It’s a weird, difficult time to be a Star Wars fan. And it’s become really difficult to even react to or review a Star Wars film. Let alone this one.
There are many reasons for that – some of them not even entirely to do with the films themselves. But The Rise of Skywalker is very much a film existing in – and indeed born out of – this weird and difficult environment that now exists for both creators and fans alike.
As usual when it comes to Star Wars films, I’ve waited a while to write a review for The Rise of Skywalker. That gives me time to take things in a little, process my thoughts and feelings, and not post up a knee-jerk reaction.
I never trust my first reaction when it comes to Star Wars films: but this one in particular is such a complicated entity, evoking such conflicting and uncertain feelings that it seemed wisest to delay. Having now seen the film a few times, I’m still struggling a little to fully or decisively figure out how I feel about The Rise of Skywalker.
It really is that messy, that difficult, a film to get to grips with: I may take months or even years to do so.
And, let’s face it – this isn’t just a Star Wars film. This is the end of the trilogy: and, we’re told, the end of the saga itself. This film is/was a big deal to me: and I don’t think I’ll ever be this invested in a movie again – once Disney/Lucasfilm moves beyond the ‘Skywalker Saga’, I feel like my interest-level won’t be as high as it’s been to this point. I’ll still be interested to see what new things happen with Star Wars – but I won’t be this invested again.
So yeah, this film was a big deal to me: just as Revenge of the Sith was back in 2005.
At present, I find myself neither in love with it nor hating it. Which, given that I’ve felt similarly towards the previous two entries in this Sequel Trilogy, seems a rather fitting way to end my experience with this trilogy of films: neither with a sense of triumph or satisfaction, nor with any decisive sense of disappointment or letdown.
But… something inbetween. Something difficult and ambiguous.
On first viewing, I definitely felt somewhat deflated and unsatisfied. The film moved way too fast, there was too much happening too quickly, too much that didn’t feel right, and there was an unnatural feeling – a feeling even of illegitimacy – to some of what I had spent two-and-a-half hours trying to process. On second viewing, some of that problem was still there: but I was able to enjoy the movie more and come to terms better with a few things.
I don’t think the case can be made that it offers a better end to the ‘Skywalker Saga’ than we already had in the form of 1983’s Return of the Jedi (or Return of the Jedi and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith combined – which is how I always look at it). It, like this whole trilogy, is simply too divisive for that – which is unfortunate.
In terms of legacy, this Sequel Trilogy will probably have a troubled and divisive one – some will continue to love it and some will continue to vehemently hate it.
Episode IX was probably never going to be able to fix that. It definitely tries to.
On a personal level, however, I’m entirely open to the possibility that my own view of this film will evolve and improve over months and years and repeated viewings. I struggled a lot with The Last Jedi when it was released: but I’ve come to really appreciate that film, thanks to repeat viewings and the simple benefit of time. The Last Jedi, for me, aged very well – to the extent that I now think Rian Johnson’s film is possibly the best entry in this Sequel Trilogy.
The Rise of Skywalker may age similarly well – I may love this movie a lot more six months from now (or even years from now) than I presently do. That wouldn’t surprise me.
But, dealing with the here and now, the most apt word to describe Episode IX is ‘frustrating’. If I had to pick a second word, it would be ‘botched’. And if I had to describe my lingering feeling, it would be as ‘cognitive dissonance’.
Before I go into an actual review of this film, let me state a couple of things as preliminaries. First, I’m not going to talk about the alleged ‘J.J Cut’ and whether it exists and whether J.J’s final vision was undermined by Disney/Lucasfilm. And I’m not going to talk about the alleged Colin Trevorrow original script leak for his ‘Duel of the Fates’ version of Episode IX and whether or not that would’ve been a better film.
Nor will I talk about all the rumours that George Lucas himself was, at some stage, contributing to this story – which seems now to not have been the case.
I may dive into those in later articles: but here, I only want to focus on the version of The Rise of Skywalker we’ve got – and nothing else.
I’m also going to try not to deviate into trying to rewrite the film with my own suggestions or what I would’ve preferred. Again, I’ll probably come to those things in later articles; but, for now, I just want to focus on the film we’ve got.
And, thirdly, I want to acknowledge from the outset that J.J was in a difficult creative position with this film. Ending a trilogy that was so poorly planned is a difficult task. Ending a nine-part saga that isn’t yours is even harder – especially when you’re not Mr Lucas. Making any kind of film on this scale – and with this level of toxic fan-base and unceasing online scrutiny – is Herculean. Trying to finish a story that matters to so many people must feel impossible, especially when you have a vast online community scrutinising or second-guessing your every move – or actively trying to anticipate everything you might do before you even do it.
This is why I entirely sympathised with Rian Johnson’s ‘subvert expectations’ approach in TLJ – because how the hell do you make an interesting or suspenseful film when every possible plot-point or story direction has already been theorised or anticipated by hundreds of YouTube channels and Reddit forums?
So what I’m saying is that J.J was handed a poisoned chalice and a Herculean task. And there was no version of this film – in no reality – that would’ve been met with universal approval or would’ve pleased every section of what is a ridiculously divided fan-base. There was always going to be a backlash: hell, the ‘backlash’ was going on long before the film was even released, with scores of online commentators or video-makers actively hoping for Episode IX to ‘fail’, calling for boycotts or just saying over and over again that this film was going to be a disaster.
Making a Star Wars film at all is difficult – just ask Lucas, who took so much abuse for the prequels that he gave up and sold Lucasfilm to Disney. And making a Star Wars film in 2019 and in the kind of circumstances that J.J was in… well, it’s even more difficult. Add to all of THAT the likelihood that J.J probably had Disney execs and committees breathing down his neck too and you have to come to the conclusion that J.J had very little creative wriggle-room.
So… whatever criticisms appear in this review (and there will be criticisms), I want to make it clear that I don’t doubt for a moment that J.J and all those creative forces involved in shaping The Rise of Skywalker were genuinely trying to do the best job they could.
No one has ever set out to make a bad Star Wars movie.
I respect J.J as a filmmaker and Kathleen Kennedy as a producer. And I respect what The Rise of Skywalker is trying to be, warts and all. It doesn’t fully work for me: but it doesn’t entirely fail for me either.
