This piece contains major spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker. Like, all of them, probably several times over. Proceed accordingly.
Mike: Well, that happened.
I anticipated that my piece on The Rise of Skywalker two days ago would likely serve better as a semi-conclusive statement on the sequel era than something I forced myself to stay awake for in the aftermath of the movie, so instead of tackling this reaction piece single-handedly I invited the whole staff to weigh in with their first thoughts—but some quick ones from me first, because I’m in charge.
My friend Pearl and I both loved The Force Awakens, but we had absolutely polar reactions to The Last Jedi, and we’ve been arguing about it for two years, and will probably keep arguing about it forever because we’re like that. What I kept thinking during my first viewing of Rise tonight was that the movie felt precision-calibrated to make both of us, despite the separate universes we’ve been living in, equally happy—or at the very least, minimize our unhappiness at all costs.
Palpatine’s alive, but kind of not. Rey’s parents were nobody, from a certain point of view. Rose is there, but she doesn’t do much. There’s a gay kiss, but not the one people wanted. There’s a Reylo kiss, but it’s quick and vague and then he drops dead. Chewie dies and comes back. Threepio “dies” and comes back. There are porgs, but just barely. Hux goes rogue, but just barely. And on, and on—J.J. Abrams seems to screamingly, desperately want to make as many of us as happy as he possibly can, and if it required smothering logical and thematic coherence with a pillow, he was just the guy to do it.
But the thing is, superficial enjoyment is Abrams’s number one skill—and I’m honestly not saying that in a critical way, he’s really good at it. TFA definitely has a much, much easier lift than this thing does, but it’s got superficial enjoyability leaking out of every frame—and when it’s dumb, it’s just as dumb as Rise is. So I find myself in a weird position where I’m intellectually cynical but emotionally content, because a surprise acid trip that ruined your plans for the evening is still an acid trip, and chemically, it’s got you.
There’s a lot to this movie that I just need to think about for a long time yet, and see how it’s expanded upon and developed in other material, but whether I grow more fond of it or less over time, I’ll say this: the saga ends with Rey, a girl from nowhere, as the chosen scion of the Skywalker legacy, and very possibly (at least how I’m reading it right now) with Finn, a former stormtrooper, as her first apprentice. There were a bunch of ups and downs to get us here, but they’re worth all of them and more.
Jay: So… initial reactions to The Rise of Skywalker. Well, my initial reaction is that this is weird and I need to watch it again and process it in order to decide what I think of it. Actually, my real initial reaction is “holy cow, is the saga really over?” We’ve been there before, but it feels more final now. It’s not the end of Star Wars or even Star Wars films, but it’s certainly the end of an era — more than just the end of a trilogy.
I was lucky enough to attend an early screening, which is beneficial since my only other option would have been to see the movie a week or two late — but the downside is that I have nobody to really discuss the film with, and the audience reaction in my screening was more muted than I would have gotten during an opening night viewing with a theater full of fans. So I just have to process it all myself, and boy is it a lot to process.
It’s the end of the saga — the end of the original trilogy characters — the end of the Skywalker story — and even the end of Palpatine. To think that all of those elements would have come together in this film. Before the first teaser trailer for this film, I didn’t even know Palpatine would be in this film! I am pretty sure I had difficulty standing when we got the revelation at Celebration, and Ian McDiarmid came on screen.
So what did I think of Palpatine on screen? Well, that’s complicated. He’s one of my favorite Star Wars characters. But I am not sure I liked him in this one. He was dark, and evil, and malicious. The seeds laid by Operation Cinder bore fruit. But the thing is — we’re not supposed to like Palpatine. The fact that Palpatine made me uncomfortable, that he was dark and creepy and vile meant that they got it right. You’re not supposed to like him. Over the years, his lines became quotable and he was enjoyable in Return of the Jedi and the prequel films but — this movie brings back the real Palpatine. In many ways, he felt like the EU’s Palpatine from Dark Empire (which Operation Cinder has always felt consistent with). It’s comforting that so many people got Palpatine right, even as Palpatine himself is deeply uncomfortable.
