Watching Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker feels like being sent to the principal’s office for having committed an offense you only vaguely recall but are pretty sure you enjoyed, where, with a serious, resigned look on his face, the principal sits you down, puts a hand on your shoulder, and says, “We both know what needs to happen here, so let’s just set to work and get it over with.”
It was easy to feel outraged by The Force Awakens. Watching the promise of a new story told in the Star Wars universe being throttled before one’s eyes while yet another Death Star blows up in the backgrond grated on even the most cynical viewers. The Last Jedi was, arguably, worse, a movie with nowhere to go and nothing to do but explain, at length, why nothing in the first movie mattered. What was left to care about, one supposed, would be revealed in the the third movie. Again, outrage was easy. Who makes a trilogy with a) no pre-planning whatsoever, and b) a part 2 that does nothing but cry “do-over!” in every scene?
The Rise of Skywalker neither angers nor elates. It is an uninspired, dutiful recapitulation of all that came before, the only difference being how much more of it there is. No Star Wars movie has ever featured this much Star Warsing. At the end of the first Star Wars, Luke, about to be blasted by Vader, is saved by Han Solo, allowing him to blow up the Death Star. In Rise, someone’s in trouble—maybe Rey?—when Lando shows up with ten thousand spaceships to destroy the thousands of Star Destroyers each equipped with a Death Star gun. This sums up the ethos of the whole movie: More is Better.
As with his Star Trek movies, J.J. Abrams seems oddly disdainful of Star Wars. In every interview he talks about how much he didn’t want to make Rise, but then did anyway. It shows.
It’s a movie so lacking in imagination that they bring back the villain from the first two trilogies, Emperor Palpatine, to be the bad guy. How did he turn up again after his rather notable death in Return of the Jedi? Some rando alien explains it in a sentence you will forget within one second of hearing it, i.e, don’t sweat it, just be happy there’s a bad guy you already know and hate who needs some serious thwarting. Guess those dumb Ewoks in Jedi got their Yub Nub on a little early, if you know what I’m talking about.
To be fair, Abrams went to the trouble of inventing a bad-guy identical to Palpatine in Force Awakens only to watch Rian Johnson axe him in Last Jedi, so what was left but to bring back the original?
Rise features a baffling number of characters dying only to be miraculously revived moments later. What with anyone even marginally Jedi-adjacent eternally available for ghostly pep-talks, death is the least worrisome fate the Star Wars universe has to offer. Even C3PO, a robot fer crissakes, “dies” via memory-wipe only to have it restored.
Which deaths and not-deaths bring me to the most fascinating aspect of Rise: an ending wherein Emperor Palpatine, the most evil being in the universe, proves victorious.
It’s a stunning turn-around, revealed only in the final scene, with no further commentary whatsoever, as if to say nothing about it would be to pretend it didn’t happen.
But it does happen, and it happens thus: Though a big deal is made in Last Jedi of Rey’s parents being nobody special, turns out her grandfather is very special indeed. He’s Palpatine.
Palpatine’s big plan is for Rey to kill him. Doing so, he explains, will cause his lifeforce (his midichlorians?) to merge with hers, thus turning Rey into the most powerful and evil Sith the universe has ever known. What’s Rey to do?
Lucky for her, in an earlier scene she kills Ren, then brings him back to life because she’s nice like that. Then sort-of-but-not-actually Force Ghost Han tells the reanimated Ren that he’s no longer evil Ren, he’s good-son Ben. Fully engoodened, Ren/Ben comes tear-assing into the end of the movie to help Rey deal with grandad Palpatine, but it’s no use; Palpatine whups these upstart kids good. It’s looking grim for goodness and light.
But lo! Rey draws upon ancient Jedi powers to turn Palpatine’s deadly lightning back on himself, thus killing him and dying in the process. She dies in Ren/Ben’s arms.
Heavy stuff, I momentarily pretended to think. But thematically correct. The actual last Skywalker, Ren/Ben, has been turned to the good side and lives on, while Palpatine and his lone offspring, Rey, are dead and gone forever (i.e. or until needed in future trilogies).
Only then there’s a switcheroo! A switcheroo only a being as dastardly as Palpatine could have planned. Ren/Ben, being good, uses the Force to resurrect Rey, just as Rey resurrected him, but doing so kills him. The last Skywalker is dead.
Following which a bit of this and that happens, distracting us from what’s really taken place here, everyone celebrates, Ewoks look on approvingly, a Gungan prances by drunkenly (I fleetingly imagined), etc., and just when we think credits are set to roll, we find ourselves on Tatooine. Sure, we think, Abrams isn’t going to leave even a single crumb on this table, no way no how, and there’s Rey checking out Luke’s old digs, and some old lady asks her who she is.
Well now. Who is she? I’ll tell you who she is. She’s Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter and she’s Palpatine’s lifeforce and she’s the last Sith/Jedi standing. Palpatine won. And to add insult to injury, who does Rey say she is to this humble desert passerby? Rey Skywalker. She’s killed the last Skywalker and now she steals the family name! Palpatine said if she killed him they would become one. Well. She did kill him. Oh, sure, go ahead and argue that by her dying for five minutes their soul-binding is invalidated, but to that I say you, sir or madam arguer, know not the secrets of the Sith.
Palpatine, through his granddaughter, has wiped out the Skywalkers and taken their name, and is now, in the final shot of the film, poised to bring darkness to the universe entire. A Skywalker has risen, all right—a false one.
Now that is a dark ending! Kudos to Abrams for bumbling his way into it. I look forward with unlikely glee to the next trilogy, in which we follow a young Jedi’s efforts to defeat mighty Sith lord Darth Rey.