Spoiler Review – Hopelessness Versus Hope in The Rise of Skywalker
The Rise of Skywalker has arrived. This is a spoiler review. Directed by JJ Abrams, from a script co-written with Chris Terrio – this film concludes the 42 year saga so many of us have followed. This review will cover EVERYTHING so please know there are SPOILERS AHEAD….
Before I start my review, I’d just like to acknowledge and thank so many I’ve met in the fan community over the last five years. It’s been an incredible ride and a bumpy one, but there’s rarely been a dull moment. I’m so grateful to have been given a platform to write about this franchise I love while also getting the opportunity to hear from so many of you via the comments section, the Cantina, and Twitter. Nothing is ever perfect and we don’t always agree, but I value all of you and thank you for your contributions to this fandom.
The Rise of Skywalker is the conclusion of 42 years of storytelling, which began in the 1970’s with George Lucas writing out in a notebook what he envisioned to be “The Star Wars”. I don’t think George or anyone at the time could have imagined the zeitgeist which lay ahead for Star Wars. It’s head scratching even now to think about how a young filmmaker captured lightning in a bottle the way George did. But, when we think about the historical context, it does suggest the people of the time needed something. What did they need? Hope.
The country had just witnessed the resignation of a disgraced President and the wounds from the Vietnam War were still fresh. Women continued to fight for equality (and still do). Racism and racial inequality ran rampant. Cultural divide was wide and a filmmaker saw the absence of modern-day mythology. Mythology and religion are two very different things. Religion is a binding, dogmatic sense one pledges their faith to and opens every part of their being to. Mythology serves as an elusive beacon in life, open to interpretation. While it never spells-out specifically where you are heading, if you read between the lines of what it tells you, you can feel confident you will get there. George Lucas saw a mythological void in the times of which he lived and quietly set out to provide one. And ultimately, mythology is for kids coming into the world and trying to figure out how to navigate this complicated and often scary place.
Star Wars debuted in 1977. The response, even 42 years later, could never have been anticipated. I honestly doubt we will ever see anything like it again. Box-office records are no barometer from the universal truth you, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents all know who Darth Vader is. There is something so binding about it that it’s inexplicable. There are no words which express how relatable it is. I’ve spent many years trying to figure out why Star Wars is so loved by so many, across any human divide. I don’t have any big answers, but I do have one.
It’s hope that good conquers evil. Hope that love is what we all gravitate toward. Hope that our heroes will save us – if not one another. Hope there is redemption. Hope that people can come back from their worst deeds to fulfill the promise of those who believed in them.
This is why The Rise of Skywalker broke my heart.
The film opens with a jarring crawl. “The dead speak!”, which sets an unexplained and ominous tone to the film. Right out of the gate, we get nothing about the spark of hope or implications from The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi about Leia and the Resistance’s desperate struggle to restore hope to the galaxy. No, we get the sense the Resistance has been brought to its knees and this supernatural return of Palpatine will be the imminent, final straw not only for them, but for the whole galaxy. After the yellow text vanishes into the infinity, we are treated to a montage of a power-hungry Kylo Ren cutting violently through Sith-acolytes (only no one mentions they are Sith-acolytes) on Mustafar. Kylo is hunting for a holocron (Terrio/Abrams call this a “wayfinder”) which will guide him to the source of Palpatine’s ghostly transmissions, and as soon as he’s holding his prize, we are thrust into the celestial hazards he must cross to get to the secret-Sith planet called Exegol.
Once on the planet, Kylo is treated to a deluge of terrible voices he’s been hearing since he was a child. He ventures deep into a massive, Sith temple which reveals a re-animated Sheev Palpatine. Palpatine’s appearance is confusing, as it seems to be a combination of the tricky Supreme Chancellor we remember from the prequels and not the yellow-eyed, scarred sorcerer from the original trilogy. Palpatine assures the last Skywalker that he’s been pulling the strings all along, from creating Snoke (there’s a laughable fish tank of fully-grown cloned Snokes standing by) to impersonating the voice of Kylo’s late grandfather Darth Vader. Kylo, uncharacteristically, seems to accept Sheev’s lifelong manipulation when the Sith Lord promises to give Kylo the keys to the fleet he’s been building for decades – the Final Order. One prerequisite given to Kylo in order to take control of this fleet – and essentially the galaxy – is he must kill “the scavenger”, and Palpatine suggests his new proxy has no idea who she really is.