At this point I’m deciding how much to discuss — there were a ton of easter eggs, references to the films, things coming full circle, even fan service (remember: that’s not inherently negative). We’ll have plenty of time to discuss all of it, but I did like how the saga came full circle even if at times it felt heavy-handed. I’ll just say this: I am so glad we got Denis Lawson in as Wedge. Even if it was just for a moment. Even if they didn’t say his name. We know him. And I love that they gave us that.
I was amazed at how much they did with Leia. I expected just another version of the goodbye from the end of The Force Awakens, but we got so much more dialogue. It’s hard to process what it still all means. I’m sad to lose her — both the character and Carrie Fisher herself. But I think they did her proud. And I’m so glad she got to train Rey and to turn Kylo Ren (even if I have mixed feelings on his redemption — if anyone should do it, it should be Leia). We’ll never know what the film would have looked like had Carrie still been with us, but I like to think that she would have had a similar role. And I loved the Jedi training flashback with Luke and Leia, and especially them appearing side by side as Force ghosts as Rey took the name Skywalker.
Speaking of which. The last big thing. Rey Palpatine. Of all the fan theories, that was always my favorite because it was the most wild, the most out there, and the most hilarious. Especially because I joked that it would allow me to justify my support of the Resistance on the grounds that Rey was the legitimate claimant to the throne and thus worthy of support. Of course, the movie isn’t about blood — and I never expected Palpatine to still be around as the actual Emperor with the throne. I can’t tell if his plan all along was to try to trick Rey and restore himself with her. It’s all crazy and surreal, and I would’ve said you were mad if you told me in 2015 this was how the sequel trilogy ended. Sadly, I’ll never know what my reaction in the cinema to Rey Palpatine would have been — some jerk spoiled me about it weeks earlier, along with Palpatine’s fate. But…big reveals aren’t the end-all, and I enjoyed the film for the storytelling. And besides, they weren’t exactly subtle with the hinting. I’ll bet most people figure it out long before Kylo tells Rey (after all, it seems she knew all along, too).
Anyway, that’s it for now. I’ll probably want to read stories about Palpatine’s son and daughter-in-law at some point, and I hope Del Rey or Disney-LFL Press give them to us. If not, there’s fanfic I guess. I’m glad Rey’s parentage story is behind us, and I’m still amused the most absurd theory was true. But hey — there’s the mirroring, the dark heir of Skywalker and the light heir of Palpatine joining forces and the last Palpatine taking the Skywalker name after the bloodline has lapsed.
And you know what this means? From a certain point of view, the Skywalker saga of nine films is actually the Palpatine saga. Or even the Skywalker-Palpatine saga. Think about it.
Mark: Yikes. OK. I will try to say something nice later in this review, but I can’t sugar-coat it: this is a very bad film.
My concerns about the return of JJ Abrams were justified. This was the kind of lightweight, disposable, fast-food Star Wars he got away with in The Force Awakens because he had A New Hope’s plot and Lawrence Kasdan to lean on. TROS is a string of set pieces linked together by incomprehensible MacGuffin quests (we have to get the Thing to translate the Thing so we can get to the other Thing, oh no, we lost the Thing so we have to get the other Thing to get to the Place…). The pacing is so frantic that nothing is allowed to breathe, major revelations don’t settle. We’re straight onto the next set piece. It lacks both the warm, satisfying resolution of Return of the Jedi, and the mythic, operatic grandeur of Revenge of the Sith. It’s McStar Wars.
Rey has now gone on the same character arc three times. Learning in TFA that the parents who left her are never coming back, that she must find her own path, she started The Last Jedi by suddenly caring a great deal about who her parents were. Still, Rian Johnson came up with a killer answer – they’re no one, she won’t get an easy answer, she has to forge her own place in the story. With TROS, she’s again back where she started – worrying about her past, being defined by her ancestry. She has never developed into her own character, because she’s never been allowed to escape these questions. The revelation that she is Palpatine’s granddaughter feels entirely weightless, because we’re straight onto the next set piece.
