Aside from the perfectly-passable-but-weightless Solo, it’s not a tough statement to say that The Rise of Skywalker is the worst (live-action, theatrical) Star Wars film. Maybe Attack of the Clones or The Force Awakens are kinda close, but it’s pretty clear to me that Episode IX is the least artistically accomplished, most flawed of the Skywalker Saga.
But I still love it anyway.
Rewatching the movie in preparation for this article, I was struck by just how overcome with joy I was by so much of this movie. It’s such an exciting and silly experience. Never for a moment do I get bored, even when I’m rolling my eyes at the dumber parts. Honestly, that’s what it was supposed to do, anyway; provide a smashing finale to the greatest epic saga in the history of film. It’s the climax to a nine-part series and thus doesn’t exactly need to be jam packed with new storylines and deeper themes. Even though… that’s kind of what it tried to do…
The Rise of Skywalker is a fast, FAST paced movie. There’s a reason for that–this new trilogy was forced to be three movies, when it really could not fit in that space well enough. This feels like it’s zipping along at a blinding pace because it has to make up for lost time as Episodes VII and VIII dawdled around for five hours of runtime.
That’s not to say that Episodes VII and VII didn’t provide some amazing entertainment and make some amazing strides at providing one final outer ring to the Star Wars Saga (by the way, if you haven’t read the Star Wars Ring Theory that connects the Original and Prequel trilogies, you really should!). But the fact that they took place in such a short time, just a couple weeks at most, really changed the way the finale was forced to operate.
When The Last Jedi has wrapped up most of the plot threads and character arcs already, what is there to do? Well, start a new story arc, of course. But starting AND finishing that all in one go? Well… that’s really tough, and it’s exactly why The Rise of Skywalker is so jam-packed with story and a massive cast of characters, most of which are already done with their character arcs anyway.
The Phantom Menace faced a few of these issues, too; it was the beginning of a whole new trilogy with a completely new cast of characters, but was designed to be a standalone prologue to the entire saga, and thus had to wrap up a large number of its plot and character threads as quickly as possible. Luckily, as the first movie, it was able to tell a small-scale tale with stakes that seem pretty low at first glance (but are obviously much higher when the whole work is put into context). The Rise of Skywalker, as the finale, didn’t have that luxury. It had to go BIG.
And BIG it went. Sometimes to amazing results, sometimes to idiotic results.
I’ll get out of the way my biggest complaints with the movie now, the things I think hurt the movie the most:
- Princess Leia was far too prominent in this film, and the spliced-in footage feels awkward and stilted. Maybe this feeling will decrease over time, but I’m not sure it will. I’m also not sure how they could have gone about it without her, so it’s a pretty tragic flaw that may not have been curable.
- What the hell is that part in the second-to-last scene where Lando talks to the Stormtrooper lady about where he came from? What did that have to do with anything?
- They did my boy Ben Solo dirty. I don’t think it was necessary to kill him in the end, and I don’t think it was the right decision for the story. But more than that… He didn’t even get to appear as a force ghost with his mama and uncle! What the hell!
Those things I think were crap and stupid. They are not the only thing I wish they didn’t do, but I am able to separate my wishes versus the final product.
Flaws vs. Dashed Hopes
This is actually something I see disturbingly a lot in criticism (positive and negative) of blockbuster films: an inability to separate these two elements: “The thing that happened is not what I wanted to see happen” and “I dislike this and think it harms the story.” It’s a pretty basic division. But for blockbusters, and ESPECIALLY the Star Wars franchise, it’s very hard for people to distinguish these feelings when they talk about the movies.
The Last Jedi was infamously filled with “I didn’t want this” moments, which is how it became such a divisive piece of media in nerd circles. They changed Luke Skywalker, they gave an unexpected ending to Rey’s origin story (or so we thought), they killed off minor characters that fans liked, and they basically pushed the entire cast to the limit with some really dark emotions not seen in any other movie in the series except Revenge of the Sith. So many people despise the movie but it really seems to be based on this idea that because something happened that isn’t what you were hoping for, that means that it’s bad.
I kind of like that. I like stories that challenge you and shock you. Not like gruesome displays of massacring characters left and right or being relentlessly depressing (that’s what the Legacy of the Force book series is for), but movies that force you to confront things in storytelling that can feel uncomfortable or upsetting. Emotions like hopelessness, regret, guilt, self-pity. That kind of thing. Other extremely divisive movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (which I did not care for) and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (which I adore) do very similar things to The Last Jedi and I really respect the artistic bravery there.
None of those films are bad because of the things we weren’t hoping for. Though, you can argue each of them have flaws that hurt their stories, and that’s what film criticism is actually about. But it’s extremely tough to have that conversation because of the almost perfect mixture between complaints about what fans would have changed, versus complaints about actual flaws.
