This weekend, the circle is complete. After 42 years and nine movies, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will bring to a close what is unquestionably the most influential sci-fi of all time. And, yes, there will be tears.
If you're sceptical that a story set in a galaxy far, far away can elicit that much emotion, you've clearly been on another planet these past four decades. Even the trailer for this latest film, when robot C-3PO says he's "taking a look at my friends … one last time," brings a rock-sized lump to the throat.
Familiar faces make a comeback in 'Rise of Skywalker'
The man in charge of meeting sky-high expectations is J J Abrams. The filmmaker already won fans over when he made 2015's The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars movie since 2005's Revenge of the Sith, the third of the much-maligned prequels directed by series creator George Lucas. Abrams's first Star Wars film was drenched in nostalgia, a virtual re-run of Lucas's 1977 film, as it introduced a younger set of characters – Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) – to pick up the Skywalker story.
Although Rian Johnson's 2017 follow-up – The Last Jedi – was more experimental (and more divisive) and had a plot that barely moved the overall story on, Abrams is too canny an operator to attempt something similar for the finale. Needing to tie up some serious threads, The Rise of Skywalker brings back old friends and foes, including smooth-talking pilot Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and, crucially, the villainous Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen being thrown into a chasm by his old pupil, Darth Vader, in 1983's Return of the Jedi.
Bringing back the Emperor is something of a risk. How did he survive? Where has he been these past 30-odd years? But if there is one criticism that can be levelled at the Disney-era Star Wars films, it's that they lacked a true villain. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) was a mysterious figure who was felled in The Last Jedi before we ever really found out who he was. Even Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), despite his horrifying moment of patricide in The Force Awakens, too often comes across like a petulant teenager.
Thus the return of Palpatine is something of a masterstroke; a character that runs through the veins of Star Wars, he has shadowed the Skywalker arc every step of the way. And – let's face it – there isn't a more chilling sound than McDiarmid's wicked cackle in the whole of cinema. As it turns out, Abrams isn't afraid to turn Episode IX into one of the darker films of the series; death hangs over this like a toxic black cloud.
Like The Force Awakens, the script for The Rise of Skywalker is fuelled by nods to the earlier films. At one point, the increasingly powerful Rey, already seen backflipping over an onrushing ship, is forced to face off against a doppelganger. It vividly recalls the scene in which Luke defeats a "ghost" Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, only to see his own face staring back inside the Sith Lord's broken helmet.
If this is symbolic of the battle between dark and light that has always been central to the Star Wars story, other themes – sacrifice, sins and sons – are also fully explored. Meanwhile, Rey's origin story, a key plot-point of the past two films, is brought to a hugely satisfying conclusion. Abrams even overcomes the difficulties created after the death of Carrie Fisher, by including unused footage from The Force Awakens of her as General Leia, and ensuring she remains a presence until the very final moments.
What is next for Lucasfilm?
Of course, a planet-sized question remains: what next? Since Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion (Dh14.7bn) back in 2012, the business plan clearly went beyond finishing off the saga with three final Skywalker-centric films. Already, there have been two so-so spin-offs – Rogue One, which was set shortly before A New Hope, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film about the young Han Solo. Also there's the bounty hunter tale The Mandalorian, starring Pedro Pascal, which recently landed on the company's new streaming service Disney +.
Yet it has hardly been smooth sailing, with numerous departures due to "creative differences". Among them, The Lego Movie's Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were replaced on Solo by Ron Howard; The Fantastic Four's Josh Trank, who was pushed from an unspecified spin-off project (rumoured to be about the enigmatic bounty hunter Boba Fett); and Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow also never made into pre-production on Episode IX, paving the way for Abrams's return.
Most recently, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss left the Star Wars universe, hitching their wagons instead to Netflix in a massive $250m production deal. Word had it they were interested in exploring how the powerful Jedi Knights came into existence. While there will undoubtedly be a queue of filmmakers lining up to take their place, it goes some way to show how difficult it's been for Disney and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy to expand the Star Wars universe. As Kennedy recently told the Los Angeles Times, "It can take a while before you find what direction you might want to go. We need the time to do that." Of the filmmakers still in her inner circle, Rian Johnson is engaged to develop a new series of Star Wars films separate from the Skywalker saga. Certainly, the wealth of comic books, novelisations and animated cartoon series in the extended Star Wars universe would seemingly present a vast amount of potential source material, if Kennedy and co are willing to go there.
Still, it will take a special talent to deliver a Star Wars story with the same emotional heft as the series that is now concluding. By the end of the screening I attended of The Rise of Skywalker, there were tears and cheers as the credits rolled, the resolution of a story that, for some, has taken them from childhood to middle age. Whomever Disney brings in, it's an unenviable task being asked to replicate that.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas on December 19th