Kylo Ren doesn’t fare any better. TLJ showed Rey that, though she believed Kylo could just switch back to being “Ben” again, people are more complicated than that: Ben and Ren are the same messed-up person, and it’s not as simple as just flipping a switch. TROS throws that out and takes us back to a world where Ben and Ren are two separate personalities, and all he has to do is stop being Kylo Ren and start being Ben Solo and everything is fine, all sins absolved. Adam Driver does well with what little he’s given, and plays Ben as a very different character to Kylo simply using his face (he has to, because redeemed Ben Solo has no lines of dialogue), but he’s hamstrung by being back behind the mask again for most of the film. The kiss between Ben and Rey is spectacularly misjudged, toe-curling in its execution and carries with it deeply uncomfortable real-world analogues. I’m not sure it’s an appropriate ending to a relationship that began with him tying her to a torture rack, looking her up and down and saying “you know I can take whatever I want.” But it’s also entirely inconsequential, because he falls over, fades away and is never mentioned again. Hey look, it’s the Ewoks, remember them?!
Palpatine is in full-on B-movie villain mode, and doesn’t do a lot other than rant in his zombie makeup. None of it feels important enough, and it gives me no pleasure to say this is McDiarmid’s weakest Star Wars performance. With Leia, they probably did the best they could do with an unwinnable situation, but there are still some clunky attempts to incorporate the few unused lines of Carrie Fisher dialogue they had left (see her line about underestimating droids), and having her lying under a sheet for the last half-hour of the film was just uncomfortable. Much of the exposition dialogue is laughable, as are the attempts at making everything BIGGER (“they all have planet killers now!”). I’m certain, based on the leaks, that there was originally an actual reason for Lando just happening to still be on that planet, but in the final cut it feels painfully convenient. Remember that guy?!
There are a few positives. John Boyega is given too little to do, but is the heart of the film, a charismatic actor who has been badly underused. Ridley and Isaac have the kind of sparky/snarky chemistry that would make them perfect for an old-fashioned screwball romantic comedy. Driver is great when not hidden by the mask, and It’s nice to finally have a genuinely warm moment between Luke and Rey. It’s lovely hearing the voices of Liam Neeson and Hayden Christensen again, and the Rey Skywalker finale seems an appropriate ending for her story, if not completely successful in execution.
Overall, though, this film doesn’t justify the existence of the sequel trilogy, and it and makes the whole enterprise feel like a mess. I doubt I’ll go back to this trilogy often, though TLJ has a lot of good ideas in it. Certainly, for the first time with a Star Wars movie, I’m probably not going to go back to the theatre to see this one again. But The Clone Wars and Obi-Wan are coming, and I still haven’t seen The Mandalorian, so it’s fine. The nice thing about there being a lot of Star Wars is that if something doesn’t work for you, something else more your taste will be coming along.
Ben: I don’t know what to think, exactly. At this point, I think I need time to digest it more than anything because if there’s one thing about this movie that is objective truth, it’s that it packs a LOT into its two-and-a-half hour runtime. It hits the ground running and it hardly takes a chance to pause, stop or give the audience a moment to breathe until almost an hour has passed, and then whoosh, we’re off again somewhere else.
From a cinematic standpoint, it’s a very pretty film. The visuals of Abrams’s Star Wars are very strong, he frames his shots with an eye toward the concept art they’re inspired by, and there are some jaw-dropping visuals, fights and choreography in this movie. There’s also some moments that are so bloated and full of detail that it’s impossible to see what’s going on, so it’s a double-edged sword. Lucas, Edwards and other directors in the past have done similar things to pack detail into shots or even individual frames, but only Abrams sets those frames into frantic motion and basically dares the audience to follow along.
From an acting standpoint, it’s outstanding. Everyone gives bravura performances. The returning cast do a fantastic job, as usual, and they embody their characters to such a degree that they elevate the material simply by being so natural in their parts. The newcomers (and returning faces) assert themselves quite well, no one feels out of place or like they don’t belong. Daisy Ridley deserves a specific shout-out. This trilogy has lived and died by her work as Rey, and without her these movies would suffer greatly.
Now, to what’s more of my wheelhouse: the writing and script. I mentioned that the cast elevates the material, which is good because the material very much needs to be elevated. The story is frantic, packed, confused and takes so many sharp turns that if you aren’t paying rapt attention then you’re going to be left behind almost right away. It feels like five-plus hours of story that have been crammed into two-and-a-half hours of movie. But it’s not just the pace of the thing that causes problems. A lot of the concepts, ideas and even plot threads are suspended by a willing cast and the breathless pace alone.