And I, for my part, have never set out with the intention of hating a Star Wars movie. I love Star Wars, fundamentally. And there has not to date been a Star Wars movie that I’ve completely hated or disliked (the closest would be Solo: A Star Wars Story). There remains more in The Force Awakens that I love than that I dislike; and the same holds true for The Last Jedi.
Whether The Rise of Skywalker proves to be the same remains to be seen – it’ll be a long-term judgement, because initial viewings can be misleading.
And also, given that I do have some serious criticisms – and primarily with the film’s story on a fundamental level – I want to be careful not to come across as though I’m hating the whole movie. So I’m going to start with positives specifically – before I go into a more general review, which will – unfortunately – be more critical.
I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, even with its sometimes rushed pacing. The sense of fun and adventure, the Indiana Jones like feel to the action, and the fun dynamics between the characters, were all a breath of fresh air; especially given the more sober, ominous note that the previous movie finished on. That’s something J.J Abrams and Chris Terrio got very right: putting Rey, Finn and Poe together and actually giving us a fun ride before things got too dark and ominous. It’s an approach that Lucas also used to great effect in the opening of Revenge of the Sith – have some fun first, before you go dark.
I enjoyed the second half of the film less, as everything pushes towards a finale that was arguably always going to be problematic. In fact, it has to be said that the difficulties were there from the very start of the film – as much as I did enjoy the antics of that first hour, the opening scene itself (in fact, even the opening text crawl itself) presented me with the thing I was most worried about going into this film: specifically, the elephant in the room – the return of the Emperor Palpatine.
So that issue – good or bad – hung over the whole movie from the very start. And the problem was that, because I couldn’t decide how I felt about Palpatine being brought back from apparent death, I therefore couldn’t settle down for the rest of the film – because Palpatine’s return was established literally from the very start and, of course, we all know we’re ultimately building up to a confrontation with Palpatine for the finale. When the main plot point of the movie is such a difficult one to know how to feel about, it unfortunately interferes with one’s ability to properly enjoy the rest of the experience.
And that was always going to be the problem with bringing back Palpatine: for a lot of people, the film would live or die according to that decision and how well it was handled.
I’ll come back to Palpatine at the end – as that’s a central facet of the problems with this movie. For now, let me stay with what I view as the positives.
The Palpatine scenes – while possibly problematic for existing at all in the context of the broader saga – are thoroughly compelling and dark. While they may or may not work in terms of the broader saga, they do work very dramatically in terms of just this film on its own. They’re just really good scenes – except for, possibly, the actual final death of Palpatine itself (which isn’t so great).
Meanwhile, some of the Kylo/Rey material, while not as engaging as in The Last Jedi, is still compelling, forming the core of the narrative. It’s those two I’m going to miss the most from this Sequel Era: whatever anyone says, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver have imbued this trilogy with great life and spirit throughout.
And, as much as I find Ben’s redemption a hit-or-miss affair (more on that shortly), Adam Driver beautifully portrayed the turn from dark to light – you can really see the difference in demeanour between Kylo Ren and Ben Solo. That little Han Solo-like shrug he gives when Rey gives him the lightsaber and he takes down the Knights of Ren is a golden moment.
Some of what I do especially like in this film is the areas in which Abrams does follow-through on story elements introduced in The Last Jedi: chief of all in the Force-bond between Rey and Kylo and their ability to interact outside of the normal boundaries or limitations of space and physics. That was one of the most interesting things introduced in this entire trilogy and it was good to see Episode IX carry that through and make it a central plot point. Because the groundwork was already laid in TLJ, I had no problems with Rey magically handing the lightsaber to Ben through the Force – and it’s actually a good moment.
This story goes further and actually puts the Reylo Force-bond into specific terms; calling it a “Force dyad”. It isn’t explained much beyond that, but this is one of those things where some ambiguity and mysteriousness isn’t a problem – we can infer that it relates to the ‘balance’ and the yin-yang and the idea of the Cosmic Force working through Rey and Ben/Kylo. And it flows well with the mystical and esoteric ideas that have always been a key part of Star Wars.
Crucially, Rey is a well written character in this final chapter and her story is brought to a powerful enough end-point. I think where this film does ultimately succeed and thrive is with Rey and the conclusion to her story or her Hero’s Journey. Daisy and Adam are both superb. Again, I think Ben’s turn to the light was rushed, abrupt and awkward, and could’ve been done a lot better: but, possibly, over time I’ll learn to be ok with it.
I think, ultimately, Rey’s overall arc across these three films does hold up.
I was in love with Rey in TFA: she’s been put through the wringer in the subsequent two films, in a story arc about longing and belonging, identity and finding one’s self. It’s a story, I think, that works. And I like how it ends, with Rey on Tatooine and adopting the Skywalker name – if it wasn’t for the awful-looking Force-Ghosts of Luke and Leia (more on that shortly; but it’s unforgivable to have rendered that visual so poorly), this would be a really powerful ending scene for the trilogy.
On the balance – and given the benefit of some more time – maybe it is.
I like that we see an angrier, more tense Rey than we’ve seen previously. Her impatience early on, her reaction to the knowledge that she is Palpatine’s granddaughter, etc, all felt right. I like that we get to see Rey training early in the film; and I really liked the fact that the whole “Be with me” thing (Rey trying to establish contact with all the past Jedi) was set up very early in the film so that it could be paid off in the finale.
And for that matter, that pay-off – the emergence of all the voices of past Jedi at the end – is something I really, really loved: and was the kind of connective, saga-spanning idea that I really didn’t think Abrams’ film was going to do.
I’m being positive here on Rey’s arc and the conclusion to her story – Kylo/Ben’s is more of a mixed bag, so I’ll circle back around to that.
Also, there’s the revelation about Rey’s lineage – which I’ll also circle back to when I talk about Palpatine.
Finn and Poe are fun and enjoyable to watch, bringing some nice dynamics to the action – though both are, ultimately, fairly expendable, hit-or-miss characters in the overall scheme of things. John Boyega‘s character has probably been the least well developed in this trilogy, which is a shame, given how good a start he got off to in The Force Awakens. Something more interesting could’ve been done – across a trilogy – with the idea of a defecting Stormtrooper; but it feels like no one knew what to do with Finn after TFA. Again, that’s a shame, as John Boyega could’ve flourished if he’d been given more to chew on.
