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THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Brings Everything Full-Circle… Or Something

December 23, 2019

Spoilers.

With a busy slate of upcoming TV projects and a dearth of information about new films in development, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker feels like the end of yet another era for the franchise George Lucas first unleashed upon the world in 1977. Furthering this point is the fact that The Rise of Skywalker is the capstone of a trilogy of trilogies. (I hate that sentence… please forgive me.)

We finally have the answer to the big question. Who were Rey’s parents? Rey is not another hidden Skywalker, nor a Solo. It turns out that she’s Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter, and like Luke before her, her Jedi path leads her directly into a confrontation with the Emperor. Yes — if you haven’t been following the buzz around this movie — the Emperor is quite operationa– I mean, he’s still alive. If The Force Awakens was A New Hope (only more), Skywalker feels like Return of the Jedi (only a lot more). So, Palpatine survived his fall and the explosion of The Death Star II to rebuild his power on the mysterious Sith world of Exegol. It is revealed that he had engineered Snoke as his puppet, and now he wants his granddaughter to unite with him to rule the galaxy in what is to be the Final Order. Let’s begin by jumping straight to the end. How does Episode IX manage to wrap things up?

Naturally, Rey isn’t interested in ruling, although Kylo Ren certainly is. After scouring the galaxy, Kylo locates Palpatine early in the film and intends to use Palpy’s powers to further his own cause. In the end, Rey turns Kylo Ren back to the light and then (somehow) channels the strength of #AllTheJedi through history to defeat her grandfather once and for all (I hope). I expect that we will get some solid meme mileage out of #IAmAllTheJedi. Meanwhile, Resistance sympathizers from across the galaxy have flocked to help destroy Palpatine’s resurrected doomsday fleet. With the defeated Emperor reduced to ash, and his fleet destroyed, the Resistance rejoices (just like at the end of Return of the Jedi), Rey and Ky– I mean Ben– kiss, and he dies. Before the credits roll, Rey pays a visit to the old Skywalker homestead on Tatooine where she decides to adopt the family name of Skywalker.

And that’s just the end of the movie. It’s a lot. It really is. I did get emotional quite a few times. With Ben gone, Rey choosing to associate with the Skywalker clan feels right and is also a nice subversion of expectation. It helps that you can play John Williams’ themes over virtually anything and the music will make it exponentially better. As is common with trilogy-cappers, Skywalker gets weighed down at times by the responsibility to tie up loose ends. I suspect that this responsibility is what leads to big moments that often feel overly convenient and safe. An example of the convenience would be how (again, somehow) Rey and Palpatine serve as stand-ins for #AllTheJedi and #AllTheSith respectively. This sequence feels ripped straight from the pages of Harry Potter. Seriously, where did all of Palpatine’s acolytes come from? Another example would the heretofore unintroduced ability of powerful Force users to instantly heal the injured and perhaps even revive the dead. The Last Jedi also expanded our knowlegde of the Force, but while those revelations felt genuinely thrilling, Skywalker‘s revelations felt more specifically like plot devices.

This film’s contentment with safety can be observed in two ways. The first way is in how much Skywalker clings to the Return of the Jedi template. The final act featuring a Palpatine showdown and concurrent space battle is just one explicit way in which Skywalker mirrors Jedi. I like to think of J.J. Abrams as more than a remix-artist, but Skywalker doesn’t support that thesis. The second way is how desperately Skywalker seems to retreat from Rian Johnson’s boundary-pushing The Last Jedi. It was too much for Abrams and Co. to allow Rey’s parents to truly be insignificant. Also, there are no maverick characters like Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, who in The Last Jedi was allowed to be complex and occasionally unlikable while at odds with the more central characters. Instead, we get the Emperor refurbishing apparently hundreds of vintage star destroyers and outfitting them all with planet-destroying cannons? It’s like the “sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads,” bit from Austin Powers, only not a joke. Must the answer to “what’s next?” always be “more and bigger?”