Inversely, you can talk about the fact that just because a film delivers on a promise or a twist that you DID enjoy, doesn’t make that film good as a result. It can be very entertaining, but it can actually cover up discussion about some of the major flaws of a film. The most recent Avengers films are a pretty great example of that.
Where does The Rise of Skywalker fit in here, though? Because this movie most certainly does NOT have any challenging emotions for us to struggle through, and it definitely didn’t cover up any major flaws through sheer fan-pleasing spectacle, considering the mixed reception overall.
It fits in because I myself felt that struggle.
The Last Jedi was the same way on a first watch, where I disagreed with so many of the story choices on a base fangirl level, but ultimately I came to appreciate and love everything about the film after reflecting and rewatching. But The Rise of Skywalker is different, I think. Because it’s the finale to the entire Skywalker Saga and because I am so deeply in love with this franchise, I expected so many things out of the film, and it just did not deliver in the way I wanted.
Locations like Coruscant, Kashyyyk, Bespin, Tatooine, and Naboo go completely or mostly absent from the film despite their integral nature to the saga and parts of the story that could have easily fit them in. Characters like Wedge Antilles, Rose Tico, Caluan Ematt, and Mon Mothma are shafted or don’t appear at all. And despite this being the finale to the Skywalker Saga, Anakin Skywalker doesn’t appear besides a voice cameo alongside a bunch of other Jedi! the Knights of Ren did practically nothing!
…Those aren’t flaws with the movie, though. Those are just things that I am extremely disappointed didn’t make it in. It’s tough for me to accept that, though, even after three watches.
But for the sake of not bumming myself out about missed opportunities, I’d like to focus on the parts of this story that I outright love.
The Energy! The Visuals! The Music!
For everything stupid about The Rise of Skywalker, it’s impossible not to admit that the craft is excellent.
People undervalue visuals and music in movies all the time, and it’s a damn shame, because this movie is of the top of the top when it comes to all technical elements.
The movie has superb kinetic energy throughout the film, not only because of how fast the plot moves, but because of the snappy editing and cinematography and amazing soundtrack.
JJ Abrams seemed to play it a bit safe with The Force Awakens, eschewing some of his trademark directoral flairs in order to keep the movie closer in feeling to the George Lucas movies. Sure, there were a lot of dutch angles and some spicy lens flares, but it seems he really let himself express his own style with this one, because it goes overboard with speed and style. There’s oners all over the place, the camera is constantly moving around with snap zooms and quick visual gags… it’s a lot to take in and it’s a big departure from a lot of other Star Wars movies, but I gotta admit I love it.
Luckily, while Abrams likes to go flashy with a lot of elements, he still respects the fundamental part of Star Wars, which is that visual storytelling trumps everything.
Some of the franchise’s most striking and interesting shots are littered throughout the movie, and help weave the story better than the script could ever manage.
Also, it’s basically a footnote to mention “lol John Williams did a good score” but, as usual, this man brought his AAA-game to Star Wars and crafted one of the best movie soundtracks out there. For the ninth time in a row.
The newest main theme is absolutely gorgeous:
And a fitting final battle that really nails it:
High-octane blockbusters that are actually good at what they do, actually compelling in every way, are increasingly rare as time goes on. We saw from Solo how Star Wars movies go when they’re not really trying. They’re fun but forgettable. The Rise of Skywalker, thanks to its skill in visuals and music, is definitely not forgettable.
It annoyed a lot of people that Palpatine ended up being Rey’s grandpappy, but the sheer convolusion of this main plot is massively impressive.
We start with this zombie Palpatine gross looking dude and find out he’s been pulling the strings all along, basically the last vestiges of evil trying to gain some final victory after being 85% defeated (more on that in the next section). He wants revenge and he wants power again, and he lost the granddaughter he was gonna use as a weird sacrifice or something to regain it.
So what does he do instead of coming back with his grand army and trying to conquer everything and then revive himself?
He goes full-on arrogant Sith Lord chessmaster, just like he’s always done in this franchise. The pure incarnation of evil, at this point, but still gonna do Palpatine stuff.
He first seduces Ben Solo to the Dark Side and eventually reveals himself to him, telling him that he needs to kill Rey, his granddaughter, to end the Jedi for good.
Our boy Ben takes the bait immediately, and goes off to try and turn Rey to his side so that they can overthrow Palpatine, while pretending to become Palpatine’s subsurvient, and even putting his mask back on as a sign that he was no longer his own man.
But of course, Ben Solo was never under control, because he had Sith loyalist General Pryde, AKA Richard E. Grant, AKA Darwin Mayflower, running around behind his back making sure that the Sith would rise again regardless.
