Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (or Star Wars: Episode IX) is neither as conventional as Star Wars: The Force Awakens nor as surprising as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it succeeds by synthesizing the two (with a dash of Indiana Jones) into a breakneck adventure that carries the spirit of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy into a gratifying, delightfully bizarre denouement.
This episode picks up about a year after The Last Jedi, with Jedi hopeful Rey (Daisy Ridley) training under General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, posthumously), who is teaching her how to use the force in ways Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) never had a chance to during his tumultuous tutelage of the “Girl from Nowhere.” Rey is frustrated, angry and unsure where the fight is leading her and her friends. Sharing these frustrations are Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), who are running missions using the Millennium Falcon. The year between episodes has been nothing but setbacks for the fledgling Resistance, whose SOS at the end of The Last Jedi has gone unanswered.
It’s difficult to talk about the best parts of The Rise of Skywalker without delving into spoiler territory, which is always a problem covering these sorts of pop-cultural church sermons. I promise I’ve done my best.
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is now Supreme Leader, a role for which his suitability is questionable. He has spent the last year consolidating his power over the galaxy while searching for Rey. Their yin-and-yang Force relationship keeps them connected in ways they don’t quite understand. Driver’s body language says everything about his character this time around, especially when he’s wearing the dorky helmet. Calling it dorky isn’t an insult to the creative team; it’s literally part of the film’s text that the damn thing is poser bullshit because Kylo Ren is, fundamentally, projecting his own emotional weaknesses through aggression. He’s a boy desperately pretending to be a man in the worst ways possible.
The advertising campaign has already made most audiences aware that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) may or may not have risen from the grave. Let’s cut out the waffling: We all know the cackling old guy is back and up to no good again. His presence in the film is something, nothing and exactly like you expect. There’s a lot of cool sound design involved!
Like ol’ Palpatine, J.J. Abrams has also returned to the director’s chair. Abrams is a competent helmsman for franchise pictures because he is dedicated to rehashing what audiences already love about a franchise in newer, prettier ways. The Force Awakens is easily the weakest of this sequel trilogy, opening with a first act of beautiful mythology before succumbing to studio anxieties about whether the movie felt enough like Star Wars. When Abrams was announced to helm this chapter, there was some despair. When the credits rolled on the far superior The Last Jedi, the re-hiring of Abrams felt like even more of a downer. How could he live up?
He doesn’t. He tries something else. This may well be the closest Abrams has come to showing some personality in one of his tentpole pictures, if only because he was forced.
The Rise of Skywalker finds Abrams in a position unique to him: Rather than starting something, he’s forced to figure out how to end something. Endings are difficult as it is. But they seem to be particularly difficult for Abrams, who has steadfastly avoided them his entire career. Everything about this entry feels shaky, nervous, anxious. The first act is almost numbingly action-oriented, with every character getting a kinetic introduction. The following two require large amounts of questing, exposition and strangely awkward dialogue that may also be the fault of co-writer Chris Terrio. Longtime questions are answered, followed by new questions and new answers, ad infinitum. It is, truly, a unique Star Wars experience in and of itself. There has never been a franchise entry quite like this.
Although the pacing may feel awkwardly fast to some (I, personally, really had zero issue with it), it’s kind of beside the point. This entry, like the last two, is grounded by another extraordinary performance by Ridley. She’s the not-so-secret weapon that makes this trilogy work. Her Rey is sometimes derided as a “Mary Sue” or some bullshit, given her capabilities in combat and with the Force. But Ridley’s Rey has always been a character who is so much more than her RPG skill points. It’s no different here.
She’s the “Girl from Nowhere” who has always sought family, identity, and purpose. More importantly, she’s an inherently good person. She doesn’t seek heroic exploits but is heroic in her capacity for compassion and kindness to every creature she encounters. Her moral quandaries literally mirror Kylo Ren’s: Whereas he’s born from privilege and gives into the Dark Side to avoid facing himself, Rey is born from nothing and tempted by the Dark Side with opportunities to belong, to be defined, to let go of the abandonment issues that haunt her.
