Star Wars reviews: The Rise of Skywalker

The reviews and reactions to the new Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker have been extremely mixed.  In a way, that is to be expected, because this movie is intended to be the conclusion of the decades-long saga that has unfolded through the eight previous “episode” installments of the franchise.  Episode IX had an extremely formidable task to fulfill and, let’s face it, there was almost no way writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio could possibly fulfill everyone’s expectations.

Here are some of my thoughts about The Rise of Skywalker.  Call it a review, an analysis, or just the ramblings of a 43 year old fan, and (as always) feel free to disagree.

SW TROS

1) Star Wars is for kids

I have been a Star Wars fan ever since my father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater in 1980 when I was four years old.  In the early 1980s I was absolutely mad about Star Wars.  I had a whole bunch of the action figures, and I would make up my own adventures.  The three years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi felt like an eternity to my young self.  Finally it arrived in the theaters.  My father took me to see it, and I absolutely loved it.

Star Wars creator George Lucas has long argued that the series is really intended for kids.  I believe there is some truth to this.  Yes, there are quite a few elements to the movies that older viewers can appreciate & enjoy.  But at its heart Star Wars is basically a space opera, the big budget descendant of the old movie serials featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, high tech fairy tales set in outer space.

As an adult, watching first the prequels from Lucas and now the sequels from Disney, I have always endeavored to try to remember that I was a kid when I saw the original three movies, and to mentally bring myself back to that place.

Seven year old me would have absolutely loved The Rise of Skywalker.  It was a really fun, exciting movie.  There were a lot of parts that I genuinely loved, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that left me gasping in awe.

Having said that, I am an adult, and there were several aspects of The Rise of Skywalker that my older sensibilities found to be flawed or problematic…

SW TROS Finn Rey Poe

2) Rey of sunshine

Two of the best parts of the sequel trilogy have been the characters Rey and Finn, played by Daisey Ridley and John Boyega.  Both are great additions to the mythos.

In the previous installment, The Last Jedi, it was revealed that Rey’s parents were basically nobodies, and she was not the heir to any kind of family legacy.  This was a crucial aspect of the movie’s main theme, that the Force was not just for the Jedi, that anybody had the potential to access it, no matter who they were or where they came from.

I liked this development.  Unfortunately others did not.  Following Rey’s introduction in The Force Awakens there had been a ridiculous amount of speculation on social media about who she really was.  There were some really insane theories put out there tying her to established characters.  So when Rian Johnson revealed that Rey was no one in particular, these people lost their collective minds, seeing this as a huge disappointment.

Unfortunately Abrams either disagreed with Johnson’s approach, or was pressured by Disney to reverse this because of the supposed fan backlash.  So in TROS we find out Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.  Watching the scene where this is revealed, in my head I could almost envision Disney shouting to the audience “Okay, okay, stop yelling at us! Fine, Rey isn’t a nobody! She’s actually Papatine’s granddaughter! Are you happy now?!?

This felt like an attempt to placate angry fans, with the story falling back into the well-trod, traditional structure of myths & fairy tales.  I don’t think it was necessary.

Having said all that, Ridley does her best with the material. She really shows just how shocked & horrified Rey is at discovering she’s kin to the most evil being in the galaxy.  Ridley definitely sells the character’s inner turmoil, as well as her struggle to leave her heritage behind and become her own person.  Obviously the theme of “transcending your family’s dark legacy” was already done with Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, but Ridley nevertheless does a good job showing Rey’s journey through this difficult process.

I’ve also enjoyed the character arc of Finn through these three movies.  He really grows during the course of the storyline.

When you think about it, Finn is a brave, extraordinary individual.  When he was only a child he was kidnapped by the First Order and conscripted into their Stormtrooper army.  Despite years of indoctrination by his fascist masters, Finn was able to retain a conscience, to recognize what the First Order was doing was wrong.  More important, he found the strength to actually do something about it, first by deserting their ranks, and then by standing up to his former masters, actively fighting against their tyrannical cause.

TROS continues Finn’s development.  He is a much more confident figure than he was in the previous two movies.  Additionally, the idea that potentially anyone, no matter what their background, can use the Force is basically transferred from Rey’s character to his, and it is revealed that Finn is Force-sensitive.

Another important development for Finn occurs when he meets other ex-Stormtroopers who have also fled the First Order.  Boyega’s really does a good job of showing just how much it means to Finn to find others like him who have broken free from the First Order’s brainwashing and are now fighting against it.

