The Rise of Skywalker: Review

The Rise of Skywalker: Review December 20, 2019

I went with my son to see the latest Star Wars film and the last in this trilogy of trilogies, The Rise of Skywalker, as soon as it was in theaters. I will offer a spoiler-free assessment in this first paragraph and so anyone who wishes to know what I think can read it safely and without hesitation. Once the paragraph ends, only those who don’t care about spoilers or who’ve already seen it should continue reading. But I want to offer something first to those who have not seen it, especially since there have been mixed reviews. I can honestly say that it is one of the Star Wars movies that I have found the most thoroughly satisfying immediately after the first viewing. I’d put it up there with the original trilogy, and I highly recommend it. Given the story that had been told in the original trilogy, the prequels, and then most recently the J. J. Abrams/Disney films, I cannot think of a more satisfying way that the major plot elements, character arcs, and overall story trajectories could have been brought to closure and resolution. Even the music seemed perfect, bringing some new offerings that were fantastic while echoing, recapping, and creatively adapting and reworking old familiar themes. I will say a bit more about that in the next paragraph, and so if you’re okay with a “musical spoiler” but not reveals of plot points, you can safely read the next paragraph as well.

As I said, in moving on I will say one thing that I suppose could count as a “musical spoiler” but doesn’t give away any plot elements. It seems good to offer a buffer between the end of that first paragraph and talking about the plot. If the music is a major part of the experience for you, then stop reading now and just experience it. But I have to say this about the movie, which was really musically satisfying. In Episode VII when Rey’s theme was introduced, I thought it was interesting and distinctive, but not as impressive as the themes I associated with other characters. Hearing what Williams does with it in this movie, I think he was deliberately holding back. He may not have already known where Abrams would take Rey’s story. But he gathered that she would be central to the ongoing story, and knew he would need to wow us with music connected with her. He does, and it is brilliant, and I now look back on the restraint with which her theme was introduced and am just simply floored. It takes a combination of genius and determination. It was like composing Anakin’s theme envisaging that part of it can become the Imperial March, except this time working forward chronologically instead of jumping backwards.

Now, to dive into other details, including spoilers. As the opening text scrolled across the screen, I was already struck by word choices that did two things: indicate the resolution of and connection with points all across the story, and connect with religious themes. The dead speak. There is a threat of revenge. The First Order is described as diabolical. Reference is made to the phantom Emperor. Palpatine seems to have returned. We don’t have long to wait until we find out whether this is so or not. Kylo Ren is shown fighting in order to gain possession of an object that we later learn is a Sith wayfinder, which allows him to find his way to a planet that is later revealed to be called Exegol, which is the mythical home of the Sith. We discover that Palpatine has (echoing language used in the prequels) found the Dark Side to be a pathway to abilities that some consider unnatural – allowing him to make Snoke as well as preserve his own life, although his mobility requires mechanical assistance now. A member of the resistance will later refer to “dark science” and in that context mention cloning. Whether Snoke was made in a vat using some of Palpatine’s own genetic material, we aren’t told. Palpatine has been building a fleet there, ready to replace the First Order with the Final Order.

The music often conveys the peace that the Jedi pursue to restore their calm and centeredness to good effect. We see just how powerful Rey is becoming as she levitates, meditating, amid rocks that she is also levitating. She seeks (unsuccessfully at this point) to connect to the Jedi that have come before her. Leia is training her, and she is also studying the Jedi texts that she took from Ahch-To. Among those are notes that allow them to retrace and continue Luke’s quest to find the way to Exegol. That journey leads them to a religious celebration of the ancestors (featuring cute alien children) and assistance from Captain Lando Calrissian. As they flee stormtroopers that can fly, they fall into something like quicksand, except that it is formed from pebbles rather than sand, and they end up in a cavern where the Sith loyalist on whose trail they had been had left behind a dagger with Sith writing on it. I really liked the point that C-3P0 could understand the writing, but because of a law prohibiting the translation of the Sith language his programming prevented him from telling them the meaning. There they also encounter a large snake-like creature, and in one of many wonderful moments in the film, we see Rey heal the creature which had been wounded at some point by transferring some of her life energy to it. Grateful, the creature leaves them in peace and allows them to leave the tunnels. (When they first found themselves in the tunnels, C-3P0 pondered whether they might be in the afterlife, expressing surprise that droids might be allowed to enter that after all. That could be the focus of a blog post in its own right!)

