'Rise of Skywalker' and the Complicated Legacy of 'Star Wars'

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Still 12 - Publicity - H 2019
<p><em>Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker</em></p>   |   Courtesy of Lucasfilm
The film is already sparking controversy, but in many ways, this is the only way the saga could have ended.

[This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.]

“What I told you was true, from a certain point of view,” Obi-Wan says to Luke Skywalker during Return of the Jedi (1983). “A certain point of view?” Luke replies incredulously. Obi-Wan responds in turn, “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” This interchange may be the most important one in the Star Wars franchise, the thing that allows for retcons, revelations, and for fans to keep their sanity. And to that point, it is, at least for me, the very thing that bridges the divide between Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017) and J.J. Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker, both controversial films with different ideas about what Star Wars is and should be.

It was always going to end this way. It seemed inevitable that no matter how the Skywalker Saga concluded, it would face insurmountable criticism and leave fandom torn in two. Whoever took the helm, Colin Trevorrow, Abrams, Johnson, or even George Lucas himself, would have faced backlash. And so here we have backlash, with The Rise of Skywalker currently sitting at 57 percent of Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest of the franchise except for 53 percent of The Phantom Menace (1999). Though the audience score is much higher, much of the critical reaction appears to boil down to Abrams’ film ignoring and/or retconning the subversive elements of Johnson’s film, and being too beholden to fan service. As for this latter complaint, which is the easiest to address within the context of the Saga, I’m uncertain how fan service in any grand finale can be avoided and still provide a satisfying conclusion.

Not every callback in The Rise of Skywalker was necessary, like Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) receiving the medal he was denied in A New Hope (1977) for instance, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a modern endpoint film that doesn’t operate in a similar manner. The Return of the King (2003) may navigate that area best in that it feels satisfying without drawing attention to its efforts to be so (though its deviations from the novel has hung up some Tolkien purists). But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and even this year’s Avengers: Endgame are well-reviewed films, and all loaded with callbacks and references, and honoring the past while setting up the future. And many of the fan-service elements in those films, however cheer-worthy, feel less honest to their characters and arcs than anything that happens in The Rise of Skywalker.

It’s easy to say that a property shouldn’t be beholden to fans but if you look at reactions to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), cited by a number to be “great” for the Darth Vader scene alone, or the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, which currently has audiences obsessed with Baby Yoda, how could Star Wars ever operate without fans in mind when the lowest bars of fan service are met and subsequently applauded? There are reactions aplenty that call Rogue One and The Mandalorian the best of this Disney age of Star Wars, and that’s because they are safe, built on the aesthetics of the familiar and have thin characterizations that don’t shake the foundations of the galaxy. Those spinoffs and new stories, enjoyable as they are, should be the Star Wars properties to challenge expectations, but instead many looked for the sequel trilogy finale to do that when it instead serves as a sequel to The Force Awakens (2015) and the very installments it was always sold as a sequel to. Abrams followed through on the nature of what the Skywalker Saga was always about: balance.

Star Wars is built on the cyclical nature of storytelling. It’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in triplicate. It’s a fairy tale, one aimed at children and best viewed with a child’s eyes and heart. Johnson attempted to grow the franchise up with The Last Jedi (2017), a film I very much enjoy and think underserving of the harassment aimed at Johnson. It attempts to elevate pulp, and while there’s much to admire, there’s also something missing within it. It is a Star Wars that feels geared toward people who don’t like Star Wars, which I think amounts to much of the critical following behind it, something that the backlash has turned into an almost cult-like devotion in some Internet circles.

The ambition of Johnson is worthy of applause. Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) arc and death are meaningful and in track with a character never great at following through or dealing with his mistakes. What is also impactful is the idea that people are more complicated than their myths, something the younger generation is forced to reckon with. It provides a fascinating look at the mechanics of war, the thin line between good and evil when it comes warmongering. It vocalizes many of the aspects about the failures of the Jedi and the Senate that Lucas highlighted in his prequel films. But The Last Jedi also feels like an outlier, an attempt to be subversive in a Saga built on legacy and history. Yes, there’s something interesting in the idea of Rey (Daisy Ridley) being no one, whose parents didn’t matter, and entirely her own character, but it also feels like such an idea that would perhaps be better served by a film unconnected to seven other movies all tied to themes of legacy, blood and religious awe. A Jedi can be anyone, rather than a chosen one, and yet this is something Star Wars devotees already knew. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to,” Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) says, and it’s a fine notion. But Star Wars can’t escape the past. It’s indebted to it. It’s baked right into the core from the very beginning, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