SW TROS Kylo Ren vs Rey

3) Ren faire

One of my favorite online bloggers / reviewers is Darren Mooney.  He is an intelligent, insightful writer.  Even when I disagree with him, I find his arguments & reasoning to be well-constructed and thought-provoking.

Two months ago Mooney wrote a piece entitled “The Rise of Skywalker Can Correct Return of the Jedi’s Failings.”  One of Mooney’s criticisms of ROTJ is as follows:

“Return of the Jedi isn’t interested in whether Vader is redeemed. It only matters that Luke’s idea of Vader is redeemed. Vader never faces any justice for the crimes that he has committed. But Luke is able to convince himself of his father’s decency rather than confront the reality of what he’s done. The Star Wars franchise has always been about generational strife, with children inheriting a world scarred by their parents’ mistakes. Return of the Jedi retreats from that concept and betrays the franchise.”

A bit harsh, perhaps, but possibly accurate.  Now, none of what Mooney argues ever occurred to me when I was seven years old watching ROTJ.  Indeed, in 1983, having only seen Vader’s very limited actions in the original trilogy, killing the Emperor to save his son did appear to be a genuine act of redemption.

However, in the decades since, having witnessed Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side depicted in detail in the prequels, actually seeing the atrocities he committed in Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One, the Rebels animated series, and the comic book stories set during these periods, you might very well find yourself asking if turning against the Emperor in ROTJ to save Luke really does balance the scales, if it is truly enough for him to earn redemption.

So I had what Mooney wrote in mind while watching Kylo Ren’s arc unfold during TROS.

Leia uses the Force to connect with Kylo Ren, dying in the process.  A distracted Ren is mortally wounded by Rey, but she immediately uses her own Force energy to heal him.  After his mother’s sacrifice and Rey’s act of mercy, it’s clear that Ren no longer wants to continue down the terrible path he is on.  At the same time, he is fully aware of all the horrible crimes he has committed, including the murder of his father, and he is afraid that, with all the blood on his hands, he does not have the strength to change.

Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo really is haunted, especially when he reaches this turning point.  The conversation between him and his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is both well-written and subtly performed.  I appreciated that it was left ambiguous if Ben is truly communicating with his father’s ghost, or is actually struggling with his conscience within his own head.

Looking at it from an adult perspective, Ben’s ultimate act of redemption does feel more genuine than Vader / Anakin’s did.  Yes, Ben turns against the First Order and stands side by side with Rey in opposing the Emperor.  However, he truly redeems himself after the battle is over, Palpatine has been destroyed, and victory has been achieved.  Rey has been killed, but Ben uses his own life energy to revive her, sacrificing his own life.  His final act is not killing an enemy, but selflessly saving the life of a friend.

SW TROS Leia

4) Farewell to a Princess

One of the obvious obstacles that faced Abrams & Terrio in making TROS was Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death in December 2016.  Early plans for the movie would have had General Leia Organa as one of the main characters; obviously all of those plans had to be scrapped.  Abrams & Terrio were left with about eight minutes of unused footage from TLJ featuring Leia, which meant that they had to write the story around that.

To their credit, Abrams & Terrio do a good job of smoothly incorporating the footage of Fisher into the movie.  None of it feels forced.  If you were watching the movies and had no idea how real life events had dictated the production you might be left wondering why the character of Leia had so little screen time, but there wasn’t anything there that leaps out to indicate that Daisey Ridley was acting opposite footage of Fisher that was shot two years earlier.

5) Cavalcade of cameos

It was good to have Lando Calrission return to the series. I had a huge smile when he first appeared on screen.  It certainly seemed like Billy Dee Williams was having a blast playing the character again.  I think Lando’s character was pretty well served by the screenplay, so his presence wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia to please older fans.

We also see a glimpse of Wedge Antilles during the final battle, although in that case it was unfortunately just a cameo.  It would have been nice if Denis Lawson’s character had gotten a bit more screen time.  I realize Wedge was a minor character in the original trilogy, but he became a major figure in the X-Wing comic books & novels from the old Expanded Universe.

The most surprising appearances by older characters were during Rey’s confrontation with Palpatine.  Rey taps into the Force to give her strength, and she hears the voices of a number of Jedi Knights, both from the previous movies, as well as from the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels, certainly a cool nod to those characters.

SW TROS Lando

6) United we stand

The Rise of Skywalker is much less overtly political than The Last Jedi.  Nevertheless, there is a message to the movie.

We meet Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) a smuggler Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) knew from his pre-Resistance days operating on the fringes of the law.  Speaking of the threat posed by the First Order, Zorii tells him:

“They win by making you think you’re alone… There’s more of us.”

