An early scene in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a fitting metaphor for the film as a whole. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), fleeing TIE Fighters in the Millennium Falcon, escape their pursuers by “lightspeed skipping” – a dangerous maneuver (or so we’re told, though it goes smoothly enough for our heroes) that involves jumping to lightspeed repeatedly. In other words, they jump across the galaxy, land in a new locale for about ten seconds, then jump again, and again, and again. The film, likewise, moves at such an exhaustingly breakneck pace that one wonders if “lightspeed skipping” is a term coined by J.J. Abrams and his collaborators in a Lucasfilm editing room. The Rise of Skywalker is jam-packed with enough adventure, incident, and excitement for a three- or four-hour movie; it has everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. The unfortunate tradeoff is that the whole thing feels like it’s playing on fast-forward, trying to cover so much ground so fast that you can scarcely get your bearings enough to feel the gravity of any of it.
Given the movie’s serious and substantial failings, should we be cynical or charitable towards it? Is Abrams rushing so terribly because he’s desperately trying to hide the cracks in the artifice, much like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) welding his shattered mask back together? Or, like Rey (Daisy Ridley), is he simply overflowing with so many unruly ideas, emotions, and longings that he just can’t contain himself?
The answer is probably a bit of both. Abrams seems to see himself in both of his dueling heroes, who are obsessed with the legacies of those they are trying to either live up to or run away from. At a mentor’s deathbed, Poe tearfully confesses, “I don’t know how to do what you did,” and it’s not hard to see Abrams baring his own soul in that confession, too. Does he rise to the occasion? It’s too early to say, really, but as far as I am concerned, he at least makes a heroic effort.
Just as it is easy to criticize Abrams’ hurried pacing, he is often taken to task for his overreliance on nostalgia. The Force Awakens fueled his detractors: was it a sequel, or a remake? A new song, or just a remix of an old song? Is Abrams a creator, or merely a curator? These are fair questions to ask, but Star Wars is uniquely suited to turn Abrams’ weaknesses into strengths. The saga has always had a backwards-looking quality. A Star Wars movie is supposed to reference, parallel, mirror, and otherwise recapitulate its predecessors. That’s not lazy “fan service”; that’s just how Star Wars works. As George Lucas famously (or infamously) said, “It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”
In Star Wars, everything happens at least twice, if not three or four times. Each film is meant to be interpreted in light of the others. The Rise of Skywalker is not merely calling back to previous movies willy-nilly, as a nostalgic ploy to drum up audience goodwill. Its references to the other films are formally and structurally apt. Even if Abrams isn’t quite as meticulous as Lucas, he is following a specific rhyme scheme with at least some degree of intentionality – and before you object that Rian Johnson charted a course away from this modus operandi in the last installment, he didn’t. Beneath its superficial subversions, The Last Jedi is paralleling the other Star Wars films just as obsessively as either of Abrams’ episodes, if not moreso.
Speaking of The Last Jedi, it would be difficult (though likely more fruitful) to ignore the way The Rise of Skywalker has come under fire for “disrespecting” its predecessor. To put it simply, this is nonsensical, just as it has always been nonsensical to say that The Last Jedi “disrespected” The Force Awakens. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) dismissively tossing Anakin’s lightsaber over his shoulder in The Last Jedi may seem like Johnson’s own response to the baton Abrams handed him, and Luke catching Anakin’s lightsaber in The Rise of Skywalker and declaring that “a Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect” could be read as Abrams’ retaliatory slap in the face to Johnson. Is this trilogy of films really the world’s most expensive game of passive-aggressive ping-pong? Or are Luke’s actions in both films simply the coherent progression of his character, who forsook his Jedi calling in The Force Awakens and reclaimed it at the end of The Last Jedi? Could it be the case that engaging with the story these films are actually trying to tell is a more worthwhile endeavor than speculating about the juicy drama that may or may not have transpired behind the scenes?
