*****PLANET-KILLER SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
The most difficult aspect of writing this review was deciding how to write it. I decided not to write a full-length story synopsis, because the moment-to-moment plot mechanics are a lot less important (or interesting) to me than how “The Rise of Skywalker” (TROS) manages to pull off a few cinematic miracles. The first being to give a significant (and believable) role to the late original trilogy star Carrie Fisher, who’d tragically passed away three years ago. The second was to pull the Star Wars franchise out of a particularly divisive ditch known as “The Last Jedi.” The third (and arguably most important) was to wrap up the nine-part, 42-year Skywalker cinematic saga into a coherent and entertaining narrative (with a few bits of arguably necessary retconning). These points, along with the characters and how they’re serviced, are what I wish to focus upon, though I will address a few specific story beats as well.
As stated up top, this will be a spoiler-filled analysis, so I’m assuming the reader has seen the film.
“One last look…at my friends.”–C3PO.
The opening crawl gives up one of the biggest spoilers right up front (“The Dead Speak!”) when it’s revealed that former Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow survived his ‘death’ from 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” using vague experiments involving cloning (a callback to the prequels) and use of the force to salvage himself back into existence. We see cloning tanks with other ‘experiments’ of his (including the bodies of what appear to be lifeless Snoke prototypes). It’s implied that Palpatine is consciously using his (still formidable) power to will his broken, aged body back together using the Force itself. Later on in the film, during a final confrontation with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the decrepit former Emperor tries to literally steal their powers of regeneration to repair himself; Palpatine is a clear metaphor for an older greedier generation robbing today’s youth of their (literal) future. With his lips a necrotic shade of charcoal and his blinded eyes fully opaque, the resurrected Palpatine certainly looks more terrifying than ever before. McDiarmid slips back into the role like a comfortable pair of slippers.
It’s arguably a Hail Mary pass to bring in Palpatine as the big bad for this final chapter of Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, but it also works. “Supreme LeaderSnoke” (Andy Serkis) felt like a Palpatine knockoff anyway, so it’s with some irony that we learn Snoke actually is little more than a chip off of Palpatine’s block. A bit more handwaving is done when we learn the ‘big secret’ of the film… that Rey’s parents were offspring of Palpatine’s as well, and that Rey is, in fact, Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter (the movie is maddeningly nonspecific about which of Rey’s parents were directly related to Palpatine). The former galactic Emperor had both of Rey’s parents murdered so that he might further manipulate her into her eventual role as “Empress Palpatine.” Palpatine’s somewhat vaguely defined resurrection is best taken with a grain of salt (or the entire shaker), because the payoff is ultimately worth it.
On the subject of resurrections, we come to one of the most delicate and tactfully done cinematic resurrections involving a deceased actor that I’ve ever seen. Three years later, the passing of “Princess Leia” herself, Carrie Fisher, still doesn’t quite seem real to me. She was the youngest of the original trilogy cast back in 1977 (at age 19) and passed away not long after her 60th birthday. Her role in 2017’s “The Last Jedi” was completed shortly before her death, so her role in that film didn’t require any significant augmentation. General Leia was supposed to have a much more active role in TROS, and that was a problem. The powers-that-be could’ve simply killed the character off-camera, but that would’ve been a major cheat to the audience, as well as to the memory of the late Carrie Fisher (not to mention thousands of kids of my generation who idolized Leia as a feminist icon back in 1977).
With Fisher gone, JJ Abrams (cowriter, producer and director) realized he had access to the next best thing. Using deleted scenes and repurposed shots from the prior two films, his team carefully reintegrated her character (using computerized rotoscoping and body doubles) into new clothing, a new location, and even a new hairstyle. Abrams and cowriter Chris Terrio also carefully rewrote specific scenes surrounding her character so that her previously recorded dialogue fit, and it does (surprisingly well, in fact). In this film, General Leia is not just the Resistance leader, but she’s also taken on the role of Jedi Master, completing Rey’s training, following the death of her brother Luke (Mark Hamill) in “The Last Jedi.”
Using body doubles, combat masks and carefully integrated facial shots of a younger Fisher and Hamill, we also see a flashback sequence (post–“Return of the Jedi”) where Luke trains his sister to become a Jedi; she even makes her own lightsaber. This bit of shoehorned-in backstory comes later in the film, but it goes a long way towards explaining Leia’s previously inexplicable command of the Force in “The Last Jedi” (surviving in the vacuum of space), as well as an early scene in TROS where she is seen mentoring Rey on the jungle world of the new Resistance Base. Using all of Fisher’s prerecorded performance, Leia fits back into this film almost as though Fisher herself had never died… and how I wish that were so.