I also think the ommission for the most part of Kelly Marie Tran‘s character in this film is a failing on the part of Terrio and Abrams, especially after the viscious and often racist backlash the actress faced in the wake of TLJ. Rose Tico should’ve been given more to do and been treated with more respect: certainly new characters (like Dominic Monaghan‘s character) should not have been introduced for no reason and at the expense of Rose, when Rose could’ve been saying those lines. I mean, why introduce random new characters in the final film when you’ve got characters already there from the previous film who could be given more to do?
The omission of Rose feels, unfortunately, like one among many ways in which Abrams and Terrio were playing the fan-service game – pandering to vocal elements of the ‘fan community’ (in this case, particularly toxic elements of said fan community) who’ve been complaining about Kelly Marie Tran for two years. For me, that’s not how you make movies or write stories – you write from conviction and not from perusing YouTube critique videos.
But, still sticking with the positives, as much as this film does Mark Hamill and Luke Skywalker a great disservice (again, more on that shortly), where it absolutely doesn’t fail is with Leia and Carrie.
How Leia would be handled in this movie (given the obvious limitations) was always going to be a key question: and I was really happy with the ending Leia gets in The Rise of Skywalker – it’s an area where J.J really knocked it out of the park. All of the Leia/Carrie scenes feel appropriate and poignant. I love that we get to see Leia training Rey and Rey even referring to her as “Master”. I love that we even get a flashback to Luke training Leia – something that didn’t need to be in the film, but that certainly does a service to the on-screen Star Wars canon.
And Leia’s ending – her death scene – is so beautifully and poignantly done that I really have no complaints whatsoever. After the crazy ride of TLJ, with Leia’s apparent demise in space and subsequent monumental use of the Force to save herself, this time we get a very quiet, subdued end to Leia’s story, with the former Princess of Alderaan simply laying down and reaching out to her wayward son one last time – an act that proves decisive.
The fact that Artoo Deetoo is the one with Leia when she dies is also just a perfect detail and a perfect image – one that I’m grateful for. How fitting that Artoo – who was there when Leia was being born in Episode III – is there when Leia breathes her last breath too.
We have to bear in mind that the ‘plan’ – in as much any plan existed for this trilogy – was for this third and final film to be heavily focused on Leia (with the first and second having, respectively, been focused on Han and then Luke): the fact that Carrie was sadly lost to us obviously undermined the existing plan, forcing J.J (and Trevorrow initially) to improvise. J.J’s decision to maintain Carrie/Leia’s prominence in the final film – and to use leftover footage from TFA – was a gamble. It’s a gamble that’s paid off, at least as far as Leia’s part in this story is concerned: because those scenes work really well and Leia gets an ending I think she deserves.
For me, it’s Rey and it’s Leia who are best served by this movie – and while that doesn’t make up for all the shortcomings of this film, it is nevertheless a very important thing in its favor.
More positives? As much as both Threepio’s and Chewbacca’s fake-out demises were used as narrative tricks, both characters got really good treatment in Abrams’ film. It was good to finally see everyone’s favorite protocol droid get a lot of screen time – and it ends up being Threepio’s best and funniest outing since the Empire Strikes Back. And the moment where Chewie reacts to Leia’s death is also one of the most emotional moments of the film.
I liked Zori Bliss and Babu Frick. I liked the planet Kijimi (?): it was good world-building and felt like an absorbing location.
I didn’t care so much for Jannah – who felt like a character being needlessly sandwiched into the narrative very late in the game. But it was fun seeing Billy Dee Williams back as Lando – though I still think it would’ve been far better to have Lando come back in TLJ (probably at Canto Bight). And the implied off-screen adventure of Luke and Lando searching for Sith artifacts is somehting I’d love to see in novel or comic-book form.
There’s probably a bunch more stuff I really liked in this film – I’ll have to see it a few more times to remember. Like I said, there’s lots of good stuff here: including very little things, like Chewie finally getting his medal or like the Ewok cameo at the end. I liked that Maz Kanata got a role in the story.
I liked the Rey/Kylo duel on the Death Star wreckage and amidst the giant waves – it was very reminiscent of Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting on the lava planet, which is a nice echo. And, visually, this film has lots of stunning-looking sequences: such as that duel amidst the waves or such as the opening sequence on Mustafar and Exegol, or such as the entirety of Rey’s climactic confrontation with Palpatine.
Visually, this film is full of stunning moments.
But, unfortunately, it feels like a lot of the stuff I liked most in this film were the little things – like the Ewok cameo, like Babu Frick, or like the brief shot of the Porgs on Ach-To. While the stuff I had problems with or struggled with are the big things.
And that explains why I can genuinely enjoy watching this film, while significantly struggling with it at the same time.
The biggest problem for me, on first viewing especially, is that all of the most important moments – the moments that are meant to be heaviest-hitting or the most emotional or resonant – failed to impact me in the way I wanted them to. And, for someone who loves Star Wars as much as I always have, this is kind of upsetting… especially here, at the apparent end of the saga.
And I can give a couple of key examples here.
Kylo Ren’s turn to the light (his “Ben-demption”) – something we’ve been building towards for two films – lacks some of the weight it should have, because it feels like it happens very suddenly. It doesn’t feel organic. While I genuinely love that we got the Han Solo moment (and a nice echo of the Han/Kylo scene in The Force Awakens), it felt weird, especially because we’re told it was merely a “memory” of his father that he was experiencing.
Which begs the question of why he never had that “memory” or realisation at any previous or earlier time. You could argue that it was his mother, Leia, reaching out to him through the Force in her final act that did it. But again, why did Leia not do that earlier – years ago even?
Having had some time to think about it, I guess it’s possible that Leia was saving this effort for her final act before death – in which she would somehow use that transition between life and death to expend her final energies in a massive use of the Force. Maybe Luke’s actions – his projection – at the end of The Last Jedi was what taught Leia how to do this? And maybe Leia’s influence in that moment was what triggered Kylo’s vision of his father?
All of that is possible; and I may come to like this scene more in the future as I get more used to it. Luke does tell Rey that Leia saw the end of her Jedi path coinciding with the death of her son – or something like that. So this probably does make sense.