I have to say, as soon as this scene ended, I had a really hard time watching the rest of the film. Full disclosure, I’ve seen this film twice, essentially back-to-back, and both times I had a hard time keeping a straight face through this scene. No, I wasn’t laughing smugly about how this flies in the face of so much canon and immediately establishes a massive plot hole in the film which is never filled. My jaw was dropped and I felt like I was watching the opening scene to a mediocre fan-film made in the mid-90’s. This flew so far in the face of what’s been established in canon, not to mention Darth Sidious has returned and the writers seemed to acquiesce to no explanation or letting future written material fill in that gap, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Some might call it ambitious but I felt it to be a more brazen opening to the film. If you’ve been reading Star Wars News Net for any extended amount of time, you know that myself and my colleagues devote a large chunk of our time to writing about the greater, unified canon Lucasfilm promised after the sale to Disney, eight-years ago. I’m trying to be very careful and not sound smug, but if someone like me who has religiously devoured canon books and comics since they hit the ground running is confused by this I couldn’t imagine the standard movie-goer.
Which brings up a valid point. Maybe the comics and books I’ve pored over did me a disservice entering this film. Perhaps I went in, ready to pick out familiar or connected story threads in exposition, and when I found none it upset me and left me feeling clueless. I think that’s a fair bit of self-awareness, but I do have to say I think it’s very unfair Lucasfilm presented many fans with the expectations we’d be getting a unified canon. This might come across as nitpicking, but I think it’s fair for me to be bothered by this. Forgive me for sounding sanctimonious, but I spent several years not only reading and writing about this canon, but promoting it to many SWNN readers and asking them to invest their time (not to mention money) in it as well. Sure, nothing is perfect and there will be gaps, but unfortunately, the journey to Exegol turned out to be the tip of the iceberg.
Refreshingly, the film jumps immediately to Poe, Finn, and Chewbacca on a reconnaissance mission to meet a contact with fresh information from a First Order spy. The First Order is hot on their tail, so Poe decides to try a maneuver called “lightspeed skipping”. Essentially, he makes a rapid series of quick jumps, which make it more difficult for the TIE Fighters in pursuit to keep up with. As soon as they return to the Resistance base, we learn this maneuver has caused significant damage to the ship. Poe, Finn, and Chewbacca seem to have established a nice bond in the time between The Last Jedi and when we meet them here. Poe’s frustration is palpable, as Finn notes to Rey after she has a confrontation with the Resistance pilot about the damage he’s caused to the Millennium Falcon. Boyega and Isaac have great screen presence and the levity they add to several moments is certainly welcome. Also, Billy Dee Williams returning as Lando was something I’d hoped for since The Force Awakens, so I’m glad we finally got it here.
This brings us to Rey. What has the heir to the Jedi been up to since we last saw her holding Anakin Skywalker’s shattered saber aboard the Millennium Falcon, wondering what spark of hope she could bring to the fight? Rey has been training, and we meet her floating high above the ground, with a field of demonstrably Force floating stones surrounding her, reaching out to hear the voices of the Jedi. After a few seconds of no reply, Rey turns to her new master, Leia Organa, and laments she’s not heard answers. Leia (and the use of Carrie Fisher here is something I will certainly give props to JJ for) gives her a “it is what it is” response, sending Rey to go crashing through a training course in a way to vent her frustrations. Rey also makes an odd remark about earning Luke’s lightsaber before relinquishing it to Leia, as if she hasn’t fully inherited the weapon yet.
Rey’s also still haunted by the question of where she comes from. During more stressful points of her training sequence, we see visions of her abandonment on Jakku return, letting us know the story isn’t over. Those questions about her parents are put aside, as soon as the Resistance decodes the intel received from the First Order spy. Emperor Palpatine has returned and is preparing to flood the galaxy with his contingency fleet, thirty-plus years in the making. As the Resistance takes this in, Rey remembers reading about Luke searching for the Wayfinders leading to Palpatine’s base of operations, Exegol. No one seems confused or puzzled by this, despite the sequel trilogy having hit us over the head with the Jedi, Sith, and Force mostly having passed into myth since the fall of the Republic and decades of the Emperor’s erasure. Instead, the audience is presented with their first MacGuffin and basically told to strap-in for a chaotic next two hours of action. As a viewer, it felt like Terrio and Abrams made the decision their time for exposition was over and they put their feet on the gas-pedal. I’m sure many fans appreciated that but I’m not one of them.