Soon after, Rey and Kylo battle in ways that are impressive. Rey leaps and cuts off the wing of Kylo’s TIE Fighter. They struggle with the Force to pull back or assist the departure of an imperial transport which Chewbacca is believed to be on, having been captured. Rey unintentionally sends out Force lightning, destroying the transport and leaving her afraid of her powers and of herself. She later confides in Finn telling him that that power came from her, she lost control, and that she had a vision of herself sitting on the Sith throne. As they seek the information C-3P0 has but cannot share, they seek out a black market droid specialist named Babu Frik, whose cuteness competes with that of baby Yoda. It seems that a procedure that ultimately results in a memory wipe will be the only way to get at the data. As C-3P0 resists the idea, in another nice throwback to earlier films, Rey tells the droid that he knows the odds better than anyone, and so should decide whether there is another way to proceed.

Mention is made of a battle at which the Resistance called for help but no one came, leading to one of the major elements central to the film’s moral message: they win by making you think you’re alone. That has always been how dictatorships have succeeded for a time, by making people believe that others do not share their desire to rise up and resist, or at least if they share the sentiment, they won’t actually risk their lives to act on the feeling. Moral instinct plays a significant role in the message of the film as well.

The movie has comical elements which seemed to me just the right amount (never distracting from the plot in the way C-3P0 did in the droid factory sequence in Attack of the Clones). I loved for instance when Rey used the force to get stormtroopers to be relieved they were there and help them, and Finn and Poe asked whether she ever used that on them.

The biggest revelation of the movie is arguably that Rey is a Palpatine, the granddaughter of the Emperor, and her parents died to protect her from him. It is also clarified that Rey and Kylo are a dyad in the Force, something of a rarity, connecting them and making them particularly strong together. The way this connection allows them to have a lightsaber duel despite not being in the same location results in some particularly cool moments.

As the dagger’s information leads them to a moon of Endor and the wreckage of the second Death Star, they also find more stormtroopers who deserted. While there, Kylo and Rey fight some more, and Kylo seeks to lure her to accept who she is, and that the dark side is in their nature. Leia senses something, and reaches out to her son. It distracts him, and Rey stabs him – but then heals him using the Force. The effort of reaching out to him leads Leia to die, and that plus the loving memory of his father leads Ben back to embrace the cause that his parents fought for.

Ben tosses away his red lightsaber, while Rey goes to Ahch-To and tosses away the one she had that had been Luke’s. But his force ghost appears and catches it, and he helps Rey to not make the mistake that he had of isolating himself or herself away out of fear of their own shortcomings and potential to do evil. The fact that Leia trained Rey knowing she was a Palpatine helps make the point that Luke articulates by saying that some things are stronger than blood. When Luke raises his old X-Wing from the water, the music from the parallel scene in Empire Strikes Back is perfect. She came in a TIE Fighter, but leaves in an X-Wing. And we later see the X-Wing and Ben’s TIE fighter parked side by side, in another wonderful brief image symbolizing the dyadic balance they’ve found their way to, one by a path of fearing and wrestling with the darkness inside, the other from the opposite direction resisting the light.

The Resistance seeks to stop the fleet on Exegor, to which Rey leads them, having salvaged the Sith wayfinder that had been in Kylo’s TIE Fighter. But they will need help. Rey and eventually also Ben confront Emperor Palpatine, and while at first he tries to lure his granddaughter to sacrifice him so that he and all the Sith can live on in her as Empress, he discovers that he can actually steal healing energy from this Force dyad and so pursues that end. Ultimately Palpatine is finally destroyed by his own Force lightning, as Rey uses two lightsabers to send that energy back onto him. The word sacrifice is in fact the one Palpatine uses, and we also see this is indeed part of a religious ceremony with an audience in bleachers and statues of Sith all around. It is around this time that we get the really impressive treatment of Rey’s theme, so be sure to listen out to it – and indeed, all the music deserves your attention.

The moment when the Resistance fighters are losing hope and the sky can be seen full of ships that have come to assist them is powerful and moving. As an officer on the command star destroyer says, it isn’t a navy – just people.

Rey finally manages to connect with past Jedi, and hears their voices. “Alone, you have never been” says one familiar voice, for instance. The Jedi live on in her, just as the Sith live on in Palpatine, and his father lives on in Ben for that matter. Rey drops to the ground dead once she has defeated her grandfather, but Ben saves her by sharing his own life force, bringing her back from the dead but fading himself to become one with the Force. Leia’s corpse then also vanishes leaving only the shroud that had covered it.

The final celebration with the three friends hugging and crying, and then Rey’s last action in the film, all wrap the story up in a satisfying way. Rey takes Luke’s and Leia’s lightsabers and buries them at the Skywalker homestead on Tatooine. Asked who she is by a woman who isn’t satisfied with the answer “Rey,” Rey glimpses the force ghosts of the Skywalker siblings and chooses to wear their name instead, answering “Rey Skywalker.” The movie thus ends a story of bloodlines strong in the Force with a message that genes may carry certain abilities, but do not determine how you use those abilities.