This is a fundamental Fridge Logic movie. As in, once you get back from the theater and open the fridge to get a snack, something strikes you about the movie that didn’t make sense. Without getting into details and spoilers, suffice to say that I am eagerly waiting for the novelization and the Visual Dictionary to try and offer some further details and explanations for things that happen, because the movie certainly wasn’t interested in giving us much in the way of either.
Like I said, I have a lot of thoughts and I don’t know if I have a fully formed opinion yet. I will say that everyone should see the movie for themselves because it’s going to hit different people in different ways. It certainly deserves all of its criticisms, but it also deserves a lot of the praise coming its way at the same time. It’s not a perfect ending, nor a perfect movie, but in the end, I’m satisfied if they leave the story of the ongoing saga here, let the Skywalkers fade into the binary sunset, and move the franchise along with new names and new faces from now on.
Nick: Well, where to begin? I left the theater barely an hour ago, my mind is still spinning as it processes the film. It was a very crowded film, with A LOT to wrap up and resolve, as well as new characters to introduce. Before I get into the nitty gritty, one disclaimer. I never know what I REALLY think of a film until after the third viewing. So, let’s dive in.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie. It had some truly wonderful parts, a lot of fun parts, and a handful that felt disjointed but mostly worked. There were a view things I did dislike, which I’ll touch on.
So, what worked? The bond between the Big Three 2.0 was wonderful. C-3PO getting a meaningful role tied this film to the two prior trilogies in a perfect way. Leia, while not in the film a lot due to the untimely passing of Carrie Fisher, still made the film and had some truly moving stuff. Lando was so perfect that I nearly cried. The stakes were high, the tension real, and the film did an admirable job ending a saga of nine films. I’ll touch on the Nick-class moments at the end…suffice to say, there was plenty for me to be a huge fanboy over.
Sadly, the stuff with Palpatine wasn’t as exciting as I hoped. It echoed a bit of Dark Empire from Legends, but I honestly think it felt a bit too forced and convenient. Ian McDiarmid does a wonderful job, but I can’t help but feel that making him so central to the film did it a bit of a disservice. Rey’s being a Palpatine also leaves me a bit conflicted. I love Rey and she is still the best character of the ST, but I wish she truly was nobody. Not a heir to a powerful Force user, but rather a manifestation of the Force in a time of great need and imbalance.
One other complaint is how all the “Journey to TROS” stuff really wasn’t as connected as I would have hoped. Having the secret Sith fleet and all that wasn’t foreshadowed as well as I would have liked, meaning that the whole sense of what was going on at the start of the film felt…forced. Not natural.
Now, there was much that I loved. Let’s start with the obvious. THE FLEET. I need a hi-res shot, a pot of coffee, and six uninterrupted hours to analyze it. I saw soooooo many ships. Old. New. OT. ST. Maybe PT. The moment that the galaxy decided to heed Leia’s call and rally was beautiful and wonderful to see on screen. I literally couldn’t believe the number of ships. WOW.
Wedge was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo, but I teared up. Aftab, son of Ackbar, doesn’t have a huge role, but he is there. Most importantly of all, he mourns Leia’s passing, standing close to her body with head bowed. It makes the Allegiance comic series that much more poignant, as just as Leia honored his father Ackbar, so to does Aftab honor Leia after she passes into the Force. The message that the galaxy is rising up and the montage of Star Destroyers falling across the galaxy was a perfect end.
Lastly, the Jedi. While I’m still processing the implications, hearing Luke, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and so many others speak from the beyond and rally Rey one last time was perfect. It ended the long war between the Jedi and Sith wonderfully. It may have just been Palpatine and Rey standing there, but a thousand generations of Jedi and Sith faced off spiritually in that moment. The light won, with Rey from Jakku carrying the torch and getting the Jedi to the finish line.
Typing this out has helped me think of a hundred more things I loved, plus more than a few I didn’t. However, overall, this was a great end to the saga and I for one look forward to watching it two more times over the next few days.