Our heroes set out across the stars to save the galaxy once again. Well, not all of our heroes.
Rose Tico’s role is greatly reduced from what I expected and hoped for. The Last Jedi brought Rose into the fight and her arc is one of my favorite things about the film. While I understand Abrams and Terrio had a lot of loose ends to tie up, I fail to see why reducing Rose Tico’s role streamlined their wobbly plot and subplots along any better. To me, it was a very careless and thoughtless way to handle a character that means so much to many. The Rise of Skywalker seems determined to ignore so many great aspects about the previous films and Rose Tico’s erasure is another glaring example. I know there is a debate about screen time, but I’m more concerned with the story, of which Rose was barely granted a sliver of after being established as a solid character in The Last Jedi. Whatever the intentions of Terrio and Abrams in regard to the character, The Rise of Skywalker definitely could’ve used the positivity, courage, and hope Rose Tico gave myself and so many fans. Rose, you were missed.
From there, we begin a journey to stop Palpatine which felt like being bounced around a pinball machine. There’s lots of excitement, flashing lights, and moments of joy – but ultimately those things mean very little when you realize they are all fleeting and ultimately unravel into uneven storytelling and plot-holes galore. I saw this film twice, with only a few hours between each showing, and I still had trouble following along with the plot. The MacGuffins function more like a rock skipping across water as the audience tries to observe the ripples they cause in the plot, which are mostly as inconsequential as the ripples from a skipping rock. This film moves so fast, while dropping major story points which I felt demand more explanation than we received. Not the least of which, Rey from nowhere is ACTUALLY Rey Palpatine, granddaughter to Sheev Palpatine. Honestly, the pacing of this film felt like a race to me. It was like the filmmakers had committed to a set runtime of the film and they were racing to get there while frantically cutting-and-pasting The Rise of Skywalker together. It ultimately didn’t feel like a complete story to me, just a bunch of moments and themes, hastily resurrected (but more often disregarded) threaded together, creating a sort-of Frankenstein Star Wars film. Nothing about the story or the visual feast of lightsaber battles, space battles, and familiar locations felt satisfying. It’s as if JJ took a great birthday cake, scraped all the frosting into a bowl, and then tossed everything else into the garbage. Pure frosting might be good for a couple of bites, but ultimately those bites burn off into the emptiness they are and leave you with nothing.
Though a bowl of frosting will give you a stomach ache, there will certainly be a few bites which taste good. There are some moments I enjoyed in The Rise of Skywalker. First being, the incredible performances by the cast, especially Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. I’ll get to Kylo and Ben Solo in a minute, but the chemistry between Ridley and Driver in each scene they share is some of the finest acting of the franchise, so far. The dynamic of the bond between Rey and Kylo has evolved since The Force Awakens, bringing them from enemies to allies, while hinting their connection is something unique to them both; not only in matters of the Force, but two people who’ve felt so terribly alone most of their lives. The undercurrent of looking for belonging continues to pull these two characters toward one another much more than it pushes them away. The moments they share in this film are often transmissions through the Force, which have become much more powerful, enabling the characters to reach out and touch, as well as fight, via the communications.
The newest character to the franchise, Jannah, was also a welcome addition. Naomie Ackie’s performance, what little we get of it, is great and I hope there are some plans for this character in the future. Her backstory as a former First Order trooper who also felt compelled by the Force to turn on the oppressors of the galaxy. This seems to be another HUGE revelation which Abrams and Terrio skate over, not to mention Finn’s Force-sensitivity.