And so now we arrive at the most divisive elements of The Rise of Skywalker. Rey is somebody. She’s a Palpatine, the granddaughter of the Emperor Sheev Palpatine. While many have and will complain that this reveal ruins Johnson’s film, I’d argue the contrary. When Kylo Ren told Rey her parents were nobody, he was telling the truth, from a certain point of view. They chose to be nobody in order to protect her. And really that is the beating heart of the Skywalker Saga: choice. This “retcon,” if you want to call it that, has drawn ire because it draws attention to the fact that this sequel trilogy was not planned out from the beginning. But Abrams follows the course he set for Rey with The Force Awakens, rather than the one Johnson set with The Last Jedi. He doesn’t so much as deviate from as fulfill what he built up, and incorporates Rian’s additions to the mythology, if not the themes, where he can.

But again, this is the history of Star Wars. When Star Wars first arrived on the screen in 1977, Luke Skywalker was nobody. His father Anakin was a Jedi but not the chosen one, and Darth Vader was a separate character. Lucas’ notes for his arc of films confirm the fact that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker were two separate beings. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) of course changed all that, while also dropping the info that Luke was not the last hope. And so Leia (Carrie Fisher) became Luke’s sister, something that also wasn’t planned from the beginning, and obviously because they kissed way too much for that to be true.

The Skywalker Saga has never operated on some master plan, and it’s riddled with inconsistencies, tropes and contrivances, and unanswered questions like: Why did Palpatine switch to Stormtroopers from clones and what happened to those clones? How did Luke learn the ways of the Jedi and build a new lightsaber when he never finished his training on Dagobah? Why could no one on the Jedi Council sense that Palpatine was Sith when they sensed the Force in everyone else? Why didn’t Admiral Holdo just tell Poe and the Resistance her plan and save Finn and Rose the trouble of their mission?

Star Wars has figured things out as it goes, often through supplemental material like comics, shows and video games, and has focused on building thematic ties across the series. Our search for the perfect Star Wars trilogy won't be fruitful, because it never existed. We’ve simply romanticized the films of our childhood, and have gotten overly serious about the series in such a way that many of the things that have become nitpicks within these new films were present and taken in stride with the past films.

It’s the thematic ties, the echoes through the Force, that make The Rise of Skywalker such a strong ending to the Skywalker Saga. A Palpatine ushered the galaxy into darkness, and thus it makes sense that a Palpatine should be the one to save it. The Skywalkers, Anakin, Luke, and Ben Solo, were all tools within the larger morality play of balance, each undone by becoming too enchanted with his own myth and the things said about him. If The Force Awakens operated on the idea that the myths of the past are real, and The Last Jedi on the idea that the myths of the past were damaging, then The Rise of Skywalker relies on the idea that people can create their own myths, regardless of the circumstances they were born into. Rey’s arc is echoed through Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Kylo Ren, a former stormtrooper, drug smuggler and heir to the dark side. Each of these three characters seemed destined for villainy, but The Rise of Skywalker instead acknowledges the fact that, yes, everyone has a past, but not everyone is destined to be who they are because of bloodlines or past mistakes. Rey’s parents chose to be nobody, and she chooses to be somebody, rectifying the failures of two lineages, Palpatine and Skywalker, and choosing who she is, adopting the namesake that means something to her — not because she was chosen for it, but because she chose it. She is the story she tells to herself, rather than the story others have told about her. There’s a beauty in that, and one that once again strikes to the importance of these stories being imaginative morality plays for children, children who must come to learn that they all have a past, and a name, and come from somewhere that makes them the hero of their own story, but that their legacies are the ones they choose.

The Rise of Skywalker isn’t perfect, but it feels like a heartfelt and genuine examination of the ideas George Lucas was first enchanted by, and enchanted so many audiences with. Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams may have had different ideas on how to approach this trilogy, but they don’t have to be warring films. From a certain point of view, they are both enriching the larger story, tying up the past and sowing seeds for the future. There is room to break out of the confines of Star Wars as we know it in the future, but this trilogy, being built on the legacy of two others, never felt like the place to rewrite all we know. A Jedi can be anyone, and the past can be grown beyond, but this was established as the Skywalker Saga, and for a story built around orphans confronting the manipulations of an evil mastermind, and finding their larger destiny within the grand scheme of the galaxy, The Rise of Skywalker feels like the conclusion this saga deserved.