The short answer is no, but the long answer is a lot more complicated.
We’ll get to the discussion points in a minute, but the main thing to consider here is that the new trilogy of Star Wars films, unlike their predecessors, has no real through-line. The Last Jedi was a sharp left turn from the fan service of The Force Awakens–a tonal jolt that was as unexpected as it was controversial for many fans. The Rise of Skywalker had a unique conundrum, then: throw out the bold new direction Last Jedi foisted upon the series completely, or try to make it stick?
Bringing back The Force Awakens‘ director, J.J. Abrams, seems to be a clue that Disney and Lucasfilm were going with the former, but the truth is that Skywalker tries to do both. And as with anything that tries to have it both ways, it doesn’t quite succeed. And if you’re a fan of Last Jedi, odds are really good that you won’t be happy at all, because it’s definitely Last Jedi that gets short shrift in the compromise.
I divided my post about Last Jedi into pros and cons (read it here if you please), but I’m not going to do that here. Let’s just go piece by piece.
Obviously, there are going to be spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie.
The Return of Palpatine
I know there’s a history of not picking up directly where you left off in the Star Wars universe, but the distance between Last Jedi and this feels jarring. And I realize that having so much happen in between movies is a perfect cross-merchandising opportunity to sell a book that fills in the blanks, but we left off with the Resistance in dire straights and nearly wiped out (largely thanks to Poe Dameron’s shitty leadership). Suddenly, in this movie we’re back to business as usual and the entire game has changed because of a mysterious transmission with the voice of Emperor Palpatine (who seemingly died at the end of Return of the Jedi). Having that happen between movies feels cheap.
Was it always the plan to have Palpatine come back? It feels slapdash, so I’m inclined to think it wasn’t. It’s almost as if producers thought “oh shit, we let Rian Johnson kill off Snoke, so we don’t have a big bad anymore” (even though Johnson seemed to be setting up a level playing field between Rey and Kylo Ren without the meddling presence of an emperor figure between them). And then producers further panicked when they realized “oh shit, we let Rian Johnson imply that the secret of Rey’s parentage isn’t important and he kind of closed the door on her being a Skywalker, so what kind of hail mary can we pull off here?!”
Enter zombie Palpatine, swinging around like a spectral puppet on a life support crane with milky eyes, blackened lips, and… burnt (and mostly missing) fingers? Did the force lightning from Return of the Jedi do that? Because it didn’t when he used it in Revenge of the Sith, so… what the fuck?
Anyway, because the new series is really into maps as plot devices (ugh), we open with Kylo Ren murdering his way to a plot device that will help him locate the Emperor. And even though he goes there to kill Palps, they end up as new buddies because it turns out Palps has been building an entire army of Star Destroyers with built-in planet killers that he calls The Final Order (get it? Because the First Order… okay, you get it), and he promises to let Kylo Ren drive them if he kills Rey.
HOW HAS HE BEEN DOING THIS IN SECRET? Oh, we’re not supposed to ask how a seemingly dead dude managed to build an entire army of superships with crew to man them without anyone ever finding out? Cool, thanks.
We’re also not supposed to ask why Palps wants Ren to kill Rey when we’re ultimately going to find out that she’s the key to his entire resurrection scheme, so let’s just go with it.
The First Half of Rise of Skywalker is Pretty Bad
Given that Rise of Skywalker picks up in a very different place than Last Jedi left us, you might think it would give you some time to get your bearings and adjust. Nope. The first half of Rise of Skywalker is a lot of running around from action set-piece to action set-piece with only loose plotting to hold it all together. I thought this part of the movie was pretty painful, if I’m being honest.
We do find out that Leia has picked up training Rey in the ways of the Jedi where Luke left off, which is a delight for Leia stans like myself. We even find out later in the movie that Leia trained with Luke (which explains her weird resurrection in Last Jedi). But this is, for me at least, the only moment from the first half of the movie that lands because the rest is just a lot of frenetic movement and explosions.
I mean, think about this: Rey, Finn, and Poe go to the Star Wars equivalent of Burning Man. Think about that. And they happen to stumble into Lando while there? What?! How they even get off that planet with Kylo Ren and the First Order, like, surrounding them, is a massive gaping plot hole.
Rise of Skywalker does a lot better once it decides to let the action serve the story and not the other way around. It just takes a while to get there.
Justice for Rose
You know who gets completely forgotten in Rise of Skywalker? Rose Tico. She was introduced as a major new character in Last Jedi and ended that movie on a bit of a cliffhanger: after nearly killing herself to save Finn’s life, Rose kisses Finn with a proclamation about saving the things we love.
Rise of Skywalker literally pretends that kiss never happened. Did Finn friend-zone Rose in the time between movies? We’ll never know because it just isn’t addressed at all. Finn just goes back to pining for Rey–and more on that later.
Even worse, Rose isn’t a significant character in Rise of Skywalker at all. She’s a background tech who stares at computer screens and interprets data for the benefit of the main characters, missing from large swaths of the film where the main crew goes off on the real adventure.
Frankly, she deserved better.
Kill the Past?
