Spoiler Review – ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ – A Satisfying End to the Sequel Trilogy
In 2015, J.J. Abrams reunited us with old friends and introduced a new generation of heroes and villains in The Force Awakens. It feels fitting then that Abrams returned to tell the final chapter in the sequel trilogy and bring their story to a conclusion. It’s not an easy task. Ending not just a trilogy, but a trilogy of trilogies. A saga that has been told by multiple directors across 42 years. I’m not going to pretend that The Rise of Skywalker is a perfect movie, if such a thing even exists, but there’s a lot to love in the exhilarating adventure that Abrams has delivered. Spoilers ahead!
Coming out of The Last Jedi, the Resistance was almost crushed but hope had been reignited in the galaxy. The First Order appeared on the brink of victory, but for Supreme Leader Kylo Ren, who ended the film on his knees as Rey literally shut the door on him, it appeared to be a hollow one. Whether you love the film or loathe it, in many ways the ending felt more like a new beginning than a spring board into the final battle. Enter Palpatine.
Palpatine’s return shifts that dynamic and helps set the stage for the final conflict. For the Resistance, he represents a greater threat than the First Order ever could, and for the First Order, he has the potential to be either a threat to their rule or a powerful ally. The return of Palpatine was always going to be a gamble, but it’s one that I feel pays off, giving the saga a single overarching villain and forging a stronger link between the sequel trilogy and the original films. Would I have liked a little more on how he survived? As a fan, of course I would, but I don’t necessarily think the film needed it. Once Ian McDiarmid spoke his first line, I was sold. There’s a reason McDiarmid is beloved for this role, and he was in fine form. There’s a moment, once Palpatine has been truly reborn, where I could swear his body language mirrored his declaration of the Empire from Revenge of the Sith. Whilst Driver’s conflicted portrayal of Kylo Ren has been riveting to watch, Palpatine provides the pure embodiment of evil that was needed for the final confrontation of the saga and even changes the way we will watch the sequel trilogy in the future. I will never be able to watch Kylo speaking with Vader’s mask in the same way again.
The film wastes no time in bringing Kylo Ren face to face with the reborn Emperor and offering him a classic deal with the devil. A new fleet, total dominion over the galaxy, and new knowledge about his enemy, all in return for killing Rey. The treat of the new Sith Fleet provides a ticking clock. From Kylo’s initial hunt for Palpatine to the Resistance’s hunt for Exegol, the film’s pace is relentless and never lets up. There are a few moments where it could perhaps use a little more room to breathe, and I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to seeing some deleted or extended scenes restored for the home release like The Phantom Menace received, but having seen the film four times already I can safely say that I have never once been bored or checking my watch waiting for it to “get to the good bits”. It’s a breathless adventure that feels far shorter than its 142 minute run time.
After receiving a message from a spy and a frantic escape from the First Order, the main plot of The Rise of Skywalker sees our heroes seeking a Sith Wayfinder and the path to Exegol in order to prevent the Sith Fleet from being unleashed on the galaxy. It’s the first time that our main trio of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) have truly shared the screen this trilogy and they play off each other beautifully. There’s a camaraderie between the trio, along with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), they genuinely feel like old friends off on an adventure and it will make you wish they had been together more as a group in the previous films.
The first stop on their quest is Pasaana. Yes, it’s another desert planet, but the Aki-Aki festival gives it a distinct feel, far more vibrant and colorful than Tatooine or Jakku. Plus, it’s home to Lando Calrissian. I will happily admit that I’ve been waiting for Lando’s return since The Force Awakens and Billy Dee Williams did not disappoint. Seeing Lando again was pure joy, and even in his eighties, Billy Dee is still the smoothest guy in the galaxy. After saving our heroes from the First Order, Lando points them in the direction of Ochi’s ship where the trail he and Luke were following went cold. At this point, the film ticks off adventure movie tropes in rapid succession – a group of heroes searching for an ancient artifact, a chase, quick sand, and an encounter with a giant creature – but gives them a Star Wars flavor, introducing Jet Troopers for the frantic chase through desert canyons, and a new Force healing ability, a transfer of life essence, as Rey seeks to aid the wounded creature rather than attack. It’s a nice moment that shows Rey’s innate goodness and subtly inspires BB-8’s revival of D-O when she explains her new powers and tells the little droid he’d have done the same.
