Exploring the questionable aspects of The Rise of Skywalker, the sequel trilogy overall, and how Star Wars reminds us that, just like family, it’s possible to love something and still not like it.
The fans speak! The Skywalker Saga has come to a close and a collective shrug has spread across the galaxy like unwrapping socks on Christmas morning. Sure, it’s a gift, but, you know, it’s socks. No, no, no! I needed them! I do remember I said that a while ago, yes. Yeah! Yeah! I see the little Death Stars on them. They’re cool. I’m glad I got them. It’s better than not having them. Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker proves once again that, like any gymnastics routine, it’s hard to stick the dismount. And J.J. Abrams is no Kerri Strug circa 1996. And no, Simone Biles would not have been a better reference here. As the debate over what Episode IX is and what it could have been rages on here and elsewhere, the endeavor to levy constructive criticism and find the balance between light and dark, Jedi and Sith, and Abrams and Trevorrow continues. There are questions that must be asked. First, however, readers must race to google “Strug, Atlanta ‘96”… Wars, especially star wars, are pretty intense because of what’s at stake. So what are the stakes in this star war and where is their intensity? Yes, Emperor Palpatine now has the capability to destroy multiple planets with his fleet of Death Star Destroyers. We even SEE one destroy a planet. It’s the planet named…umm…with the girl in the helmet from The Rocketeer named…Zori…umm…you know! The one that looked really cool in promotional material and then did virtually nothing except jam in exposition for an unnecessary “scoundrel” retcon of Poe’s backstory? Zori Bliss! Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t care about that planet.
The audience is given no attachment to that world; therefore, there are no stakes tied to its destruction. Remember Alderaan? Hell yes you do. I bet you also remember that they’re peaceful and they have no weapons. Why do you remember that? Not just because you’ve seen A New Hope 1,000 times since its release in 1977, but because you were shocked when they blew it up! Princess Leia was a cool, mouthy rebellion leader until Tarkin literally threatened her whole world and she started begging him like a child not to do it using those very words. Oh, and the planet in Rise of Skywalker is Kijimi. I had to look it up. The point here is the audience shouldn’t be apathetic about the destruction of an entire planet. If I want tonot care about seeing stuff blow up, I’ll watch a Michael Bay film.
It was also so sad when Chewbacca died in The Rise of Skywalker. If you blinked, though, you might have missed it. That’s because we were shown he was alive about eight seconds later. I barely had time to register he was dead let alone be overjoyed he was alive. And to further prove how hesitant the writers/producers/director were to take a risk and raise the stakes, the audience found out he was alive before the other characters did.
So we ended up passively observing their shock when they see Chewie alive rather than sharing it. It was like hearing Darth Vader tell Luke that he’s his father in The Empire Strikes Back, but two minutes before that we got a scene where an officer asks Vader, “So are you gonna tell him you’re his dad?” And Vader responds, “Eh, probably.” It kills the moment later on.
They did a similar thing with C-3PO in The Rise of Skywalker. This droid has nervously scuttled his apprehensive comic-relief through nine films and three wars and, at last, he gets his serious hero moment.
He takes one last look at his friends before making the ultimate sacrifice like the warrior he’s always been and gives up his entire memory and the “person” he’s become for the cause. But wait! Is that R2-D2?! It sure is. He plugs into the droid and C-3PO is back to his old self like it’s Happy Days and R2-“The Fonz”-D2 just hit the side of the jukebox to start the music. Am I glad Chewie and Threepio are alive? Of course. But when stories allow for characters to “die” and “return” it cheapens the emotions and lowers the stakes. Which leads me to…
Why is the Emperor back? Not that I’m upset he returned. I was ecstatic when the first trailer revealed it. He is the ultimate villain of the saga.
Everything that’s happened has been because of his evil scheming. From the perspective of the rhyming or cyclical nature of Star Wars’ storytelling, I felt like it made sense to see him one more time. The problem was the execution of his presence. We never even had a hint of him in the two whole films before that. There was speculation that Snoke was the Emperor in some form, but nothing more than speculation. Even worse than no previous foreshadowing of his continued existence is the almost complete lack of explanation for how he is alive. He gives Kylo the line from Revenge of the Sith about the dark side be ing a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural—which is the Sith Lord equivalent of saying, “Don’t worry about it.” The Resistance doesn’t do any better with the explanation for Sidious’s return. The best we get is a hobbit’s off-handed comment about “cloning” and “dark magic.”