Abigail: Whew. Now this is gonna be a movie that requires some processing out of me to truly figure out how I feel. In a nutshell: The Phantom Menace.
The Phantom Menace is my favorite of the prequels, but I think it would have been better as a miniseries. Things take off so fast and so much ground needs to be covered before the final credits roll. The Rise of Skywalker has the benefit of being the end of a trilogy in which we’ve grown to know the leading characters; The Phantom Menace had to start from scratch with two out of its three leads (Qui-Gon and Amidala). On the other hand, nothing about The Phantom Menace feels like it can be cut and still tell the same story. I feel like The Rise of Skywalker could easily have many things cut to tell the main story (D-O, Zorii Bliss, that mini arc with Threepio, Hux could have filled Pryde’s role…) and focus on Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo.
Once again, it’s Finn’s story that gets cut short. I’m grateful that Rise finally gets him out of the clunky comic relief rut that he kept on getting entrenched in (I’m still mad at Allegiance), and that he is displayed as the hero and leader he is. Clear Force-sensitivity is a win as well. However, I kept on getting reminded of Bow from the She-Ra reboot, in that he spends a lot of emotional time and energy pouring into Rey and Poe, but while their affection for him is clear, we never see him on the receiving end of it. He’s the emotional support, and he’s not getting any in return.
Poe is struggling with how to carry the mantle of the Resistance. Rey is struggling to come to grips with her powers and lineage. But what are Finn’s emotional needs? What are his goals outside of Rey and Poe? What was he trying to tell Rey before they got swallowed by the quicksand? We have reached the end of the trilogy, and we still don’t have a story that really dives into Finn. Not since The Force Awakens or even, arguably, Before the Awakening. Finn got better in Rise of Skywalker than what he had in the past, but it’s still not as good as he deserves.
As for Rey, while I was a fan of the Rey Nobody theory, if she did have to belong to any lineage, Sheev’s was the best choice. Like people have said before in speculation: it really hammers home the idea of choice opposed to bloodline. No better person to carry on Luke and Leia’s legacy than another who chose to oppose the Sith in her family.
Speaking of legacy, in a shocking turn of events, I bought the redemption of Ben Solo, and I liked him. Enough that I wish he didn’t die but rather returned to make amends and pay penance by helping rebuild the galaxy he tore down. I didn’t loathe the kiss – as I would have, had it happened in The Last Jedi. Ben had to own up for all the crap he pulled as Kylo and especially the emotional violations he pulled against Rey first – but I still don’t buy them together romantically (and Rey is still in the clear as asexual). A platonic redemption would have been incredible, especially since this movie is almost aggressively heterosexual.
Sure, it’s not like Attack of the Clones or The Empire Strikes Back in which half of the movie is a romance, but not only does the stormpilot ship not happen – as we were informed of beforehand – but sure enough: Zorii Bliss is someone Poe wants to kiss, and the LGBTQ rep is a single kiss between an extra and a minor character (but I am proud of Commander D’acy for getting her girl). So it’s all unwelcome, but not unexpected. I was braced and ready.
Other scattered thoughts include: treating Threepio’s memory wipe as a joke felt very cruel. I didn’t like it. I’m not sure how I feel about how they managed Leia. I am delighted that we heard Kanan’s voice among the Jedi, but scared that we heard Ahsoka’s. I caught Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cameo and his music credit at the end. And there’s a lot more of this movie for me to process, but I need to finish up my reaction in less than a minute so our poor editor isn’t up until some even more ungodly hour. (Too late – Ed.)
I spent almost the entirety of this film either rolling my eyes or laughing in disbelief. I honestly cannot overstate how much I dislike this movie and how much of a horrendously written mess it is. I am no fan of J.J. Abrams as a creative, a fact I’ve not been quiet about since the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, but this didn’t even manage to meet my lowered expectations.
Abrams’s trademarked breakneck pace is in full effect here, as the movie jumps from action scene to action scene, location to location with barely a moment to breathe. Rey is told that her grandfather is Palpatine (more on that later) and she, and therefore the audience, barely gets a moment to contemplate what it means before it’s off to the next lightsaber duel. Leia dies and we’re sad for all of thirty seconds before it’s off to the next MacGuffin. One could say that’s no different than Obi-Wan dying in A New Hope, but 1977 Obi-Wan didn’t have forty years of storytelling and the shadow of the actor’s death coloring the depiction. Ultimately the movie felt about as coherent as an over-sugared child smashing action figures together.
