Review: The Rise of Skywalker

Major spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker

I want to like The Rise of Skywalker (TROS), and there is a lot I do like about it. I have a feeling it’s going to be a movie where the more I watch it, the better it will get. A lot of Star Wars movies are like that for me. I’ve only had the chance to see it once, so a lot of this is me still working out my initial feelings about the film. Though as I have mulled over this, I am realizing that it’s going to take a lot for this movie to rise in my Star Wars films ranks. This will probably never be one of my top films, but to quote Skytalkers, “Never is a big word.” Ten years from now, I’ll remember the good parts fondly. The bad parts will fade into the section of my mind and acknowledge it’s not a well-made film, but that I can still love it.

But in this moment, I’m looking back on the Disney era of Star Wars for the first time really asking hard questions about it. I have been waiting to judge the Sequel Trilogy as a whole, because it was incomplete. Now that it is finished, capping off four decades worth of storytelling, I’m left feeling unsure about the future.

TROS was the first time I left a Star Wars movie feeling numb. In fact, one of my first thoughts was I wish I had seen CATS instead (let’s be clear, I love the musical CATS. I’m super excited to see this hell-spawned movie).

Edit: I saw CATS and yes, I enjoyed it far more than TROS.

 

I’m a very emotional movie watcher. I’ve always championed good character work over plot. If the characters are written well, then I’m happy to overlook terrible plotlines. I stood by Once Upon A Time for way too many seasons because of this reason. Even with Solo which is not one of my top Star Wars movies, I left so excited about the reveal of Darth Maul at the end. It made me feel a lot of things. It changed my view of Qi’ra who I thought was a bit bland for most of the movie and made her suddenly really interesting.

I didn’t feel that way about TROS. It’s already been written about in several reviews how crazy the pacing of this movie is. So much happens, and it never has time to breath. I didn’t get to feel those moments of Leia’s death or the reveal of Rey’s bloodline. It didn’t give me a chance to do so. This is a big reason why I know I didn’t connect with a lot of this movie. I understand that this is very much a “me” thing that will shape my perspective of the movie. As I’ve talked with other people who are more story over plot people, they didn’t have a problem as much. This is absolutely fine. One of the best parts of fandom is having healthy, respectful discussions while disagreeing.

I’m also not used to leaving a movie from my favorite franchise feeling nothing. I knew I liked several moments of the film. But I didn’t feel satisfied or happy.

 

Expectations are a hell of a thing. They really can shape how you view things. Part of the reason I reacted so negatively, and I’m aware of this, was because I didn’t want three very specific things to happen. All three of those things happened in the movie giving me a visceral, gut punch reaction. I do think on a second viewing knowing those things going into it, I’ll be a lot more prepared and it won’t be as bad. At the moment though, I know I’m not ready to see it again. I’m going to need some time to process it.

 

Those three things, to me, were vital narrative beats that would make or break this movie for me. It’s my own fault for hanging this movie on these things. They were: how Palpatine’s return was handled, Rey not being a named person, and Ben Solo surviving. Spoiler alert, the last two things didn’t happen in the movie.

These happening the way they did in TROS made me made me question several things about the franchise as a whole:

What’s the point of the non-movie canon? Was J.J. Abrams allowed to run over everything and do his own thing? Where is the Lucasfilm Story Group, and what is their job? What is the final message of the Skywalker Family?

 

How Palpatine returns and the (now not important) hints from comics, books, and videogames.

When I heard that Palpatine was returning, it was like a lightbulb that went off in my head. Yes, of course! This made so much sense to me. I hadn’t been resonating with Snoke or even Kylo Ren for most of the series. The First Order was fine, but they were never given the chance to really be the big bads like the Empire. I mean just look at Phasma’s lack of storyline, oh my goodness it’s terrible. Palpatine made sense in the final Skywalker film. He has always been the big bad of the Skywalkers, so intricately tied into their family as their ultimate arch nemeses. To me, he was what had been missing from the Sequel Trilogy.

The make or break moment for me would be how it was handled in the film. It would have to be done right for it to really work.

Ever since the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm, there have been comics, books, video games, and more released to fill in gaps of the canon. I understand that the average movie goer won’t ever dive into these books. Maybe they will get into some of the animated shows, especially now with the release of Disney+. But for the most part, these are for deep diving fans.

