Photo Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm
“The final word in the story of Skywalker.” That's how Disney-Lucasfilm have billed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — the final film in the nonology kicked off by George Lucas 42 years ago — which is a bit funny considering it hints at a grand plan that's coming to fruition at long last. Lucas had always been unsure of a sequel trilogy and was adamant no one else would make Star Wars movies, though $4 billion proved enough to change that stance. And though Disney promised to use Lucas' ideas, it's largely taken its own course since — for better and for worse.
All that is to say that Star Wars has always been about making it up as you go along. After all, Lucas himself did that from the start. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) were envisioned as the original romantic pair, before Harrison Ford's — he plays Han Solo — popularity drove the Star Wars creator to rewrite that. So it's only fitting that the new crop — J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, chiefly — have had to do so as well, pinging the sequel trilogy back and forth between each other. Hey, even that arrangement wasn't part of the plan.
Still, it's worked out well, hasn't it? Star Wars is one of the biggest franchises on the planet. And for filmmakers, especially imaginative ones, not being constrained to a long-term vision can be freeing. Say what you will about the quality of the product, but Lucas took risks with the prequel trilogy. Johnson was similarly bold and he managed to stick the landing too with The Last Jedi. But not everyone is as eager to strike out on their own — it's termed “risky” for a reason. Abrams has been happy to play in a safe zone, riffing on what worked before to craft his films.
Major spoilers ahead for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
That worked delightfully on The Force Awakens, where Abrams was tasked with introducing new faces to the galaxy far, far away. As Rey & Co. were drawn into a conflict with the First Order — remnants of the fallen Empire trying to build a new one — they came across old faces and artefacts, serving up a rush of nostalgia for fans. The Rise of Skywalker can't operate on that principle. But don't tell Abrams that, as he digs deeper into the original trilogy to craft this final act. Abrams thinks this will deepen the saga, but all it does is show how hollow the film is at its core.
There are several problems with The Rise of Skywalker — narratively and structurally. It treats its characters as silly, as exposition machines, or as silly exposition machines. It renews Star Wars' obsession with planet-killing weapons, one of the weakest parts of the original trilogy. You can kill billions, but it's all meaningless if audiences don't have an emotional connect. Still, these are partially forgivable trespasses if the film was strong where it truly matters: characters. But The Rise of Skywalker crumbles in that regard. Here's why.
Going into The Rise of Skywalker, one of the big questions was how Abrams would handle Rey's (Daisy Ridley) parentage, given he had teased there was more to it than what Rian Johnson had decided on with The Last Jedi, in that her parents were nobodies. Abrams' decision to make Rey the granddaughter of the Sith dark lord Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is a highly questionable choice then, not only in how it negates the values of its predecessor but also in what it does to The Rise of Skywalker.
In an interview a couple of months after The Last Jedi's release, Johnson said his choice came from: “What is the toughest thing she could hear about her parents? What is the thing for her and for us what will make her have to stand on her own two feet and will make things the hardest for her?'” It made a lot of sense, even as a subset of Star Wars fans were unhappy about it. And Abrams' wish to please all Star Wars fans meant he chose to go with the other explanation: that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) lied to Rey.
If Abrams truly understood what Johnson was trying to do, it would have been wise to subvert the whole thing and have Kylo Ren lie — except not in The Last Jedi, but The Rise of Skywalker. With Palpatine's surprise return coming as a shock to the galaxy, wouldn't it be natural for Ren to use everything at his disposal to try and turn Rey to the dark side? That includes pushing her Force limits, which causes her to shoot lightning bolts at one point, and yeah, manipulating her with lies about what's close to her.
But instead, The Rise of Skywalker doubles down on Palpatine being Rey's grandfather from virtually every angle. After the matter-of-fact delivery from Kylo Ren, Luke's Force ghost confirms it on the planet of Ahch-To — where Rey drops by for a moment of soul searching — and adds that Leia knew as well, but she trained her anyway because she saw Rey's spirit. And then, Palpatine himself calls her granddaughter when she finally makes it Exegol.
Speaking of Exegol, most of the first half of The Rise of Skywalker is essentially about Rey & Co.'s search for one of two pyramid-shaped Sith wayfinders — Kylo Ren has the other one — that will help them get to the planet that doesn't appear on any maps. Instead of making them run around the galaxy, it would have been smarter to flip the whole thing and make Rey the (third) wayfinder. She's Palpatine's granddaughter after all, right?
It's not exactly logical, sure, but neither is Palpatine's presence in The Rise of Skywalker. He was seemingly killed for good by Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, over 30 years ago. Why is he back? The film posits, as its central theme, that it's about all of Sith (Palpatine) vs all of Jedi (Rey). But didn't we already have that in Revenge of the Sith, when Palpatine fought Yoda? Abrams loves a good rehash, but this simply doesn't feel like a natural end to the story.
For some fans, Palpatine's relation to Rey will help smooth over a couple of concerns they had regarding her abilities, but what it largely does is detract from the central duo — Rey and Kylo Ren — on The Rise of Skywalker. The Last Jedi was sensible to get rid of the First Order's Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and put the spotlight square on Rey-Kylo Ren. But rather than stay on them, The Rise of Skywalker unnecessarily brings back an old villain to create (unaffecting) drama.
Abrams is a big fan of cyclical storytelling. (It's how he justified copying A New Hope for The Force Awakens.) Hence, the moment the new Star Wars trilogy presented Kylo Ren as the heir to Darth Vader, you knew that redemption was somewhere down the line. For what it's worth, his struggle between good and evil has been palpable, unlike Vader's. Some of that is down to his parents being former Rebels, before Rey enters his life and becomes a bigger equation.