The Force Awakens was a fun movie but to me felt bogged down in fan service once you had time to actually reflect on it. It set up a new trilogy of Star Wars movies that would essentially be recreations of the first three movies. Rey is the new Luke, but we’re going to be more upfront that there’s going to be a revelation about who her parents are (probably in the second movie). Kylo Ren is the new Darth Vader: a promising Jedi gone bad. His redemption storyline was a bit of a question mark after he, you know, killed his father, Han Solo, but it felt pretty assured that his pull toward the light side would eventually win out. Snoke is the new Emperor, playing Rey and Ren against each other in a bid for their very souls. And Luke is now a composite of Ben Kenobi and Yoda.
Except The Last Jedi not only threw all that out, it used this as its thesis statement: “forget the past. Kill it if you have to.” It had the audacity not only to not reveal who Rey’s parents are but to declare that the answer isn’t important. And the new Emperor figure? Killed off. Last Jedi burned through the template of the original trilogy by having Ren and Rey face off in front of Snoke in the second movie–and it had Ren turn on his master then to allow the series to go in a new direction. The twist? Unlike Darth Vader’s confrontation with Luke and Palpatine, Ren didn’t kill Snoke to save Rey. Ren killed Snoke to take his place. This would seem to imply that unlike his grandpa Anakin, Ren is beyond redemption. Oh, and Luke? Turns out he’s a completely fallible person who lost his new Jedi order because he fucked things up. When Rey comes to him for a Jedi education, he instead tries to teach her to question everything the Jedi stood for.
This is where fanboys and girls got really upset. I hear them on this part: I fundamentally do not believe that Luke, who spent the first trilogy recklessly trying to redeem his apparently irredeemable father, would be so alarmed by the dark streak in his nephew that he would even contemplate killing him in his sleep. But I was thrilled by the prospect of a Star Wars that dealt in shades of grey instead of slavishly adhering to notions of light and dark. And I was thrilled that Rey and Ren were heading for a showdown on a level playing field.
Instead, as previously mentioned, Rise of Skywalker brings back all the old motifs. Shades of grey are thrown out and we’re back to light and dark. When Rey despairs and returns to Luke’s old hiding place, he returns as a force ghost to tell her that he had been wrong. He’s specifically referring to the notion that he was wrong to hide from the world, but viewers can be forgiven for assuming that he’s actually referring to the entire worldview he had adopted in the wake of his failure as a Jedi trainer, because this movie does a lot to ignore every lesson he tried to teach Rey in Last Jedi.
Everything I said about Palpatine’s return is true here as well. If Last Jedi seemed to be promising a bold new Star Wars, Rise of Skywalker stubbornly insists on literally resurrecting the past instead of leaving it behind.
Who is Rey?
Let’s get to the million-dollar question set up by The Force Awakens: who is Rey, anyway, and why did her parents abandon her on Jakku? Again, Last Jedi insisted that the answer doesn’t matter and Kylo Ren told her that her parents were nobodies. But since we’re throwing Last Jedi‘s approach away, of course it’s going to turn out that the answer actually does matter.
Oh, and because this movie wants Ren to have never lied to Rey, it tries to explain the whole “your parents were nobodies” thing by having Ren tell Rey that her parents were nobodies… but only because they chose to be nobodies. Which doesn’t make sense because Ren finds out about Rey’s true parentage in this movie. Because Palps reveals to Ren that Rey is actually his granddaughter.
Now this, I am actually down for. A Skywalker reveal for Rey would have been predictable, and after The Last Jedi, it would have been forced and nonsensical. Star Wars traditionally places a lot of power on bloodline, but it has also subtly enforced the notion of chosen family vs. blood family. Having Rey survive temptation to the dark side and ultimately mark the Skywalker clan as her chosen family is a wonderful way to close the ongoing debate that has raged subtextually throughout the series.
Here’s where things get dumb: Rey’s parents left her on Jakku because they wanted to hide her from her grandfather, who was having them pursued. First of all, how is all this happening and no word of it is ever revealed? A Sith loyalist cum bounty hunter locates her parents and murders them on Palpatine’s orders when they won’t reveal where Rey is. It’s implied that at this point, Palpatine is basically Voldemort and he wants child Rey dead so there will be no one to challenge him and/or his ability to rule the galaxy. This seems to continue to be true when he orders Kyo Ren to prove himself to Palpatine by killing Rey.
Except that when Rey finally gets to Palpatine’s lair, it turns out that he needs her to strike him down in order to complete his evil resurrection/galactic dominance plan. You see, if she strikes him down, his spirit can pass into her body and not only will the Jedi be finally defeated (a problematic idea I will get to in a moment), but the spirit of every Sith who ever lived will exist within Rey.
So… if this is what Palpatine needs, why is he so hellbent on killing Rey?
Let’s Be Real About Finn
Here’s why I think it’s problematic that Palpatine seems to think Rey turning to the dark side will end the Jedi: HOW OBVIOUS DOES IT HAVE TO BE THAT FINN IS A JEDI? Sure, he wasn’t super successful at wielding Luke’s lightsaber in Force Awakens, but holy shit, dude did pretty great for a novice. Last Jedi, ahem, forced him to take a backseat to Rey’s Jedi journey, but there are numerous cues in Rise of Skywalker that Finn is attuned to the force. All he lacks is the training.
