Do not proceed unless you have seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Spoilers ahead.
The final film of the “Skywalker Saga” is a hot mess, and only a solid core story holds it together at all.
The film opens with the revelation that the Big Bad of the last two trilogies, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is somehow still alive, and ready to usher something called the “Final Order.” Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) confronts him within the first few minutes of the movie, and isn’t happy to find that Palpatine has been pulling the strings the whole time. No time is wasted justifying how the Emperor survived being dumped down a bottomless reactor shaft in a Death Star just about to explode. This sort of illustrates the problem with this movie, especially its first act.
Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Chris Terrio try to keep the film moving fast, hoping we won’t notice how little this movie connects back to episode 8, The Last Jedi. Despite fan speculation that Abrams would retcon some of the less popular plot points of the last installment, he instead tries to ignore Rian Johnson’s film as much as possible.
The film moves at a breakneck speed, but the progress between action set pieces feels herky-jerky and not particularly fluid.
Fortunately, you still have Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Their dynamic was the best thing about The Last Jedi, and it’s the saving grace for The Rise of Skywalker as well. The successful payoff of their story arc, however, highlights many of flaws in this trilogy. To fully illustrate my points, I must now commence with the spoilers. This is your final warning.
At the end of The Last Jedi, the first order had reduced the Resistance to a band of survivors small enough to fit inside the Millenium Falcon. At the beginning of this movie, however, they are kind of back where we left them at the end of The Force Awakens, with no explanation of how they recovered. This is the most glaring example of how The Rise of Skywalker tries to pretend Rian Johnson’s film never happened. It’s perhaps not a good sign for the The Last Jedi that I really don’t mind.
Carrie Fisher and Leia
Carrie Fisher’s death left a huge hole in this final installment of the trilogy. Episode 9 was supposed to be her story the way The Force Awakens was Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) and The Last Jedi was Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill). The filmmakers were left with some unsatisfying options. One was killing the character off screen, which would have been unpopular among fans of the actress and character. They could have “Tarkin-ized” her, grafting a digital version of her face over another actor, but that had a lot of downsides, not the least of which is the consensus that digital Peter Cushing in Rogue One was a less than successful effect. Another option was recasting the role with a different actress, but that would have been even less popular with an already divided fan base than killing her off screen.
The route they took, repurposing unused footage from The Force Awakens, was probably the least objectionable, but the end result isn’t satisfying either. When Carrie Fisher is on screen in The Rise of Skywalker, it’s all too evident that she’s not really in the same scene with the other actors and that the scenes have been contrived to work with the existing footage. I’m not saying there was a better way, but they way they chose was less than ideal.
The Force Awakens gave rise to all sorts of fan theories about the origins of Rey. Was she Luke’s daughter? Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter? A clone of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader? A Palpatine?
The Last Jedi annoyed a large chunk of the fan community by ignoring all of these theories. Rey was a nobody whose parents sold her for drinking money.
The Rise of Skywalker manages to retcon The Last Jedi without really retconning it. Rey’s parents weren’t nobodies, it turned out. Rey’s father was Emperor Palpatine’s son, making Rey his granddaughter. Her parents sold her into slavery to somehow protect her identity from being discovered by her grandfather. Seriously? That was their best option?
My only real problem is that Palpatine was never shown having a family in the prequels, and I doubt he was siring many children after he became the reclusive scrotum-faced dictator of the galaxy. Maybe he was banging one of the interns when he was still chancellor.
At the end of movie, Rey is shown back at the Lars homestead on Tatooine, Luke’s boyhood home, where she claims the name Skywalker. The ham-handedness of this scene aside, J.J. Abrams manages to have his cake and eat it, too. He not only brushes aside Rian Johnson’s version of Rey’s origin, he effectively confirms two different fan theories. She’s both a Palpatine and a Skywalker.
While I think this is less satisfying than her being the nobody, as depicted in The Last Jedi, it does answer a lot of the complaints that Rey was too powerful in the Force, too quickly. If she’s the granddaughter of one of the most powerful Force users ever, it makes a lot more sense. In The Rise of Skywalker, J.J. Abrams also reaps the benefits of casting Daisy Ridley for The Force Awakens. She nails a lot of scenes that might have been hokey or overcooked with a lesser actress.