It’s fair to say that in the Star Wars universe, the films especially, some things simply need to be taken as they are. There isn’t always time for exposition or detailed explanation. It is, after all, an entire universe. However, we got an entire subplot about Poe being a former spice runner with an angry ex-girlfriend. It would stand to reason if there was time for that then there would be a tad more detail provided for the return of the Emperor—a man we saw get thrown down an endless shaft and explode into windy, blue energy. Hey! There’s a possible explanation, Chris and J.J.! All that blue light and strong wind that came out of the shaft after Palpatine was thrown down it was actually his dark side essence (because Sith can’t technically become force ghosts). It was preserved in the remains of the Death Star and transported through Sith force rituals to Exegol. Perhaps it turns out he DID know how to cheat death like Darth Plagueis, but would not share his secret in order to further punish and enrage Vader. There you go. I can’t come up with the ideas, but I can criticize and change them.
It’s worth noting that the novelization of The Rise of Skywalker directly states that the body of Palpatine we see is a clone version that is deteriorating from trying to hold in the power of his dark side essence. And for those of you who have read the Aftermath trilogy which takes place after Return of the Jedi (and is canon), you know that the Emperor had a plan in place for his death called The Contingency. It dictated that the remains of the Empire would retreat to unknown space to recover and essentially reform into The First Order. All they needed to do in the film is mention that it’s taken all that time to put Darth Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Ultimately, whether or not the Emperor came back in this film, I have a more important question… Where the hell was Anakin Skywalker’s force ghost? It seems to me that it’s
He is the original Skywalker. And if Palpatine IS going to come back, then Anakin should have as significant of a presence. If it’s not fully within the final confrontation, then at least appear to both Rey and Kylo at some point either together or separately. I think a character-driven scene between Kylo and Anakin would have been fantastic. A repentant Anakin tries to guide his grandson back to the light. Perhaps Kylo refuses, perhaps it changes him; regardless, it provides solid ground for his decision as a character. He worships his grandfather. Luke could even be there.
He did tell Kylo he’d see him around. What a great opportunity for Ben’s uncle to say, “Well, I know you’re not going to listen to me, but how about your grandfather?” (Cue studio audience “Ooooooooo”).
That, or any version of that, could take place somewhere very important that we never see in the sequel trilogy: Musta far. It’s where Vader was “made” in his battle with Obi-Wan. It’s where Vader’s castle is. Why do we never see Kylo go there? It seems odd to me that at the end of the saga the filmmakers would continue to introduce so many new places when a good way to close up loose ends and story lines is to return to their origins. No Mustafar. No Naboo. No Coruscant. Coruscant, the former capital planet, would have actually come up in a totally different version of the final film that came to light recently…
That version is Duel of the Fates, Colin Trevorrow’s script for Episode 9. I have to say that title is amazing. It uses the name of what is one of the most recognizable and impactful pieces of music that John Williams wrote for the entire saga. I would have loved to hear that music one more time in the climactic battle between Rey and Palpatine. I defy you to listen to Duel of the Fates and not get amped. As a matter of fact, playing “Duel of the Fates” over a supercut of all the Rocky training montages will allow you to go back in time and beat the shit out of your childhood bully. Trevorrow’s script did a lot differently. It would have given Rose Tico an actual role in the final film instead of what she got which was, “Sorry, guys, I can’t come. This paperwork isn’t going to alphabetize itself.” It also did this crazy thing where it followed the established continuity of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Incidentally, I don’t care if you didn’t like The Last Jedi. The Rise of Skywalker is proof that when you try to “fix” things with the next film, that next film suffers. Better to stay the course and be creative with the elements that you have. The sequel trilogy started out like an improv exercise.