Rey faces new reveals about her history in this episode, in what will no doubt be the film’s most controversial element. As an outspoken fan of The Last Jedi, nothing in Rise of Skywalker remotely ruins that film’s central thesis. Nothing here feels like a dastardly attempt to brush “Rey from Nowhere” under the rug to please angry and vocal fans. This saga — and these three films in particular — carries many themes and explore a number of ideas, but first and foremost it addresses the moral tribulations of its main characters as they overcome opportunities to be selfish, to be cruel, to be hateful. To take the easy path. To take what they want, period.
Rey, more than Luke or Anakin, feels like a fleshed-out hero whose worst nightmares grow and evolve as she does. Again, it’s hard not to enter spoiler territory. I was moved by her performance, and the film’s twists, and think this movie does nothing to diminish Rey as one of the brightest stars in the Star Wars saga or her story (and the themes explored) carried over from The Last Jedi.
The other two members of Rey’s “trio” of heroes are Finn and Poe, whose arcs are less fulsome than their roles in the previous film. On the flip side, they participate in the main action much more directly and have a lot of fun character interactions. It’s not that they get nothing to do, but their arcs aren’t as central.
How are the other characters, old and new? Kylo and the Emperor, as mentioned, are surprising and great; hard to speak much more without stepping on toes. Same goes for Luke Skywalker (who, with top billing, clearly plays some role). Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is around, but not much. Newcomers Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell) are small but fun new characters in the point-to-point adventure portion of the movie. Lando (Billy Dee Williams) is a welcome return, and Anthony Daniels kills it as C-3PO.
Is Leia’s return effective? Carrie Fisher’s untimely death in 2016 definitely poked holes in larger storylines that come to a close here, but Lucasfilm’s decision to use unused footage from production of The Force Awakens (with CGI modifications) works well. Some seams show, but it is what it is. It’s hard to fault them for taking a thoughtful approach to including Fisher without resorting to the garish, morose corpse-mannequins of Rogue One.
The Rise of Skywalker likely works best depending on how invested the audience is with the stories of Kylo Ren, Rey and the like. This is very much a movie with dual purposes, tying up an overarching nine-film story while focusing primarily on the characters who made this trilogy their home. But it really only works if you give a shit about the newbies. I clearly do. If the attraction of the sequel trilogy was solely to see old friends return, well, it may leave audiences at a loss. Oh well. This will, hopefully, persist much longer than a film that is just a parade of cameos and fanboy references (of which this still has plenty).
Back in the seven years between Revenge of the Sith and the announcement of The Force Awakens, it seemed unlikely a sequel trilogy would ever exist. Lucas publicly poo-pooed the idea on multiple occasions. At the time, the old “expanded universe,” an active and ongoing set of stories set after Return of the Jedi that had started in earnest with 1992’s Heir to the Empire, was starting to show its age. Frankly, those books had sucked for a decade, disappearing down the rabbit hole of a shrinking audience of old men cradling their D&D books and VHS cassettes.
There were interviews, though, with Lucas in the 1980s where he’d act like he had a nine-episode series planned out from the start. (He didn’t.). In his vision circa 1980, the first trilogy would be about political failure, the second about personal growth and the third about the legacy of your choices. “Passing on what you had learned,” he would say.
I think, despite their faults, the sequel trilogy is a successful implementation of that idea. Although The Last Jedi is indisputably the crown jewel of the story, The Rise of Skywalker brings the characters to a stirring emotional conclusion that befits the franchise as a whole. Their lessons learned and actions taken echo and grow on those that came before. The spiritual center of Star Wars, at its best, has always been about how the personal decisions we make determine who we are. Light? Dark? Barometers in the measure of our souls. Being good is just as much a struggle as it is to be bad. Nobody is born a monster. Fear and failure can happen to anyone. No one is ever really gone. It’s all struggle. Love, compassion and the families we build for ourselves give us the strength to continue.
The Force is a feeling, a truth that guides the galaxy far, far away. Let it in and let it guide you, but most of all, learn to guide yourself to do what is right. The Rise of Skywalker embraces this tenet of the franchise.
I love Star Wars, and I loved this.