But it did feel abrupt and sudden. And, in all honesty, I felt more in The Last Jedi when Kylo killed Snoke and seemed – for a moment – to be returning to the light. That moment was, dramatically speaking, more effective and more emotional than this moment in The Rise of Skywalker. In essence, that means I’m saying the double-bluff almost-redemption in the previous film got me more than this actual redemption in The Rise of Skywalker… which is very odd; and unfortunate.
On the same note, the actual final defeat of Palpatine feels very anti-climatic.
Apparently, despite throwing all of his power at her, all Rey needs to do to destroy the undying Emperor once and for all is to use two lightsabers instead of one to block or deflect his Sith lightning back at him. Given that he seems to explode at this point, I’m guessing Palpatine is finally dead for real this time. I get it on one level – symbolically, that it is Rey using both Luke’s and Leia’s lightsabers together that is what defeats the Emperor: and, symbolically, that’s cool.
But still… as a conclusion to the nine-film saga, it just doesn’t work that well.
And then, the other key point of this film is the final scene between Rey and Kylo/Ben. Which, again, for me, didn’t work anything like as powerfully as it should have. I’ve always been ambivalent about the whole ‘Reylo’ thing; but I’ve never been particularly opposed to it, though I’ve never particularly wanted it either (for one thing, having the trilogy’s hero fall in love with a murderer seems questionable – and it’s also a questionable message to be putting out to young girls in terms of courting toxic relationships).
But the way this key moment plays out – with Ben using the Force to revive an apparently dead Rey, then a revived Rey passionately kissing Ben, then Ben smiling, then Ben laying down and dying and then vanishing (to become one with the Force) – just feels so fast, so rushed, that it loses impact.
Seriously, it all happens so quickly that you’re left feeling like you haven’t registered it at all. I don’t even know if I could say that the kiss was out of place – because if it had all been done in a more measured, nuanced way, the kiss might’ve seemed fitting.
It’s as if this film is moving so fast that it undercuts all of its key moments. There’s no time to feel or process any emotional response. Am I sad that Ben died… or happy that he came back to the light? Am I happy that he and Rey kissed… or sad that they can’t be together?
I have no idea. No idea what I actually feel or what I’m meant to feel.
As the final act of the relationship that has been the core of this trilogy, it’s possible it even hits all the right notes – but just hits them too fast and in too slap-dash a manner. Was J.J pandering to the Internet (particularly the obsessive community of mostly girl fans insisting that Rey and Kylo have a sexual union) by throwing in ‘Reylo’ and then also ‘Bendemption’? Would this story have been better if Ben had lived? Who knows?
Also, it’s problematic how crucial the element of ‘force healing’ is in this story – given that it was only introduced in this story. I know it appears in The Mandalorian too – but that episode of The Mandalorian episode was literally a day or two before The Rise of Skywalker came out. Throwing a new force-power into the mix at the last minute and then have it be crucial to the resolution of the final film is very questionable. I don’t necessarily have a problem with force-healing as a concept (though it does seem like a total deus-ex-machina), but to have it not feature in any of the previous eight films and then suddenly be all-important in the final film doesn’t really work very well.
The other two examples are the Luke Skywalker scene (the only Luke Skywalker scene, as it happens) and the final scene of the film.
And while one of my complaints is the very fact that Luke Skywalker only has one scene in the entire film, the actual thing that undercut both these scenes for me is more along nitpicky lines. Specifically, the Force Ghosts looked really bad – just visually. Which was baffling to me, as it shouldn’t have presented that much of a problem for the filmmakers. In the Luke scene on Ach-To, his Force Ghost just looks way too bright and it was very distracting – especially against a bright/daylight backdrop.
And then, again, in the final scene on Tatooine, when Luke and Leia’s ghosts appear, it should be a beautiful, resonant and impactful moment – but it just looked really bad. It honestly looked like Jesus and the Virgin Mary were appearing to Rey. I couldn’t believe how badly they were rendered – or that Lucasfilm would do such a poor job in such a key, pivotal moment in both the film and the saga.
After some thought, I realised what the problem was: it was that we’ve never seen Force-Ghosts before in daylight conditions. We’ve only ever seen them in night- time environments, where they look fine. In daylight settings, they apparently just don’t render very well. But someone at Lucasfilm should’ve recognised this and the two scenes should’ve been adjusted or edited: because it’s really distracting. I’m trying to enjoy that final scene with Rey in the Lars homestead (it should be a poignant and powerful final scene), but all I can keep thinking is how terrible the Force Ghosts look and how much it genuinely looks like a Christian religious painting of Jesus and Mary.
I just don’t get how, in a production on this scale and a with a film this important, we could have relatively little things like that not be done right. The result, unfortunately, is that, whereas I’m always moved by the appearance of Yoda’s, Obi-Wan’s and Anakin’s ghosts at the end of the Return of the Jedi, the appearance of Luke and Leia here – which I should be and desperately want to be moved by – just didn’t do it for me.
Which is so, so frustrating.
And again, something also just looked and felt off about Luke’s appearance on Ach-To: which, for me, undercut the entire scene – which should’ve been one of the most powerful scenes in the film. And it’s an example of how this film almost got so many things right, but so often falls just short of the mark.
Also, shouldn’t Luke have appeared here in the same image he projected of himself at the end of The Last Jedi? You know, the younger Luke with the shorter hair? Wouldn’t that be more poignant – and tie the two films together much better? Instead, Luke arrives here, looking like a hobo – which, combined with the rendering/lighting problem mentioned earlier, is really distracting.
I absolutely loved the idea of Rey going back to Ach-To (after discovering Palpatine is her grandfather and after almost killing Ben Solo just after Leia’s death) and intending to isolate herself there just as Luke did: this was one of the very best story ideas in the entire film and I thought it could’ve taken the film in a really rich direction.
But it doesn’t. Because it isn’t given any time. It’s just one scene. She decides to go back to Ach-To: and then, in the same scene, she is convinced to leave Ach-To and go to confront the Emperor on Exegol. In a film with better, more natural-feeling, pacing, this would’ve been two or three scenes at least.
At least give us time to experience the island again, and give us time to think that Rey might really stay on the island, and time to feel what she’s feeling… and then have Luke’s ghost appear to give her the pep-talk.
But, like almost everything else in the film, this idea has no time to breathe. Because of the hectic pacing, it’s just touched on for the briefest of moments and then we’re already moving on.
