What is Star Wars about, really? It’s a good question, one we’ve pondered for 42 years. Star Wars is so broad, so dense, and at times so frustratingly transparent, that you can graft just about any sort of meaning onto it. And yet, its mass appeal is often distilled to one word: Star Wars is about hope. But what does it mean to have hope?
Everyone will offer a different answer. Hope can mean defiance in the face of adversity. It can mean happily ever afters. It can mean togetherness, family, friendship–those little things worth fighting for, even knowing they’re temporary. At its best, Star Wars captures that, freezing tiny moments of hope in amber. Luke, Leia, and Han hugging after the destruction of the Death Star. Anakin Skywalker clutching the face of his pregnant wife, Padmé. Finn and Poe escaping the tyrannical First Order.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final film in this epic saga, is meant to tie a bow on the franchise, which began with A New Hope. Reasonably, one would expect those messages to come through more elegantly and emotionally than ever before. But the result is instead a sad case of confused identity. It’s a film that thinks it’s doing what it needs to, while ultimately delivering a series of rushed, soulless, and ill-defined points of logic. It’s “hopeful” if your idea of hope is tragic and cyclical to the point of feeling regurgitated. There are moments of optimism immediately staked through in heart in favor of “the next big set piece.” It’s a cruel and unsatisfying ending to a forty-year legacy, and one that feels openly critical of itself and everything it stands for, but shrugs its way to the finish line instead.
Maybe Star Wars was cynical all along, and we never knew it until now.
Major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker below.
The Disney era of Lucasfilm was fit more for profit than integrity from the get-go, and the need to rush out a new episodic film loaded with the original’s stars felt as bankable as it was inevitable. Suffice it to say, the Star Wars sequel trilogy attracted critics, but the first two films shuffled through a variety of production woes to successful, appealing conclusions. J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens paired a new cast of characters with our legacy trio–Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher)–creating a spark of whimsical magic that overshadowed its derivative setbacks. Rian Johnson delivered a wild animal of a sequel with The Last Jedi , a surprising and frankly revolutionary studio blockbuster that turned the series’ larger story on its head. It was as divisive as it was fertile with big, new, promising ideas. The film ended with the Force decentralized from a few exclusive bloodlines and democratized, reigniting hope in the galaxy.
Unfortunately, The Rise of Skywalker picks up on none of those loose threads. The film begins with a flippant dismissal of many if not all of The Last Jedi‘s themes. The opening crawl explains that Emperor Palpatine has inexplicably returned (and I do mean inexplicably–we never learn how), and has been orchestrating the First Order experiment from the beginning. Somehow, he groomed Ben Solo into Kylo Ren from afar, and now locks his sights on Rey from Jakku, our unruly, orphaned Force user and Kylo’s counterpart. From the outset, Abrams shrinks the Star Wars universe back down to a more immediately interconnected, even insular size. Palpatine is back because, uh, sure, why not?
The story plays out as antagonistically as that. Abrams, returning as co-writer/director to replace Colin Trevorrow, demonstrates a bewildering sense of his audience’s wants and needs. Does he think we don’t care about the mysterious resurrection of the saga’s most selfish and mystifying villain? Is he purposely leaving gaps in the story for canon material to fill in? Did he think a single thing out beyond “looks cool, feels OK, boom, bang?” Who knows. But the movie opens with the reintroduction of Palpatine, them immediately launches us into the Millennium Falcon, where Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) quickly discover that there’s a mole in the First Order. We’re then teleported to a new Resistance base where Leia trains Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the ways of the Force. Before we’re oriented in this location, we’re shuffled into another adventure jam-packed with MacGuffins, whirlygigs, and ultimately dead ends.
The adventure is poorly defined and confusing, but Abrams doesn’t expect us to be smart. He’s content to race through every would-be meaningful moment at the quickest possible pace, exploiting that whiplash effect to distract us from the story’s garbled plotting. We know that our heroes are on a race to find Palpatine, and are looking for something called a “wayfinder” that will lead them to his location. There are only two wayfinders, and Kylo Ren finds the other one in an opening scene. Abrams creates a sense of urgency, but we don’t really know why, and no one seems convincingly terrified that the universe is on the brink of absolute annihilation. At least the original trilogy only featured one Death Star at a time, and developed centralized locations that defined personal stakes and brewed emotion. This film has a whole army of planet-destroying ships, locations with no names or personalities, and characters previously emphasized who are here utterly left to the wind.
