all-digital Leia.
Neither the fan-coddling familiarity of Abrams's Force Awakens nor the fan-enraging deviation of Rian Johnson's Last Jedi, Skywalker's plot borrows from both the first Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, throws in a bit of Harry Potter, and even adds a dash of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This time, Force-empowered scavenger girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her friends must decipher an ancient talisman to locate the hidden Sith world and stop Palpatine before he unleashes a new armada of Star Destroyers, each with the ability to destroy an entire planet, Death Star-style. (Yeah, that again.) Meanwhile, the baddish Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is pursuing his own agenda, one which is more clearly explained in the opening crawl than in the movie itself.
If it sounds like the story's a mess, I'm afraid it rather is, with an abundance of new characters and locations deflated by the franchise's over-reliance on shockeroo family connections and reviving old villains because they don't know how to make the new ones scary enough (e.g., Snoke, Captain Phasma, Kylo Ren himself). Of course it's great to see Ian McDiarmid return as the wonderfully evil Emperor; he once again proves himself the MVP of the series. I also enjoyed the addition of Richard E. Grant to the cast; as a heartless general in the Empire/First Order/Final Order/whatever, he's a much more effective Grand Moff Tarkin type than the sniveling Domhnall Gleeson ever was.
The rest of the cast is fine, but while Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac are good actors – Ridley and Isaac are certainly better than Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill ever were – they just plain lack that elemental chemistry that Hamill, Fisher, and Harrison Ford brought to the original trilogy. That's why, even after three films, their characters are not icons but merely generic heroes.
As for the Force, the overriding philosophy of Star Wars scenarists, including George Lucas himself, remains: "The Force can do whatever we want it to do." By Skywalker, this includes the ability to heal mortal wounds and to teleport physical objects across the galaxy. You just kind of have to give up all logic by this point.
While it sounds like I hated The Rise of Skywalker, in fact I did not. Yes, the plot is full of holes and the bulk of the film left me cold, but there are some nice details here and there, Abrams has some clever shots, and the third act is satisfying on many, many levels. As it's said, it's better to have a mediocre movie with a great ending than to have a great movie with a mediocre ending.