I would love to think that, somewhere out there, there really is a three-hour cut of this movie where the story has time to breathe. Because there are things here that could’ve been so much better if it was paced better.
The Luke scene isn’t great to me. It’s very fan-servicey: weirdly, I feel like I should – in theory – love it. But I just don’t. I like Rey wearing the X-Wing helmet and piloting Luke’s X-Wing into Exegol (it matches up really nicely with those scenes of Rey in The Force Awakens, when we first met her and she was wearing an X-Wing helmet), but Luke doing the Yoda move and raising the X-Wing out of the water (complete with the exact same music from the equivalent scene in Empire Strikes Back) failed to move me like I’d think it would.
I mean, I love that scene in Empire: and that particular piece of music is one of my favorites from the entire saga, always giving me goosebumps. But, here… it just doesn’t do anything for me. It feels cheap.
It felt like pandering: just like having Luke catch the lightsaber or just like having Rose Tico be written out of the film. At the same time, I entirely get why it happened – I’m sure there are tons of people who loved that moment, so it’s entirely valid.
But let’s talk about Luke. I cannot believe that Mark Hamill was only given one scene in this whole film. In a film called ‘The Rise of Skywalker’, a film marketed as “the end of the Skywalker saga”, it baffles me that there’s only one scene with Mark Hamill in it. I can’t help but feel that Hamill has been short-changed by this trilogy. I was really looking forward to seeing more Luke Skywalker in this final movie.
Just one scene with Rey? A scene that wasn’t even especially good? Shouldn’t Luke have appeared to Kylo and been part of Ben’s return to the light? Didn’t Luke even hint at that at the end of The Last Jedi (with the “see you around, kid” line)?
There should’ve been a scene of Luke appearing to Kylo earlier on in the film – and then you could still have the Han Solo moment later. In fact, this would’ve made the turning of Kylo feel better paced and more sequential. It would’ve also given Luke more presence in the film.
For that matter, Hayden Christensen should’ve been here too – and Anakin should’ve appeared to Kylo. This should’ve played out like a concerted effort by EVERYONE to try to reach out to Ben Solo. Perhaps Luke first. And then Anakin. And then, finally, that combination of Leia and Han Solo (or the memory of Han Solo) that we eventually did get. Then it would’ve been that the entire family was reaching out one last time to try to save him; and there would’ve been a flow, a sequence, to this redemption.
It also would’ve given both Luke and Anakin something to do in this film – again, a film called ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ and marketed as the “end of the Skywalker saga”.
Further, shouldn’t Luke or Anakin have been more firmly involved with the confrontation against Palpatine?
I know we at least do get something on that front. And here, I’m going to give great credit where it’s due. Because, again, that moment – of the various voices of past Jedi speaking to Rey to urge her to rise up and face Palpatine – is genuinely wonderful. It’s the most powerful, triumphal moment of the film. I loved how nicely it was set up earlier on, with Rey seen saying “Be with me” while meditating, but failing to establish that connection: until, finally, at the end, that connection breaks through and Rey hears all of these Jedi.
And it’s wonderful to hear the voices of Anakin and Luke, Obi-Wan, Mace Windu, even Ashoka Tano and even the likes of Luminara and Adi Gallia. I genuinely didn’t think J.J, Lucasfilm or Disney would go that far and genuinely acknowledge those sorts of characters and give them a part to play at the end.
I love that we got this. And it works beautifully. As it happens, I’m a big fan of Master Luminara – and never imagined in a million years that I’d be hearing her voice in this film.
Another big problem with The Rise of Skywalker is that, in all honesty, the big climatic space battle around Exegol wasn’t anything great.
Which, for the climax of a trilogy (and indeed, the climax of the whole saga), is kind of baffling. None of the action felt compelling and all of the space combat felt random and disjointed in a way that is very un-Star-Wars. Space horses here and questionable tactics here and McGuffins here, and Palpatine firing force-lightning at the ships here, and then Lando showing up with a thousand reinforcements here… and none of it really engaged or excited me.
It felt less like a life-or-death, tense battle for the fate of the galaxy, and more like a vague smattering of visuals and references.
Compare this to the climatic space-battle in Return of the Jedi (almost forty years ago) and this doesn’t even come close. Which perhaps demonstrates – again – the problem of trying to simply recreate or relive things from the past when those things from the past are simply unlikely to be topped.
All of this CGI and modern filmmaking technology, and yet the space-battle from 1983 still feels so much more engaging – both visually, emotionally, and story-wise.
Even the recent space-battle sequence from Rogue One (2016) was a lot, lot better than this: partly because, like in Return of the Jedi, there was a much clearer, more focused, sense of what was going on, who was doing what, and what the stakes were.
This one, however, feels like a jarring, nebulous mess.
And something like Lando showing up to save the day, with his thousands of reinforcements, *should* be an emotional or fist-bump moment: but it just isn’t. By the time it happens (and it happens very abruptly), it just feels tired and even cheesy, even down to the dialogue.
At this point I should be feeling a sense of triumph or relief – I should be throwing my fist in the air. But, really, I had no reaction at all.
Compare that to Lando escaping the exploding Death Star in Return of the Jedi and the difference – emotionally and viscerally – is enormous.
It also really isn’t explained why or how Lando simply going off for fifteen minutes to fetch help resulted in thousands of ships showing up to the battle: when it was made explicit both in The Last Jedi and in this film that hardly anyone was coming to the aid of the Resistance.
What did Lando do while he was off-screen? What did he say? How did he bring back that many people? Were all these people willing to follow Lando Calrissian into battle, but NOT Leia Organa? Because, when Leia put out a desperate, latch-ditch call for help in TLJ, we were told “no one’s coming”.
What could Lando possibly have offered that the sheer NAME of Leia Organa didn’t…? This is especially a relevant question when you consider that this sequence is also easter-egg-heavy: we see one shot of Wedge Antilles, for example, and we see the Ghost from Star Wars: Rebels. Are they telling us that the likes of Wedge Antilles and Hera Syndulla were NOT willing to come into battle for the sake of Leia Organa (at the end of TLJ and through most of this film), but WERE suddenly willing to come because Lando asked them?
That just doesn’t work. Hey, I love Lando – but that’s not the point.
And what happened to the whole idea – established at the end of TLJ – that Luke Skywalker’s intervention on Crait was going to inspire people all around the galaxy to take up the fight? That was a key theme in TLJ – exemplified by the infamous ‘Broom Boy’ at the end.