Despite the resurrection of Fisher’s character, General Leia does die later on in the movie as she gives the very last of her life energy to reach out across the light years to her wayward son Ben Solo, aka “Kylo Ren”. Leia dies much in the same way as her brother Luke died when he used his own life energy to astral-project himself to the planet Krayt at the climax of “The Last Jedi.” By having her character die onscreen as well, both Leia and Fisher are given the proper farewell they both deserved.
At the movie’s center is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the aforementioned granddaughter of Palpatine who is assuming the kind of heroic/spiritual journey previously the purview of the Skywalker boys (Luke and his dad, Anakin/Darth Vader). To those who dismiss the character as a ‘Mary Sue’ (a semi-miraculous interloper of a character who can do nearly anything) I would argue the same case applies to Luke Skywalker, as well as Neo from “The Matrix”, young Clark Kent from “Superman”, or even Hercules from Greek mythology. Rey’s story is the classic hero’s journey, which began in literature and imagination millennia ago. The only difference between Rey and those earlier heroes is her gender, and if anyone still has a problem with a woman assuming a hero’s journey in pop culture, I hope you’ll join us here someday in the 21st century.
The exponential growth of Rey’s Force abilities and training in TROS (her newfound powers of force-healing, force-lightning, etc) do feel a bit rushed, as if to make up for the mentorship she didn’t receive from the surly, bitter version of Luke Skywalker seen in “The Last Jedi.” In fact, much of the first act of TROS feels overly busy; with dialogue, characters and events nearly falling off of the overcrowded screen. It’s a bit too much to take in at once… as if JJ Abrams and company are fervently apologizing for the black eye the previous movie gave to the Star Wars universe and its characters.
Some of the new Force abilities introduced in “The Last Jedi” are carried over into the new film as well, such as the ability to transmit matter over long distances by linking minds (something Kylo Ren learns to take advantage of), as well as elder Jedi dying when force-projecting themselves over great distances (Luke and now his sister, Leia). The kindling of an attraction between Rey and Kylo Ren was also hinted at in the prior film as well.
So while the tone and feel of TROS is far more consistent with Abrams’ own “Force Awakens”, Rian Johnson’s “Last Jedi” isn’t entirely ignored. Yes, fans of “The Last Jedi” may feel a bit slighted by the newer film’s abrupt shift in tone, but Abrams is steering this ship back onto the course he originally set for it in 2015. That Abrams and his team managed to include so many disparate pieces from this (often contradictory) 42 year-old entertainment franchise is extraordinary, even if a bit exhausting.
Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), both newly promoted generals now (just like Han and Lando in “Return of the Jedi”), are given more meaningful business to do in this film, and both are also given hints of romance that don’t pan out onscreen (though Finn’s relationship status is left a bit more ambiguous). We meet a mysterious former flame of Poe’s named “Zorii Bliss” (former star of Abrams’ TV series “Felicity”, Keri Russell), but that ‘romance’ is little more than a casual flirtation. Finn also meets a former stormtrooper named Jannah (Naomi Ackie) on the planet Kef Bir. They seem to be drawn together, but we don’t see a full-on romance bloom between them (onscreen, anyway…that may be the subject of fanfic for years to come). For whatever reasons, Disney’s Star Wars trilogy is curiously devoid of strong romantic entanglements. There is, of course, the much ballyhooed same-sex kiss near the end of the movie (not between any main characters, unfortunately), but it’s less romantic and more like post-victory relief. To anyone who has issues with the kiss? Get over it. LGBTQ folks are here to stay. They always will be, and they always have been.
Finn’s prior pairing with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) from “The Last Jedi” simply fizzles out. No reason given. It’s a real shame to see Rose (and Tran) sidelined. While I thought her character was poorly served in “The Last Jedi”, none of the blame belongs to Tran. She imbued Rose with as much personal charm as she could; the fault lay with the uneven scripting of her character. I was also angered and sickened to see the ugly slurs that were hurled Tran’s way on social media as well. Rose Tico’s slighted appearance in TROS feels as if the writers were caving into her character’s poor reception among a certain clique of fandom, and that’s a genuine shame. None of my issues with the character of Rose were related to Tran’s performance.