This is later demonstrated when Lando organizes a fleet made up of ships from numerous planets to stand against the Emperor’s armada on Exegol.  On their own, none of the ships from these disparate civilizations would be able to stand up to the First Order, but united together they are a match for Palpatine’s forces.

Without getting into too many specifics, the point here is that the far left, liberals, moderates and centrists need to set aside their differences and work together to fight against fascism.  Once that is accomplished then we can sit down and hash out compromises for our various positions, but until then we must present a united front.

Also, the whole subplot with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) turning out to be the spy in the First Order giving information to the Resistance feels timely.  Considering what a smug, sadistic creep he it, at first Hux would appear to be the last person you would expect to help the Resistance, at least until he explains to Fin and Poe: “I don’t care if you win. I need Kylo Ren to lose.” Yes, that is perfectly in keeping with Hux’s petty, selfish nature.  I was instantly reminded of the numerous anonymous leaks out of the Trump Administration, as well as the backstabbing and scheming that has taken place over the past three years as the grifters and opportunists have jockeyed to grab power.

Likewise, it is not surprising that General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) takes the first opportunity available to shoot down Hux in cold blood.  Later, after Kylo Ren abandons the First Order, Pryde quickly & eagerly switches his allegiance to the Emperor. There is no loyalty or honor in the First Order, only a craving for power at any cost.

7) Bursting at the seams

There was enough material in TROS to fill at least two movies.  That resulted in some rushed scenes, and certain characters getting short shrift.

The most notable instance was Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran.  Rose was a central figure in TLJ, but she spends most of TROS sidelined.  Maybe it was that there were too many characters.  Maybe it was because Rose was created by Johnson, and Abrams didn’t have much interest in her.  Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate, because following the release of TLJ both the character and the actress were subjected some truly vile racist and sexist attacks on social media.  Even if it’s inadvertent, Rose’s diminished screen time here feels like Disney kowtowing to toxic fandom.

Another area where there wasn’t anywhere enough development was with the mysterious Knights of Ren, who were first briefly glimpsed in TFA.  They finally show up in TROS, but they’re just a bunch of faceless, nameless mooks who silently follow Kylo Ren around for most of the movie and then, after he turns away from the dark side, unsuccessfully try to kill him.  And that’s it.

8) Let’s get Sidious for a moment

The return of Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, was certainly one of the most noteworthy aspects of TROS.  Even though he was spectacularly killed off at the end of ROTJ, it does feel appropriate to bring him back.  While Darth Vader is, thanks to Ralph McQuarrie’s design and James Earl Jones’ vocal performance, the most iconic villain of the whole SW saga, it is the Emperor who is the true Big Bad of the first six movies.  So if TROS was to be the conclusion of the Skywalker family story then it makes sense for the ultimate evil of the saga, Darth Sidious, to play a key role.

The Emperor’s return doesn’t make much sense in-story (more on that below) and the actual mechanics of his resurrection are left extremely vague.  When Kylo Ren threatens to kill him, Palpatine merely responds by saying “I have died before” and then repeating his famous declaration from Revenge of the Sith: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.”

Later on a member of the Resistance suggests a few possible explanations, one of which is cloning.  Perhaps this was a nod to the now out-of-continuity comic book miniseries Star Wars: Dark Empire by Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy, published by Dark Horse in 1991, which saw the Palpatine return in a cloned body.  (Likewise, the ancient Sith planet Exegol might be inspired by Korriban, which appeared in several of the Dark Horse SW series.)  Whatever the process the Emperor returned to life, it was apparently not perfect, as he spends the entire movie looking even more ancient & wizened than before, hooked up to an elaborate framework of life support machinery.

The Emperor’s plans are also left vague, other than a general “conquer the galaxy again” type of thing.  He seems to alternate between wanting Kylo Ren to kill Rey so that she can’t oppose him, and getting Rey herself to kill him so that his spirit can transfer into her younger body.  Towards the end of the movie Palpatine seems ready to abandon both those plans when he suddenly discovers he can drain energy directly from Rey and Ben to restore his own body.

However dodgy the plotting is, it was good to have McDiarmid back as the Emperor.  He’s played the role on & off for over three and a half decades now, and he effortlessly slips back into the Emperor’s foul persona, turning in an evil, twisted performance, once again making Palpatine the man we all love to hate.

The resolution of the battle between Rey and the Emperor was also well done.  Rey is faced with a seemingly-impossible conundrum.  If she kills the Emperor his spirit & powers will inhabit her body.  If she doesn’t kill him than he still has more than enough life in him to live long enough to destroy the Resistance.