And I was hoping we’d see that followed up on – it would’ve made Luke’s story in TLJ all the more powerful and impactful. Instead, as we see in this film, the situation remains unchanged from the end of TLJ – people still aren’t coming to the aid of the Resistance or Leia. Not until Lando – off-screen – somehow magics up thousands of reinforcements.
I like the idea, as said in the film, that these aren’t military reinforcements – “they’re just people”. That’s a potent idea. But it’s a throwaway line; and there’s no real sense of where all these people came from or why they’re only entering the fight at this late stage.
So, unfortunately, the whole climatic space-battle just falls flat for me: being nowhere near as interesting as what was going on with Rey, Palpatine and Kylo down on Exegol.
And… what was going on with Rey and Palpatine on Exegol?
Well, so we come to it then… the matter of Palpatine.
How well is it handled in The Rise of Skywalker? Well, like eveything else, it’s a frustratingly mixed bag. Cinematically and dramatically, it’s handled really well. The scenes are evocative and compelling.
And of course Ian McDiarmid gives his all again, bringing that iconic villain to life again in this new setting and context. Cinematically and viscerally, I enjoyed all of those scenes with the Emperor – they were compelling, especially the opening scene with Kylo and the later presence of all the Sith worshippers (or Sith ghosts?) in the Emperor’s chamber on Exegol. There was a Satanic Ritual feel to those scenes that was very dark and very compelling.
But… when you’re talking about Star Wars, the “Skywalker Saga”, and a forty-plus-year mythological legacy, it’s not as simple as just whether or not the scenes work cinematically. They have to work in context – and in concert – with preexisting stories and our preexisting understanding.
And on that level, this return of Palpatine seems to fall short.
As much as we may like this film or want to like this story, we all know – deep in our heart of hearts – that it is very unlikely that the Emperor would’ve survived the events of Return of the Jedi. Not only was he thrown down a reactor shaft, but his location – the second Death Star – was visibly blown to smithereens minutes later. Could he really have had enough time to be safely taken out of the doomed Death Star?
And how did he get out? Who was helping him at that point?
I was having this argument with the person I watched the film with in the cinema – and his position was that it was entirely possible that the Emperor could’ve gotten out. And, you know what? I accept that. I accept that it is – theoretically – possible to forward a theory whereby the Emperor somehow escaped or was rescued from the about-to-explode Death Star and that he was somehow spirited away without the Rebel Fleet noticing or intervening.
It’s possible – but you would have to significantly stretch credulity and credibility to make it work. In other words, it only works if you go out of your way to force it to work – and that’s never a sign of great storytelling.
And the problem is that The Rise of Skywalker’s story itself doesn’t actually offer much in the way of explanation. We’re not told how he survived the events of Return of the Jedi: we’re simply presented with Palpatine in the present and told to accept this situation and move on. There are vague hints towards things like cloning (possibly) or ‘Sith Magic’: but it’s kept ambiguous.
Which you’re either okay with or you’re not. I’m not sure which of those I am.
More importantly than that, there was always the thematic question hanging over this: does the return of the Emperor somehow weaken or invalidate the original story in Lucas’s six films?
Specifically, does it diminish the key role of Anakin Skywalker as the one to kill the Emperor and restore ‘balance’ to the Force? Well, again, frustratingly the answer is probably some ambiguous mix of yes or no. I guess the message is that, yes, Anakin did bring balance to the Force and atone for his crimes – but only to a point and only for a certain amount of time.
But now the Emperor is back again and has to be defeated all over again.
It’s too early to say this with any certainty – but I can’t help but feel Return of the Jedi (and even the prequels, somewhat) are weakened by the events of Rise of Skywalker and specifically bringing back Palpatine. Which was always my fear – in fact, the very first article I wrote when Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm was announced back in 2013 was precisely centered on this fear of the original saga being undermined by stretching the narrative beyond the pre-existing end-point (and that was long before I even imagined they would be bringing back Palpatine for the third film).
And on top of all of that, we then have to ask the question of what the point was of bringing back the Emperor only to kill him off again – and in a way that some people have perceived to have been anti-climactic.
There is simply no convincing argument to be made that the climax to this film – Rey and Kylo Ren working together to defeat Palpatine – is as powerful, interesting or poignant as Luke and Vader having done this already in Return of the Jedi.
And I say this as someone who genuinely loves the characters of Rey and Kylo and who thinks Palpatine is the greatest villain in cinema history.
And none of this is a criticism of the actual scenes themselves or the climax as presented in this film – but rather a problem with the very act of taking the saga narrative beyond its pre-existing end-point… and all the subsequent problems that come with that. Again, I think the actual scenes themselves are really well executed: visually, tonally, and cinematically. All of the Palpatine stuff is great to watch: I’m just struggling with whether it works in the broader context of the whole saga. And that’s a problem.
And it’s a problem that isn’t aided by the fact we know this was all a product of bad planning. I haven’t believed for a moment that it was “the plan all along” for Palpatine to return as the main villain: Palpatine’s return was a consequence of a trilogy that wasn’t properly or definitively planned from the beginning, leaving the third film – and J.J Abrams – in a difficult situation.
But this ‘Palpatine Problem’ is the epitome of why it’s so hard to properly or fairly review or assess The Rise of Skywalker: because if we assess it simply and solely in terms of this film on its own, I’d have to say it works. I’d have to say that it’s sufficiently engaging and dramatic, provides sufficient menace, and imparts a lot of life into the story and into the plight of the characters.
But… if we assess it in the broader context of the entire saga, that’s where we run into significant problems.
And you could argue that it’s unfair to assess this story in that broader context instead of on its own merit. But Star Wars films do not exist in a vacuum and never have: and, more to the point, it was Disney and Lucasfilm that decided to market this film as the “end of the Skywalker saga” – so they clearly wanted us to look at this film in that broader context of the previous eight films and forty-two years.
Again, it may age better with time.
I like that the line was thrown in from Revenge of the Sith (about the Dark Side being “a pathway to many abilities, some considered to be unnatural”) to provide at least some connective tissue between Palpatine seeking to conquer death in the prequels and seemingly having managed to do so here in Episode IX.
