This contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
As the ending of the “Skywalker Saga” part of Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker had a lot of lifting to do at the end. Sadly, for me, it didn’t quite get where I wanted it to go and I walked out of the movie feeling like JJ Abrams had just missed a dozen opportunities. The possibilities open to him were incredible, but he kept himself boxed in with a strange adherence to just a small part of George Lucas’ vision.
There’s a lot of talk about how The Last Jedi subverts Star Wars, but I think that talk comes from folks who simply are not familiar with the Prequels. Half the Star Wars movies George Lucas made subverted Star Wars; the reality is that many of us simply didn’t understand it at the time. It wasn’t clear to us that Lucas knew what he was doing when he made the Jedi chumps, when he made the Jedi Council full of shit and when he revealed that the shortsighted pride of characters like Yoda was what led to the rise of the Empire.
This is important because I think many of the missed opportunities in Rise of Skywalker come from Abrams simply not vibing with the Prequels; for him Star Wars is the OT. His films are rehashes of/homages to those initial three films and they largely ignore business and themes from the Prequels. The idea that Star Wars is a story about family is sort of true – that’s what the OT is – but when we bring the PT into it we see that Star Wars is a story with family but that is actually about power and how that power is wielded and by whom. That’s the holistic theme of the six films.
The biggest missed opportunity is about Rey, but before I address that, I want to talk about a couple of other missed opportunities that could have improved TROS, or at least firmly established it as part of a nine film story.
First, let’s talk about C3P0. His story in this movie is absolutely pointless. Opening his head and getting the info from his secret memory banks goes nowhere, and erasing his memory has no impact. For a movie that is breathless and has no time to stop and even tell us how the Emperor is alive, this is a weird choice.
But let’s imagine that going into the forbidden memory banks ended up having the opposite effect on 3P0 – what if it opened up his erased memory of the Prequels? After all, Threepio was built by Darth Vader. Kylo Ren is obsessed with Vader relics. But more than that, Threepio is the only surviving English speaking character who knew Darth Vader as a boy. I feel like his insight here at the end could have been meaningful. Anakin building Threepio was one of Lucas’ worst decisions in the Prequels, but it could have been redeemed here – have C3PO tell Kylo Ren that, just as he knew Ben Solo as a young boy he also knew Anakin Skywalker, and to give him first hand information about how what The Creator became was a betrayal of who he truly was. Kylo Ren’s switch to the Light Side is very quick, and the shoehorning of Han Solo’s ghost to do it isn’t great. Maybe a scene with C3PO – finally raised above comic relief status – would have been better. And it would have turned the human Anakin – not just the melted Vader helmet – into an actual presence in this film.
It’s also strange that Naboo doesn’t appear in this film. There’s a montage of planets at the end of the movie, but Naboo isn’t among them. And if you’re making a film centered around Palpatine and his legacy, doesn’t it make sense that some aspect of it would involve the planet from which he came, where he was a Senator and which catapulted him to becoming Emperor? The whole chain of events that led to Rise of Skywalker began on Naboo; in a series all about echoes and rhyming it seems weird that it doesn’t end there. Ending on Exegol, the Sith homeworld, seems ‘cool,’ (it’s not, Exegol sucks) but actually bringing everything full circle to Naboo in some way would have been ‘Star Wars.’
On a purely personal note, I think it was a mistake to not have the voices of the dead Jedi accompanied by their figures. I’m a hardcore fan of this franchise – I have a Jedi tattoo! – and I couldn’t recognize some of the voices. I think it would have been incredibly exciting to see Mace Windu and Qui-Gon Jinn and, for the first time in live action, Kanan Jarrus and Ahsoka Tano. It would have really added something to that last sequence if all these figures stood behind Rey as she made her last stand against Palpatine. Visually it would have brought together 42 years of stories in a way that, I believe, would have been eternally iconic – a Star Wars version of that Endgame battle.
But the biggest missed opportunity isn’t even so much missed as it is botched – Rey’s heritage. In The Last Jedi we learned that Rey came from no one, that her family was nobodies. This angered some fans, but it actually made a lot of thematic sense in the scope of the larger Star Wars saga (ie, if you are including the themes of the Prequels when you’re finishing your Star Wars story). In many ways it’s a do-over of Anakin Skywalker’s heritage, a heritage that I think was kind of ruined in Revenge of the Sith when Palpatine insinuates that Darth Plagueis used the Force to create Anakin, who we know is the result of a virgin birth. That sucks for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it makes Anakin feel fairly predestined to go bad – he’s a literal creation of the Sith!