Of course, when I was a boy (having seen the original Star Wars at the age of 10), my favorite characters were the droids. I loved the Kenner action figures of them, and I had a remote-controlled R2-D2 (which my mother’s dog promptly peed upon, of course). To the droids’ cheering section, I’m pleased to report that C3PO and BB-8 are given their moments, though beloved astromech droid R2-D2 is little more than a cameo in the film. The veteran droids are also joined by a smaller, wheel-based droid named DO (dee-oh). DO (voiced by none other than JJ Abrams, himself) is a droid found aboard a derelict Sith vessel on the planet Pasaana. The droid is very skittish towards humans; a clear metaphor for traumatized rescue animals who are later adopted by loving owners. In a film overstuffed with so many bits of business, Abrams manages to throw a metaphorical bone towards animal rescue.
C3PO (the returning Anthony Daniels) has a bit more business in this film than he’s had in the prior two Disney Star Wars chapter movies. In TROS, he reads forbidden text on an ancient Sith dagger that is critical in locating the resurrected Palpatine and his new “Final Order” fleet. In order to read the text (in violation of his original Senate programming), the droid is taken to the planet Kijimi, where the text translation will be forcibly (no pun intended) removed from his mind, at the expense of his memory (his memory was wiped once before in “Revenge of the Sith”). This ‘sacrifice’ was heavily played up in the trailers as the ‘end’ of C3PO.
Yes, C3PO’s mind is wiped, which leaves him as little more than an amnesiac running gag throughout the film (“How can you be my best friend when we’ve just met?”). Daniels’ long history with the character allows him to play the amnesia for what it’s worth, but it’s a very minor subplot, despite the insane amount of hype it received via Lucasfilm’s publicity department. Near the end of the film, R2-D2 restores his companion’s memories via backed-up files (save for his most recent experiences after he departed for Pasaana), so C3PO’s ‘sacrifice’ was little more than a ‘don’t forget to backup your phone’ gag. C3PO’s death was a publicity ruse, but yeah, it also worked…I really thought he was a goner.
Chewbacca, now played by Finnish basketball player-turned-actor Joonas Suotamo (who assumed the role following the declining health and eventual death of Peter Mayhew earlier this year) has an interesting new role as the ‘rescued princess’ of TROS (ironic, since Chewbacca has usually been the one doing the rescuing). Following his capture by the First Order on Pasaana, Chewie is taken aboard the command ship. Originally thought to be killed following the explosion of his transport ship, Rey confirms (through the Force) that the 250 year-old Wookiee is alive, prompting Finn and Poe to attempt a rescue. Chewbacca, of course, faked his own capture aboard the Death Star in “A New Hope” in order to reach the station’s detention level and rescue then-Princess (now General) Leia. Now, he is the one needing a bit of rescuing. Rey gives the boys a hand in springing Chewie with a well-placed mind trick (“We are pleased to see you”), but has her own rendezvous with destiny elsewhere on the ship. When Chewie is finally rescued aboard the reclaimed Millennium Falcon, Rey leaps aboard the open ramp of the departing ship. It’s nice to see classic characters like C3PO and Chewbacca given significant roles in this last Skywalker chapter, even if R2-D2 is a bit sidelined.
In addition to Chewbacca, TROS also sees the return of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Lando first appears in disguise on Pasaana (recalling Lando’s similar disguise when he infiltrated Jabba’s palace 36 years ago), and he also gives a few warm wishes to General Leia (with whom he shared a flirtation on Cloud City in “Empire Strikes Back”). But most importantly, he’s back in the cockpit of what was originally his ship, the Millennium Falcon (see “Solo: a Star Wars Story” for details). While his earlier disguise cleverly masks a body double (Williams walks with a cane now), his interaction with both newer and classic characters helps to round out this unapologetic and unabashedly sentimental family reunion of a film. Yes, Lando’s appearance is obvious fan service, but in a film tying up 42 years of loose ends for the most successful movie franchise in history, it gets a pass from me.
Continuing the subject of returning classic Star Wars characters, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is back in spectral form on the watery world of Ahch-To, and he apologizes to Rey for his bad behavior (“I was wrong”) in “The Last Jedi.” I’m guessing that apology was a poke at Rian Johnson’s depiction of Luke in that film, as Hamill himself was reportedly unhappy it as well. Force ghost-Luke also encourages Rey to go after the resurrected Palpatine, much as Obi-wan encouraged Luke to “face Darth Vader again” in “Return of the Jedi.” And in a lovely nod to Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke pulls his own long-submerged X-wing fighter from the water (where it was seen in “The Last Jedi”) and gently brings it ashore for Rey to use, to the exact same music we hear when Yoda pulls the submerged ship from the Dagobah swamp in “Empire.”