After escaping from the caves below the sinking sands, Rey feels the presence of Kylo Ren. As the others prepare Ochi’s ship, Rey goes to confront Ren leading to the moment from the first teaser where she faces down his TIE on foot, leaping over the ship to slice off its wing and sending Ren crashing into the desert. It’s at this moment that Finn tells her Chewie has been captured (I wish I could have seen that fight between the wookiee and the Knights of Ren), and Rey and Ren engage in a Force tug of war over the departing prisoner transport. I love this whole sequence between Rey and Kylo because he’s pushing her. Palpatine has told him the truth but he doesn’t quite believe it. Even when he’s in the TIE, he’s not shooting, he’s goading her to attack. And when she does blow up the transport with a burst of lightning, he’s almost as shocked as she is. Without saying a word, you can see the shock on Driver’s face just as evident as it is on Ridley’s.
Escaping from Kylo Ren, our heroes are presented with a new problem – they believe that Chewbacca and Ochi’s dagger were destroyed when Rey’s lightning blew up the transport ship, so now the only record of the way to Exegol is in Threepio’s memory and he is forbidden from translating the Sith language. It’s a funny irony that after eight films of telling Threepio to be quiet, now they can’t get him to speak. Daniels gets more to do in this film than he has since the original trilogy and gives a stand out performance. It makes me realize just how underused Artoo and Threepio have been in the sequel trilogy and how much I’ve missed them. The Rise of Skywalker at least sets that right for Threepio. I laughed out loud when he turned to look behind him on Pasaana, but it’s on Kijimi that Daniels shines. To pull the Sith translation out of Threepio’s memory banks our heroes travel to a snowy mountain town on Kijimi to meet a droidsmith from Poe’s spice running days; Babu Frik. It’s here they realize that getting the information will wipe Threepio’s memory. The film writes in a way around this before it even happens, with Finn asking about Artoo backing up Threepio’s memory, but it doesn’t make the scene any less poignant. Knowing the odds and the consequences if they fail, Threepio agrees to the procedure. It’s arguably Daniels finest moment in Star Wars.
Of course, the Knights of Ren have followed our heroes, and it isn’t long before Kylo’s Star Destroyer looms over the wintery mountains of Kijimi. Sensing that Chewie is alive, Rey and the others set off to rescue him, sneaking on board using a First Order Captain’s medallion provided by Poe’s old accomplice Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell). Zorii’s an interesting character and the chemistry between her and Poe is fun, but ultimately she doesn’t add much to the film beyond a glimpse into Poe’s slightly more chequered than expected past. It’s sad because Russell and Isaac are good together, but ultimately The Rise of Skywalker has a lot of ground to cover so we don’t really get chance to delve into any of the new characters that it introduces.
Once on the ship, Rey goes to recover Ochi’s dagger whilst Finn and Poe set out to rescue Chewie before being rescued themselves by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson)! Have to admit, I loved the Hux twist. Not only does it give you a genuinely funny moment with Finn and Poe’s reactions, but given his rivalry with Ren, it fits perfectly that Hux would try to undermine him by any means necessary since he knows he could never win a physical confrontation. I love the loathing that Gleeson brings to the role. I actually wish he’d lived a little longer so we could have seen his reaction to Ren’s redemption later in the movie.
Going after the dagger brings Rey into confrontation with Kylo Ren. Their Force bond is shown to have grown stronger since The Last Jedi, allowing them to physically interact and duel across space. And the sequel trilogies biggest mysteries are finally answered – who is Rey, and how are she and Kylo so strong in the Force?
Rey Palpatine. It works for me on so many levels. From a story perspective, the time for a Solo reveal was The Force Awakens and the time for a Skywalker reveal was The Last Jedi, so if Rey’s parents weren’t the nobodies we were told of in The Last Jedi then Palpatine is the obvious choice. It ties her directly into the ongoing conflict and presents the greatest challenge to her as a character. It also plays well with Ridley’s prior performances. Rey has always had a more aggressive fighting style than your typical Jedi, to go back now and say that aggression, that seed of darkness, was in her blood is a twist that works well and will add to what came before. I think Ridley’s performance in The Rise of Skywalker is the best she’s been in the entire trilogy, showing Rey struggling with her anger, scared of what that inner darkness could make her, but still staying true to the essential goodness of the character.