Lord Momin

Still, as I read through these materials, I couldn’t help but see possible themes, storylines, and plots that would come into effect in TROS.

In Charles Soule’s comic run of Darth Vader, one of my personal favorite pieces in the new canon, he introduced a new Sith character named Lord Momin. In a moment of using a high amount of Force, Momin’s presence and sentience was trapped inside of his mask. We’ve seen in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi that Kylo Ren has Darth Vader’s mask and it’s been speaking to him, just like Lord Momin. This seemed like a plausible way for Palpatine to be in TROS. In a high moment of the Force when Darth Vader is redeemed back to Anakin Skywalker to save his son and bring balance in the Force, Palpatine could have latched onto his mask somehow to preserve himself. Which made more sense when we saw the ruins of the second Death Star in promotional material.

In some of the novels and comics, dark side characters can, in their own way, create something similar to a Force Ghost. There has to be very specific requirements and they seem to be locked in the location or object they’re attached to. It’s not like the Jedi who can retain their consciousness and can move around as we’ve seen Yoda do. This too felt like a possibility to Palpatine’s return. Again, he could be latched onto or stuck on the second Death Star needing a way to be released. The Mighty Chewbacca and the Forest of Fear laid down a lot of this, and part of the plot is Palpatine’s interest in these methods of preserving himself after death. I haven’t read this particular book, but Alex from Star Wars Explains breaks it down nicely:

To me, all of these make far more sense than what we got in TROS. It wouldn’t need much explanation for the general audience either. Why is Palpatine in Vader’s mask? Because he was strong enough to do so. Why are there Stih Force Ghosts? Well the Jedi have them, so this is a Sith version. Most general audiences won’t care too much about whatever explanation is given to them. And it’s built upon canon that deep diving fans like me are familiar with.

But what we got in the movie is the crawl explaining that Palpatine is back somehow, because it’s never explained. He’s pretty much zombie GLaDOS from Portal and he’s made a bunch of clone Snokes, insinuating that Palpatine might be a clone too but it’s not clear? It’s not explained at all. It’s messy and rushed. As someone who looks at all of this amazing canon set-up the last few years, I can’t help but ask why. Why these unanswered vague plots when you have these already established stories which then audiences can go look into if they want to. Think about Saw Gerrera in Rogue One. Clone Wars fans knew exactly who he was, but he was new to general audiences. I know a few friends who left Rogue One and looked up at least those episodes of Clone Wars for backstory. And now they’re fans of the show.

 

TROS is the first time I have really asked myself an extremely tough question:

Where was the Lucasfilm Story Group in this film?

Character and plot contradictions aside (like Poe being a drug runner going against his comic and novel origins), what was the point of all the novels, comics, video games, and audio drama? They all felt like they were building to something. Why give us the Chosen One prophecies in Master and Apprentice if it wasn’t tied to TROS? Why introduce the Sky Walkers in Thrawn Alliances and Thrawn Treason if it wasn’t building to something? Leia hid Vader being her father from Ben Solo in Bloodlines which ended terribly. You would think she would learn her lesson and not repeat that by hiding Rey’s parentage. Why have this huge, beautiful MCU-like canon with so many details and characters enhancing the Skywalker Saga if it wasn’t heading towards the finale in TROS?

 

And I really hate to say this, but the answer is money. It feels like all this time and dedication to other media in Star Wars and the investment was all just a cash grab. The Story Group, in the end, doesn’t care about the continuity. They just want to get paid. This is what it feels like to me after watching TROS. I know, deep down, this isn’t true. I see so many in the Story Group working incredibly hard. But this is just how it made me feel after the movie.

I absolutely hate writing that paragraph. It’s really painful. I’ve gotten into some harsh debates with my best friend over the Story Group. She’s much more logical and cynical, calling out from the get go that Disney and the Lucasfilm Story Group doesn’t care about canon. She always argued that it was about money first and foremost. They don’t care about diversity. They don’t care about queer fans. They want to make money most of all. And I defended the Story Group. I fought hard for them, even standing against my own friend. I wanted to believe they had a plan. I wanted to believe they were building to something meaningful.

 

Especially after Rogue One.