Rey has a lightsaber in the final scene that I think is significant. I’m not sure if it is supposed to be grey or yellow, but either way it represents the place of balance that she has finally found as a Grey Jedi, a term not used in the movie but appropriate nonetheless. Up until then, some individuals had found moments of balance between the dark and light, but Rey has made that path her own to a greater extent. Whether the lightsaber combines dark and light, or red and blue/green to make a yellowish-orange, the point is conveyed.

Longtime readers will know that I’ve seen this message of balance, akin to Daoism, as the overall theme of Star Wars and the place that its story ought to reach its natural resolution. This grand finale of the Skywalker family saga also provides opportunity to think and reflect seriously on an important topic in our time and probably in any era: how can evil be defeated without those opposing evildoers becoming evil ourselves? Read some of my earlier posts below for more on these topics. But for now, let me just say that I loved the movie, really and truly loved it, and highly recommend it. If you’ve seen it, what did you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!


How Star Wars Ends

Review of The Last Jedi

The Tao of Star Wars

The Church of the Force

Star Wars Yin Yang

Trump or Vader?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John MacDonald

    I thought it was a wonderful series finale. One point I missed is that Finn was going to tell Rey something important (I think when they were sinking in the sand), but I don’t recall he ever does? And why did Rey sink? She could have just levitated!

    • We never do find out what he meant to tell her. Something for the comic books! 🙂

      • One suggestion I heard was that he planned to tell her that he is Force sensitive. If not that, perhaps what he tells the other stormtrooper who defected: he now believes in the Force with certainty.

        • I think the film revealed implicitly that he was force sensitive. Just my thought.

  • Evan Hershman

    As I said on Facebook, I did not like this one at all.

    My main issues:

    1) The pacing was incredibly rushed. It felt like Abrams was trying to compress both Episode IX AND his own vision of what Episode VIII should’ve been into one movie.

    2) My biggest concern: the whole film felt like it was consciously and aggressively rejecting the more interesting developments of The Last Jedi, which I believe is one of the best films in the series. TLJ asked audiences to reconsider two shibboleths of the Star Wars saga: the belief that the most important deeds are done by special “chosen ones” with powerful ancestries; and the conviction that the old Jedi Order was the ultimate ideal to which the forces of good could aspire. TROS rejected both of these things, by giving Rey a great bloodline from which she gets her power, and by making her drawing upon the strength of the old Jedi as her means of victory. The film makes motions toward TLJ’s themes of destiny being made, not ordained, by having Rey worry she is doomed to fall to the dark side because of her heritage, but ultimately the film wants to have its chosen-one cake and eat it too, because Rey is not fated because of her family, but nevertheless gets all her cool force powers from that family lineage, apparently. Not everyone liked the way TLJ challenged some of the series’ longstanding preoccupations, but I thought it was a bold and original place for Rian Johnson to stake out in his film.

    3) The major character arcs were resolved unsatisfactorily. Rey began The Force Awakens dreaming of leaving a desert planet and finding her family, but ends the trilogy going back to a desert planet and being alone, apart from her new found family, for undisclosed reasons. Finn had no arc worth speaking of– he never even got to tell Rey whatever he was going to tell her. And Kylo Ren should not have died. Both Leia, and Han in Episode VII, sacrificed themselves so that he could *live*, and yet he died anyway. That he finally kissed Rey only to die immediately, and didn’t even get a funeral like Vader did in RotJ, was especially upsetting. He wasn’t even particularly useful in the final fight against Palpatine, serving only to show up and then get knocked unconscious by Palpatine’s life-drain thing, leaving Rey to face the Emperor on her own

    4) Even by the understandably loose standards of the series, the way the Force works in this film was particularly deus-ex-machina-like, with the Force being able to do basically anything that would conveniently move the plot forward, or even just look kind of cool. When Palpatine somehow used his force lightning on an entire fleet of starships– and didn’t hit any of his own star destroyers!– my eyes rolled so hard they just about popped out of my head.

    5) Overall, JJ Abrams seems to have a truncated understanding of what it means to call back to previous events in the series. He knows how to imitate the imagery of earlier moments in the saga, but can’t pass along their emotional impact. Kylo Ren dies just as Vader died, but Vader’s death was a conscious choice he made after he’d spent an entire film seeing how far his son Luke was willing to go to redeem him. Kylo just dies because Rey was nice to him once or twice and now he’s a Good Guy. Or consider the end, with Rey on Tatooine. He’s obviously copying the classic shot of Luke standing in the same spot looking out at the twin suns of Tatooine. But because returning to that place and remaining there makes no sense for Rey’s character arc (see #3 above), the callback to A New Hope is just a nostalgic image without any true emotional weight. The callback is unearned, just like every single other echo, cameo, and callback in this film, which is completely overstuffed with fanservice that never gets past the surface layer of what made the moments it’s evoking work so well.

