There is a baseline for Star Wars. A requisite number of components necessary to build a satisfactory adventure with space wizards, laser swords, rogues, and aliens from a thousands worlds. In that regard, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker exceeds the requisite number of parts and is, on the whole, an enjoyable entry in the ongoing Star Wars saga even if it falters in its self-appointed role as the conclusion to the Skywalker story began in 1977.
In the film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out the location of Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) the deposed emperor of the First Galactic Empire. As the opening crawl helpfully tells us, he has made his presence known via a galaxy-wide broadcast — attracting the attention of both Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). But as the transition from the crawl to the first shot reveals, director J.J. Abrams’ heart is not here. Even the worst of the Star Wars films — 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones — manages a more interesting and mood-setting first moment. In the other films, these shots typically take us to a planet of interest. Here, we see an unimportant world which fails to set the mood, but does set the pace. We briefly see Kylo attacking aliens as he searches for a Sith Holocron with the location of Palpatine’s hidden world, Exegol. Then he’s quickly off to that world where the picture slows down so Palpatine can offer a handful of answers to the Sequel Trilogy’s questions.
This is the key problem with The Rise of Skywalker as a film — it speeds up and slows down at awkward moments. The first half-hour often feels like a highlight reel of the Episode VIII Abrams intended, but declined to make. It’s introduction of the Sith as a known quantity — and even the holocron MacGuffin — feel like elements from a missing film. The early parts of the film also briefly establish other key details like the First Order under Kylo’s supreme leadership, Rey’s training by Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), and even the Resistance’s meager network. But in trying to reframe the Sequel Trilogy to his specifications, Abrams misses some of the opportunities handed to him at the end of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Although, to expect him to pick up any of the batons offered to him by Last Jedi director Rian Johnson is folly. Abrams clearly had an ending in mind when he directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the overall issues with the three films as a whole rest on his decision not to personally supervise the entire endeavor. The Rise of Skywalker favors his original concept over any options Johnson discovered in his Star Wars story.
Instead, we can examine how it follows up on the ideas Abrams first presented in The Force Awakens. For one, it offers a predictable yet satisfying answer to Rey’s parentage. Out of a handful of possible contenders, her bloodline as revealed here makes the most sense as it resonates the most across all nine of the numbered films. On a thematic level, it also repudiates Star Wars‘s insidious tendency to support the notion of nature over nurture. Rey makes choices throughout the film instead of being carried across it by the will of her genetics, a Dark Lord, or even the Force itself. In this, her journey is interesting as she must confront the very real darkness lurking within her and actively reject it.
The film also manages to find an acceptable way to redeem Ben Solo. We first learn he has been dragged across his story by Palpatine’s design — a twist which would have been better served by appearing in an Abrams-directed Episode VIII — and then we see Leia reaching out to stop the rage inside him. But to complete this transition, a literal death of Kylo Ren is also required, so Rey kills him. It is the first of many deaths Ben experiences in this film, with each making his path back to the light more and more convincing. Your actual appreciation of this story thread will depend on a variety of factors. Personally, seeing Ben die so many times made his redemption easier to stomach. Others who found him a weak character or those invested in the potential romance between him and Rey may not be as charitable.
But again, we are dealing with requisite parts here, and thus the manipulated, black-suited antagonist of a Star Wars story must die. And the way that required element is used in The Rise of Skywalker may be its biggest narrative success.
Meanwhile, characters like Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and characters introduction both in The Last Jedi and even The Rise of Skywalker get the short end. That said, the allusions of Finn’s story here are some of the strongest bits of material Boyega has been offered. So much so, in fact, it would be hardly surprising if a subsequent non-Skywalker film followed up on them. Poe, who was never really part of Abrams’ design — he was meant to die in that Force Awakens TIE Fighter crash — is a glorified extra. Sure, he gets some lines to say and even an on-going story beat with Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), a woman from his past, but there’s no meaningful thing for him to do in the film besides lead the charge and have a very brief, but fun adventure with his friends. That said, Isaac is very watchable as Poe and, we presume, we will see more of him as the character in the years ahead.
Which is, ultimately, a huge problem for The Rise of Skywalker as an ending. Nothing except Rey’s journey of self-discovery feels finished. Palpatine and the Sith may be defeated, but the Dark Side is a necessity of the universe. As a commercial product, a series called Star Wars needs essential conflicts to continue. This is why the galaxy is always at the saber’s edge with followers of the Light and the Dark in a perpetual contest for its soul. And in that context, the film puts nothing to bed. Those seeming lost can always return thanks to space magic and there will always be someone so enamored with the appealing look of Sith fascism that the costumes and hierarchy will always return. Also, outside of its world, Episode X is inevitable. Star Wars‘s overall tendency to believe that all one must do to defeat evil is cut off the head of the snake both leads to great dramatic moments, but also insures an unending path of story. And while the off-shoot films and television series can put the toys back in the chest without feeling cheap, something advertised as an ending — like The Rise of Skywalker — should feature something more definitive.
And for all the requisite things it does with craft or excellence, the hollow ending of the film may be too much for some to bare. It may come off as cheap or the logical outcome of a series began to meet a handful of deadlines. Then again, asking it to be an ending within an ongoing narrative framework may be too big of an ask for the film. On a more macro level, readers and viewers recoil from true endings in modern storytelling. There is always more and Star Wars‘s best strength is its ability to seed more adventures.
Ultimately, your willingness to accept Star Wars as a suite of storytelling tools with no end will determine your appreciation of The Rise of Skywalker. It definitely hits the baseline even if it falls short of the stars themselves.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters now.
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