It is a good story, even if the telling leaves much to be desired. Although The Rise of Skywalker’s hasty, overstuffed nature means that you’re constantly forced to just roll with it and read between the lines, against long odds, it brings this sequel trilogy to a cohesive and satisfying conclusion. Against even longer odds, it brings the entire nine-part saga of the Skywalker family to a mostly (if not completely) apt close. It is pointed in the right directions, even if it doesn’t pursue them as far as it could.
Just as Return of the Jedi was, in many ways, a conscious return to A New Hope, this third entry brings its own trilogy full circle by returning to its first installment. The sight of Rey looking on the colossal wreck of the Death Star in The Rise of Skywalker recalls The Force Awakens’ image of the downed Star Destroyer in the Jakku desert: both are monuments of a bygone era which she will scavenge for items that aid her in the present. In both films, the plot revolves around a map, leading to a long-lost figure from the past, which is coveted by the forces of good and evil alike – and in both films, the quest for this figure ultimately gives way to a three-tiered battle that takes place on the ground, in the air, and in a soul torn apart between the dark side and the light. Finn confesses his belief in the Force in a scene that recalls Han Solo’s “It’s all true” monologue from The Force Awakens. (Both speeches are delivered in the same room on the Millennium Falcon.) As Rey nears the end of her story, she dons an X-Wing helmet just as she did at its beginning.
I could go on. Parallels to The Force Awakens abound, in both the broad strokes and the minute details, but The Rise of Skywalker’s success as a conclusion to this story hinges on its ability to synthesize both of its predecessors into one coherent whole. Among the characters, Poe fares particularly well, as Isaac merges the dashing charm he displayed in The Force Awakens with the more abrasive, anti-authoritarian edge emphasized in The Last Jedi. The bond between Kylo Ren and Rey at the core of that film is so crucial to this one that it continues to bend time and space. Indeed, key elements of The Last Jedi’s conception of the Force – as something that connects people across the galaxy, as something that may be more widely accessible than we thought – are instrumental to The Rise of Skywalker.
Though Kylo Ren’s exhortation to “Let the past die” struck many as the thesis of The Last Jedi, that film ultimately refuted its devil’s advocate and cast its lot with Rey, the true believer in the legend of the Jedi. True to form for Abrams, The Rise of Skywalker furthers the sequel trilogy’s preoccupation with the past. The very first line of its opening crawl declares, “The dead speak!” – and speak they do, for both good and ill. From beyond his supposed grave, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) again seeks to corrupt and dominate the galaxy, but in key moments, voices of the past are what give our heroes solace, wisdom, strength, even grace. Indeed, without tradition – what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead” – they would be lost. Kylo Ren tries to dismiss a vision of his departed father by telling him, “You’re just a memory,” but memory, The Rise of Skywalker suggests, is what saves us.
Here at the end, The Rise of Skywalker remembers not only the two sequels that preceded it, but also the two trilogies that preceded them. To finish what the original trilogy and prequels started, so to speak – to bring the story of the Skywalkers, the Jedi, and the Sith full circle – it pointedly recalls the beginning of the saga, The Phantom Menace, as well as the saga’s previous endings, Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi. Like Phantom Menace, it cloaks thematic density in a tone of childlike whimsy, and while it presents itself as a straightforward adventure story, it has drawn accusations of a muddled, convoluted plot. There are plentiful instances of more precise parallels. A speeder chase through the desert evokes the podrace; a double-bladed red lightsaber conjures the memory of Darth Maul; giant statues on the Sith world Exegol recall the stone heads of the Gungan sacred place. In both films, Palpatine tries to sway the heroine by promising her the power to save her people in a vast, circular auditorium. (In Menace, he is successful; in Rise, he is not.) C-3PO is “born” in Menace; he “dies” and is “reborn” in Rise. Anakin, torn from his mother, gifts a necklace to the woman he loves; Kylo Ren tears a necklace away from the woman he loves and is ultimately reconciled to his mother. In its opening crawl, Rise describes Palpatine as “the phantom Emperor,” bringing us right back to his role as the titular Phantom Menace.
