Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is not a good movie. Its frenetic pace rushes us through a convoluted plot, any particular moment of which has its own problems. The plausibility of the plot and characters’ decisions relies too much on the viewer’s distraction. J.J. Abrams, who got his big-time start in TV, seems to have wanted to cram a full season of plot and characters into 142 minutes. Fitting for the Disney property, this Star Wars movie feels much more like a Marvel movie than one of George Lucas’ films.
Still, if you are going to see The Rise of Skywalker, you are probably less interested in how the movie works as a movie and more interested in whether it manages to finish out the nine-film Skywalker saga successfully. After all, if The Rise of Skywalker is a mess, it also inherited a mess from The Last Jedi, which had itself inherited a bland plot and characters from The Force Awakens.
The Rise of Skywalker, therefore, is operating with reduced expectations. It is highly entertaining, with several fun action sequences and some humor. But along the way, it tacitly admits how misbegotten the sequel-trilogy story was from the beginning, concedes that the new heroes and villains are not compelling, and utterly repudiates the creative choices of Last Jedi director Rian Johnson.
In order to understand the problems with the sequel-trilogy, you have to understand where the story stood at the end of the previous two trilogies. In the prequel-trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith) the Jedi have grown arrogant and complacent, and are unable to see the rise of the evil Sith from within their midst. Their blindness flows from their aloofness, and their aloofness is the result of the ossification of the Jedi teaching that personal attachments are to be avoided because they give rise to passions like anger and jealousy, which themselves lead to the Dark Side.
The inhumanity of Jedi practice leaves young Anakin Skywalker open to seduction to the Dark Side. His secret affair with and then marriage to Padme Amidala is the opening that Sheev Palpatine, later revealed to be a Dark Lord of the Sith, needs to turn Anakin from the Light. The failure to take account of the place of both friendship and love, the prequels show, results in a vulnerability to the very dark impulses the Jedi strive to oppose. The Jedi’s own apolitical lack of attachments also seems to blind them to the motives of Palpatine, whose ambitions are alien and opaque to them. The prequel-trilogy ends with the failure of the Jedi, but also with a new hope: Anakin’s children, Luke and Leia.
The original Star Wars trilogy presents Luke and Leia as the Jedi’s only hope, while also depicting the old Order’s flaws; as I explained in my review of Rogue One, “When Luke receives visions of his friends Han and Leia suffering on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that his attachment to his friends should not blind Luke to the bigger picture: completing his training so that he can defeat Darth Vader. Yoda’s allegiance to calculation and his admonition to Luke are not just the difference between the caution of age and Luke’s hot-blooded spiritedness; they also reveal that Yoda is not moved by personal love, as Luke is. But it is ultimately Luke’s capacity for personal love that overcomes Vader, not his advanced Jedi training. Luke receives what he can from Yoda, but also surpasses his flawed master.”
The Return of the Jedi therefore leaves us with Luke Skywalker as the hope for the founding of a renewed Jedi Order, because he has received both what was good in the old Jedi Order and also rejected the sources of their corruption.
The story that J.J. Abrams tells in the sequel-trilogy is really about the aftermath of Luke’s failure to re-found the Jedi. In The Force Awakens, we are told his failure has to do with his nephew, Ben Solo, turning to the Dark Side.
As I said in my review of The Last Jedi, “The very thing that distinguished Luke from the old-school Jedi Obi-Wan and Yoda was his ability to see the potential for redemption in even the darkest of figures. That his ‘instinctual’ reaction to Ben Solo’s corruption would be the desire to murder him eviscerates Luke’s character, making him prone to exactly the same failing of the Jedi that he supposedly conquered in Return of the Jedi.”
That Luke might fail to re-found the Jedi Order is plausible, and could make a very interesting story. But that Luke would fail to re-found the Jedi Order by making exactly the same errors that his masters made and that he repudiated in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi subverts his character, and in a particularly wooden and unintelligent way.
The Rise of Skywalker therefore has a huge burden: it must tell the story of the returned Jedi, but after the original trilogy’s “new hope” has been dashed. The problem, as becomes clear in Rise of Skywalker, is that neither Rey nor Kylo Ren are sufficiently self-possessed, or have been sufficiently fleshed out as characters, to bear the burden of moving such a weighty plot forward. Kylo Ren is too damaged, too compromised a character to pull it off; there is really only one way his story can end. So we are left with Rey, who might be able to succeed in one of two ways: she could demonstrate herself to be a miraculous sage, able to exercise wisdom without having acquired it through experience; or she could rely on the Jedi wisdom of the ages. Even the latter route has its problems: if she relies on the wisdom of Jedi tradition, how could she avoid the flaws that led to their corruption and fall during the Clone Wars?
What follows here contains The Rise of Skywalker spoilers. It must be said Rey does not show herself to be particularly reflective. Her main insights are given to her by others: by Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and even Kylo Ren. So she is not a sage. While The Last Jedi’s explicit message was that Rey needed nothing outside of her own resources in order to succeed, in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey undertakes Jedi training with Leia and tries to commune with past Jedi, hoping that they will guide her through the Force. The Last Jedi seems comfortable, along with Kylo Ren, to “let the past die.” But The Rise of Skywalker instead turns Rey into a conduit for the past.
Rey’s victory over Palpatine is the final repudiation of Rian Johnson’s vision in The Last Jedi. Far from having everything she needs in her own awesome self, Rey cannot win unless she stands consciously as the heir and recipient of an ancient tradition that transcends herself.
The strength of the old Jedi Order is her strength. But where is Luke Skywalker’s personal love? Where is his willingness to sacrifice self for others? How can this mode of victory provide for a re-founding of the Jedi that both recognizes the old Order’s goodness and avoids its flaws?
Rise of Skywalker tries to satisfy, but the sequel-trilogy has taken too many wrong turns and missed too many opportunities for resolution to be possible in a single movie. The ending of the nine-movie saga cannot be satisfying, but at least there may be some relief: there will be no more unworthy successors in the Skywalker film saga and, in the end, at least Abrams has limited the damage Johnson had done. Any new hope for better Star Wars stories, it seems, lies in the episodic streaming shows. “Help me, Dave Filoni. You’re my only hope.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!