J.J. Abrams was biting his lip.
It was mid-April, and the director was sitting onstage at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Chicago in front of a sea of rapt fans, the crowd a dark mass peppered with glowing smartphones and the odd raised lightsaber. To his left sat Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm. To his right, Stephen Colbert, who was trying — in hammy interviewer mode — to get Abrams or Kennedy to reveal details of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
“What I will say is that the movie doesn’t pick up immediately after the last film,” Abrams said, speaking slowly and carefully. “Some time has gone by.”
In other settings, the answer would sound withholding, maybe even evasive. But in the world of prerelease “Star Wars” reconnaissance, where information is scarce and obsessively controlled, it was something of a revelation. (“Oh, I get it now,” Colbert said after another vague response a few minutes later. “You asked me to come to Chicago to ask questions — not get answers.”)
“The Rise of Skywalker,” directed by Abrams and set for release Dec. 20, will conclude the trilogy of films that began in 2015 with Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and continued under the direction of Rian Johnson with 2017’s “The Last Jedi.” It will also end the nine-film trilogy of trilogies sometimes referred to as the “Skywalker saga,” which includes the original three “Star Wars” films, the prequel trilogy that began in the late ’90s, and the new movies, which picked up the plot 30 years after that of the original films.
So what might the latest movie have in store? While information is limited, we do know some details — and can hypothesize about others.
When the previous movie, “The Last Jedi,” ended, the stormtrooper-turned-freedom-fighter Finn (John Boyega) was reunited with the budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley). The pair had spent the bulk of the movie apart, with Finn and the fighter pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) working to protect the rebel group known as the Resistance from the evil First Order; Rey was hounding an exiled and ornery Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote planet, trying to secure his aid in the fight against the bad guys. The new movie will feature more scenes with all of its star heroes in one place, centering on what Abrams described at Star Wars Celebration as “an adventure that the group goes on together.” It also may or may not see Rey being pulled toward the dark side — a possibility dangled in front of audiences by footage released in August that briefly shows Rey holding a red lightsaber.
Despite a vast military that continues to give it an upper hand in the battle to quash the Resistance, the First Order finished the previous movie with a budding crisis. After the death of Supreme Leader Snoke (played through motion capture by Andy Serkis), a power struggle surfaced: On one side was Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the moody runaway son of Han Solo and Princess Leia whom Snoke had twisted into something like a villainous one-man Darth Vader tribute band, and on the other General Hux, the uptight evil commander played by Domhnall Gleeson. It seemed unlikely that either was about to cede ultimate control, so we’re likely to see even more conflict between them in “The Rise of Skywalker.”
Palpatine Will Be (Quite?) Operational
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the “Rise of Skywalker” teaser trailer comes at the very end. That’s when we hear the distinct cackle of Palpatine, the cloaked evil leader also known as Darth Sidious. Palpatine was the catalyst for Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader in the prequel trilogy. He ostensibly met his demise when Vader chucked him down the Death Star’s reactor shaft at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” and hadn’t been a factor in the new trilogy. We know he will return in the upcoming movie in some form, but no details beyond that have been released. (In an interview at Star Wars Celebration, Ian McDiarmid, the actor who plays Palpatine, also clarified that while he is part of the new film, that laugh was an old scrap. “I have to tell you that that particular laugh was not specially recorded,” he said. “They found it somewhere, probably from one of the old movies or in a digital vault or maybe George’s iPhone — I don’t know.”)
Lando Has Got a Lot of Guts Coming Here
The other big new-old face in “The Rise of Skywalker” is Lando Calrissian. Billy Dee Williams will return to play the character, the cape-wearing friend of Han Solo who was introduced in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Lando ended up betraying the good guys in that movie, only to redeem himself by joining them later. Based on a moment in the teaser that sees Williams piloting the Millennium Falcon alongside Chewbacca, we can make at least one safe bet about Lando in the new movie: It looks like he will be fighting on the light side again this time around.
Carrie Fisher’s death in late 2016 came after she completed filming for “The Last Jedi.” But for “The Rise of Skywalker,” it posed a quandary. “You don’t recast that part,” Abrams said in the interview with Colbert. “And you don’t suddenly have her disappear.” So, the director explained, they took unused scenes with Fisher from “The Force Awakens” and recut them, weaving the old footage into the plot of “The Rise of Skywalker.” While the move is unlikely to spark the same ethical debates that the digital resurrection of the actor Peter Cushing in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” did in 2016, how successfully the Fisher scenes work will probably be discussed in the days after the new film debuts.
New Faces on Both Sides
There are several major additions to the cast. Keri Russell plays Zorri Bliss, a masked rogue whom we know next to nothing about. What we do know is that Russell wears a maroon-and-gold costume in the movie and that, according to a preview in Vanity Fair, her character hangs out in a disreputable district of a new planet called Kijimi. Richard E. Grant, the English actor who received an Oscar nomination earlier this year for his supporting role in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” plays Allegiant General Pryde, a distinguished honcho in the First Order. And Naomi Ackie, a younger British actress who is among the cast of the Hulu comedy-drama “The Bisexual,” plays Jannah, a caped fighter who joins the heroes in the battle against the First Order. There’s also a new droid, D-O, who looks like a hair dryer riding a unicycle.