Review of Star Wars the Rise of Skywalker: how fear bested Star Wars and Disney
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker premiered this past Friday in the United States. There was a lot of expectations with this movie and especially about its role in concluding a saga of nine movies that covered more than fifty years. The results? At least in my case disappointment. The critics have smashed the movie with a 57% score while the audience liked it with an 86% result at Rotten Tomatoes. At least that last number bodes well for Disney’s coffers (which at the end seems the only thing that matters for them) although episode IX has already made less money than its predecessors in the opening weekend. Another interesting number (in this case a letter) comes from CinemaScore which gives the film a B+. CinemaScore measures movie appeal among theatre audiences. This is telling since no other Star Wars film from the original or prequel trilogies have received such a low grade. While Rotten Tomatoes might disguise fan disappointment CinemaScore tells us that the Rise of Skywalker was not the satisfactory end to the saga everyone expected. Certain division in the fandom exist as happened before with episode VIII.
Does this mean that the movie sucks? No, and I respect those that liked it. But for me it is forgettable. Certainly, I will not re-watch or revisit this new trilogy again (with the exception of episode VIII, which took risks and tried to move the franchise towards something new and more nuanced). In this post I will present the main issues I had with the movie, the things I liked, and the missed opportunities that could have made the Rise of Skywalker better.
Things that I did not like or were poorly executed
Palpatine’s return: I am a big fan of the character but argumentatively it is really difficult to bring him back. First, because it dismisses the core argument of the previous six movies. If Palpatine survived his encounter with Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi (or even worse revived somehow), then what is the purpose of Vader’s redemption? What happens with Anakin’s supposed goal of bringing balance to the Force? What is the whole point of the “Chosen One” prophecy? Killing Palpatine is what made Vader’s redemption meaningful. Without that what is the big deal of turning to the Light at the end? Avoid an eternity in hell?
Some can argue that Anakin actually brought balance to the Force for thirty years, right before the new Sequel Trilogy. Point conceded. Understanding balance in the Force as something permanent does not make sense. However, it seems Palpatine was already plotting his revenge way back before the events of the new movies. As we can see, he spent quite a lot of time in building a new fleet of Star Destroyers. This means that Anakin brought balance to the Force for only a few years? His sacrifice then seems inconsequential. At the end, this struggle was always between Anakin and Palpatine, and seeing that the old wizard prevailed in the confrontation with his former apprentice renders Vader’s sacrifice meaningless. They could have fixed this by bringing Anakin to help in the final showdown between Rey and Palpatine.
Finally, having Rey as a descendant and executioner of Palpatine turns the Skywalker Saga into the Palpatine Saga. At the end, the Emperor could only be defeated by his own kind. And that if he was truly defeated this time. If Sidious has risen from the death before what will prevent him from returning? See. That is the problem with resurrecting Palpatine. This was a poorly executed idea and has already happened before in Legends (Yes! You read right, in the Dark Empire arc of 1991-1992, Palpatine also survives his encounter with Vader and returns in possession of a Dark fleet to confront our heroes once again…)
The space battle: for the end of a trilogy and an entire saga the space battle was not epic or spectacular. It felt almost as secondary to the plot. Instead of following the examples of the Battle of Coruscant in the Prequels, the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One or the Battle over Endor in Return of the Jedi, this movie seems content on just delivering an initial skirmish that then turns into a mini-battle with the arrival of some middle-size Resistance ships. In sum, this new trilogy did not have any epic or memorable space battle.
And, by the way, from where did all those resistance ships come from? How did Lando manage to gather a considerable fleet of ships (though I think still smaller in comparison to the infinite number of Star Destroyers shown at Exogol’s atmosphere) in a few hours? After the almost complete defeat of the Resistance in episode VIII and the sense of despair during great part of this movie we have the impression that this movement did not recover in any meaningful way. That the Resistance remains scattered. But suddenly Lando’s persuasion skills seems to move complete galaxies to help our heroes in their hour of need.
So what? This new trilogy did not move the story anywhere. What is new in it? Really not much. Episode VII and IX were remastered versions of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. At least, The Last Jedi had the initiative of pointing towards new directions. It feels like the target audience of these movies was the sixty-year-old Star Wars fan that does not like anything different to its beloved OT.