    6) I usually don’t worry too much about “plot holes,” but one in this film was just too much for me: how come Threepio can understand Sith but isn’t allowed to translate it? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to just have had the language erased from his memory, or never installed in the first place, depending on when the restriction on translating Sith was put into effect? Why bother having a droid with access to information that he can’t make use of? The answer seems to be “so we had an excuse to go to that planet searching for a black market droid technician.”

    7) Honestly, I could have put up with almost everything else if Rey had not been Palpatine’s granddaughter. That was too much for me. I audibly groaned at that “reveal,” which I had already seen coming half an hour previously. Rey was much more interesting when she was “nobody.” And since Rian Johnson has said in interviews that Abrams gave him no guidance about Rey’s parentage during the making of TLJ, it’s clear that this “twist” was a last minute story addition made for unfathomable reasons, perhaps to placate the fans who insisted that Rey couldn’t possibly be so powerful if she was “nobody.”

    • I think you can find similar issues throughout the franchise. George Lucas was figuring it out as he went along. Darth Vader didn’t become the same person as Anakin Skywalker until he was well into the drafting of The Empire Strikes Back, to give but one example. And to complain – to pick but one example – that droids have capabilities that they are then prohibited from using is precisely the notion of a droid in the Star Wars universe, a robot that would be capable of independent action if it were not for a “restraining bolt.”

  • Christopher DeForest

    This is a most excellent review; thank you so much! I too loved the movie and the whole series has been a frame around my life in many wonderful ways. Your remarks raise a powerful theme that truly thrilled my heart also: that the Force does not require bloodlines to manifest itself. I think that Finn is the best example, when he has the conversation with the young woman who, like Finn, was kidnapped as a child and forced to become a stormtrooper. They both come to the revelation that the Force was a driving force in their liberation – these two who came from seemingly unremarkable ancestry. I could not help but recall John 1:12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

  • Geoff

    I’m disappointed with your review. I was hoping you would open up a conversation about some of the more provocative elements. I thought there were several significant moments when the Myth of Redemptive Violence (Wink) was challenged. For instance, when Rey kills Kylo and then immediately weeps and seeks to undo the very thing she has done. I know that it is probably because they are “spiritually” close as dyads of the Force, but I found myself asking why we can’t all have that recognition, that we are all related to one another, that everyone is some mother’s child?

    Another was when she was challenged by Palpatine to kill him so that the Sith force could flourish and the era of the Jedi would be over. What are the theological elements of that that allows for violence to benefit the very thing we are attempting to resist? What was it about his power and hatred that he directed toward others that rebounded against him and became the cause of his undoing?

    I found myself a bit disappointed that they felt a need to wrap everything up into a happy ending. I think when Rey was killed, it would have been the place to conclude. The struggle for justice and peace has casualties, not just as bystanders, but as those who are in the forefront of the struggle – think of Christ, MLK, Gandhi, and so many more. They missed an opportunity, I think, to send the message that challenges and empowers those of us who are left behind with agency, agency which we must take responsibility for. Instead, the heroines/heros continue to live with us so we are relieved of the responsibility for the future. In a way, must become the Jedi force to protect the innocent and ensure that justice prevails.

    Anyway, that’s my $.02.

    • Ocelot Aardvark

      Thanks for your 2¢ full of spoilers.
      Revealing spoilers is exactly what James McGrath was trying to avoid

    • Thanks for this. I did wonder about the very point you did, which I think it in fact central to the movie and to the franchise, namely how can you defeat evil without becoming evil yourself. I think it wrestled with it and came to the only conclusion that provides an option other than remaining passive, which is to refrain from simply striking down the enemy in hatred or anger, but also to not prevent when the enemy’s own pursuit of evil leads to their destruction. Otherwise the message of the franchise would have been that you’re just always going to have something like an Empire. It’s quite a challenging and thought-provoking series of films for anyone committed to nonviolent resistance to ponder.

  • As someone who was a freshman in college when the first Star Wars movie came out, I found it a very satisfying ending. The characters that have been present with me for more than 40 years were with me today! I think we can get too wrapped up in interpreting things and miss something that seemed absent in the prequels, and that was the power of friendship. Thanks for the review!

  • Uncle Dave

    “As an officer on the command star destroyer says, it isn’t a navy – just people.”

    This quote reminded me of the rescue of the British Army at Dunkirk.