This struggle comes to a head on Kef Bir. After telling Finn that no one truly knows her and how she plans to kill Palpatine, with the Emperor’s theme playing ominously in the background, Rey is confronted by a dark vision of herself when she takes possession of the Emperor’s Wayfinder on the second Death Star, leading to an intense duel with Kylo Ren.
Which brings me to Leia. What Abrams, Terrio, and the wizards at ILM have pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. Of course, it’s not the story they would have told were Carrie Fisher still with us, and you can tell that they were writing around what footage they had, but they managed to bring Leia back, reveal her Jedi story, have her as Rey’s new master, and play a key role in the redemption of her son. It’s far more than I ever expected going in to the movie and I am genuinely amazed at how well they did it.
The final duel between Rey and Kylo Ren is one of the best in the trilogy, with the wreckage of the Death Star creating an instantly iconic backdrop to the confrontation. It mirrors Return of the Jedi as Kylo is not trying to kill Rey, but wants her to join him, whilst Rey, shaken by her linage and vision, is struggling to control her anger. I loved the contrasting styles of Rey’s angry strikes against Kylo’s more controlled attacks. And then Leia reaches him. In that moment, Rey uses Kylo’s own lightsaber to strike a potentially fatal blow before being overcome with horror and grief as she feels Leia’s death. Like Luke cutting off Vader’s hand, she struck her opponent down in anger and it shakes her to her core. Healing him, Rey tells him she did want to take his hand back in Snoke’s throne room (The Last Jedi), the hand of Ben Solo that is. After this, she takes his ship and follows Luke Skywalker’s example, heading into exile on Ahch-To.
For me, Adam Driver has been, without question, the best of the new actors in this trilogy. The inner conflict and intensity he brings to Kylo Ren makes the character fascinating to watch. After The Force Awakens, I wanted Chewie to rip his arms off and beat him with them for what he did to Han. But by the time the credits rolled on The Last Jedi, I was actively routing for his redemption. His scene on the Death Star, with the wonderful surprise return of Harrison Ford as Han Solo, is one of my favorite moments in the whole saga. It was just perfectly played by both men, and that final “Dad – “, “I know” just hits home every time I watch the film. And then his portrayal of the redeemed Ben Solo on Exegol, the complete change in his physicality and fighting style, it’s like watching the change in Christopher Reeve when he played Clark Kent and Superman. I think that’s one of the highest compliments I can give.
Speaking of favorite moments, Mark Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker is definitely up there. Catching the Skywalker lightsaber as Rey hurls it into the fire and walking out of the flames as Williams’ iconic Force theme plays is a fitting entrance for the great Jedi Master. Acknowledging his mistakes, Luke gives Rey the encouragement she needs to confront her grandfather. It’s the Jedi Master fans expected him to be in The Last Jedi, the ultimate end of his character arc. The smile on Hamill’s face after he lifts the X-wing from the sea, his face and hand gesture a beautiful call back to Yoda, was mirrored on my own. I’d have loved more, I would always love more Luke, but I love what we got. It nicely reflected Luke’s own final conversation with Obi-Wan, brought him full circle from his failure on Dagobah, and passed the torch to the next generation.
Back at the Resistance base, Poe, Finn, and the others learn of Leia’s death. Writing this now, I’m struck by how many of my favorite moments occur at this point in the film. Force Ghost Luke, Ben’s conversation with his father, Chewbacca’s reaction to learning of Leia’s death (where Joonas Suotamo absolutely rips my heart out with just a few roars and his body language), and Poe’s conversation with Lando about not being ready. All just beautiful moments from the scripting to the acting. And then Artoo receiving a message from Red Five! It was pure fan service but I’ll take it. That poor little astromech has been criminally underutilized this trilogy so it was nice to see him back in action with Poe for the final battle against the Sith Fleet.