Rogue One is the canon Gold Standard for me. It weaves together all canon so beautifully. In a main Star Wars film, you have animation characters. It connected the prequels with characters like Bail Organa to the Original Trilogy with characters like Tarkin. It has book and comic characters in it. Most of these were done as little winks and nods too. Like when they call Rebels character Hera Syndulla over the intercom, a normal movie goer wouldn’t notice. But I squealed in my seat hearing her name. Rogue One is what TROS should have been. It should have been a capstone pulling together all canon in one final shebang. It could have all been done in a single scene too. In the final dog fight of TROS when all the ships arrive, they could have done a call in like, “Ace Squadron reporting in! Alphabet Squadron here! Spectre Seven and Spectre Three reporting for duty!” And having Norra Wexley with Wedge, because she’s a fighter like her husband. Something like this would have been really great for deep diving fans to show us that the other canon does matter.

 

But seeing how they handled Palpatine’s return, as the kids say, I was a clown. I have never lost my faith in the Lucasfilm Story Group. I have been wowed by and praised their hard work. I want to stand by them so much.

And now I feel really betrayed by them. Part of me feels like I wasted my money trying to read all the other novels and comics looking for TROS nuggets that would possibly come into play.

I still love Star Wars. I still love a lot of the novels and comics. I’ve been enjoying watching a play-through of Fallen Order. Animation will always be my one true love of this franchise. I am looking forward to both the new Thrawn and Padmé books in the new year. I’m dying to find out what Project Luminous is. One movie will never wreck my love of Star Wars. Star Wars isn’t over for me. I’m not going to protest with videos or say it needs to be burned to the ground.

But I am going to hold the Story Group in less esteem. I’m not going to trust them as I once did. I can see what they are now. At the end of the day, it feels like they want money no matter what.

 

Rey’s Bloodline, and J.J. giving the middle finger to The Last Jedi

I’m going to say this up front:

I love The Last Jedi. I recognize it’s a flawed movie. It’s nowhere close to perfect. Again, I’m a character over plot person, and I felt the movie really pushed the characters in ways I wasn’t expecting. It’s the bravest of the Sequel Trilogy actually taking risks. Whether you like it or not, it took risks. Some worked. Some didn’t. But I’d rather have a risk-taking movie than a safe movie.

To me, one of the most powerful messages of all of Star Wars came from this movie:

Anyone can be a hero. You don’t need a powerful bloodline to make a difference.

Han Solo was just a normal guy. Bodhi Rook was a semi-truck driver in space. Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, and the entire Rogue One team were people with no super powers. Hera Syndulla formed a rebel cell because it was the right thing to do. Lux Bonteri stood up against the Separatists after they murdered his mother. Finn is an ex-stormtrooper who learned the Resistance needed to save what they loved. Kazuda Xiono realized protecting his new home, the Colossus, from the First Order was the most important thing after the First Order destroyed his planet. And there are so many people like them in this franchise.

All these characters are heroes. These are normal people doing extraordinary things. Even someone like Luke started out as a simple farm boy before realizing what it meant to be a “Skywalker.”

That to me is such an important lesson in Star Wars. Seeing that Force sensitive boy at the end of The Last Jedi looking up at the stars, knowing that he could be the next great hero was so hopeful.

These reasons were why I loved Rey being a nobody. This entire franchise is built on nobodies saving the day. The Skywalkers wouldn’t have gotten far without everyone else around them. It’s why Leia mourns when they lose named AND unnamed resistance fighters. Star Wars is about the everyday people coming together to save the day alongside the Skywalkers.

 

And then J.J. Abrams came along and pretty much said, “Noooo, you have to be a named person to be a special person. And only special people can save the galaxy. Sure, all those people fighting outside are there, but all the important people are facing off against the big bad!”

It felt like a slap in the face to find out that Rey was a Palpatine. It took away the most powerful message from The Last Jedi and pretty much the thesis of the entire Saga. Can you imagine how powerful it would be if some nobody rose up to defeat the big bad? That anyone could have the power to do so?

But J.J. made it very clear that he believed otherwise. It felt like he had this plan when he was making The Force Awakens that Rian Johnson didn’t follow. So J.J. spent a good chunk of the movie retconning The Last Jedi to TROS’ detriment to fit his own vision once more. My friend used the metaphor that J.J. started building a LEGO house. Rian added on top of the blocks already in place. Then J.J. saw that, took a baseball bat, smashed the LEGO house, and then build his own new house off to the side, ignoring the pieces of the first house. And then the Story Group just stood off to the side and watched him do it. And I had to agree with him. This was the feeling I had when watching TROS.

