I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts on the purported final chapter in the Skywalker Saga for a few days now. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker concludes a 42-year-old story introduced with George Lucas’ 1977 triumph, Star Wars. You’ve probably heard of it. Many are skewering this final chapter as a less than stellar ending to what Lucas originally envisioned. And much like everything else nowadays, sides must be chosen. You see, I am (happily, proudly) in the minority camp of those who were actually fond of what happened in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. The controversial 8th chapter in George Lucas’ Disney’s Star Wars saga seemingly went out of its way to subvert every moviegoing expectation imaginable. Some saw it as cinematic sabotage, wrecking any and all loyalty between fans and creators. I saw it as a fresh take on the worn out “hero’s journey” archetypal story.
Looking at Episodes 7—9, and taking into account each plot-twist, it is painfully obvious to me is that there seems to have been no overarching plan guiding this trilogy. Which is not only a gargantuan mistake for three films of this magnitude, but also a gargantuan letdown considering these movies come from the same ownership group which oversaw, perhaps, the best planned franchise in cinematic history, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I have never been a fan of the MCU or its unstoppable conglomerate of box office successes, but maybe (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) the folks behind these new Star Wars films should’ve had more creative influence from the folks behind the MCU saga. There should have been a plan, at least.
This is nowhere more evident than the inclusion of Sheev Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker. After the Emperor is seemingly tossed to his doom at the hands of ex-pupil Darth Vader at the end of The Return of the Jedi, he is neither mentioned or hinted at again. Episodes 7 and 8 make no effort to give you any clue that old Palpatine is still around and still conniving people and planets to his nefarious purposes. In Episode 9, though, he is integral to plot. If a plan was in place that was guiding this sequel trilogy, you’d think Palpatine’s presence would at least be insinuated to one degree or another. His reappearance seemingly comes out of nowhere and is accompanied by no explanations as to how his evil little heart is still pumping. It felt very forced. (Yes, I’m okay with that pun.)
A more interesting version of these new Star Wars films could have been had if Palpatine was introduced much sooner. Maybe that means Snoke should have never existed, too. I’m not entirely sure. One idea I had right after watching The Rise of Skywalker was if in The Last Jedi you’re made to find out that Snoke wasn’t real; he was just a projection the Emperor was using all along. Thus, when Kylo Ren severs Snoke’s body in The Last Jedi, you realize that he was never really there at all. He was merely a sinister apparition Palpatine was using to hide his identity. Regardless, establishing the Emperor’s presence earlier in the trilogy would have made for a far more intriguing series, especially considering the “force dyad” elements revolving around Rey and Kylo is some of the best Star Wars stuff out there. In fact, Kylo Ren’s journey is, perhaps, the best component of this new trilogy. His character is certainly the most interesting. The Rise of Skywalker adds so much complexity to Kylo that I definitely wanted more of.
There’s a lot to like about Episode 9. Poe Daemeron’s character is the best he’s ever been. Dueling on the Death Star’s ruins while ginormous waves crash all around is fabulous. The comedic bickering between Poe and Finn was enjoyable. Using the force to stop a lightsaber mid-fight is amazing! Flipping over a Tie Fighter! Light-speed skipping! But, at the same time, there were several elements that really irked me. What in the world did they do to C3PO’s character? Is D-O essential to anything other than selling toys? What was Lando’s purpose again? Do we have to see the Ewoks celebrate the overthrow of evil again? No, of course not, but whatever.
Again, I don’t think by any conceivable stretch of the imagination that I am a better storyteller or filmmaker than the creative braintrust that stands behind these films. But my biggest quandary with The Rise of Skywalker, and one I will never understand, is why they wrote Rey’s last line — the last line of the entire Skywalker Saga, no less — the way that they did. In “James Bond-ian” fashion, she says to some random desert dweller, “I’m Rey . . .” long pause “Rey Skywalker.” She says this as the force ghosts of Luke and Leia look on in approval. (Side-note: Another easy “fix” that would immediately make the ending much more impactful would be the inclusion of more force ghosts. As Rey calls herself a Skywalker, she does so as Luke and Leia look on favorably from the Jedi afterlife. It would have been climactic to see Ben Solo, Anakin Skywalker, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and others there, looking on in approval — especially after we’re told that “a thousand generations” live in Rey, and that she is “all the Jedi.”) But even in the moment, that last line did not feel poetic or true or resonant with what Rey’s story was set up to be from the very beginning. I feel the same way about the ending of The Rise of Skywalker as I do about the ending to The Dark Knight Rises.
In Christopher Nolan’s third Caped Crusader film, he goes against his trademark and crafts an ending that’s so on the nose all emotional investment is lost. Nolan has established himself as one of the premier filmmakers of our time, not the least because the endings to his films spark so much conversation and intrigue. Entires such as Memento, The Prestige, and, especially, Inception are riveting because of their subjectiveness. In The Dark Knight Rises, the ending is spelled out for us. I will always contend that it would have been better if the credits started rolling as soon as Michael Caine’s character looks up, and you never see what he sees. That would’ve given credence to all of the emotional build up to that moment and would have ended Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films on a germane subjective note. But I digress.
The Rise of Skywalker’s ending could be immediately improved by simply changing that one line of dialogue. Instead of having Rey call herself a Skywalker, I wish that she would have just said, “Just Rey.” She uses this reply earlier in the same movie when she’s asked for her family name. At that point in the film, however, she is flustered by her apparent lack of a family name, compounded by The Last Jedi’s revelation that her parents were nobodies, scoundrels, and says, “Just Rey” with no small amount of embarrassment. Her quest to understand who she is, to find out who her parents were, is intricate to Rey’s character. She longs for an identity and a purpose, and supposes the key to both is derived by discovering her heritage. This quest to find her family makes up the bulk of the runtime for Episodes 7 and 8. In Episode 9, it is shockingly revealed that Rey, in fact, is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. Her grandfather is none other than the intergalactic phantom menace who’s been puppeteering events on countless planets for purposes of attaining galactic domination.
Again, I wasn’t overtly bothered by this fact. It actually makes for a very intriguing story and adds an incredible amount of weight and depth to Rey’s character. But (again, in my opinion) a more fitting conclusion to Rey’s story would have been to have her say with confidence, strength, boldness, and self-assurance, “Just Rey” — a definitive declaration that she’s okay with who she is. That notwithstanding her heritage, she’s her own person. That her family doesn’t necessarily define her identity. She’s just Rey.
But ultimately, even with all of that said, The Rise of Skywalker is nowhere near as bad as many of the folks online would have you believe. There are many panning the film for its seeming structure of merely “checking boxes” for Star Wars diehards — a sort of apology for what occurred in The Last Jedi. I didn’t totally see that. There was some backtracking on what Rian Johnson did with his controversial Episode 8, but Abrams’ accomplishment with Episode 9 is, indeed, an accomplishment. I can’t even imagine tackling the monumental task of concluding a 42-year-old story with as much fan expectation as is garnered by any piece of Star Wars media. The fun and frenzied pace at which Abrams crafts this story never let’s you get bored. It’s a sensational ride from start to finish. It might not have been the conclusion you expected or wanted, but it might be the one we deserved all along.