And, as I said, there’s definite ambiguity here – maybe put there by Abrams and Terrio on purpose. Such as Palpatine suggesting he really did die in Return of the Jedi and that what we’re seeing now is somehow his reanimated corpse: which is super creepy, and if it was creepiness factor that Abrams was going for, then he achieved it.
But even Palpatine’s plan at this point in the saga isn’t entirely clear. It’s implied – at different points in the movie – that he wants Kylo to kill Rey, or that he wants Rey to receive his essence (ewww) and take his place, or that he wants Rey to kill him, or that he wants to suck the energies out of both Rey and Kylo.
Which is it?
Or did he keep changing his mind? If so, that’s not much of a master plan and it’s very un-Palpatine-like.
I’m also not sure it’s going to work to go back now and view Snoke as a mere clone sent out by Palpatine: I mean, it might – I have to go back and watch the first two films again. But why would a clone grown in a factory have massive Force-powers like Snoke does in TLJ? Can you clone Force-powers? I mean Snoke was doing some major stuff using the Force in TLJ.
The return of Palpatine also, of course, brings with it another, related revelation: specifically, the longstanding question of who Rey is and what her ‘connections’ are, is finally revealed. She is the granddaughter of the Emperor.
Does that work? Yeah, probably. I mean, the whole story is so rushed that it maybe lacks some of the weight it might’ve otherwise had – and would’ve been better as something revealed (or at least hinted at) in the previous film. And again, there’s the inescapable sense that this plot-twist was decided on very late and probably wasn’t the plan all along.
While I think Rian Johnson’s theme of Rey being a nobody is probably more poignant, the idea of the trilogy’s heroine being the grandchild of the saga’s ultimate evil does kind of work dramatically: and the poignancy is instead to be found in Rey rejecting that legacy, refusing to be defined by it, and – in the end – choosing to adopt the name Skywalker instead.
That works for me: there are things that probably could’ve worked better – but what we’ve got here is good on its own terms.
That kind of sentiment can in fact be applied to the whole film: on the whole, it probably works, though it could’ve been much better and much more. And again, a lot depends on whether you’re willing to accept the film on its own terms or whether you’re stuck on the problem of how well this film works in the broader context of the whole saga.
It’s very difficult to judge or view this film on its own, as if it were a standalone movie – because it isn’t. As the conclusion to a nine-part saga, I think The Rise of Skywalker falls short of its ambitions.
What about as a conclusion simply to this trilogy of films? Again, it can be made to work – if you squint the right way and really try.
I said in my pre-TROS video that one of the things this film needed to do was to honour and follow through from The Last Jedi. Does Episode IX follow through enough from The Last Jedi – or do Abrams and Terrio, as many have argued, go out of their way to either ret-con or dismiss Rian Johnson’s middle film?
In the end, it’s a mixture of both. I think the claims that TROS completely abandons Johnson’s story from TLJ are incorrect: Abrams definitely takes key elements set up in TLJ and works with them in his concluding chapter. Chief of these being the Rey/Kylo Force-bond/Skype business, which is expanded upon here quite subtantially – and that’s a good thing.
It also follows on from TLJ in a couple of key moments – such as Luke’s warning that Ben’s father would always be with him, which, here, is manifested at the key point where the ‘memory’ of Han appears to Kylo. This proves to be the key to turning Ben back to the light – but, again, it is so abrupt and undeveloped that it kind of doesn’t work anywhere near as powerfully as it could for me.
But there are little things in here that I appreciated, in terms of TLJ follow-through: I liked seeing Porgs again on Ach-To and I really appreciated that we get reference to the Holdo Manueuver – including seeing the Holdo Manueuver actually performed again at the end (near Endor – where we also get the surprising Ewok cameo).
Unfortunately, there are also areas where Episode IX doesn’t work with what was set up in TLJ.
In particular, Luke’s sacrifice in TLJ isn’t made to count for much at all – and this is a really serious misstep. It’s implied in TLJ that Luke’s actions on Crait become legend and become an inspiration around the galaxy. That isn’t reflected in Episode IX at all. Indeed, in Episode IX it’s as if Luke’s actions on Crait never happened: for most of the film, Leia and the Resistance are still alone in their fight (until Lando finds reinforcements at the end).
So that definitely doesn’t resonate at all with TLJ or with Luke’s story: and, as I said before, this film really fails Luke Skywalker in my opinion. It really is baffling to me that a fully available Mark Hammil was so sidelined here, relegated to a bit part in just one scene.
For all those who think TLJ dishonoured Mark Hamill or Luke Skywalker (and I don’t think that at all), TROS in fact does a worse job on them both: managing to both reduce Hammil to a walk-on cameo at the conclusion of the saga, as well as to downplay or undermine any lasting impact of his sacrifice at the end of the last film.
There’s also a sense, often, that Abrams’ and Terrios’ script is either taking pot-shots at TLJ or trying too self-consciously to throw out sweeteners for those parts of the fan-base that hated that movie: the drastic minimisation of Rose Tico, for example, or Luke’s catching the lightsaber on Ach-To. Stuff like this is all a little too self-referential and it serves only to break the fourth wall.
In fairness, Rian Johnson did the same thing a number of times in TLJ, where his script seemed to be trolling TFA, so this simply seems to be a thing that happens now in these films.
I was also disappointed we didn’t really get anything of Kylo Ren as Supreme Leader of the First Order: which, again, was set up in TLJ. I can understand that sheer time constraints probably made J.J push this to one side, but it would’ve been good to see at least the early third of the film showing Kylo as leader in a more substantial way. I also thought Hux was somewhat thrown away in this film: some of that may be Rian Johnson’s fault for turning the character into a bit of a comedy act in TLJ, leaving J.J with nowhere to take him – but Hux seemed like such a potentially interesting villain in TFA, and here he just gets dealt with almost as an afterthought.
I also can’t be the only one who thinks Palpatine’s ‘broadcast’ should’ve been shown at the beginning of the film instead of referred to in the opening crawl – that could’ve made for a really good scene.
It also surprised me how McGuffin-heavy this film was, with all the reliance on Wayfinders and Sith Daggers and the like. I’m not sure how necessary all of that was or if there was a simpler way to have Rey find her way to Exegol. The Sith dagger business feels like it might’ve been left over from Colin Trevorrow‘s original ideas for the story (based on what we’ve heard about his ‘Duel of the Fates’ script). It feels messy. And it feels like the first half of the film features a lot of unnecessarily convoluted plot devices, where a simpler path from A to B might’ve been possible: which, in turn, might’ve opened up more space to focus better on things like Kylo’s turn or Rey’s return to Ach-To.
