Every time I went to see a film in theaters this holiday break, I got a good Uber ride home with my 11 year old brother, Ben, during which we debated the merits and morals of the movie. The ride after The Rise of Skywalker was perhaps the most difficult drive of them all. My little brother was joyfully in awe of the epic space fights, lightsaber duels, and finale, but I couldn’t help but feel empty. That’s not how Star Wars is supposed to make you feel. Especially considering this is the “end” of the Star Wars chronology, at least for a while, I shouldn’t feel empty. What had happened? How had the most beloved franchise in the world taken such a turn that its final film felt the most morally vapid?
Ben and I’s “debate” (maybe more like an argument) got held up on the finale of episode IX, where my brother and I mostly disagreed. “How could you not like the ending?” He cross-examined me, bewildered by my distaste. But, unlike him, I am burdened with almost 2 decades of Star Wars exposure. As someone who is invested in the franchise, I have surrounded myself with years of Star Wars books, movies, theme parks, and merchandise. Star Wars has always sparked my imagination, and I’m not the only one - it has been the biggest part of the pop culture zeitgeist since the original debuted back in 1977. And while The Rise of Skywalker’s flashy effects, funny dialogue, and explosive, CGI filled ending may satisfy an 11 year old, it still left me wanting more.
FULL FRANCHISE SPOILERS AHEAD:
For a movie that pits “all the Sith” against “all the Jedi” in the finale, the film forgets what it means to be a Jedi.
Let's begin with the prototypical Jedi of the franchise, Luke Skywalker. He begins his journey as an unassuming farm boy thrust into an intergalactic conflict. He’s a total fish out of water, and total audience surrogate for this new world. He undergoes his training with old Ben Kenobi, and after witnessing his sacrifice, finishes his training with master Yoda. Luke’s arc culminates in the throne room scene of episode VI. His friends are in trouble on Endor, both Vader and the Emperor are threatening Luke with the prospect of turning Leia to the dark side, and the Emperor is wickedly goading him to kill his father to prevent this. He could easily give into his anger and strike Vader down - after all, he now has the Jedi training and strength to do so. But instead he throws his saber away, now selflessly willing to sacrifice himself (just like his first master Kenobi) and see the good in his father. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
But what does this have to do with The Rise of Skywalker?
A movie is nothing without its morals, and “the Force” is just a metaphor for power. This could be political power, it could be physical power; really, the specifics don’t matter. What this bildungsroman teaches us is how to use it.
In broad strokes, the Sith use the Force for evil, and the Jedi use it for good. But, when examined more in depth, this duality represents the good and evil in all of us, and it’s up to us to decide which animal we feed. In Episode V, when Luke strikes down a vision of Vader in the Dagobah cave, and sees himself within the mask, he realizes that he could have just as easily become corrupted and seduced by the Dark Side like Vader. He could have just as easily let his fear turn to anger, his anger turn to hate, and his hate turn to suffering (that’s the correct order right?). What defines a Jedi is how they overcome their fear, and most importantly, how they use their power for good. Borrowing the famous Uncle Ben Spiderman edict: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Luke Skywalker and the original trilogy teach us the importance of being a good person and having hope that others will follow in your stead, regardless of power or influence. But Episode IX didn’t teach me shit. That’s why I felt so empty. After viewing this movie’s equivalent to the original’s throne room scene, I wasn’t able to take anything from it. First of all, it felt really stale. I’ve seen it before. The emperor, the stakes of Poe’s battle above. It felt like I was just watching a remaster of Episode VI, and with it being a Star Wars film, I already knew that Rey was going to win out, because the franchise isn’t known for killing off its primary protagonists. The important part is how everyone makes it out alive, and that’s my biggest problem with this film. The ending is unearned.
The mere presence of Palpatine is an insult to everything set in motion in The Last Jedi. And the fact that Palpatine literally died by explosion in the last trilogy, with absolutely no mention of how he came back in between, is just. Bad. Writing. It’s bad down to the very basics of the Chekhov’s Gun rule: if you want a huge plot point to change the direction of the story, it must be introduced and built up earlier. Imagine if the Marvel Cinematic Universe had no mention of Thanos until Infinity War or Endgame. How could we take the biggest baddie of them all seriously without his presence looming throughout the post-credits scenes and The Guardians of the Galaxy films? The answer is we can’t, not without prior knowledge of who the character is through the comics. This is the crutch Episode IX paradoxically leans on. We are supposed to take Palpatine seriously because the previous Star Wars trilogies tell us to, but the previous trilogies also tell us he’s dead. Just. Bad. Writing.