So if Rey had turned to the dark side, there’s an alternate universe where Finn trains himself in the ways of the force and becomes the last hope of the Jedi, leading the former sexual tension buddies into conflict.
And if anyone wants to write that, that’s the only fan fiction piece I would be likely to ever read.
Problematic Love Triangles
While on the subject of Finn, I can’t decide if I’m irritated or relieved that there wasn’t any resolution on his will-they-or-won’t-they storyline with Rey. It seems that he was about to declare his love for her early on, but that notion is never resolved in the movie–unless you count teasing from Poe as resolution.
As discussed earlier, Rose and Finn’s kiss from Last Jedi is never addressed, so her position in a potential love triangle with Rey and Finn fizzles out.
Instead, Finn gets competition from Ren himself and I seriously just want to barf about it. Rey saves Ren from the dark side with an assist from the ghost of Han Solo (a truly wonderfully touching scene between Harrison Ford and Adam Driver), and then he ultimately sacrifices himself to bring her back from the dead after she calls on every Jedi who ever lived to take down Palpatine. But before he goes, the two share a kiss.
Honestly, this is fan service bullshit for the people who write gross, problematic fan fiction in which Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy get married. It’s literal trash and I can’t even talk about it.
Black Girl Magic
The antidote to that cringe-worthy moment? The arrival of cocoa queen Jannah into the Star Wars universe. Disney, Lucasfilm, do me a solid and give this woman a spin-off where she rides around the universe on her horse creature (in her cape, of course) with Zorii Bliss on adventures. Okay, Lando can come along for periodic check-ins.
It also felt touching for Finn to find his tribe, so to speak, when it is revealed that Jannah and her posse are all former stormtroopers who rebelled to do the right thing.
I’m not going to complain about Leia’s goodbye feeling a touch anticlimactic since they literally cobbled her part in this movie together from scenes Carrie Fisher had filmed before her death, but here we go, I just kind of did exactly that.
I like that Leia assumed Luke’s role as a Jedi mentor to Rey. Love it, actually. And I love that ghost Luke reveals that Leia had received full training as a Jedi before a force vision revealed to her that her life as a Jedi would be damaging to her son. And I love that Leia appears as a force ghost with Luke on Tattooine at the end of the movie. It feels fitting that this badass female character would get the full Jedi treatment in the end.
But what was the purpose of her calling out to Kylo Ren across space, knowing that it would be the death of her? All she did was distract Kylo from his fight with Rey long enough for Rey to stab him–was that the point? I mean, Rey revived Ren with her newly discovered healing abilities–but did Leia know that was going to happen? Was her calling out a crucial step in the redemption of her son? Or is this just clumsy as fuck plotting because even if that was the intent, it depended on Rey healing Ren in an act of pure goodness/forgiveness and the appearance of ghost Han to seal the deal.
Return to Tatooine
Another thing I loved? That the movie ended with Rey visiting Luke’s old home on Tatooine to pay tribute and bury his and Leia’s lightsabers at the place where Luke’s journey began–before revealing that she finally built her own lightsaber and, when an utterly random stranger asks her name, that Luke and Leia offer their blessing for her to assume the Skywalker surname. It’s an emotional end to the journey that began at that very moisture farm, and having the series fade out with Rey and BB8 looking off at the twin sunset of Tattooine just like Luke did all those years ago, my heart was happy–even with all the flaws this movie has.
Hey Hollywood: stop the bullshit. Don’t advertise your movies as being LGBTQ inclusive when they actually have no representation at all. Having a female background character kiss another female background character in a blink-and-you-miss it celebration scene does not count as representation.
So. Is The Rise of Skywalker a Terrible Movie?
If you love The Last Jedi, the answer to this question is a resounding yes: you will probably HATE this movie. If, like me, you saw pluses and minuses in The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker is going to be more of the same. If you absolutely hated The Last Jedi, I feel less certain of how you will react, but I’m guessing if nothing else that you will feel vindicated by Skywalker‘s subtle erasure of Last Jedi‘s core thesis statement for the Star Wars universe.
Essentially, I think we can all probably agree that Skywalker is a flawed movie that nevertheless has a good emotional payout.
To me, the most mind-boggling thing of all is just how this happened. Especially in the era of the cinematic universe, how did Lucasfilm and Disney fail to have a coherent through-line? Was it a lack of planning–did they genuinely not know where this trilogy was going to go when they started filming The Force Awakens? Did they give their directors too much creative freedom? George Lucas was famously unhappy with the loss of control he suffered when he did not direct either The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, and yet the original trilogy feels like three movies that form a seamless whole. That’s not the case here.
Marvel, which is owned by Disney, so go figure, has done a much better job keeping tight control of its stories and has successfully made them function as a sort of jigsaw puzzle: each piece has its own function that nevertheless forms a larger picture that is gradually revealed in time. The Star Wars universe is not going away–and no matter what Lucasfilm and Disney say, I refuse to believe that we have seen the last of these characters–so going forward, they should do some work to figure the story-building part out.