Austin Powers Shark Laser

Most of the elements that made Johnson’s movie such a breath of fresh air were either dulled or walked back entirely in Episode IX. Two of my biggest gripes with The Force Awakens were Kylo’s mask and hoodie combo, and that I didn’t really care a lick about Snoke. The Last Jedi remedied both of those, while Skywalker brought Kylo’s goofy getup back. I guess it sort of took the hint with regard to Snoke.

Did I mention that there’s plenty to like about this movie as well? Let’s get to that stuff. It’s possible that Skywalker actually works a little better than The Last Jedi as an ensemble movie. Finn and Poe are back to doing things that make sense, and the overall camaraderie that was brewing in The Force Awakens is on display once more. Of course, this movie will go down as Carrie Fisher’s final film appearance. Kudos to the filmmakers for finding a way of making her essential to the story with what must have been very limited footage.

Keri Russell as Zorri is a welcome addition, although I wish she had more to do and more essential storyline. Strong helmet design for Zorri as well. More of that, please. Naomi Ackie is another addition to the cast, playing Jannah, a First Order deserter who bonds with Finn while seeking redemption. Richard E. Grant is the latest British Guy to don an Imperial officer’s uniform and he gets a few nice moments. Ian McDiarmid is back as Palpatine and the actor picks up right where he left off back in Revenge of the Sith. Billy Dee Williams is back as Lando, and we even get a shot of Denis Lawson as Wedge Antillies (did NOT see that one coming, but cool). By making room for these and other actors spanning the entire franchise (including voice actors from The Clone Wars), The Rise of Skywalker is all-in on bringing the whole thing full-circle. Sometimes it feels like too much, and other times it makes you genuinely tear up. Let’s call it about even. 

Always on the move, memorable set pieces abound. A chase sequence that leads to a confrontation between Rey and Kylo on the planet Pasaana; the whole sequence with Zorri, in which Rey, Poe, Finn, et al. attempt to reprogram C-3PO on Kijimi (fun, albeit unnecessary); Rey and Kylo’s ForceTime duel; and visiting the ruins of the second Death Star. The best usage of the Star Wars sandbox has to be the shoot-out on the surface of a star destroyer. This movie shows off its imagination and wonder in these moments. I’m looking forward to seeing this again, sans all the pesky anticipation, and just basking in the fun parts which are numerous.

It’s fair to say Abrams managed to bring Skywalker, and the trilogy as a whole, in for a landing. Imperfect doesn’t begin to cover it, but when it comes to integrating old and new, it could have been a lot worse than this. If you look back at 2015’s Spectre (the latest James Bond flick), the back half of that movie was a brutally overcooked attempt to bring everything from the Daniel Craig era “full circle.” Skywalker does navigate the minefield a little more successfully, though not completely unsinged. Could there have been a more elegant conclusion? Perhaps. I won’t get into it here, but get in touch if you want to hear my pitch.

As of this writing, I don’t know of any firm commitments to future Star Wars films. It feels like a safe bet that we will get another trilogy at some point, and we can hope that it will further distance itself from the Skywalker saga, unlike this latest trilogy. Based on the strength of Rogue One and Solo, I’d be perfectly happy with a nice long run of spin-off films with stories operating on a similar scale. Those movies only came out in 2016 and 2018 respectively, but they’re already aging well. Focusing on leaner stories would spare us the bloat that crept into the past three numbered episodes.

Because of the many outright similarities, it’s difficult to avoid comparing the “new Star Wars” trilogy to the original, and this latest film in particular to Return of the Jedi. If you’re asking me, Jedi is the least of the original trilogy, but it has aged pretty well. It’s satisfying and hugely rewatchable. I may have even revisited it more than any of the other Star Wars films. The prequels also disappointed in a few ways, but now that we have five Disney/Lucasfilm productions to dissect, one could look back on Episodes I-III, flaws and all, as truly original visionary works. I expect The Rise of Skywalker will settle into the bottom tier of Star Wars films, but that’s not inherently a disaster. Perhaps Skywalker’s reputation will appreciate in the long term, even if it’s a little underwhelming in the moment.

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