The Rise of Skywalker briefly toys with a switcheroo: the idea that Rey could end up on the dark side. She doesn't listen to others, does what she wants, and nearly kills Chewbacca. (The film chickens out, but we'll get to that problem in a minute.) And there's the visions: one of herself on the Sith throne, and the evil doppelganger she sees in the destroyed Death Star II on Endor. But as a family-friendly franchise, The Rise of Skywalker could never really commit to that. That brings us back to Kylo Ren.
To orchestrate his redemption, the film relies on three big moments one after another, during his lightsaber battle with Rey against the backdrop of mighty waves. (He's also repeatedly addressed as Ben, his birth name.) First, his mother Leia uses the last of her energy to reach out to him through the Force, which is also the cause of her death. With Ren distracted by Leia, Rey seizes the opportunity to wound him, only to sense Leia's death and then use the Force to heal Ren with her life-force.
The third is his father, Han Solo, whom he killed in The Force Awakens. (For the audience, it's a surprise, emotional return.) Han isn't a Force ghost but a figment of Ren's imagination. Father and son have a heart-to-heart, and Ren repeats the same words he used before killing him. Convinced what he must do now, Ren flings his lightsaber into the stormy waters below. We don't see him until he arrives out of nowhere on Exegol to help Rey, thereby completing his redemption.
But because it boils down to a few minutes, it feels unearned. And making matters worse, The Rise of Skywalker's decision to kill off Ren — as he gifts the last of his life-force to a seemingly-dead Rey — abruptly cuts off that journey, as we said in our review. (It's also very cheesy, with their kiss being the last thing, the kind of sweet ending that family-friendly films want.) Sure, it makes sense since Rey did the same for Kylo Ren earlier, but The Rise of Skywalker needed a more meaningful end.
It's been two days since we saw it, so we're just thinking off the top of our heads here, but wouldn't it be more impactful if Rey had to (actually) sacrifice herself to stop Palpatine? Kylo Ren would feel guilty, given he was partly responsible for getting her in front of the Sith dark lord. And to honour Rey — and in the memory of his parents — a tortured Ben starts a new Jedi school to train the next generation. That would redeem him and complete his arc of sorts.
Yes, that's dark and mature. But if Disney had to have a happy ending to The Rise of Skywalker, it could have done a lot better than Abrams' version. Hell, playwright Jack Thorne's rumoured version for Ren's redemption — back when Episode IX was still in the hands of Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow — feels more powerful than what actually happens in The Rise of Skywalker.
One of the biggest problems of The Rise of Skywalker is: fear. Fear of commitment. Fear of the hand it's been dealt. Fear of originality. And fear of what the diehards might think. It's funny because the film's big looming presence, Luke Skywalker, tells his protégé Rey not to be afraid (of her identity). But Abrams can't embrace his own lessons, unfortunately. It's called The Rise of Skywalker except on screen, this fear is ultimately the fall of the film.
Let's break down its many fears one by one. The Rise of Skywalker is continually afraid of committing to its big moments. Rey seemingly kills Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) but the film then undoes that so quickly that Rey's guilt and our horror is undercut. Towards the end, Palpatine flings Kylo Ren down a pit and he's considered dead. But then so was Palpatine himself 30 years ago, so why should we buy it? And sure enough, Ren comes back — just so he can bring Rey back to life, who is also considered dead for a good minute. The film's cheapening of death is a grievous error.
That brings us to how The Rise of Skywalker is afraid of what Johnson said with The Last Jedi. This is partially linked to the first point: Rey's lineage. Abrams clearly wasn't pleased that Johnson decided to make her parents nobodies. The decision to bring Palpatine into the picture is an insult to The Last Jedi's values, as we said in our review. In doing so, the film also abandons the message that the ways of the Force aren't restricted to a few families, something Johnson had set up with the detour to Canto Bight — the casino planet — and the boy who's inspired by Luke's story.
Abrams also takes a dig at Johnson's writing choices on Ahch-To, when Rey returns to the isolated planet in The Rise of Skywalker. For what it's worth, it's a rare moment where the film takes a pause, as Rey reflects on her identity and betrays her broken spirit. That naturally brings Luke into the picture, whom Abrams then uses to essentially take a dig at The Last Jedi's handling of The Force Awakens' last moments. As Rey flings her lightsaber into the wreckage of Kylo Ren's ship, Luke says a Jedi's weapon should be treated with more respect.
And then there's Rose Tico. The Rise of Skywalker does a huge disservice to Kelly Marie Tran's character by essentially side-lining her from the plot. It's possible Abrams just didn't know what to do with her, but it also reads as the film siding with the racist and sexist trolls who poured vitriol on her after The Last Jedi, unhappy that a woman of Vietnamese origin was part of Star Wars. The constant hate and abuse forced Tran to go off social media. Forcing her character to the edges is not a good look for The Rise of Skywalker.
Tico's lack of presence is emblematic of Abrams trying to please the Star Wars diehards, a subset of whom had criticised The Last Jedi for what they perceived to be poor writing decisions. It shows that The Rise of Skywalker writer-director wants to keep all Star Wars happy, and he largely achieves that by referencing as many elements as he can from the original trilogy — and a couple from the panned prequel trilogy. But its collection of artefacts, cameos, and flashbacks can't obscure the fact that The Rise of Skywalker has no identity of its own.
What did you make of the end to the Skywalker saga? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.