And so we come to the end, as a small band of Resistance ships take on the might of the Final Order fleet under the command of Allegiant General Pryde (an enjoyable Richard E. Grant). Honestly the idea of landing on a Star Destroyer and riding space horses is completely out there, but I love it, and it’s perfectly in keeping with a universe where the Emperor’s finest were brought down by Ewoks. It was great to see Finn, a former Stormtrooper, riding into battle alongside not just the resistance but Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and other troopers who had also rebelled. Grant and Ackie get the largest of the new roles in The Rise of Skywalker and fit in well with the existing cast. The promise of further adventures with Lando and Jannah is something I hope the franchise explores in the future.
Speaking of Lando, hands down my favorite moment of the space battle comes when Lando brings the cavalry. Just when hope seems lost and Poe is giving in to despair, that familiar voices comes over the comm to remind him “there’s more of us.” Cliché or not, when Lando said that, leading a fleet the likes of which the galaxy has never seen, and the main theme kicked in, I was a twelve-year-old kid again seeing Star Wars for the first time.
Down on the surface of Exegol, Rey finally comes face to face with her grandfather. There are parts of this that I loved and parts that I felt didn’t quite live up to my, admittedly high, expectations. McDiarmid, as I said at the start, is deliciously evil in his return and I enjoyed every moment he was on screen. I loved Driver’s portrayal of Ben Solo, that moment Rey passed him the Skywalker lightsaber through their bond and his Han Solo shrug followed by the fight with the Knights of Ren is another of my favorite moments in the film, along with Rey rejecting her grandfather, her anger now left behind and her calm demeanor reflecting the Jedi she has become. These are all great moments. But as much as I loved hearing the voices of the Jedi, I can’t help but feel we should have seen them stand beside Rey as she confronted Palpatine, the heroes of all trilogies united against the ultimate evil. For all the emphasis put on Rey and Ben’s bond this trilogy, and the concept of them being a dyad in the Force introduced here, I felt like they should have defeated Palpatine together. That’s not to say what we got is bad, far from it. Just that as the end of the saga I had higher expectations for it.
My one wish going in to The Rise of Skywalker was for Ben to redeem himself. I felt it was needed to stay true to the main themes of the saga and to give the story a happy ending. Whilst my personal preference was for him to then live, I can understand why they chose not to do this. And there’s something beautiful in seeing the last Skywalker accomplish what his grandfather could not. He found a way to stop those he loved from dying even though the cost was his own life. The Skywalker story began with a boy leaving his mother to become a Jedi, and, as both Ben and Leia become one with the Force, it ends with a boy returning to his mother, a Jedi at last.
The Rise of Skywalker breaks the tradition of every trilogy ending with a musical montage and I still wish it hadn’t done that. There’s something so powerful about the endings of Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi where the emotion is carried just by the visuals and John Williams’ masterful score. And I wish we’d seen some prequel worlds as the First Order fleet fell around the galaxy. But those are minor nit-picks. There’s fan service galore as Chewie finally receives his medal and Threepio’s last line is the same as his first from forty two years ago, but it’s the emotion on the faces of our young heroes that really carries the scene. And so to Tatooine. It really is the only place the saga could end, with Rey metaphorically laying Luke and Leia to rest as she buries their lightsabers, before taking up their family name, a final rejection of her grandfather and honoring those whose legacy she will now continue.
Like I said in the introduction, I won’t pretend this is a perfect movie, and I can nit-pick parts of it all day long, but there’s no denying that it’s an exhilarating ride that’s immensely enjoyable and re-watchable. In fact, you almost have to watch it more than once just to take it all in. There’s so much packed in there. I just realized I got to the end of this review and barely even mentioned lovable little D-O or Dennis Lawson returning as Wedge Antilles and Warwick Davis as Wicket. In many ways, it is a love letter to the fans, all wrapped up in John Williams’ final Star Wars score. Whilst it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his work on the earlier trilogies, Williams is still the best at what he does. To have scored all nine movies over four decades, we are blessed to have him bring this musical journey to its conclusion. At the end of the day, The Rise of Skywalker may not be perfect, but it made me feel like I did when I was a child watching Star Wars for the first time, and I can’t ask for more than that.