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'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' draws mixed reaction amid $40M opening

Spoiler alert: The early viewer reactions after late Thursday showings of "Skywalker" were a mixed bag, running the gamut from ecstatic praise to grim dejection.

Be warned: The article below contains several spoilers for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."

When comic book store owner Ron Hill saw "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi," the first two entries in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy, he left the movie theater in a state of pure bliss.

But on Thursday night, as the credits rolled on the final installment in the nine-part Skywalker saga, Hill found himself feeling vaguely ambivalent — entertained, no doubt, but not entirely satisfied.

He could not shake the feeling that the new film, "The Rise of Skywalker," was rushed and overplotted, bogged down by clunky exposition that gave short shrift to character development.

"I think it just needed to breathe a little bit, honestly," said Hill, 50, a New Yorker who has been gripped by "Star Wars" fever since he saw the first movie as a child in 1977.

Hill was not alone. The early viewer reactions after late Thursday showings of "Skywalker" were a mixed bag, running the gamut from ecstatic praise to grim dejection. It appeared Lucasfilm, the Disney-owned production company behind "Star Wars," might have fallen short of fan-uniting consensus after the bitterly divided reception of "The Last Jedi" two years ago.

The judgment of professional critics was especially harsh, resulting in a Rotten Tomatoes score that hovered around 58 percent as of Friday morning. "Skywalker," according to several reviews, is a mess: hectic, narratively lazy and stylistic unimaginative.

"In its anxiety not to offend, it comes off more like fan fiction than the creation of actual professional filmmakers," Time magazine critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote in her review. "A bot would be able to pull off a more surprising movie."

But the news across the galaxy was not all bad.

The largely negative reviews were unlikely to dent the commercial fortunes of the global entertainment behemoth. "Skywalker" delivered roughly $40 million from Thursday night showings, and the movie was reportedly on track to earn a robust $170 million to $200 million through the weekend.

The big-budget epic, co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams, found plenty of favor with thousands of die-hards, perhaps reflected in a Rotten Tomatoes "audience score" — an aggregate of ratings of registered users on a five-star scale — of 85 percent, as well as ample giddy praise (and some defenses) on Twitter.

Becca Wapinsky, a stay-at-home mother from Kentucky who flew to Los Angeles for the world premiere of "Skywalker" on Monday night, adored the movie. She particularly appreciated clarity on the parentage of Rey (Daisy Ridley), the headstrong heroine of the sequel trilogy whose origins have been shrouded in mystery.

In the new film, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) reveals that Rey is the granddaughter of the sinister Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), linking her to the evil Sith Order featured in the critically derided prequel trilogy.

"I love that it answered my questions about Rey's family history," said Wapinsky, 26. "I think it's my favorite of this trilogy."

The big reveal about Rey could prove to be one of the more divisive elements of the new film, however.

In the previous episode, "The Last Jedi," Force-using Rey learns that her parents were junk traders, not powerful Jedi or royal rulers — suggesting that the mystical Force had been democratized. The reversal in "Skywalker," as Vox critic Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote, could be seen as a "crushing disappointment."

The storytelling choices in "Skywalker" that seemed to undo parts of "The Last Jedi," written and directed by Rian Johnson, were among the sources of contention on Twitter; some viewers praised Abrams for "course-correcting" Johnson's quirky narrative curveballs, while others bashed Abrams for seeming to disregard Johnson's provocative ideas about legacy, heroism and self-doubt.

Mario-Francisco Robles, a wedding DJ who founded the "nerd-leaning" entertainment website Revenge of the Fans, said he was gratified by the "fan service" — scenes centered on nostalgic payoffs, callbacks and in-jokes designed strictly to please the most ardent devotees.

"The whole thing was overwhelming in good ways and bad ways," Robles said. "Good because of the fan service, the satisfying revelations about characters, the closure to certain arcs. Bad because of plot contrivances, the breakneck pace that didn't give you a chance to process what was going on."

Fans arrive at the Grand Lake Theater for the opening of the final chapter of the Skywalker saga 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' in Oakland, Calif. on Dec. 19, 2019.Kate Munsch / Reuters

Wapinsky acknowledged that some viewers have griped about what has been described as a frenetic pace, but she savored that there was "never a dull moment," adding that she expected "Skywalker" would be fun to rewatch with her young daughter, who becomes bored during the quiet moments of the original "Star Wars."

"She can't sit through scenes of droids wandering through sand for like 20 minutes," Wapinsky said, referring to the first act of the 1977 landmark known among many younger fans by its subtitle, "A New Hope."

She said it was both thrilling and poignant to see the conclusion to the Skywalker saga link back to the original trilogy, providing continuity and the pleasure of watching various narrative puzzle pieces snapping cleanly into place.

"Everyone around me was crying," Wapinsky said. "My eyes were dry, but that was only because I had my contacts in. I was crying on the inside."