One of the trailers teased a red-eyed evil Rey. Was it a clone? Would Rey turn to the Dark Side? Or was it just a force vision? Turns out it was the last one, in a scene that managed to borrow heavily from both The Empire Strikes Back and The Lord of the Rings. While it was kind of cool, I don’t know if it was strong enough to justify its prominent place in the marketing for the film.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns, predictably as a force ghost, in The Rise of Skywalker, giving Rey a pep talk in a key moment when, having learned of her parentage, she tries to run and hide on the same island she found him on at the end of The Force Awakens. His voiceover in the first trailer is pretty much his entire role in this movie, but it’s enough. Given how controversial his role was in The Last Jedi, it would be tempting to overdo his screen time in The Rise of Skywalker to make up for it. Instead, as Rey tries to throw her lightsaber into the burning wreck of her spaceship, ghost-Luke emerges from the wreckage to catch it, then lectures her on a Jedi showing respect for their lightsaber. I’m not sure, but I took this as a gentle middle-finger to the way Rian Johnson introduced Luke in The Last Jedi, an awkward attempt at humor that only managed to begin the process of alienating many fans.
Poe and Finn
I’m bundling these two characters into one because both John Boyega and Oscar Isaac suffer the same fate in The Rise of Skywalker, which was basically the same fate they suffered in The Last Jedi. It’s now clear to me that no one involved in the writing or directing of Star Wars movies had any idea what to do with these characters after The Force Awakens. The sequel trilogy ended up being Rey and Kylo Ren’s story, and the other characters tended to get left by the wayside in episodes 8 & 9.
Poe Dameron was rather thinly drawn in The Force Awakens, which was understandable when you realize that he was supposed to die in the first act, before J.J. Abrams realized that Oscar Isaac was a charismatic actor with talent. I was looking forward to them fleshing out his character in The Last Jedi, but in that movie, he was fleshed out as a total dick. I still believe that the only reason for the character of Admiral Holdo (Laura Dean) was so Poe Dameron could be a dick to her instead of Princess Leia, something that would have turned the fans against Poe in a big way. In this movie, he has a past with Keri Russell’s character, and we learn he used to be a bit of a scoundrel, and that’s about it.
With the death of Princess Leia in The Rise of Skywalker, Poe is thrust into the role of leading the Resistance. This should be a great opportunity to grow the character, but it plays out in a ham-handed and obvious way, killing any satisfying conclusion for the character.
Finn had a great introduction and character arc in The Force Awakens, the former stormtrooper turned resistance fighter. His subplot in The Last Jedi was (deservedly) one of the most maligned parts of that film. In The Rise of Skywalker, he gets to run around and shoot things alongside Poe, but his character development ended with the first movie. This is why I think it was a mistake to kill off Captain Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie) in The Last Jedi, other than how she was completely wasted for a second movie. Keeping her around would give Abrams a chance to give both characters a chance at a satisfying resolution to their conflict. Without her, Finn is just sort of… there.
Kelly Marie Tran could not have enjoyed her experience in The Last Jedi. Despite playing a likable character with great potential, she was saddled along with Finn with a pointless and ill-conceived storyline. Tran bore the brunt of the negative reaction to The Last Jedi, the online trolls zeroing in on her ethnicity and her gender as “proof” of an “SJW agenda” in Star Wars. The inexcusable abuse she suffered drove her off social media altogether.
I would like to report that The Rise of Skywalker makes up for this by giving her a key role with a satisfying story arc, but I can’t. Rose is reduced to a glorified background character while J.J. Abrams’ buddies Greg Grunberg and Dominic Monaghan get comparable amounts of screen time. The relationship between Finn and Rose that started to develop in The Last Jedi is completely forgotten as well.
The diminutive CGI alien performed by Lupita Nyong’o was shoehorned into The Last Jedi in an very awkward and unnecessary way. While I’m happy to report that her appearance in The Rise of Skywalker isn’t that bad, it’s not much of an improvement and equally unnecessary. She’s now a full-fledged member of the Resistance, for reasons that go unexplored like so much in this movie goes unexplored. While everyone loves having an actress of Lupita’s caliber in their film, this character played herself out in The Force Awakens and didn’t need to return in the other two installments of the trilogy.
Everybody loves Billy Dee Williams. I’d sit down with him for a nice cold Colt .45 malt liquor any day of the week, and I was really looking forward to his appearance in The Rise of Skywalker. Sadly, the filmmakers would have to work very hard to find a more illogical and more awkward way to introduce him into the story. His role in the climax of this movie is kind of what I hoped it would be, except that it all plays out off-screen, denying the character a really satisfying arc in the story.
The New Characters
The Rise of Skywalker introduces a trio of new characters, by which I mean it wastes excellent actors in thankless roles.
Keri Russell plays Zorrii Bliss, who joins the Captain Phasma/Boba Fett club of cool looking characters with deeply unsatisfying storylines. She’s an old compatriot of Poe Dameron’s from when he was a smuggler and a scoundrel (where have we heard that before?) Zorrii is bad-ass, tender, or heroic, depending on the needs of the story, but without much narrative logic connecting them.