One of the biggest questions since Kylo Ren was revealed to be a part of the Skywalker family was how much his journey would mirror the ultimate redemption told over six-films (not to mention several comic books) about his grandfather. Personally, the first time I saw The Force Awakens, I despised Kylo Ren. It wasn’t until The Last Jedi and engaging with several fans who saw the path to good in him early on that I began to realize the story of Kylo Ren and Ben Solo didn’t have to end in death and darkness. Honestly, once I looked at Kylo and Ben’s story as redemptive instead of nihilistic, it felt much more satisfying than the repeat of another doomed Skywalker who strayed the path. Does Ben Solo get redeemed? Yes, and in one of my favorite moments from the film, he realizes what he must do. After feeling his mother pass and suffering a fatal blow from Rey while dueling on Death Star wreckage, Kylo Ren faces the end of his life. Instead of turning and leaving him to die, Rey uses the Force to heal Kylo (Yes, another inexplicable Force-ability dropped in the middle of the story) and tells him, in her own way, she would’ve joined Ben Solo. To compound this point, Kylo is also visited by a minds-eye vision of Han (exhumed by Leia as her dying act), which mirrors their last moments together in The Force Awakens. Han helps Ben find himself by reminding him of the unconditional love his surviving family have poured out to him over the course of these three films. Ben Solo seems to appear, long enough to say his own goodbye to his father and chuck his lightsaber (which we learned from Charles Soule’s The Rise of Kylo Ren is essentially a royal scepter of sorts for the leader of the Knights of Ren). We got Ben Solo back, just as Rey is headed to Exegol.
Before Rey returns to Exegol, she heads back to Ahch-To determined to finish what her late master started. Rey wants to end the Jedi, the Sith, and suggestively – the family lines of Force-users powerful enough to inflict decades of pain upon the galaxy. Luke shows up as a Force-ghost who seems quite rejuvenated from the person we met in the previous film. He reveals that both he and Leia knew all along Rey was a Palpatine, but decided she would transcend her family’s story. While Rey not being defined by her heritage is something I certainly agree with, the bulldozer-in-an-antique-shop way Abrams and Terrio attempt to make that point makes believe NOTHING about “Rey Palpatine” was planned from the beginning of this trilogy. Somewhere between a half-ass retcon and lazy writing is where this falls. After Luke resurrects his old X-wing from the waters of Ahch-To, Rey pilots Red Five to Exegol to face her grandfather.
The conclusion of the film is just as rushed and messy as I expected it to be once it began. Palpatine suddenly backtracks from wanting Rey dead to revealing his ultimate plot is for her to kill him, turn to the dark side, and essentially make her body a vessel for his soul. There are also thousands of Sith acolytes who sit in a stadium, awaiting this final act so their leader can inhabit the body of his descendant. So, it seems Darth Sidious has finally unlocked the key to immortality and Force-possession is a thing. To lure Rey into this trap, Palpatine opens the sun-roof to his Sith stadium and shows how poorly the battle Finn, Poe, and Jannah lead against the Final Order/First Order/Sith Fleet is going, despite them having rallied a great number of ships from across the galaxy to fight. Similar to how Palpatine dangled the doomed Rebel Fleet in front of Luke to tempt his dark emotions, he senses he can get Rey to surrender to his will for the chance of saving her friends.
If there was a “fist-pumping” moment in The Rise of Skywalker for me, it was certainly when Ben Solo joined the fight. We’ve heard a lot about Ben Solo, but this is the first time any of us have seen him. Ben is truly free now. He doesn’t live under the expectations to fulfill a family legacy or torment of a Sith Lord. Ben Solo has freed himself and now he runs to help the one he loves. Running through the maze of Exegol with nothing more than a blaster to take out the Sith-fans guarding it is probably one of my favorite moments from the saga. But like most things I enjoyed in The Rise of Skywalker, it’s a fleeting moment of light that ultimately plunges my enjoyment deeper into the darkness.