And, of course, that led Rey to confront Palpatine, just like he wanted, and to bring Ben Solo with her, just like he wanted. Sure, Rey was going willingly because of her Jedi calling instead of her anger and hatred and confusion of her own identity, but it still worked nonetheless.
He pretended to make some big ritual where she would become the new Sith Empress and he would pass on his powers, knowing she would never do it, just to stall for time for the two best buds to unite and gain their greatest hope…
And then bam, soul sucking time.
He was so arrogant and confident in himself, so focused on restoring his own power and fucking over Anakin Skywalker’s last descendant, that he didn’t even make sure they were both dead before celebrating, and then… whoops
What a grand conclusion to an absolutely ridiculous plot. This is what Star Wars is all about.
It’s Like Poetry
The Star Wars Prequels are famous for their in-depth callbacks and mirrors with the Originals and each other, through visuals, dialogue, and story beats (seriously, if you haven’t read the Ring Theory essay, it’s excellent).
But the Sequel Trilogy has done it too, and in a very powerful way too. Each of the movies thematically rhymes with the others, with Episode VII playing as a modified Episode VI, and Episode VII playing as an inverted Episode II, and a mirrored Episode V. Here in The Rise of Skywalker, the epilogue to the entire saga, the real mirror is to that of Episode I, The Phantom Menace. The prologue and the epilogue are linked together. Furthermore, within the trilogy itself, the movie is rife with callbacks, references, and rhymes to The Force Awakens, some of them very powerful indeed. In fact, it rhymes and repeats parts of practically every single Star Wars movie in some form or fashion.
I won’t write a big essay on that section since it would deserve an article all of its own (and also I don’t think I’m skilled enough to write such a piece). But I just want to make clear that this movie isn’t just a “greatest hits playlist” like some critics seem to think. It’s poetry.
That’s why, contrary to what some may believe, I actually enjoyed Palpatine’s return in this film. The villain won in the first trilogy, then was defeated thoroughly in the second, then in the third he is a weakened husk who barely clings on and is finally eradicated for good. It’s got an epic poem kind of feeling to it, not something we see much in modern franchise media but feels happily in place beside some piece of mythological storytelling of a tale from a thousand years ago.
Here is one prominent mirror that I really thought was neat:
What I Would Change
Of course, there’s always things I would have done differently in all Star Wars movies. No matter how much I love these movies, I would probably make changes to each of them. Even Episode IV, the most fundamentally perfect one, is missing those Biggs/Luke scenes that I think would have worked really well had they edited the movie just a little differently.
The Rise of Skywalker, of course, has many, many things I would have done differently.
Without changing the story in any major way, here are a few:
- Change the snow planet to Coruscant! Holy shit, why didn’t we get Coruscant in the new trilogy?! Seeing how the main important planet of the Prequel Trilogy had transformed under the First Order would have been an amazing way to tie the whole saga together. Also, that snow planet gets blown up. I mean… Probably shouldn’t destroy Coruscant even if you’re the evil Sith Lord but… It would be daring to do, for sure.
- Give Wedge Antilles a slightly more prominent role, probably in the place of Maz Kanata, who seemed to only exist to give some Force-related exposition in places where Leia could not.
- Be a bit less subtle about Lando’s character arc and why he disappeared in the first place. I can kinda guess, but… it’s too understated.
- Do NOT make the Resistance still small and hopeless. They should be losing the war and barely getting by, but they should be in a better place than The Last Jedi, where they barely escaped with a few dozen people. The movie doesn’t make it clear how big or small the Resistance is at this point. I’d like to have seen some signs of a big war going on in places where the heroes are not, kind of as a rhyme to Episode III’s depiction of the Clone Wars.
- Have Anakin Skywalker appear in-person as a Force Ghost somewhere in this movie, doing something. I don’t care what.
- Change the Snoke twist thing. At least a little bit. It was kind of stupid.
- And, finally, keep Ben Solo alive! Ugh. This one I think legitimately hurts the film overall that it didn’t happen.
…And more changes after that, but I don’t want to just rewrite the whole script because I’m certainly not as good a writer as the whole Lucasfilm Story Team, and I don’t feel confident in my ability to write a story treatment that surpasses what’s already there.
And so, that’s kind of what I mean overall by my having mixed feelings towards The Rise of Skywalker despite loving the movie. There’s so much good in here, and also so much stupid shit, and also so much stuff that disappointed me on a fan level, that it’s hard to sort out my feelings on it overall.
Hopefully this article kind of conveys my feelings. And of course, thank you to JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm for closing out the Skywalker Saga with a bang, even if it’s not the movie I specifically wanted.