Easter eggs and references are scattered all over the film too, some of them mentioned already. There’s been a lot of talk of too much fan- service; and it does feel a little overdone at times. But then some of it works quite nicely – so it’s hard to critique that too much, except to say that it’s a hit-or-miss business. Like I said, I didn’t like Luke raising the X-Wing – but I did like Chewie getting his medal, for example: so it’s really a smattering of take-it-or-leave-it offerings.
It’s curious that, for all the fan service moments, some don’t feel like they go far enough. I mentioned, for example, the voices of the past Jedi speaking to Rey – a great moment, but yet we didn’t get to actually see any Force Ghosts, not even Luke or Anakin. In a similar vein, Kylo’s opening scene on Mustafar – why not show Vader’s castle? Or have Kylo actually in Vader’s castle to begin with. How much more would that resonate?
But, again, that’s me doing the very easy thing of looking at a completed film and noticing all the tweaks I could make to improve it: I acknowledge that actually putting the film together in the first place is a whole different ball-game. There are, it has to be said, a lot of tweaks I would make to this film – from improving the Force Ghosts visually to inserting a couple more scenes to chart Kylo’s journey from the dark to the light.
But a big thing, thinking about it now, with The Rise of Skywalker is that even multiple tweaks wouldn’t necessarily fix the problematic core of this film for me. Whereas with TFA and TLJ I think a few tweaks would iron out any issues I have with those films, with The Rise of Skywalker, the central question of whether Palpatine should’ve ever been brought back into the narrative means that all the tweaks in the world still leaves you with an underlying problem – if you see it as a problem, that is.
Some people don’t. At the moment, I do. In the future, I might not.
To bring this to a conclusion now (and I’m sure I’ll be talking about this film more in the near future), what is the defining word on Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker?
I actually don’t have one.
This film, again, is going to need time. A year from now, maybe I’ll have a definitive position.
What can be said for now is that it is an awkward, messy end to both this Sequel Trilogy and the Skywalker Saga.
I know it probably comes across as though I have nothing but problems with this film. Which isn’t true. There are a lot of things I really like in The Rise of Skywalker – many of which I’ve highlighted already. And I think in six months’ time I may have a broadly more positive feeling about this film.
It’s just a very awkward film, with too many misfires in key moments. It’s the misfires in those key moments that bug me the most: not just key moments in this film, but what are meant to be key moments in this entire saga – such as Luke’s sole scene in the film or Kylo’s turn to the light, or the appearance of Luke and Leia’s ghosts, etc.
The deficiencies in those key moments make it difficult to wholly love what we’re given here.
In the broader strokes, I think J.J has delivered a conclusion that just about works – again, depending on whether you accept Palpatine or not. But, for the concluding chapter of the saga, ‘just about works’ isn’t exactly what I was looking for.
The key thing, I think, is that the main character who gets a good conclusion – and overall arc – here is Rey. Which, with her being the central hero of the trilogy, is important. And I think that final scene of her at the Lars homestead (and identifying as a Skywalker) is a poignant one.
I’m not sure anyone else necessarily gets a great conclusion to their stories here though – accept maybe Leia. Kylo/Ben’s story was botched, in my opinion: and Luke just didn’t work for me.
But I’m not sure how much better J.J could’ve done. For a trilogy that was so poorly planned and had so little definitive road-map, and for a story that – as much as I like The Last Jedi – was left in a slightly awkward place at the end of the last film, you have to ask yourself what the possibilities were and whether anyone else could’ve necessarily made a perfect third film at this point.
I would love to see what George Lucas would’ve done: but that’s all pie in the sky at this point.
Again, I’m avoiding talking about the alleged Colin Trevorrow script leak or the alleged ‘J.J cut’ at this point. Or the rumour that this version of The Rise of Skywalker we saw possibly *wasn’t* the version J.J wanted released. Those are questions for another time.
The Rise of Skywalker is imperfect, to say the least. But it’s often a lot of fun. It does some really nice things. Some really bad things. It thrives here and there: and flounders elsewhere. It comes really close to brilliance in some key places: but backs off and doesn’t get there. It tries really hard to please as much of its perceived target demographics as possible: but probably alienates as many people as it pleases in the end.
It really does feel like a story being decided on by multiple voices and agendas for differing reasons: like a story put together by committee and with a lot of back-and-forth and uncertainty. And not like a story that flowed from pure storytelling or mythic considerations.
It’s hard to shake the sense that either Disney or Lucasfilm were trying too hard to mollify or ‘win back’ the parts of the fan-base that were unhappy with the previous film. In some ways, maybe that’s laudable: but, in storytelling terms, it’s not the recipe for a cohesive or powerful film. Great, mythic storytelling and filmmaking (that’s supposed to resonate for generations, as Star Wars should) doesn’t do that.
I can’t bring myself to hate it. But it isn’t the film I wanted either. But Star Wars fans and ‘expectations’ have been a problematic issue for at least two decades by this point. And if George Lucas couldn’t keep the fans happy (and hey, I love the prequels, but apparently most people didn’t), then what chance does a J.J Abrams or Kathleen Kennedy have in this day and age of active boycotts and toxic fandom?
This whole thing has been an awkward mess from the beginning – from the lack of clear story planning to the toxicity of fans and the impossible environment that all of the ‘fan outrage’ created for the filmmakers. In that environment, it’s no surprise at all that The Rise of Skywalker makes for such a messy, imperfect end. No wonder George Lucas got out when he did – he’d already learnt from the Prequel Era that Star Wars fans tend to make everything very difficult.
But this is the age we live in now: and The Rise of Skywalker is, for better or worse, the kind of film created by this age we live in. It’s the product of a vicious cycle – or even a vicious circle: partly the filmmakers’ flaws, partly the corporate/company agendas, and partly the environment created by the more cruel parts of the fan-base.
It might not be the film we want or need to ‘end the saga’ – but, in essence, it might be the film that this current fan community deserves. Whether it’s the conclusion that Star Wars deserves is another matter – which may take a long time to definitively answer.