WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.
The members of the Resistance have escaped from Planet Crait and are now mounting a counterattack against the First Order. However, as they regroup, a shocking, new development occurs. A mysterious broadcast resonates throughout the galaxy, promising a threat of revenge. The voice belongs to none other than the deceased Emperor Palpatine – the despot ruler of the Galactic Empire. In response, General Leia Organa has dispatched her agents to gather intelligence as Rey prepares for the final battle. As the new Supreme Leader of the First Order, Kylo Ren attempts to solve the mystery of this phantom emperor, hoping to eliminate any threat to his own reign.
Usually, when parsing any work of art, it pays to maintain a neutral tone before writing an assessment of its quality. After all, if someone goes into a work actively wanting to hate or love it, one wonders exactly how genuine the observations that follow can be. The Rise of Skywalker is a rare example of a film that, before its operator has a chance to push the play button, already has a significant strike against it in the form of its direct predecessor. Although it could be argued that J. J. Abrams only had a rough outline as to how the sequel trilogy would pan out, Rian Johnson, the director The Last Jedi, ensured a majority of the plot threads The Force Awakens established had nowhere to go. The supposed main antagonist was dead, Rey’s parents were nobodies, Kylo Ren had suffered yet another humiliating loss, and General Hux saw himself reduced to a bumbling clown.
When examining the state of things going into The Rise of Skywalker, there is no suspense to be found at all. Kylo Ren, though certainly a formidable foe capable of easily slaughtering anyone not named Rey, utterly lacks any kind of intimidation factor. With Snoke dead, one would have to go back the original trilogy to find a Star Wars villain worth taking seriously. It therefore seemed like a natural choice for the writers to do just that. Unfortunately, it is with the opening text crawl’s biggest revelation that The Rise of Skywalker suffers a fatal blow from which it cannot recover. The warning signs that the sequel trilogy had no chance of redeeming itself were prevalent throughout The Last Jedi, but outright bringing back Palpatine from the dead marks the exact moment the writers gave up.
To play the devil’s advocate, I will argue that, given the circumstances, the decision to reinstate Palpatine as the main antagonist of the series wasn’t a bad one in of itself. As a highly conflicted person, Kylo Ren was never going to cut it in such a role without either losing credibility as a villain or becoming too unsympathetic for audiences to buy his inevitable redemption. With Mr. Abrams being unable to use Snoke, bringing back Palpatine was arguably the only option he had left that could be considered even remotely sane. As the third installment in the sequel trilogy, it was far too late for the writers to have a hitherto unknown villain casually waltz in and steal the spotlight from Kylo Ren. Reintroducing a villain the audience already knows to be a top-tier threat systematically resolves these issues. The film then establishes that Snoke was a puppet ruler Palpatine created to front the First Order.
That being said, Palpatine’s resurrection continues what many people consider to be the single most damaging aspect of the sequel trilogy. Even if Mr. Abrams got off to a reasonably good start with The Force Awakens, one couldn’t escape the reality that it invalidated what Luke, Leia, and Han accomplished in the original three films. Despite all of their efforts to destroy the Galactic Empire, the First Order rose and continued business as usual. They even managed to construct a giant Death Star to replace the old one. This trend continued into The Last Jedi, which rendered Luke’s arc in the original trilogy moot when he made the fateful decision to consider killing Kylo in his sleep. The Rise of Skywalker goes a step beyond even that by rendering Darth Vader’s redemption, one of the most poignant moments in the entire franchise, a complete waste when it turns out he failed to kill Palpatine in his attempt to save Luke from the dark side. In an attempt to have its cake and eat it, the narrative claims Palpatine did actually die by Darth Vader’s hand, but offers no explanation as to how he was resurrected outside of a callback to one of his speeches in Revenge of the Sith. In doing so, the sequel trilogy effectively made him the Star Wars equivalent of a comic-book villain in that he can and will be brought back as long as he is popular enough – logic and internal consistency be damned.
Another significant setback that doomed this film from the onset was brought about in December of 2016 due to Carrie Fisher’s tragic, untimely passing. She had collapsed aboard a commercial flight upon finishing the European leg of her book tour. Her scenes in The Last Jedi had been filmed by then, but Mr. Abrams found himself trapped when it came time to make the ninth episode. The installments of the sequel trilogy were intended to focus on each of the three main characters of the original films, giving them a proper sendoff. The Force Awakens focused on Han Solo, The Last Jedi in referred to Luke Skywalker, and The Rise of Skywalker would have delved further into Leia’s story.
Because of this unfortunate circumstance, Mr. Abrams had to find some way to bring her character into the movie posthumously. The results were predictably disastrous. He used cut footage of her from The Force Awakens, recontextualizing it for The Rise of Skywalker. They did their best, but it is painfully obvious she isn’t really there. Scenes are clumsily written around her dialogue, and she is only shot from behind to hide the fact that a double is in Carrie Fisher’s stead. With this bit of knowledge, Leia’s scenes are incredibly awkward to watch.
One could argue that Mr. Abrams and his team were honoring the character by not recasting her, but their unwillingness to do so cheapened the story even further. As a counterexample, during the making of the Harry Potter films, Richard Harris, the actor portraying Dumbledore, died in between the second and third installments. Due to the character’s importance to the story, writing him out wasn’t an option. Therefore, the crew had to recast the character; Michael Gambon ultimately got the part. Although Richard Harris was well-liked, even his most ardent supporters understood the need to change actors and accepted Michael Gambon with little, if any, drama. For his part, Mr. Gambon honored Mr. Harris’s memory by affecting an Irish accent when portraying Dumbledore.
Admittedly, the case with the Star Wars sequel trilogy is a bit different than that of the Harry Potter adaptations. While Harry Potter takes place within a shorter time span, one of the greatest appeals of the sequel trilogy was watching the original actors portray their respective characters in later stages in their lives. I can accept that to many people, only Carrie Fisher could possibly have done the character justice. However, there eventually comes a point in which one has to forgo these well-meaning sentiments and make practical decisions. As it stands, Leia’s arc is resolved in the least satisfactory way possible. After several disjointed scenes, Leia calls to her son, Kylo Ren, during his duel with Rey. Unlike the previous two encounters, he actually gains the upper hand and is about to land the finishing blow, but he stops when his mother calls out to him. For some reason, this costs Leia her life. For such a major character to have fewer than twenty lines only to be killed off with little fanfare is ridiculous – even considering the circumstances.
This development also means that Kylo is now responsible for the deaths of all three of the original trilogy’s protagonists. It would’ve been impactful if, for example, they had given their lives to ensure the return of Ben Solo, allowing him to walk a path of redemption. However, that’s not what happens. After the obligatory final battle against Palpatine, Ben uses the Force to bring back Rey from the brink of death, costing him his own life. What was intended to be a happy ending is suddenly rendered extremely depressing when you realize that both the Solo and Skywalker families are extinct. The bloodline that does end up surviving is, ironically enough, Palpatine’s.
Yes, one of the most persistent fan theories, that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter, was confirmed to be true during the course of The Rise of Skywalker. This would appear to contradict The Last Jedi, which stated her parents were worthless deadbeats who sold her for drinking money. However, Kylo clarifies that Rey’s father was the son of the emperor. They chose to become nobodies in order to protect her. After leaving Jakku and refusing to divulge Rey’s location, they were killed by Palpatine himself.
I find I have a difficult time describing exactly how I feel about this twist. I actually like the concept of a good character being related to the main antagonist – even if The Empire Strikes Back made it a stock twist. At the same time, I have to say the actual execution was appalling. There was very little in the way of foreshadowing to this reveal. A scene in The Last Jedi implied Rey is a little too comfortable with darkness. On top of that, at one point in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey inadvertently uses Force Lightning to destroy a First Order vessal. Regardless, it was nigh-impossible to extrapolate from either of these incidents that she is Palpatine’s granddaughter. Coupled with the fact that Palpatine was only introduced in the sequel trilogy’s final installment, the revelation doesn’t have nearly the same impact as the world-famous one from The Empire Strikes Back.
It also doesn’t help that this information goes against what Mr. Abrams stated in an interview around the time The Force Awakens was released. He claimed Rey wouldn’t turn out to be related to any established character. Assuming he wasn’t lying, this suggests he never intended for such a twist to occur. By that token, I can understand why he would go back on his word. The Last Jedi failed to meaningfully challenge Rey. Even if the Resistance was worse off than the Rebels ever were, she herself faced little in the way of hardships. At the absolute worst, she would face incredibly minor setbacks – and they all ended up being reversed immediately, giving her no room to grow as a character.
Given how invincible Rey was with little training, Mr. Abrams had to find some way to explain how she became so powerful. Making her the granddaughter of Palpatine, the most powerful Force user in the series, was the easiest way to accomplish that. In fact, this decision is the only reason The Rise of Skywalker has anything resembling stakes. After all, what would happen if our invincible heroine became evil? What could stop her given that she seems to be good at absolutely everything? Suddenly, the idea of her decimating everyone in her path doesn’t sound so pleasant.
Indeed, much of the film’s runtime is spent backpedaling from The Last Jedi. This incensed vocal supporters of the eighth film, but I find it too was necessary. Mr. Johnson’s thorough deconstruction of the Star Wars plot ensured Mr. Abrams had practically nothing to work with. Rey certainly wasn’t going to lose to Kylo again, so it’s time to bring back Palpatine. Rose Tico was a poorly written character with no plot presence until The Last Jedi, so she could be easily benched. Holdo’s tactics were misbegotten, so her success had to be written off as a happy accident. B-17 Bombers in space defies any kind of logic, so the Y-Wings are back in full force. Luke exiling himself made his character highly unsympathetic, so he shows up in The Rise of Skywalker as a Force ghost to admit it was a mistake. The result is that The Rise of Skywalker practically retcons The Last Jedi out of existence while keeping its plot points in broad strokes.