And that’s the real failure of The Rise of Skywalker. It mishandles literally every character, except, arguably, C-3PO. Rey gets tacked onto a legacy story that erodes the entire thematic heart of not just The Last Jedi, but even Abrams’ own The Force Awakens. By some disgusting leap of imagination, she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter. Rey’s parents weren’t actually alcoholics who sold her for drinking money (a bit never reconciled), but good people who loved her enough to protect her from Gramps, and apparently, themselves. Finn (John Boyega) is suddenly and inexplicably Force sensitive, which is a nice little treat and possible nod to the end of The Last Jedi, but is only really employed to detect when Rey’s in peril. Outside of one nice moment with Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a fellow defected stormtrooper he meets on the road, his arc from indentured villain to Rebel hero goes largely unaddressed. Worse, even his relationship with Poe feels weirdly underdeveloped.
Poe (Oscar Isaac), meanwhile, is very much “present,” but that’s really all he is. He became something of a de facto leader at the end of The Last Jedi, but Abrams fails to hint at any sense of real authority or growth here. He bickers with Rey and continues to act like a self-important flyboy, echoing a roguish Han Solo-esque fearlessness, but where his presence is maximized, his importance really isn’t. His story and Leia’s should be more interconnected after she taught him a valuable lesson last time around, but the loss of Carrie Fisher unfortunately obstructs his development as a character. Using a mishmash of unused footage from The Force Awakens, they try to conjure her spirit elsewhere, but it doesn’t totally work. That said, the movie at least attempts to do right by her legacy.
Further, Leia’s death in the film helps create two of its best moments. She uses a last ounce of strength to send Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) a memory of his father, Han, who reappears with some paternal advice. It should be a silly moment, but tonally it absolutely works, sold completely by the fine work of Ford and Driver. As father and son reconnect, Kylo Ren finally transforms back into Ben Solo–he tosses his jagged lightsaber into the abyss and goes off to save Rey, who he loves. This whole sequence is preceded by a lightsaber duel where Kylo is left mortally wounded; Rey heals him, and confesses her feelings for the man he could be. Love–and hope–seem temporarily destined to win.
And they do… sort of? The third act is where The Rise of Skywalker totally loses sight of everything it’s trying to be. Rey is drawn into Palpatine’s lair, and there’s a lot of business about Sith and Jedi that doesn’t really make sense. Above them, the war between the “Final Order” (Palpatine’s new name for the galactic baddies) and the Resistance rages, a total lazy mirror to the end of Return of the Jedi. Palpatine wants to funnel his strength into Rey via some ancient ritual, but Ben shows up. Ben and Rey fight together against Palpatine, Rey summons the spirit of all of the Jedi who ever lived, and she beats her grandpa with his own superpower (in a very Harry Potter-esque showdown) before dying. Ben uses the last of his life power to resurrect her–a nice mirror of their Death Star scene earlier in the film–and they kiss. But he then dies, leaving Rey once again as the galaxy’s only real Force of hope. She temporarily reunites with the Resistance–who defeated the Final Order with the help of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), appearing in the movie just long enough to serve as a deus ex machina–before jetting off to Tatooine. And finally, Rey takes on the last name Skywalker and sees Luke and Leia’s Force ghosts. The end.
Unbelievably, a lot more happens than that. Abrams introduces Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), a fun, masked ex-fling of Poe’s who’s super cool but completely inconsequential to the plot. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico effectively takes a Resistance desk job, which feels particularly insulting after everything she accomplished in The Last Jedi. There are more “Force Skype” scenes between Rey and Kylo, and Rey confronts her own inner darkness, manifested in “Dark Rey,” while Abrams introduces a cute new droid named D-O, and throws a lot of other random things at the wall that never stick (like a visit with the ghost of Luke Skywalker during a temporary detour to Ahch-To). It’s as messy as it is ambitious, and Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio’s deserve some credit for spinning such a clotted web that you’re frequently distracted from all of the holes in it.
But then there’s the whole hope thing. And there’s really no cohesive sense of it here. As a series-ender, this story should resonate more than it does. The Last Jedi contends with the past more, and better, than Skywalker does; it wrestled with the sins of the Jedi and Sith, and kicked open a bigger door for generations to come. Skywalker says nothing about where they, or we, go from here. It ends with Rey abandoned and alone, except for her Force ghost friends, on another desert planet. The one person in the galaxy who ever understood her dies. And he evidently doesn’t redeem himself successfully enough to become a Force ghost. Is death really the only avenue to peace and purpose? Effectively, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa all died to save Ben, who then died to save Rey. What is her next step? The movie doesn’t say, or seem to know. It’s a domino effect, with nothing but tragedy at the end of every spill.
That idea could work if the moments in between felt rewarding, or the losses served larger narrative or thematic ideas. But in this story, meant to be a conclusion to a single film, a trilogy and a nine-film saga, they don’t. Rey, Finn, and Poe share only a superficial sense of camaraderie. Their future adventures will lead to moments of happiness and enlightenment along the way. But why does Abrams ignore or de-emphasize those feelings? In The Rise of Skywalker, hope is little more than a ghost. And after more than 40 years, it’s one that Star Wars is still chasing, with no real end in sight.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm