STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Is A Disappointing Conclusion to the Skywalker Saga
*Warning: this post contains major spoilers*
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a mess. An entertaining mess. But a mess nonetheless. And that sucks, because for the first time in my adult life, I’m sad about Star Wars. I’m sad to see such potential thrown away for the sake of unmitigated nostalgia bait and not even being able to get that right. I think what upsets me the most, though, is the realization that Star Wars isn’t what I thought it was, or more importantly, what it could become.
Look, I get that The Last Jedi pissed a lot of people off. I’m sure it was difficult to wait decades for Luke Skywalker’s triumphant return only to be told that he hadn’t become the badass Jedi grandmaster we all thought he’d be. But Rian Johnson didn’t ruin Star Wars. He tried saving it by breaking free from the thematic and narrative strictures that prevented this franchise from moving beyond the shadow of its original trilogy.
Still, the backlash had been too loud for too long for the mouse to not notice. Once Solo bombed a few months later – the first time a Star Wars movie had ever been a financial failure – the neutering of Episode IX became all but inevitable. So, I expected some course correction. Rehiring J.J. Abrams confirmed those suspicions. Even with tempered expectations, I prepared myself for an entertaining, if not largely safe, conclusion. What I didn’t expect was the wholesale erasure and delegitimization of every meaningful choice made or interesting idea explored in The Last Jedi. In hindsight, expecting any “ideas” from The Rise of Skywalker was a mistake.
From the moment that the opening crawl begins, announcing Emperor Palpatine’s return with the truly meme-worthy – “The dead speak!” – you can almost hear the specter of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo whispering in your ear, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” The feeling that something’s off only intensifies when Kylo Ren comes face to face with Palpatine less than two minutes later – a momentous meeting between Darth Vader’s grandson and his original Sith master completely devoid of any tension or dramatic weight. Yes, we already knew Palpatine was going to be the big bad, but I think we also assumed there would have at least been some buildup prior to his reveal.
How Palpatine’s even back in the first place is another question entirely – one that the film refuses to appropriately engage with beyond one or two throwaway lines that seem like they were added in during reshoots because someone forgot to write a proper explanation in the script. I’m sorry, but when the entire conflict of your film hinges on the return of a character who was supposed to have been dead (and frankly, should have stayed dead) for the past 40 years, I’m going to need a little more than “Somehow Palpatine’s back” or “Dark science. Cloning. Secrets only the Sith knew.” It’s just not good enough, especially when the film uses Palpatine’s already rushed introduction to instead explain that he created Snoke, the former master of Kylo Ren slain by his pupil and leader of the First Order.
After The Last Jedi, what more needed to be said? Snoke fulfilled his purpose as a powerful charlatan for Kylo to defeat along his path toward becoming the true villain. Supreme Leader Kylo Ren was going to be a new type of antagonist – one who rejected the ways of the Sith, Jedi, and all of their attendant manipulation. Replacing one Emperor-like character with the actual Emperor invalidates the necessary development that was owed to his character. Robbing Kylo of that arc, and frankly, Adam Driver the opportunity to deliver that performance, will go down as one of the great missed opportunities in this trilogy. And for what? To resurrect a character who was clearly never meant to be part of this story until Lucasfilm needed something to lure fans back? That isn’t storytelling. It isn’t even good fan service. Good fan service would respect its audience enough to tell a satisfying story that doesn’t come at the expense of sabotaging another.
We can complain all day about Disney and Lucasfilm not having a plan, but neither did George Lucas in 1977. Some of the most iconic Star Wars moments were written on the fly in between episodes i.e. Darth Vader being Luke’s father or Leia his sister. But what Lucas had that Disney doesn’t was a vision. There’s a reason why his once maligned prequel trilogy is being treated more kindly these days. For all of their flaws, which there are many, Lucas knew what story he wanted to tell and didn’t surrender his artistic aspirations in the face of criticism. If Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t want to constrict themselves with a fixed plan, that’s fine. But they needed to be prepared to stand by their directors’ decisions, not get cold feet at the altar and try to fix all of their management mistakes in one fell swoop.
So much of The Rise of Skywalker functions as an apology that what we’re left with is a hollow product of corporate capitulation that more closely resembles a collection of the most popular Reddit fan theories from the past five years than anything worthy of being called the “end of the Skywalker saga.”
Among the countless sins that The Rise of Skywalker commits, there may be none greater than the decision to retcon Rey’s identity, especially when Rian Johnson already gave us the perfect answer. She wasn’t a Skywalker or a Solo or a Kenobi. She was Rey from nowhere. That’s what made her special. By denying Rey the silver platter of an “important” lineage, Johnson liberated her to forge her own path free from the shackles of contrived plot mechanics like midichlorians and chosen one prophecies.
You can understand, then, why it’s particularly infuriating to hear writer Chris Terrio say things like “Rian sort of set up a challenge not only for the filmmakers, but for the characters. At the end, everyone is left with almost nothing.” Sure, from the character’s perspective, Rey was crestfallen having found out that the one thing she feared her entire life was true: being no one. For the audience, though – people like my girlfriend who had never been able to see themselves in a Star Wars movie before The Last Jedi – Rey’s humble origin restored Lucas’ foundational optimism that anyone can be a hero.
Clearly, Abrams and Terrio don’t share this sentiment, otherwise they wouldn’t have made her Palpatine’s granddaughter. J.J. is like the Michael Bay of contrived plot logic: everything has to be bigger, badder, and bolder. First it was Starkiller Base aka Death Star 3.0. Now there’s Palpatine’s “Final Order” super-fleet with planet-killing canons. For his final illusion, Abrams makes everything that could have been special about Rey disappear right before our eyes, and in the process, reverts Star Wars to the myopic view that a few privileged bloodlines control the tide of history.
When you consider the myriad ways Rey’s story could have been developed in The Rise of Skywalker while maintaining continuity from The Last Jedi, making her a Palpatine demonstrates a disturbing lack of imagination within the creative brain trust behind the film. Rather than force Rey to interrogate her fear and isolation – how those feelings could push her to the dark side – that internal conflict is replaced with something that she can swing her lightsaber at. Abrams and Terrio seemed to only consider what would be the most shocking twist to satisfy fans clamoring for Rey to have a connection with an iconic legacy character. They forgot that Star Wars was originally a story about a nobody moisture farmer who rose to greatness with the help of a few scrappy companions, not a House Palpatine vs. House Skywalker Game of Thrones-style conflict as Terrio seems to believe. I just hope everyone who cried “Mary Sue!” at Rey’s uneven power levels are satisfied to have their thinly veiled sexism validated in a fantasy story about space wizards and immaculate Force-conceptions.
The Rise of Skywalker creates several moments for itself to affect real change in this world, only to tuck tail and run when it comes time to actually have things stick. Like when Rey accidentally uses force lightning on a transport ship with a captive Chewbacca on board, seemingly killing everyone’s favorite Wookie. For a moment, we’re forced to contend with the fact that our hero just killed her friend and a beloved Star Wars character. And it was exciting. Because it created a real sense of stakes that was otherwise nonexistent up until then. A few minutes later, though, and Chewbacca is safe aboard a First Order cruiser. As it turns out, he was actually on another transport ship that our heroes just so happened to miss in the vast, open desert.
I’m not advocating for Chewbacca’s murder here, but I have yet to hear a good reason for why he was kept alive other than not wanting to upset the fandom menace. When C-3PO has his memory wiped to translate one of the film’s many MacGuffins, even that moment, which is very much played as a death of sorts for the character, is undone a few scenes later when R2-D2 restores his memory. Quite literally nothing matters. And let’s not forget: the J.J. Abrams who directed The Rise of Skywalker is the same J.J. Abrams who had the gall to kill Han Solo in The Force Awakens. Where was that guy?
The decisions The Rise of Skywalker does commit itself to are perplexing at best. Killing a redeemed Ben Solo whose only line after his light side turn is “Ow” ranks highest on my list of truly WTF moments along with sidelining Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico to a role that amounted to 1 minute and 16 seconds of screen time. Then there’s the matter of Force ghost Luke snarkily saying things like “A Jedi’s lightsaber deserves more respect,” which is probably one of the more on-the-nose middle fingers to Rian Johnson throughout an already disrespectful experience.
If Disney only ever cared about maintaining the status quo, then why resurrect this property in the first place? Why not just recast Luke, Han, and Leia for a new trilogy about their continuing adventures post–Return of the Jedi? Because at some point, Disney and Lucasfilm did want to make Rey, Kylo, Poe, Finn, and BB-8 the next generation. Somewhere along the way they let release dates and billion dollar box office conquests get in the way of their artistic obligations as the new stewards of Star Wars. The thought of leaving even one dollar on the table from a disgruntled fan became acceptable. So they caved and tried making The Rise of Skywalker everything for everyone and wound up having nothing to say about anything at all.
Given how much real estate The Rise of Skywalker has occupied in my head for the past three weeks, I’m honestly relieved this entire exercise is over (for now). If there’s one thing the cinematic side of Disney’s Star Wars operation needs, it’s a break. With the success of The Mandalorian on Disney+ paving the way for a healthy pipeline of streaming content that will ultimately include Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rogue One spinoff shows, not to mention new animated series, novels, and games, we certainly won’t be starved for Star Wars content. Rumors have already begun to circulate for the untitled 2022 film, and it’s possible Lucasfilm may have already found its director. Whether it’s a new series of films based on the “High Republic” era or Disney decides to ditch the trilogy formula altogether, for the love of God, please take your time, trust your creators, and don’t listen to toxic trolls. Until then, to riff on Marriage Story a bit, I’ll never stop loving Star Wars, even though it doesn’t make much sense right now.
-Mark Scovzen (@midsommark)