Just as The Phantom Menace was a kind of prologue that acted as a microcosm of Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker is an epilogue of sorts that seeks to symbolically summarize the films’ central drama. To do this, it hones in on the conflict, both literal and philosophical, between the Jedi and the Sith – a conflict expressed through the contrasting climaxes of Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, both of which are recapitulated and combined here. (In a particularly ingenious conflation, the waves of water surrounding Rey and Kylo Ren during their final lightsaber duel evoke the roiling sea of lava where Sith‘s climax took place, but they are fighting on the wreckage of the second Death Star, the site of Jedi‘s final duel.)
According to Palpatine, in Revenge of the Sith, “The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.” Anakin’s reply – “The Sith rely on their passion for their strength” – is only a partly satisfying rebuttal. It is true that the Sith are associated with the passions and the appetite while the Jedi emphasize reason and the intellect. More precisely, the Sith are “captivated by the physical realm” while the Jedi favor the spiritual, the immaterial – even, like Plato, scorning the body. These different points of view inform the Jedi and the Sith’s different responses to death. The quest for immortality haunts the entire saga, from Obi-Wan’s pronouncement that Vader will grant him unimaginable power by striking him down to Palpatine luring Anakin to the dark side with the promise of power over death.
At his mentor’s deathbed in Return of the Jedi, Luke protests, “Master Yoda, you can’t die!” Yoda replies: “Strong am I with the Force, but not that strong. Twilight is upon me, and soon, night must fall. That is the way of things: the way of the Force.” For Yoda and the Jedi at large, “Death is a natural part of life,” but Palpatine promises the ability to bend nature to one’s will: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” Aptly, in The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine returns from the grave not as a spirit, like the Jedi, but as a ghastly corpse kept half-alive by technological means, like Darth Vader. In their quest to master nature, the Sith disfigure it; the Jedi remove themselves from nature even as they dispassionately accept it.
The Skywalkers live in the tension between these two extremes. Their very existence as a family repudiates the Jedi ethos of disembodiment, detachment; the profound (and profoundly bodily) love between parents and children is exactly what binds the Skywalkers, and the Skywalker saga, together. And while Skywalkers are sorely tempted when the Sith offer them the ability to secure lasting material happiness, it is familial love – not, primarily, the stoic philosophy of the Jedi – that enables them to resist. Anakin’s love for Padmé leads to his downfall, but also, through the children of their union, to his redemption.
Whatever its other faults, The Rise of Skywalker pursues this central drama to a richly moving completion that, true to Star Wars’ syncretistic nature, resonates with Christianity, Buddhism, Platonism, and Freudian/Jungian psychology all at once. Death is overcome by acts of radical selflessness, not by isolation and detachment. The material world is good, but it is also fleeting and vaporous. Even when the literal drama is undisciplined and unconvincing, the symbolic drama is sound and potent – and this is why I’ll gladly take this messy trilogy of films over (nearly) any other big-budget fantasy Hollywood has produced in the last decade.
In an essay posted on Thursday, before the film’s release, I wrote, “I want The Rise of Skywalker to justify undermining Return of the Jedi’s happy ending by building an even happier ending in the ruins.” For once, J.J. Abrams, that most compulsive of crowd-pleasers, did not give me what I wanted. The Rise of Skywalker ends not with the happiest of endings, but with bittersweetness – and, perhaps, even more bitterness than sweetness. At its core, Star Wars is a vividly joyous rendering of a world that exists only in our imaginations. Yet, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the other great myth of the twentieth century, it is just as much a lament for that world – which, like the one we live in, is passing away. As Aragorn puts it in The Fellowship of the Ring, “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.” Perhaps the same could be said of all the tales of the galaxy far, far away.
Here at the end, Abrams turns, looks backwards, and surveys all that came before. Such a survey cannot fail to evoke the tender wistfulness of nostalgia, a yearning for the good things that have passed into eternity and cannot be reclaimed until we follow them. Here in the final moments of the Skywalker saga, what is Rey longing for? What is Abrams longing for?
Maybe it’s the same thing all our hearts are longing for.