John Williams’ score of TROS plays like a Star Wars Greatest Hits medley, with repeated use of his Force and Princess Leia themes in particular, and being a lifelong fan of Williams’ music, I’m perfectly fine with that. The very first album I ever bought (at the tender age of 10) was the original “Star Wars” double-LP soundtrack in its original gatefold jacket. Pretty sure I’ll be dropping coinage someday for ROTS’ soundtrack as well…
Without a doubt, my single favorite character in Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy has been Adam Driver’s “Kylo Ren/Ben Solo.” Driver’s unconventional looks and downright uncomfortable intensity fit the character perfectly (I can only imagine what he would’ve done with the role of Anakin Skywalker). As the newly self-appointed “Supreme Leader” of the First Order (following his slaying of Snoke in “The Last Jedi”), Kylo Ren has the single greatest dramatic arc in the film. The action begins with his bloodthirsty purge to obtain one of two Sith holocrons (aka way-finders) and ends with his redemption through acts of love (Rey) and sacrifice (his mother Leia). Along the way, he challenges Emperor Palpatine, perfects (and exploits) the power of Force trans-materialization, kidnaps Chewbacca, and even receives a visit from his dead father Han Solo (a tearful cameo by Harrison Ford). Han’s cameo isn’t a Force-ghost like Luke, just a manifestation of Ben’s own need for his slain father’s forgiveness.
Kylo Ren self-doubt, visible whenever he takes his mask off, gives us the dramatic fireworks that we might’ve seen percolating behind the equally conflicted Darth Vader’s mask in “Return of the Jedi.” Earlier in the film, he takes the mask which he shattered in “The Last Jedi” and welds it back together, with crude, bright red fissures still visible all along its surface. The fractured mask is a metaphor for so many things; the cracks in his own identity (self-identity is another key issue throughout the film), his determination to hold himself together in the face of a greater threat (Palpatine) and his own hiding behind a facade in which he neither needs nor fully believes.
In an earlier post on “The Last Jedi”, I once suggested that love between Kylo Ren and Rey might just be the key that ultimately reconciles the dark and light sides of the force. TROS embodies that philosophy as well, with love expressed not in romance (save for a single kiss) nor in sex, but in the act of self-sacrifice.
During their epic, rain-soaked battle atop the remains of the Death Star II (its remnants crashed in the ocean of the planet Kef Bir), Kylo Ren is distracted by his mother Leia, who reaches out to him through the Force, using the last of her life force to do so. In that momentary distraction, Rey seizes the opportunity to slay her opponent, running a lightsaber through his abdomen… a fatal blow.
Rey doesn’t gloat in her victory; instead, she chooses compassion and love over hate. With her newfound power of Force-healing (a power seen earlier on Pasaana, and in the new series, “The Mandalorian”), she cures Kylo Ren, using a significant portion of her own life energy to do so. Upon awakening, Kylo Ren is returned to life as Ben Solo…his prior existence fully shed with his healed wound.
Later on, after Rey’s own victorious-but-lethal battle with Palpatine on the hidden world of Exogal leaves her drained of all life, a weakened Ben Solo gives the last of his own energy into healing Rey. Upon her revival, the two smile and kiss right before Solo transcends into the greater Force, as did his namesake Obi-wan “Ben” Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) in the original trilogy. Compassion and love over hate and aggression; a timeless message. Ben Solo’s redemption is arguably a repeat of Vader’s own sacrifice for his son Luke in “Return of the Jedi” (of which TROS owes much debt), but its message remains so significant that it’s worth repeating for a new generation. Ultimately, love, compassion, and the hope for redemption are at the core of the Skywalker family saga.
While Rey is locked in her final confrontation with the resurrected Palpatine on Exagol, her friends are locked in their own death struggle against a powerful new “Final Order” battle fleet of star destroyers that come standard-equipped with planet-killer weapons (once again) that can now be easily mounted on mobile platforms instead of massive space stations (Death Stars) or planets (Starkiller Base). In a scene that is powerful but utterly devoid of logic or common sense, we see Palpatine’s massive battle fleet literally rise from the ground of the planet Exogal. Now, if you feel an overpowering need to nitpick this, I also give you the long-held sci-fi staples of sound in the vacuum of space, or aliens in distant galaxies speaking American-accented English. No one should ever be under the illusion that Star Wars is hard sci-fi; it’s pure Arthurian fantasy with sci-fi trappings, and I’ve long made my own peace with it on those terms. Moving on now…
While the fighters engage the massive, overwhelming power of the First Order fleet, Resistance fighters (with the defected stormtroopers from Kef Bir as new recruits) board the still-in-atmosphere command ship on its hull, and launch an offensive on horseback.