Another issue I have is that the are no dire consequences to the actions taken by the characters. Two cases illustrate this. Chewie did not die after that troop transport exploded. Would not have been better for Rey’s character development to witness the excesses of the dark side directly? C3PO made the sacrifice of having his whole identity erased for the sake of saving his friends just for R2D2 to have a copy of the droid’s memory at hand. What is the point? Sacrifice by playing safe? Not moving out of the comfort zone? These scenes I believe exemplifies the essence of a trilogy too afraid to move beyond what fans want.
Finally, as a Prequels fan I am disappointed that there was not important references or connections to that period. Especially after Disney marketed the movie as the conclusion to the entire saga. Any moviegoer that has not seen the Prequels can watch episode IX without needing to know anything about Anakin, Kenobi, the Clone Wars, etc. This could have been solved easily by not promoting the movie as the conclusion of the whole saga.
2.Things I liked
While I just listed those elements I really did not like or find problems with, there are a few things I really liked. From the point of view of the lore there are many elements for fans to dig in. Most are detailed in the Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary. First, I liked the creation of the planet Exogol as one of the home worlds of the Sith Order. Disney has also canonized other Sith planets like Malachor, Korriban (Moraband) and Ziost from Legends. All of them were related to the Sith or the Sith Empires of ancient times. This is interesting since it opens the gates to explore the rich universe of the pre-Republic or Old Republic eras in future movies and shows. As of now, it seems Disney is laying the ground to tell stories about the Sith of the past.
The people we see in the arena during Rey and Palpatine’s confrontation have been confirmed as Sith cultist. They are not Force sensitive but worship the Sith and its form of government. This also harks back to Legends and the Sith species that were fully devoted to the Order of the Dark Side. These cultists apparently played an important role in helping Palpatine to build his massive fleet.
It is also confirmed that the Sith troopers (those troopers in red armor that appear briefly in the movie) belong to battalions named after famous Sith lords of Legends! There are battalions named after Darth Revan, Darth Addendu, and Darth Tenebrous. Disney is bringing these characters back as it has done in the past with others. What remains to be seen is in what way this changes their histories from the original incarnations.
Finally, this is a contradiction but as a fan of the character, Palpatine’s return, and the fact that he had to be defeated by his own kind, only confirms he is one of the most powerful characters to ever lived in the Star Wars Universe. Not Luke, not Anakin, not Yoda, but a manifestation of himself (Rey) bested him.
By far my favorite character of this movie was Ben Skywalker (thanks in great part to Driver’s portrayal). However, I think his redemption arc could have been better. Why killing him at the end? Why not showing what atonement and penitence looks like in the Star Wars universe? A war criminal redeemed but having to face his responsibilities for the atrocities Kylo committed. So far this is something seldom explored in the franchise. Either the character falls to the dark side permanently or is redeemed before dying. I can only remember the case of the redeemed Ulic Quel Droma in Legends.
The idea of the Force and its balance. Rian Johnson hinted towards a different interpretation of the Force in the Last Jedi. In that movie we get the idea that balance is not the prevalence of the Light Side or the Dark Side but a balance of both. That means embracing negative emotions and learning how to deal with them. Not fearing or renouncing them as the Jedi did. Both are natural components of any being. I find this interpretation appealing. It explains why the Jedi lost their way and fell so easily to Sidious’ machinations. However, in the Rise of Skywalker that concept seems forgotten or discredited in favor of the Manichaean view of the Light vs the Dark side, which is more boring and simpler.
To conclude, I think this movie was a disappointment. It had little imagination or creativity, appealed excessively to nostalgia, offered little explanations to many issues and, ultimately, was defeated by fear of doing something better. It appears that in overall terms, the new trilogy did not have a solid and cohesive vision.
As a fan I am a little concerned. If Star Wars wants to be remembered outside the Old Trilogy it has to innovate, be memorable again and do things differently. It cannot live of past glories forever. However, I am cautiously optimistic. The burden of emulating the success of the original films clearly took its toll in the franchise. Having said that, episode IX has put an end to the Skywalker saga. This means no more Luke, Leia, Han or disgruntled fans criticizing anything that does not resemble the universe these characters inhabited. Disney is now free to explore new topics and worlds. There are no limitations. It would be amazing if Star Wars started to diversify the franchise and segment its audience. For example, let’s have shows and movies for the family and kids but also for adults. Anyways, the point is that a window for innovation and creativity is opening that will not be in debt to the past. The horizon looks promising but in order to transform it into something great fear has to be vanquished.