It was all about “Yes, and…” That may not be a perfect system for cohesion and story-arcs, but it’s better than what happened which was J.J. said, “Yes, and,” then Rian said, “Yes, and,” then Colin said, “Yes,” and… got fired, then J.J. said, “No, but…” Why do it like long-form improv, though? Why wasn’t there a more concrete plan? There are those who would claim there was one. Maybe there was a skeleton of a plan. J.J. says he intended for the Emperor to return. Rian says he and J.J. talked, but also that he had ideas in mind already. It’s unclear, but that’s my point.
There’s more to say about The Rise of Skywalker specifically, but I think it’s time to zoom out and ask a bigger question: What was the purpose of this whole sequel trilogy? Say what you want about the prequels (and we’ve said a lot), they had a specific story to tell over three films. There was connective tissue. Now, was that connective tissue already present by default? Yes. They were leading to an established story from the original trilogy. The sequels, on the other hand, were treading new ground. They had no destination, sure, but they could have done more to tether themselves to what came before. Not in the form of fan service like “It’s a not-a-Death-Star Death Star!” or “You’re Palpatine’s granddaughter!” or “Now Kylo is Ben like Grandpa was Darth then Anakin!”, but in service of a connected story.
George Lucas has said over and over that the first 6 episodes are the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker and, therefore, he would go on to say that was the reason he didn’t necessarily think that there would be a sequel trilogy. And yet, we got one. So why wasn’t story priority number one to make sure 7, 8, and 9 stayed true to the overarching tragedy of Anakin? As I said, his presence should have been more than a melted helmet. Did anyone think to find the goddamn prophecy that Anakin was supposedly the manifestation of? That would have been something Kylo Ren could have been in search of or stumbled across only to learn the truth was that the prophecy was, in fact, misread like Yoda suggested. Perhaps the Jedi took the prophecy too literally. The chosen one was to bring balance to the force within them. After all, doesn’t Anakin possess great power along with great fear, great anger along with great love? The only solution to fear and anger is to embrace them and work through them using the positive and the productive. Tamping down those evil, negative feelings NEVER goes well. At least that’s what therapy taught me.
So maybe the Jedi DID need to end and something new needed to rise in their place. I have to figure that’s why “Rey is the start of the Grey Jedi” was such a popular fan theory. An entirely new concept of the Jedi—of their balance and practices—needed to be the thing that rose from the ashes of the Jedi, the Sith, the Republic, and the Empire; otherwise, what is the purpose/point/lesson of nine films chronicling the most significant upheaval in the history of the civilized galaxy at the hands of (arguably, perhaps) the most powerful Sith Lord ever, Darth Sidious, and his apprentice Darth Vader who literally started out his journey as the “chosen one”? Instead, we get no explicit change.
Rey takes the last name “Skywalker” which is sentimental and cool and definitely made me tear up when I first saw the film, but ultimately holds little
importance when compared to the catastrophic events of the story up to that point; in fact, it sort of confuses the issue because the Skywalker name should come to a CLOSE at the end of this trilogy of trilogies. It shouldn’t be continued by Rey or Kylo or Kylo’s old roommate or even the future Grand Master of a Jedi council. The name Skywalker should come to represent a time of metamorphosis in the galaxy. The “chosen one” is more than a person, he or she is the opening and closing of a generational lineage of triumph and tragedy. They’re basically the galactic Kennedys. The name Skywalker should come to represent a time of metamorphosis in the galaxy. The “chosen one” is more than a person, he or she is the opening and closing of a generational lineage of triumph and tragedy. They’re basically the galactic Kennedys.
While the prequel trilogy will always suffer from poor execution and misallocation of focus, the sequel trilogy will always suffer from purposelessness and missed opportunities. The general critic and fan reaction to The Rise of Skywalker has not changed how I feel about it or the whole saga. I’m still an apologist for what I love and I love all these films. I love the Star Wars universe. It broke my heart when I first saw Revenge of the Sith and I knew that, no matter how much I wanted Anakin to make the right choice, he was going to turn to the dark side. I am still taken by the moment that Darth Vader tells Luke that, no, he is his father. The journey of Rey and Kylo, particularly as it pertains to them as a pair, has been captivating to me. I am happy to have gotten to see this through to the end. At last the Skywalker Saga is complete and the good outweighs the bad. Oh, and Finn was also in Episode 9.