Spoiler Alert: I’ve just watched The Rise of Skywalker at a theater in France, where new movies are released a day early. What follows is a spoiler-filled review. If you don’t want to know what happens, avert your eyes and come back after you’ve seen the film.
When I was a kid in 1977, my parents bought me a Star Wars picture book that was published before the movie was released. It included photos from now famous deleted scenes, and an ending that was unambiguous: The good guys won and the evil empire was defeated for good.
Nope, as it turns out! Star Wars became a phenomenon, was eventually renamed Star Wars: A New Hope Episode IV, and spawned two more, and then maybe a total of nine or six, depending on what George Lucas felt like saying to a journalist on any given day. But we knew that with The Return of the Jedi, the evil empire had finally been defeated and everyone would live happily ever after.
Nope, as it turns out! Because something called the First Order had arisen from the shattered remains of the Empire. Today marks the release of The Rise of Skywalker, part nine of the whole shebang, and part three of the third trilogy. It’s being heavily hyped as the END OF THE SKYWALKER SAGA.
If you believe that, well, see above, because whoever is driving the Star Wars train tends to declare that something is the end … until it isn’t. The main characters are young, and surely the Sith are still lurking somewhere out in the nether regions of this universe.
In fact, the real plot driving the most recent trilogy was that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm and ordered up a new series without anyone taking too much time to think about the story line. This led to J.J. Abrams’ dreadful The Force Awakens, which resurrected fan favorite characters while reusing just about every plotline from the original Star Wars trilogy. Of course, this didn’t stop it from making inhuman amounts of money.
The second installment, The Last Jedi directed by Rian Johnson, was vastly superior and more original in every way than The Force Awakens. In my review of The Last Jedi, I wrote:
In fact, there are many moments when his movie feels like a rebuke to Abrams’ film. “Let the past die,” Kylo Ren says. “Kill it.”
So when I heard Abrams was to direct the latest installment, well … I had a bad feeling. In recent weeks, the promotion campaign behind the film has basically amounted to a disavowal of The Last Jedi and seemed to throw Johnson under the bus. Indeed, where The Last Jedi swerved and subverted fans’ expectations, the new film swerves back hard to deliver what Abrams knows best: fan service and nostalgia.
You will see this movie, and you will have fun. Also, you will cry even if you hate yourself later for crying at a Star Wars movie.
Mostly, the film is rousing action with the look and feel of a Star Wars movie. As revealed in the trailers, Emperor Palpatine was dead but now is not dead. Also taken out of mothballs is Lando Calrissian because apparently it was his turn on the nostalgia-go-round. It seems only Jar Jar Binks has missed the chance to take a curtain call.
The plot, such as it is, recycles Return of the Jedi. Palpatine is indeed alive and living on some secret Sith world called Exogol. Kylo Ren tracks down the old fogie and strikes a partnership to bring him Rey, the mysterious scavenger turned super-Force user who the emperor claims he wants dead — but doesn’t really. Rey is training to be a Jedi with General Leia on the new secret rebel hideout.
Throughout the film, Kylo and Rey connect in their secret Force chat room that allows each to attempt to convince the other to join their respective side of the Force while also having lightsaber battles that would seem to defy any rules of logic or physics.
The film succeeds to an extent by bringing Rey, maverick pilot Poe Dameron, and former stormtrooper Finn together to find clues that will lead them to Exogol and the emperor while they are being hunted by Kylo — who is still feeling totally misunderstood by everyone.
Abrams establishes some real chemistry while also jettisoning much of the previous film’s more controversial elements. Kylo told Rey that she was no one special, and neither were her parents. Nope! Turns she’s … the granddaughter of Palpatine! Snoke, the original baddy in the The Force Awakens — and who was killed in The Last Jedi — was just some hokey puppet (literally) made by Palpatine, who is living on a massive Sith life support system.
This news bums Rey out.
The second half of the film gets into some pretty weird and mystical Force stuff that might make you long for the relative simplicity of the Midi-chlorians. Rey battles Kylo on the wreckage of the old Death Star and seems to kill him, but then uses her Force power to heal him, at which point he feels really bad about being a mass murderer. After a touching imaginary chat with the dad he killed, Kylo turns back into Ben Skywalker. Hooray?
Rey, who had initially run away to Luke’s watery planet, has an inspiring talk with his Force ghost — who gives her his X-Wing fighter and the clue to find Exogol. She flies there, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for all the rebels to follow. Which they do.
From there, it’s pretty much Return of the Jedi. Rey had unwittingly led the rebels into a trap planned by Palpatine, just as the emperor had set a trap for the rebels in Return of the Jedi. The creepy emperor wanted her to strike him down in the way the creepy emperor wanted Luke to strike down Darth Daddy Vader. Except once he’s dead, instead of taking Vader’s place his spirit will pass into Rey’s body. Ewww.
Just as Luke was watching his friends get beaten in Return of The Jedi, Rey watches the skies above to see her friends getting beaten by the fleet of 10 million Star Destroyers Palpatine had secretly built underwater on Exogol to create his Last Empire. Give the dude some credit; he’s apparently learned from watching the Death Star being blown up twice and the Starkiller Base destroyed once. Instead of making one giant lumbering weapon, he has installed planet-killing guns on every Star Destroyer.
Alas, the bad guys can never seem to hire the best engineers. All these Star Destroyers are dependent on one communications tower to escape the chaotic atmosphere of Exogol. So the rebels need … a landing party (like the one that destroyed the Death Star shield station on Endor!) to take out this communications tower.
Meanwhile, as Rey seems on the verge of killing Palpatine to become his host body, Ben Skywalker rides in and the two heroes use their Force chat room to pass light sabers back and forth. From there, the plot bounces around as Palpatine seems to kill Rey and Ben, who turn out to not really be dead, and she battles Palpatine (who had been healed by her and Ben). But this time her goodness infects the emperor and he turns to dust, along with a weird choir of chanting Sith baddies.
Now Rey seems dead (again!), but Ben resurrects her, after which they share a tender kiss before Ben evaporates. Just as Luke turned Daddy Darth back to the light, Rey now “saves” Kylo Ben’s soul.
From there, we get Ewok cameos, celebrating the final (for now, of course) rebel victory over the evil empire, which has been totally vanquished (for now).
If I’m rating the new batch of Star Wars movies, Rogue One still sits at the top, followed closely by The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker is a distant third, followed even more distantly by The Force Awakens. Best if we never speak of the Han Solo movie again.
The Lucasfilm Disney empire hasn’t announced specifically what the next three Star Wars movies are about, though it seems they will be directed by Johnson — if he isn’t too badly damaged by the bus that ran him over.
Here’s hoping that before anyone calls “Action!” someone writes a coherent plot that will carry the audience through all three films, rather than giving them the whiplash I felt riding this roller coaster of a trilogy.