I saw The Rise of Skywalker last week, and I’ve had some thoughts bouncing around in my head for a while. I think it’s been long enough. So, to start with, let’s look at the major themes of the Star Wars sequel trilogy.
The Force Awakens: There will always be a new generation of fascists, and people from all walks of life can (and must) band together to work against them.
The Last Jedi: Evil will relentlessly work to snuff out hope. Do what you can, even if you’re just some nobody, even if you’ve failed before, and you may be able to inspire others as well.
SPOILERS for The Rise of Skywalker!
The Rise of Skywalker: It was all zombie space Hitler’s fault. Kill him and we’ll be fine.
Don’t get me wrong: the movie is entertaining, and they pull a lot of triggers on metaphorical guns (and literal ones), and there is some amazing cinematography and multi-layered call-backs. The split-location lightsaber duel was incredible. Finding other ex-stormtroopers who refused to fight for the First Order. Recontextualizing “I know.” The way the Rey/Kylo Ren duel on the Death Star wreckage echoes the Obi-Wan/Vader duel on Mustafar with the elements reversed…and with Rey managing to reach Ben at the end, much as Obi-Wan wanted to, but couldn’t reach Anakin.
But overall it’s kind of, well…we needed a big finish, so we’re finishing it in as spectacular a fashion as we can. Hope to see you with the 5 million spinoffs!
It also feels oddly disconnected from the middle film in the trilogy. The Last Jedi used The Force Awakens as a starting point. The Rise of Skywalker does acknowledge TLJ, and thankfully doesn’t reset most of the character development – Finn has found his courage, Luke has made peace with himself, etc. But those moments are fleeting, and in a few cases come off as outright dismissive. And they missed the biggest connection they could have made: Lando’s mission to drum up popular support could have tied directly into Luke’s legend-inspiring appearance in the Battle of Crait, and Rose and Finn’s mission to Canto Bight.
The movie suffers from Leia’s limited presence. Not just because Leia didn’t get one last chance to shine in the spotlight like Han and Luke did, but because the story would have worked better if we’d seen more of what she was doing. Sadly, there’s only so much they could do with the footage they had, and I don’t think recasting or CGI-ing would have worked.
(I would have liked seeing Rose do more, too, but the story they came up with didn’t have much for her specifically. At least she was there.)
I think the movie’s biggest misstep was bringing back Palpatine. It completely undermines the themes of the previous two movies by making it all about Darth Sidious, and not even in a good way. Ian McDiarmid was fascinating to watch as the master manipulator in Return of the Jedi and the prequels, but here he wasn’t even a character. He was an obstacle, like a video game boss.
If the First Order is inspired by the Empire, it’s a reminder that there will always be people trying to impose their will on everyone else, and when they have enough resources and insufficient opposition, they’ll do it. If the First Order is actually being run by the Emperor himself, it reduces the whole sequel trilogy to that last quarter of a monster movie where the heroes think the monster is dead, but it wakes up after they’ve let their guard down.
Rey’s connection to Palpatine alters her role as well. Instead of “anyone can be a hero,” it’s “people with power can be heroes even if their families are evil.” On the plus side, it explains the strength of her Force potential, and it sets up a direct comparison between her and Kylo Ren. Both are grandchildren of Sith lords, one choosing to embrace that path and the other to reject it. Rey rises as a hero from Sidious’ line, and Kylo rises as a villain from Skywalker’s. I can see where they’re going with it and why, but it still reinforces the idea of Force ability as an aristocratic birthright.
After The Last Jedi, the story could have gone anywhere. But instead of letting the past die, they dug up even more of it.