Although I do appreciate Mr. Abrams realizing just how terrible the storytelling in The Last Jedi was, the sheer amount of damage control he had to perform ties into what I believe to be his own film’s fatal flaw. I realize by now that my review of The Rise of Skywalker review is structured very strangely. It would seem as though I’m making whatever random criticism as pops up in my mind. This is because the film is only slightly more comprehensible when you’re watching it. I would describe the storytelling of The Rise of Skywalker to that of a Japanese role-playing game from the 1990s. The heroes are made to go on a fetch quest after a few paragraphs of exposition. When they reach the item they need, a boss fight ensues. Lather, rinse, repeat until the story is over. The result is a film that goes at such a breakneck pace, absolutely none of these story beats have a chance to settle.
Again, this flaw was evident before the film even begins. As a result of the sheer amount of goodwill The Last Jedi lost for the franchise, I found myself uninterested in seeing The Rise of Skywalker. I eventually decided it would be for the best to see it so I could properly take part in the conversation. Before I saw it, I remember stumbling upon an article that said Palpatine was to return. I was irritated because I thought I had read a spoiler. However, as mentioned before, the film doesn’t even try to hide Palpatine’s presence in the plot, spelling it out in the opening text crawl. We don’t even get to hear his broadcast in the film, which would’ve been more impactful had the creators resisted the urge to tip their hands. The only people who did hear it discovered it in the online game Fortnite. The idea of placing a crucial part of the plot in a piece of media that otherwise has nothing to do with the work itself is more than a little questionable.
Worst of all, the Resistance doesn’t have much of a reaction to Palpatine’s return. Leia sensibly dispatches her troops to determine the broadcast’s veracity, but even once it’s confirmed, the Resistance barely loses a night’s sleep over it. This would be like if an infamous figure from the Second World War confirmed dead by various sources suddenly hijacked every television monitor in the world four decades later to announce their return and the populace merely decided it was a bit strange rather than going into a panic. Personally, I think it’s a metaphor for the film itself. For many people, The Last Jedi ended up being the last straw, so hearing of the possibility that Palpatine might return failed to illicit a reaction other than apathy from them. The apathy, in turn, is evident throughout the entire film. Mr. Abrams had nothing to work with, so it felt as though he and his crew wanted to get over with it already. This inspired those tasking themselves with parsing The Rise of Skywalker to follow suit.
Although I find it difficult to fault Mr. Abrams for how The Rise of Skywalker turned out, there is no getting around that it is a complete mess from beginning to end. In a lot of ways, it’s not really a film as much as it is a collection of individual scenes slapped together in a vaguely sequential order that fail to build anything cohesive. In that regard, it is exactly like the trilogy itself. Whatever plans Mr. Abrams had for the third installment were doomed from the outset once Mr. Johnson went rogue with The Last Jedi. Mr. Johnson practicably made a standalone film out of what was supposed to be the second act of a larger story, forcing Mr. Abrams to backtrack.
The Last Jedi may have proven to be the most divisive entry in the franchise, but once The Rise of Skywalker debuted, both sides could finally agree on one thing: the sequel trilogy was a failure. The only real question concerned which installment caused the bottom to fall out.
In the end, it didn’t matter what your viewpoints were; at least one installment of this trilogy was destined to lose you. If you were brought in by the deconstructive eighth episode, the immediate follow-up’s reliance on fanservice had you decrying Mr. Abrams’s name for giving the squeaky wheel the grease. Conversely, if you disliked the eighth episode, there was a good chance the ninth would be considered a return to form due to having retroactively excised a majority of what you felt to be the former’s worst aspects. Even then, you would have story without a second act, making the third borderline incomprehensible. In fact, by the end of the decade, it was highly disingenuous to call what The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker formed a trilogy anymore. Semantics aside, the sequel trilogy should be treated as a case study, warning would-be artists what happens when a group of creators work against each other with no real plan rather than cooperating towards a common goal. The result is a grotesque amalgamation of creative stagnation and unfocused, misguided innovation.
It is sadly ironic that after The Force Awakens got the trilogy off to a decent start, almost succeeding in restoring the magic the Star Wars franchise had lost long ago, the following two installments would violently shatter the illusion. For want of the charisma exuded by the original actors or an artistic vision to keep things consistent, The Rise of Skywalker is a culmination of the sequel trilogy’s shortcomings, offering not a satisfying conclusion for any of its characters. Diehard fans of the franchise might enjoy the trilogy in spite of its flaws, but anyone seeking thoughtful writing in their art should look elsewhere.
Final Score: 2/10