It doesn’t help that the film’s morality is confused. Kylo-Ren is redeemed like his grandfather Darth Vader, but this conflicts with his arc in The Last Jedi. In Rian Johnson’s installment, Kylo goes from being the Vader archetype, a tortured dark side user still capable of redemption, to the Palpatine archetype, a self-obsessed power hungry megalomaniac who’s only in it for his own self-interest. Say what you will about The Last Jedi, but this was a subversion we as an audience had not seen before in a Star Wars film. It was original. Leia and Luke even say at the end of the film that Kylo is unredeemable. Any attempt to try and backtrack his ultimate redemption would be a disservice to all of the people he’s senselessly murdered just for the sake of obtaining more power, and would strip originality from a trilogy that is already too reliant on nostalgia. But backtrack Episode IX did, even going so far as to put Kylo’s mask back together after he smashed it in TLJ, representing his departure from the Darth Vader archetype.
Rey’s arc, while not as conflicting, still becomes meaningless when she confronts Palpatine. First of all, this new trilogy establishes Rey as an incredibly gifted Force user, but also alludes to her raw power being potential for dark side confluence, as it was for Kylo. For a moment in The Last Jedi, she almost takes Kylo’s hand in his quest for more power, but ultimately rejects him. When exploring the living Force on Luke’s island, he warns her “you went right to the dark”. In this film, the thread continues with Rey struggling with her unkempt power and anger. In a moment of rage, she shoots lightning out of her hands accidentally, blowing up a ship containing Chewbacca. He was actually on another ship, conveniently, but that’s a can of worms I’m not willing to open. She also sees a Sith vision of herself, dual wielding red lightsabers on a swivel (I know I know, this newly designed lightsaber was just introduced to sell more toys, but I gotta admit, that was really cool).
So how should the trilogy end her arc, especially after realizing she is the granddaughter of the most evil figure in the galaxy? How does the episode reflect her triumph in the face of ultimate darkness? Does she rise above the violence, as Luke once did? What note do they leave Rey on? Well, instead of finding the peaceful way out, she crosses two lightsabers in front of her, and deflects Palpatine’s lightning back onto him. At the same time, the voices of past Jedi tell her to trust in the Force and stand and fight. This is the final stand, the aforementioned “all the Jedi” vs. “all the Sith.” But, in injecting so much gravitas, and so much artificial meaning, the confrontation becomes meaningless, or at least, much less meaningful than the simple toss of Luke’s lightsaber.
Luke leaves us with a good taste in our mouths, an example of what the Jedi truly stand for - taking the high road, even if it means death. This is when the eponymous Jedi finally “returns”, according to George Lucas. But there is no such a-ha moment for Rey. There is no example where I can say, “Damn, THAT is something a Jedi would do.” When confronting Palpatine, she never takes the high road, she never strives for peace. She never considers sacrifice. She just rises to fight, no different than her evil grandfather.
At this point in our debate/argument, my brother poses the hardest question of all. “If you don’t like the ending, how do you think it should end?” And while it’s a good question, there’s no good answer. The ending is a symptom of the trilogy’s everlasting problems. They tried to bring back the same tropes from the original trilogy- a new empire, a new planet killing space station, and hell, they didn’t even change Palpatine. All they tried to do was make the stakes from the original bigger, and badder, with as much nostalgia jammed down your throat as possible.
Have I lost you yet? Because Ben thinks I’m just edgy for the sake of being edgy. And I haven’t even expressed my anger at Rey crossing two lightsabers and deflecting Palpatine’s lightning, because of its symbolic parallels to Anakin’s cross lightsaber execution of Count Dooku and Mace Windu’s attempted execution of Palpatine, both representations of Jedi corruption in the prequels. But, I digress. All in all, this film feels frustrated at its own inability to satisfyingly conclude the saga, almost aware of its own convolution.
Maybe Star Wars really is “just for kids” as George Lucas has permanently maintained. But, based on the amount of nostalgia and callbacks to the original trilogy, I beg to differ. The Star Wars franchise is so popular precisely because it appeals to many demographics. Everyone goes to see Star Wars, from the 11 year old superfan to the casual moviegoer. Also, at least George’s pre-Disney films took us to places we had never been before that were original. This trilogy, and specifically its apotheosis, is disappointingly much less so.
But, in capturing my brother’s 11 year old mind and spirit, the new trilogy has inspired him to explore the depths of his own imagination through a new Star Wars lens. This Christmas was nothing but stormtrooper action figures, replica lightsabers, and Jedi video games. He has just begun to scratch the surface of the lore. Even with my own misgivings about the new trilogy, I guess that’s the true point of Star Wars: to appeal to our imaginations, and inspire us to tell our own stories. After all, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson grew up on the originals, and I grew up with the prequels. Today, I see the prequels as borderline unwatchable, but when I was 11, I was so inspired by these films that they undoubtedly contributed to my passion for filmmaking and storytelling.
Maybe the franchise is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Maybe this film is just a bump in the road towards future Star Wars movies with much more potential, defined by the young fans turned filmmakers of the current franchise. There will be more good Star Wars films, and there will undoubtedly be more bad, but they will be in balance, just like the Force. Inspired by The Rise of Skywalker, Ben is now writing an original Star Wars script of his own. There is still hope.