I've said it before and, in the spirit of the new trilogy, I'll say it again: that was pretty familiar. Oh, also: spoilers.
If you've read my previous blogs, you'll probably be a bit tired of me calling out plot points and comparing them to previous movies or the Expanded Universe. Fortunately for all of us, this movie did less parroting and more adapting ideas. If, for a moment, we ignore the nature of The Emperor's return, a lot of the familiar plot points were fundamentally caused by it being the same character. Of course, The Emperor is going to do things similarly to The Emperor. And although we see a very similar inter-play of the mastermind (The Emperor), the apprentice (Darth Vader/Kylo Ren), and the person they want to turn (Luke/Rey), this time we do see an interesting difference in how it all plays out.
There is a different dynamic, more darkness in Rey than Luke but also more awareness of it. More of a struggle in Kylo Ren than we saw on the surface of Darth Vader. In this trilogy it seems like the lines are blurred, like dark and light are less distinct and crossing between them is less of a struggle. Partly this is because the galaxy is less stable. In the prequel trilogy we see the Jedi in 'control', then a dramatic shift to the dark side being in 'control' for the original trilogy. In the new trilogy we see a galaxy that always seems to be on the brink, Kylo Ren and Rey teetering on the edge. It appears more obvious that victory is not achieved by defeating your enemy directly, but by turning them to your side. In the original trilogy this idea is built up and then comes to the forefront when Luke confronts Vader in Return of the Jedi, whereas in the new trilogy the idea is always there because we are already familiar with it.
Similar to Vader, the transformation from Kylo Ren to Ben Solo may seem pretty sudden. But, again like Vader, we have moments of insight into what is going on inside. In The Force Awakens we see Kylo Ren kill Han Solo, doing what he feels is necessary. He seems secure in his decision. But in Rise of Skywalker we see him choose the opposite, to turn from the dark side. And through that, and his conversation with his father, we see how close he was the first time. Killing Han sent him down a path very similar to Anakin, feeling that he could not be redeemed. When Darth Vader tells Luke "it is too late for me" we see that it is not that he doesn't want to turn back, but that he believes he can't, just like Kylo Ren. It is when Vader sees Luke cross into the dark side but then turn back that he realizes he can turn back to the light side. Kylo Ren isn't led as much by example, but by the compassion of those he thought would not accept him.
All that being said, why on earth did we have to have The Emperor back? Don't get me wrong, he's a fascinating character, and brilliantly played by Ian McDiarmid, but his story was finished. I'm guessing that the writers realized there was no thread running through the new trilogy that would tie them to the previous six films. I wouldn't consider that to be a problem, I'd rather the new trilogy be a story of its own than exhume the last story. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi seem to follow a narrative thread (albeit with very different styles), Rise of Skywalker seems to take that thread and then fills the gaps with a resurrected character from the original trilogy. And that raises the question of "well why couldn't The Emperor just come back again and again?". The answer to that is some brand-new mumbo-jumbo about The Emperor being 'all of the Sith' and Rey being 'all of the Jedi'. This way, when 'all of the Jedi' kills 'all of the Sith' it's definitely 100% for sure final this time. It just feels very unnecessary to bring back The Emperor and forces this new idea of how the Jedi and Sith function which I don't find very satisfying. It turns groups of people into two huge collectives which doesn't seem to fit with what we've understood previously about the Jedi and Sith (especially if you consider the Expanded Universe).
The revelation that Rey is Palpatine's granddaughter also seems somewhat unnecessary and inconsistent with what we knew about Palpatine. We never saw any indication that Palpatine had any intention of creating a familial dynasty. It feels like a twist for the sake of a twist without really adding to the story. Part of the reason seems to be that it means The Emperor can pass on his power to someone he trusts. But that's undercut by the whole 'all of the Sith' thing and The Emperor becoming part of Rey if she turns. If he's going to become part of her then why does he care who he turns? Is it just to make it so that Kylo Ren wouldn't be able to fill the role in the story? I would much prefer a solid story with no twists than a twisty story without consistency.
The 'dyad in the Force' of Ben and Rey is an interesting idea, and it led to some pretty cool scenes. Generally speaking, the Force in previous movies and the Expanded universe has been fairly consistent. The Force being fairly vague, generally manifesting as people with abilities (Jedi, Sith, etc.) and things working out the right way ("in my experience there's no such thing as luck"). There are rare exceptions like the planet from The Clone Wars TV series where the Force seems to be balanced by a father and his two children, one light and one dark, offering some depth to the mythos. So the idea that two people could be somehow linked in the Force doesn't seem all that far-fetched, but the lack of any explanation of why these two people specifically are linked does leave some threads hanging and ultimately isn't used for much more than fighting/talking across huge distances and briefly healing The Emperor.
Another huge question for me is what happened to the New Republic? In The Force Awakens we are told that the New Republic exists but can't help the Resistance. We're also told that the First Order wants to defeat the New Republic, which implies that the New Republic can hold their own. But now that the First/Final Order is a huge galaxy-wide threat, where is the New Republic? Why would the New Republic not jump at the chance to destroy the ridiculously large fleet of the Final Order? Where is their navy which has apparently been sufficient to hold the First Order at bay so far? Why does it fall on a huge number of small ships from 'people' to defeat them? "There's more of us" is a cool idea, and probably a message the writers wanted to send, but it doesn't really help with maintaining a level of coherency in the story.
A brief aside about the title. It certainly works as a Star Wars title, telling us about the key plot of the movie (something lacking from The Last Jedi), but what's the deal with the structure? Rise of Skywalker only seems to grammatically make sense if Skywalker is the name of a single person, but, ever since Yoda said "there is another Skywalker", Skywalker has been a family name, not a person's name. The Skywalker being mentioned could be either (or both) Ben Solo or Rey, but surely then Rise of a Skywalker or Rise of the Skywalkers would fit better? Ultimately not a big complaint, it just feels like a bit of an awkward title.
As with The Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker is fun to watch, and it strikes a much better tone than either of the previous two. The humour lands much more consistently in appropriate places and, although I think the overall plot and premise are fundamentally flawed, the story is much better written and directed. We see moments of what the previous two could have been. Chewbacca distraught at Leia's death felt much more appropriate than his brief shout about Han. Luke returning to his hopeful, kind, and thoughtful demeanour. Lando, sat alone at the celebration, realizing for a moment that his group had now all gone. Ben Solo's internal struggle felt meaningful. And some fun nods, like Chewbacca finally receiving the medal he perhaps should have received in A New Hope. This movie feels very much like the final song of a musical where every character gets their moment to be who the audience wants them to be. It's a nostalgia trip, giving characters a final farewell on screen. It's a film written for the audience to see the saga go out with a crescendo. Personally, this will never be my Star Wars canon, the Expanded Universe offers so much more to me than these films can and tells a much better story. But this film achieved its purpose, and that is something I can appreciate.