I didn’t like feeling that Star Wars is ultimately about being a named special someone. That only a special person can save the galaxy. That was the least feeling Star Wars message I’ve ever gotten from any movie in this franchise. Even though Padmé was an elected queen, she was still a fourteen-year-old girl with no superpower who looked at people invading her planet and said “Not today, you jerk.” And she took up a pistol and fought, as queen, alongside her people. TROS just seemed to ignore all Star Wars that came before it so J.J. could do his own thing.

 

Ben Solo’s death and what is the final message of the Skywalker family?

I wasn’t a big fan of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo during the sequel trilogy up to this point. He just didn’t really do anything for me. But I did understand from a narrative perspective that Ben would more than likely be redeemed in the movie. It would be a real bummer if the Skywalker Saga ended with the final Skywalker being a bad guy at the end. This franchise always says it’s about hope, and that’s not a hopeful message. So from a story standpoint, I was expecting it to happen.

It did, and you know what? For the first time ever, I really liked Ben Solo. Adam Driver absolutely sold that character, made him endearing, and did a ton of leg work for not having any dialogue for the last hour or so of the movie. I really praise that part of this movie.

Then, he died. And I felt really numb by that.

The older I get, the more I have problems with Vader’s redemption into Anakin. It worked in the 80’s but that bullshit doesn’t fly today. Anakin never had to atone for being a terrible mass murderer, helping to destroy planets, genocide, torturing his own daughter, and who knows what else. He’s never held accountable which is an important part of redemption. He does one good thing, and we’re supposed to praise him as a hero? NO! Screw that. He was a terrible person as Vader.

We have never seen true redemption in a Star Wars movie. We haven’t even really gotten it in the tv shows either. I love Star Wars Rebels, and Alexsandr Kallus is one of my absolute favorite characters. But I have massive problems with his redemption arc. He spends the first season and a half trying to murder our heroes, helping a planet to starve as bait, participates in Minister Tua’s murder, and gave the order for the Lasat genocide (granted not knowing it was supposed to be a genocide, but it still happened). We never see him held accountable for these actions. Only Rex calls him out one time that he’s not allowed to drive the Ghost. Everyone else is like, “Cool! Kallus is one of us! Great!” and that’s that.

Which is why it was so important to me that Ben didn’t die in this film. We needed to see what true redemption looked like. Ben tortured Poe. Would Poe forgive him or hold it against him? Would Finn trust the once Supreme Leader of the First Order? How would the galaxy react to him? More important, was would Ben do to make it better? How would he set out to make things right?

And now we’ll never know the answers to that question. We don’t know what Anakin would have done, and we don’t know this about Ben.

To quote Hamilton, “Dying is Easy, Young Man. Living is Harder” and TROS took the narratively easy way out of it.

And in my humble opinion, the more boring option. We’ve seen this redemption then death in Star Wars. Give us something new.

 

Ben’s death left me wondering what was the final legacy of the Skywalker Family. Part of the reason I wanted him to live was so he could rebuild his family’s name. They really have done a lot to mess up the galaxy.

But in the end, the final message of the Skywalkers is, “So this family fucked up the galaxy for like 70 years until the granddaughter of their arch nemesis came along, fixed it, and stole their name because the rest of them are dead now.”

Is that what I’m supposed to think? Because that’s what happened in TROS.

There was no message of, “You can come back, but the journey is never over. It’s just the beginning.” Hell, freaking Steven Universe did that in their hour long movie. TROS let a freaking kids show movie show them up and do it better. And as stated above, there was no message of, “The Skywalkers messed up the galaxy, and the normal people had to fix it” because J.J. made Rey not a regular person. The other regular people like Poe, Finn, and Rose were sidelined for Rey and Kylo’s story.

I really don’t understand what point this movie is trying to make. What is the actual thesis statement, the final message we’re supposed to leave with?

 

Because the only conclusion I’m getting is that the Lucasfilm Story Group took a step back this time around, the extra canon doesn’t matter in the end, only named people can be special heroes, and the Skywalkers were a bunch of people who messed up the galaxy for 70-ish years.

This is what I took away from The Rise of Skywalker.

Except that Shmi Skywalker who is the best of them. She was brave, selfless, and did what she had to do to save her son.

Let’s all be like Shmi:

A nobody who was a hero.

 

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