By having Rey be actually of nobody’s lineage we end up with a character who has what neither Anakin or Luke had – a blank slate. In many ways Star Wars is about the question of nature versus nurture. Are you born bad or do you become bad? And if you become bad, can you choose to return to being good? It’s the fundamental question at the heart of it all, and Rey is – at the end of The Last Jedi – in the most intriguing position to explore it. After all, Kylo Ren is a Skywalker, so he’s got that nature stuff going on, being the fruit of Anakin Skywalker’s tree. But if Rey is nobody, she has no nature to drag her down.
This would make the events of The Rise of Skywalker all the more thematically intense. In the OT we saw Luke as he fought against his heritage. In the last two films we saw Ben Solo give in to it. Anakin was created to be a Sith. We have the nature part of it covered. A blank Rey allows for the other side to be examined, and we would have a character actively choosing for herself, free of any medieval concepts of bloodlines.
Abrams wouldn’t need to change anything. The Emperor’s plan doesn’t require Rey to be his genetic material – all the past Sith are living in him (and yes, this is new mythology introduced in the last twenty minutes of a nine film series) and they’re not all his blood relatives. All of that stuff could have stayed in. But by taking away the (frankly dumb, and if you do the math on when her parents would have been born, kind of baffling) Palpatine heritage, you leave the fate of the galaxy not in the hands of someone tied in with all the preceding mishigoss, but rather someone outside of it.
But it’s the Skywalker Saga!, you cry. Sure, and it’s not the Palpatine Saga. Tying her to previous characters doesn’t really make it of a piece with what came before, it just serves as a reflexive reference. Also, I think having her be tied in to what came before actually ruins the ending of this movie. See, as it’s the Skywalker Saga, Kylo Ren is technically the central character. The real question throughout is what will become of him, and he carries with him the lineage that began the whole thing. And he knows this.
“You don’t have a place in this story,” Kylo Ren tells Rey. But in this movie she makes a place for herself, and she cements that at the end by taking the name Skywalker. She is claiming her place in the story! That choice is way more powerful if it’s being made by someone not tied into any previous piece of this story.
This allows Rey, blank slate, to redeem the name Skywalker completely. She claims it for good. Standing before the Emperor she could go either way, since she has no family history pulling her in one direction or the other. By not only choosing the Light but choosing to associate that decision with the Skywalker name, she cleanses it and continues the statement I think George Lucas was making with the Prequels – the Force is for everybody, not just specific families or powerful people.
(By the way, Abrams touches on this in TROS by having Finn and Jannah be Force sensitive. I like where that is going, but like many of the plot points in the movie it ends up without any real meaning or weight.)
George Lucas fundamentally believed that the Jedi Order was not good. What his characters don’t understand – but he does – is that ‘balance of the Force’ does not mean wiping out all bad guys. That’s unbalanced. He has strong political beliefs that are on display in the Prequels, and he clearly bristles at calcified gatekeepers of both the Force and the Senate. It seems to me that he believes in almost radical democracy, that he sees the stratified nature of the Republic Senate and its bureaucracies that have nothing to do with the day-to-day lives of people (this is a big point in The Phantom Menace, when Padme bristles against the Senate deliberating about the Naboo invasion for days or weeks) as the problems that led to the Emperor, not just conditions exploited by him.
What he’s doing in the Prequels is showing the ways gatekeepers separate regular people from the exercise of power, and how that separation benefits those with the worst intentions. We live in that world, where the bad guys are winning not because the people of the nation are bad but because their votes are suppressed, or they’re gerrymandered into meaningless or because the machinery of the system drains them of any hope of making change. Power, Lucas believes, doesn’t belong in the Senate or in the Jedi Council. It belongs with the people.
Rey is the people.
I think that Rian Johnson had it right, and he was putting Rey on the path that would fulfill the thematics George Lucas has set out to explore. But by making her a Palpatine those thematics are short circuited, and we end up with one kind of royalty deciding to throw off her heritage in favor of being another kind of royalty. A Rey who was a nobody taking up the name Skywalker reclaims that name for the galaxy. A Rey who is a Palpatine taking up the name Skywalker is keeping it in the very aristocracy that led to decades upon decades of war, and is betraying the larger thematics at which Lucas was aiming.
Bummer, and a missed opportunity.