In the end Rey wins by turning the Emperor’s own power against him.  She uses her lightsabers and the Force to deflect the Emperor’s lightning bolts back at him, in effect causing him to kill himself. As Yoda advised in TESB, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

SW Dark Empire 2 pg 18

9) Making shit up as we go along

It’s pretty obvious that bringing back the Emperor in TROS, revealing that he created Snoke and was controlling the First Order from behind the scenes all along, was something that Abrams & Terrio came up with pretty late in the day.  There’s absolutely no indication of any of this going on in either TFA or TLJ.  A revived Palpatine hiding away on Exegol and preparing a massive fleet of Dark Side Star Destroyers capable of obliterating entire planets, and using the First Order to keep everyone occupied in the meanwhile, doesn’t make much sense, because the previous two movies already showed the First Order wiping out the New Republic and making good progress in seizing control of the entire galaxy all on its own.

Over the past few years several people have suggested that it was a mistake to have the First Order simply be the Galactic Empire with a new coat of paint.  It would have made more sense to have the First Order be some sort of insurgent group organized by Imperial war criminals who had escaped justice, a subversive entity undermining the New Republic via terrorist attacks.  That sounded like it would have been good idea even before TROS came out.  It would have made even more sense now that it’s actually been established that the First Order was always intended by Palpatine to be a diversion while he rebuilt his forces in secret.

All of this speaks to Disney’s failure to plan this trilogy out ahead of time.  It was a mistake to have the writers / directors working in isolation, with no general overarching plan.  Abrams did TFA, then passed the ball to Johnson to do TLJ, and who in turn was supposed to hand it off to Colin Trevorrow to do TROS before that fell through due to “creative differences,” with Abrams getting brought back late in the day to wrap things up.

Honestly, this has been a problem with Star Wars throughout much of the series’ existence: it was made up on the fly.  Despite what Lucas later claimed, it seems pretty obvious that the original was intended to be a stand-alone movie.  Otherwise Lucas would not have asked Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind’s Eye as a story that could be filmed quickly & cheaply, using as many existing costumes & props, just in case Star Wars happened to do well enough for a second movie to get the green light.

It was only when Star Wars unexpectedly became a gigantic runaway success that Lucas really committed to the whole nine episode storyline, and even there he continued to make it up as he went along, working with several other writers.  For example, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were still separate characters in the early drafts of TESBThe early plans for ROTJ were for only Darth Vader to die, and for the Emperor to escape at the end.  That was supposed to set up the next trilogy, which would see the Empire rebuilding, and Luke searching for his twin sister, who was hidden away at the opposite end of the galaxy. Unfortunately while Lucas was starting work on ROTJ his marriage fell apart, and he was in such a bad place emotionally he decided to just bring everything to a close with that movie.  So suddenly both Vader and the Emperor died, the Empire was defeated, and Leia was implausibly revealed to be Luke’s sister.

This meant that three decades later, when Disney decided to finally make that third trilogy, they found themselves having to undo the final, decisive defeat of the Empire in ROTJ.  So all of a sudden the First Order appears out of nowhere, and the New Republic is quickly wiped out, in a really blatant resetting of the status quo.

Looking at all of the movies, it’s clear that the ones that are most internally consistent are the prequel trilogy, all of which were written & directed by Lucas.  Say what you will about the scripting or the acting or whatever, the fact is that Lucas appears to have plotted the whole thing out ahead of time, and stuck to that plan throughout the making of all three movies, resulting in a trilogy that actually does feel like a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end.

Disney really should have looked at the missteps that Lucas made with the original trilogy, and the successes that he did actually achieve with the prequels, and planned the entire storyline for their trilogy out right from the start.  Instead they just rushed into it without any concrete idea of where they were going, and it shows.

SW TROS Emperor

10) To make a long story short… Oops, too late!

I’ve already written over 3,500 words about The Rise of Skywalker, so let’s cut to the chase.  I enjoyed it.  It had some really great action sequences, as well as some genuinely good, moving character arcs & developments, and felt like a pretty good emotional conclusion to the overall saga.  Nevertheless, it also had a lot of flaws.  It was good, but it could have been better.

I really think Disney should step back for a bit, learn some lessons from the missteps of this new trilogy, and take the time to decide exactly what they want to do next with Star Wars.  The franchise still has a ton of potential to tell all sorts of stories, but it’s the kind of property that cannot be approached half-assed, that needs a certain amount of thought & planning.  I wish them luck, because I would love to one day see Star Wars return better than ever.