Yes, the CGI horses look a wee-bit goofy onscreen (my wife didn’t like them at all), but they also harken back to the technology vs. nature battle that was in the earliest drafts of the original movie and was a recurring motif throughout the trilogies. In fact, the Star Wars saga was originally intended as a metaphor for the war in Vietnam, with a low-tech force overcoming a technological superpower. The Ewoks of “Return of the Jedi” were the living embodiment of this motif. The Kef Bir battle horses are yet another.
General Poe Dameron leads his fighter squadrons into what seems to be a suicidal battle against the hundreds of Final Order star destroyers. The battle is so utterly hopeless that Poe even offers a heartfelt apology to his pilots, until, in the best (albeit predictable) tradition of the day being saved by the cavalry riding in over the hill, Lando Calrissian flies in with the Millennium Falcon and thousands of ships that have responded to his rallying cry for help (and possibly the distress call sent in the last film at the Battle of Krayt). Things are soon matched, and the Resistance fleet overcomes the monstrous ships, which lose control when their control ship is taken down by the horseback troops. This ginormous space battle is silly and waaaayyy over-the-top, but it releases a nice dose of endorphins, nevertheless. Similar to what we saw in “Return of the Jedi”’s special edition, celebrations erupt on key planets (Bespin, Naboo, etc) throughout the galaxy, as the loss of the main fleet’s control ship sends ominous star destroyers falling from the sky galaxy-wide (the effect of their impacts upon these planets will be utterly devastating, but that’s another subject…). We all knew the final story of the Skywalker saga would have to end with a giant space battle, and illogically or not, TROS delivers.
The final scene, much like the end of “Revenge of the Sith”, sees Rey arriving on Tatooine at the site of Luke’s boyhood home of the Lars’ homestead. After a brief tour of the site (using a metal plate to sled down the sand, as she did back on Jakku), Rey then uses the Force to make a hole in the sand and gently places the wrapped lightsabers of Luke and Leia into it before covering it up again. She then ignites her own yellow-bladed lightsaber. Turning back to witness the double suns set, she notices the force-ghosts of the two Skywalker twins, smiling approvingly. An old desert scavenger then rides in on her beast of burden and greets Rey (unaware of the Skywalker ghosts, of course). The old woman mentions that the homestead hasn’t been lived in for a long while. She then turns to Rey and asks her name.
“Clear your mind of questions…” –Yoda.
One of the difficult things about losing yourself in a fantasy is to turn off one’s critical sense. Yes, TROS is not a perfect film. Its first act is crammed a bit too tight for comfort, with a virtual explosion of characters and information flying at you so fast you might get whiplash. Its final act goes on for a few minutes too long (at least for me, as my bladder began to quake in that final half hour). The story isn’t terribly rational at times either, even for a space fantasy. For example; how did the giant pieces of Death Star II mange to impact onto the moon of Kef Bir without causing mass extinction level events? Why did it impact on Kef Bir, and not the forest moon of Endor where it was orbiting? Why was the Final Order’s massive fleet of thousands of ships built underground? Who built it? How did all of those missing resources (and personnel) go unnoticed?
One could ask these sorts of questions forever, but the simple truth is that this movie had a lot of tables to wait on, and not everyone or everything will get the same level of service. Given the Hurculean task of trying to wrap a nice, neat bow on nine Star Wars movies over 42 years (not including the standalone movies, TV and streaming spinoffs), I’m frankly astonished that it came out as enjoyable as it did.
“Some things are stronger than blood.” –Luke Skywalker.
The characters also felt like themselves again. Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker wasn’t playing Clint Eastwood anymore. The skillfully resurrected General Leia managed to have a significant, meaningful role in the story despite the death of Carrie Fisher three years before. Many questions that were unceremoniously dropped previously were (more or less) answered, with enough wiggle room left for plenty of future fanfic exploration. John Williams’ score was wonderfully evocative of all nine chapters. TROS also has a vibrancy and heart that felt missing from the previous film. JJ Abrams paints in a much warmer emotional palette than Rian Johnson (or even George Lucas). That warmer touch was very much needed to close out the Skywalker saga.
I was particularly inspired by that final image of Rey on Tatooine choosing to be a Skywalker. That her grandfather Palpatine manipulated the Force to create Anakin in the prequels sort of makes her a Skywalker already, but it’s that bold statement of hers that finally makes it real. It also a nice message for adopted children watching the film as well, or alternate family combinations. Lineage by blood isn’t the defining trait of family, and is no more important than those bonds created by deep friendship or love. The bonds between these characters inhabiting that galaxy far, far away have been a driving (ahem) force behind the best of the Star Wars movies for over four decades.