Richard Grant plays General Pryde, a leftover from the Empire and a loyal disciple of Emperor Palpatine. That’s it. He stands around an glowers menacingly. Being Richard Grant, he does it very well, but he doesn’t have much else to work with.
Naomi Ackie plays Jannah, who is a former First Order stormtrooper who defected, just like Finn, another great character setup that goes nowhere. The film dangles a tantalizing hint that the Force played a role in many of the stormtroopers changing sides, but like almost everything else this film dangles, there is no real payoff.
Hux (Domhnall Gleason) was the over-the-top, Nazi-esque general in The Force Awakens, who sneered a lot and shouted a lot of his lines. The Last Jedi reduced him to a sad comic foil to Kylo Ren. So what glory awaits him in The Rise of Skywalker?
The story reveals that the rebels have a spy inside the First Order. At a key point in the movie, Hux reveals himself to be the spy and saves the good guys, then he dies. Why would one of the First Order’s most fanatical officers turn traitor? I have no idea, because it’s also not explored in any satisfying way, like so much else in this movie. Hux says he wants to stop Kylo Ren, and their feuding step-brothers act in The Force Awakens hints at hostility between the two characters, but it doesn’t justify why he would switch sides so easily.
The end of The Last Jedi laid the groundwork for a fascinating subplot that The Rise of Skywalker has no interest in exploring. No one knows that Kylo Ren assassinated Supreme Leader Snoke. Hux figuring that out would have been a great source of further conflict, but it still wouldn’t justify making him the spy. The film would have been better off not having the spy subplot at all.
Ian McDiarmid’s cackling laugh at the end of the first trailer gave many Star Wars fans a Force erection, but his role in this film must have given the actor a bad case of deja vu, as he is basically re-enacting the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, beat for beat. The conclusion of this film drags a bit once Rey reaches the Emperor’s chamber, and despite McDiarmid being alive and on-set, Palpatine looks more like a CGI creation than he should.
Also, his plan seems to revolve around Rey killing him and taking his place, which depends upon him having a family that was never mentioned anywhere else in the saga, and on them having a child after the destruction of the second Death Star. That’s a weak thread on which to hang a plan for galactic domination.
The Knights of Ren
The Knights of Ren were introduced, but barely seen, in The Force Awakens. They were completely ignored in The Last Jedi, but they’re back in The Rise of Skywalker. Many fans were hoping that they were going to learn a lot about the Knights of Ren in this movie, including their origins and how Ben Solo came to be their leader. Those fans are going to go away disappointed. They’re here to serve as Kylo Ren’s henchmen during the movie, but that’s it. They are some evil guys in cool costumes, but nothing more.
One of the most popular fan theories going into The Rise of Skywalker said that the character of Kylo Ren would redeem himself and turn back to the light side. I hated this idea going in. First, I thought Kylo had been rendered irredeemable when he murdered his father, Han Solo, in The Force Awakens. Two, redeeming the bad guy had already been done in Return of the Jedi, so it might be seen as the new trilogy just copying the originals again. Finally, I really wanted to rub it in Kristian Harloff’s face when he was proven wrong.
Well, Harloff was right, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work. It shouldn’t. The third act of the film already contains way too many echoes from Return of the Jedi, but the redemption feels earned and satisfying. Like with Rey’s storyline, they reap the rewards of casting the right actor four years ago. Adam Driver kills it. A key scene, where Harrison Ford makes a surprising cameo as Han Solo, or at least Ben Solo’s memory of his father, provides a genuinely heartfelt echo of Han’s death scene in The Force Awakens. This is especially satisfying in a movie that is largely devoid of heartfelt moments when Rey and Ben Solo aren’t on screen.
As I said above, the sequel trilogy is, at its core, the story of Rey and Kylo Ren. Their roles are the only consistently satisfying element in all three movies. This movie isn’t the triumphant capper to the Skywalker saga that we were hoping for. It didn’t tie together the previous eight films the way J.J. Abrams promised.
What it does, however, is deliver a satisfying conclusion to its most important story, wrapping it a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat. I think the movie would have been better if Kathleen Kennedy (or someone) actually had a plan for this trilogy, rather than letting Rian Johnson take the trilogy in a direction that no one else wanted it to go. If Johnson had been less interested in deconstructing the mythos and subverting our expectations, and more focused on continuing the story that The Force Awakens started, J.J. Abrams wouldn’t have had to do so many back flips trying in a vain attempt to stick the landing.