While I think you’ve probably figured out I didn’t care for the film, the final battle at the end was certainly a high point for me. Seeing the Resistance finally get forces capable of standing up to the darkness in the galaxy was a treat. It’s one of the bites of frosting in this film I savored. That’s why I was so disappointed when it all suddenly came undone by the Thanos-like powers Palpatine abruptly gained from discover the dyad in the Force Rey and Ben Solo unwittingly created. Ben’s been aware of it and informed Rey early on (as Kylo though), recognizing their power had the potential to destroy Palpatine. Palpatine figures this out but overpowers both Ben and Rey (suddenly, he’s so powerful) and begins vacuuming their dyad-power into himself, repairing broken parts of his body and restoring the visage of Darth Sidious we are familiar with. He ultimately tosses Ben Solo into a chasm , declaring an end to the Skywalker family. Rey, after hearing the voices of several Jedi from across the saga’s history, is able to turn Palpatine’s Force-lightning back on him and ultimately destroy him, his acolytes, and the Sith temple by using the Skywalker legacy saber and Leia’s lightsaber.
Oh yeah, forgot to mention we find out Leia trained as a Jedi for a while but gave it up when she felt through the Force it would ultimately lead to tragedy for her son. If you think I’m being a snarky, that’s arguably about as much time as JJ and Terrio spent on the revelation.
Rey’s defeat of Palpatine ultimately costs her life. Just as Ben Solo rises out of the darkness Palpatine threw him into, he sees Rey’s lifeless body laying amidst the ruins of the Sith. With a broken leg, Ben limps to find Rey dead, and remembering the power she used to heal him, pours everything he has into restoring Rey. Rey opens her eyes, just long enough to see Ben smile and they share a kiss. For a second, they and we believe the sacrifices which came before were to save them. They have found belonging. They have found hope. They have found love. But no, Terrio and Abrams decide to pose redemption as a transaction. Ben Solo, who has the chance to live for the first time in his life, must pay for Rey’s chance to live with his own life. The pure happiness and joy in Ben and Rey’s eyes vanishes as Ben Solo’s body drops lifelessly to the ground. The disdain and disregard of treating Ben Solo’s redemption as part of some checklist I imagine Abrams and Terrio seemed to relish in ticking off is one of the most troubling aspects of the film to me. The part of the film which could have been a transformative moment in the story of Star Wars gravitates to the lazy beats of what’s come before in the most meaningless sense.
Anakin died for love, so did Padmé, so did Han, so did Luke, so did Leia…and now concluding that tragic succession is Ben Solo. It felt like somewhere between a half-measure and a slap in the face to so many fans. We came to this saga with hope and what we got was death masked under the guise of a bittersweet ending. It not only continues to punish Ben Solo, but it also punishes Rey, and takes away so much of what she’d fought for to bring Ben back. God forbid the writers reward a female character with love, rather than forcing them to watch that person die in their arms. Everything about it just seemed cynical, shallow, and cruel.
The final shots of the Skywalker saga find Rey return to the Lars homestead on Tatooine. After she buries the last two Skywalker sabers, she turns to a passerby who asks her name. Not Rey from nowhere. Not Rey Palpatine. Rey Skywalker. This is also something I really didn’t care for, almost as much as I didn’t care for Rey Palpatine. When Rey discovered her parents were “no one” in The Last Jedi, the self-reliance and strength implied from it in the face of so much devastation only made the character stronger for me. Terrio and Abrams determination to box her into some family within the Star Wars saga really undercuts a lot of where I always felt she drew her strength from – not the Force, not her bloodline, but herself. To me she will always be Rey from nowhere who found family and understanding without bloodlines or family names. She will always represent my favorite things about Star Wars and the fact the screenwriters diluted that with a half-assed plot twist (TWICE!) is something that left a very sour taste in my mouth and I don’t expect to feel different about it any time soon – if ever.
This review took me a while to write and I understand most will probably see it as very negative. I don’t disagree. The Rise of Skywalker left me very rattled and I’m still pretty unsettled about it. I’d like to say I’ll see it again and look for more to enjoy, but I can’t see that happening anytime soon. The themes I’d come to expect from Star Wars, across all content and media, were only barely present and often trampled down by the spectacle JJ Abrams gave precedent to. I love a good space battle as much as the next fan, but if that’s not what brings me back to these films. For the first time, I don’t know where I stand as a Star Wars fan. I don’t know what my path forward is as we look to a franchise beyond the saga and from the collective survey of reactions to this film, I don’t feel like I’m alone. There will always be stories in the universe I don’t care for, but this is one I and many others were very much looking forward to, and led us to a ending of hopelessness when all we ever wanted was hope.