Also in full effect is Abrams’s tendency to go “Remember that thing from the original Star Wars trilogy? Well here it is again but BIGGER.” Another planet killing weapon? This time it’s a whole fleet! Our hero Luke finds out he’s related to one of the most evil villains ever? Well turns out Rey is related to the one guy MORE evil than Vader! The villain sacrifices himself to save the hero? This time he literally resurrects her!! It’s hard to come back to this tired style of storytelling after The Last Jedi, which at least attempted to push the story in a new direction and do new things with the Star Wars franchise. I’ve seen several critics say that TROS is an apology for TLJ, and while I don’t think that was Abrams’s intent (I think it’s far more likely that the man simply cannot write an original story to save his life), it’s hard not to feel that way.
For a third time Rey has to deal with the issue of who her parents are. Though I was initially hesitant on Rey Nobody on my first watch of TLJ, I grew to love it, especially after reading Rian Johnson’s explanation for it in comparison to Luke’s parentage reveal. And then Abrams goes and completely disregards that via the loophole of making Palpatine her grandfather, not her father. So instead of Rey learning she’s not part of any special lineage and must therefore make her own name for herself…it turns out she’s descended from someone who is effectively Space Hitler and now she’s worried whether she’s also tainted by the dark side and doomed to a similar fate. In other words……the same character arc we saw Luke go through, but instead of at least spending time on it, it gets relegated to about three scenes and then quickly resolved.
Finally, it’s almost humorously ridiculous how quickly Kylo goes from supervillain to contrite ally. Once again, TLJ went to lengths to establish that people are complicated and Kylo and Ben are both the same person only for TROS to come along and make it as easy as Rey calling him Ben once. I still have yet to see why Rey has any attraction towards Kylo, considering the majority of their relationship involves him strapping her to a torture rack, claiming he can “take whatever he wants”, and otherwise telling her she’s worthless and a nobody and that he’s the only person who could possibly understand her, all while encouraging her to follow her dark impulses. The kiss between the two was quite possibly the most misjudged part of that whole mess, as Kylo apparently gets to get off scot-free and face zero consequences for how he’s treated Rey. Such is the way of white men. Clearly the intent was to mirror Vader and Luke’s scene on the Death Star as Vader dies, but the implications are vastly different when it’s father and son versus random man and random woman (and also when there’s been competent writing to develop the emotion of the scene).
The most positive thing I can say is that the cast remains absolutely fantastic and does the best with what they’re given to work with. John Boyega in particular absolutely shone and remains the emotional heart of the trilogy; it’s a shame his excellent chemistry with the rest of the leads isn’t given the development it’s due, though at least his relationship with Rey is not entirely forgotten. The scene of all the Jedi voices encouraging Rey to get up and fight was genuinely chill-inducing, and I did like Rey choosing to take the name Skywalker at the end, as she finally chooses to define herself on her own terms.
Ultimately The Rise of Skywalker limps across the finish line of the Skywalker saga. As a finale to a nine-movie saga, it lacks any sort of emotional resolution or warmth (and has a noticeable lack of one of the most important Skywalkers, though at this point that’s a midlevel criticism of the movie). Instead it’s a hollowed-out piece of storytelling that cribs moments from better Star Wars movies as shortcuts for emotional depth. TLJ is clearly an outlier in the trilogy, in that it at least puts some effort into its worldbuilding and character work and tries to say something, but even then it is still hamstrung by the stage set for it by TFA. It’s hard not to wonder how different the sequel trilogy would have gone if Episode VII had been in the hands of a more competent director, instead of one who was more intent on soft-rebooting the original trilogy. It’s a shame because this cast deserved better than a superficial repeat of the OT’s greatest hits. Here’s hoping that any future stories with these characters, whether they be movies, books, or what have you, treat them better than this trilogy did. And if not…well fortunately there’s still good Star Wars out there that doesn’t feel like a YouTube conspiracy video come to life.