When it comes to certain franchises, reviewing individual films becomes a pointless endeavor. In the case of Star Wars, there is a 42-year legacy of storytelling that extends beyond the episodic Skywalker saga that began with Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and concludes with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. That legacy encompasses so many forms of media — books, comics, games, TV series, and more — that the films now find themselves infused with references to stories that have occurred elsewhere, leaving those who only enjoy the films with some gaps in the overall tale. At the end of the day, you either like Star Wars or you don’t, and if you’re like me, you enjoy some pieces more (or less) than others.
By design, the “sequel trilogy” of episodes VII to IX — The Force Awakens (2015), The Last Jedi (2017), The Rise of Skywalker (2019) — is a multimedia juggernaut that transcends the cinematic experience. Because of that, the so-called “rules” of filmmaking are broken (as they should be), and the traditional narrative structure might not apply, … and that’s perfectly OK. At the end of the day, all that should matter is whether or not audiences are entertained, and The Rise of Skywalker delivers. It’s an incredibly entertaining film that manages to pack so much into its runtime that it hits the ground running and never stops.
Returning to the franchise to conclude what he started in The Force Awakens, filmmaker J.J. Abrams is tasked with finishing the sequel trilogy while concluding* the Skywalker saga in a way that satisfies both casual moviegoers and longtime fans while simultaneously wrapping up a multitude of open threads. Some of those threads date back to the prequel trilogy, and it can be a lot to absorb. On top of that, there are brief callbacks to other areas of Star Wars storytelling that will likely go unnoticed by film-only fans. The sheer volume of information fuels the breakneck pace.
At its core, this trilogy is all about Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her Resistance comrades, including Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), as they face off against the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When we last met with the Resistance members on screen, they were limping away at the end of The Last Jedi, their fleet crippled and numbers dwindling as a call for help went ignored by sympathizers they’d hoped to rally in an effort to take down Ren and the crew once and for all.
Here we find them a year or so in the future. Their numbers have grown to the point that the Resistance feels like a healthier organization, always staying mere steps ahead of the First Order. A mole has emerged within the First Order’s ranks, providing intel to the Resistance that may help it destroy Ren and his followers once and for all … had the granddaddy of all evil not managed to return, complete with a new army built in secret: the Final Order.
That’s right, Emperor Sheev Palpatine — former Supreme Chancellor of Naboo — didn’t perish after being tossed down a Death Star shaft by Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. How he survived the fall and the subsequent explosion of the unfinished battle station is not entirely made clear in The Rise of Skywalker, but it doesn’t have to be. The notion of the Emperor returning in a post-Jedi galaxy is one that’s been explored for decades through Expanded Universe novels (many of which have been shelved as “Legends” by Disney in favor of a new canon) and tales of dark side science. In fact, Palpatine throws it all back to the old days by quoting a speech he delivered to young Anakin Skywalker during Revenge of the Sith (2005) — the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise and how the dark side is a pathway to “abilities that some may consider unnatural.” Abilities such as cheating death, with which Palpatine was obsessed.
Shockingly, Rey is not a “no one from Jakku” as we were told in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi — she’s a descendant of the Palpatine bloodline, and perhaps the clues were in front of us all along.
It was noted by some viewers years ago that Rey’s scrappy lightsaber approach in The Force Awakens began with a move that we’d only seen once before — from Palpatine (as Darth Sidious). Additionally, her overall fighting style also took on the more rugged approach of dark side affiliates, rather than the more elegant stance favored by the Jedi Knights.
In The Rise of Skywalker, we learn that both Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his sister, General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), knew that Rey was a Palpatine. Is this why Skywalker initially refused to train Rey when she joined him on Ahch-To? And is this why she went directly to the dark without even questioning it when Luke finally did agree to give her a few lessons? Keep in mind that Jedi Master Yoda played dumb when Luke showed up on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda knew exactly who landed an X-Wing in the swamp, and why he was there. After reluctantly agreeing to train the would-be Jedi, Yoda remained on the sidelines as Skywalker found himself pulled into the Cave of Evil.
If anything, the overall message of Rey’s arc may be that you are not destined to follow in the path of your ancestors, and that family can be who you choose it to be.
Meanwhile, the story of Ben Solo/Kylo Ren is an intriguing look at a man torn between the light and the dark. His conflict is real, and his lineage perfectly mirrors Rey’s. The descendant of good becomes corrupted by the dark side of the Force just as the descendant of pure evil becomes a hero of the light — dueling conflicts that will eventually come together in a surprising way.
The Skywalker saga has contained a mirror story throughout — the Saga of Palpatine, who has now been a central figure in the final chapters of all three trilogies.
In true Star Wars form, Abrams brings newness into the mix alongside the legacy characters, with new heroes and villains joining the battle on all sides. The lore of the Sith is expanded upon as we see Force abilities being shown for the first time on the big screen after having debuted in books and games. Rey even shares an ability with the Child (Baby Yoda), the breakout star of the Disney+ series The Mandalorian.
Amidst the chaos of an incredible climax in which the call to arms is finally heard — and answered by thousands of ships from across the galaxy — there are intimate moments, including a send-off for Leia, the triumphant return of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), overdue respect for Chewbacca, and perhaps C-3PO’s finest moments in any Star Wars film.
The Rise of Skywalker is everything it needs to be, and it will take several viewings to properly appreciate all of it. I’ll be seeing it again tomorrow in 4DX, and I look forward to experiencing the ride all over again!
*Concludes = For now. Until it is time to restart again.