This is it. This is the last thing I’m going to say about The Rise of Skywalker. I know it’s been a year and a half. I know everyone is happy with The Mandalorian and is looking forward to moving on to new Star Wars stories. I know everyone at Disney is trying their best to straddle the fence between pretending their revival of the Star Wars brand has been “fine, we’re all fine here, now, thank you…how are you?” while at the same time doing everything they can to distance themselves from this trilogy of films by talking about every other era of time in the Star Wars universe. There’s a Rogue Squadron movie coming, another season of Mandalorian, a Boba Fett series, an Obi-Wan series, books set in the pre-prequel “high republic” era. But nothing is being promoted in the time period established in the JJ Abrams films. Why? Because the final movie left too sour a taste in everyone’s mouth.
The Rise of Skywalker failed, and while some may be ready to move on and forget, I am not…
I’ve already told you how it failed as a movie…
I’ve already told you how it failed as the final installment of a trilogy…
What’s left to say? As a matter of fact, there is one more area to consider regarding this movie’s spectacular dropping of the ball: The Rise of Skywalker failed as the final installment of the Skywalker Saga.
It didn’t have to be this way.
To start with, Episode IX didn’t have to be the end of the Skywalker Saga at all. There were enough seeds planted that easily could have sprouted in an Episode X-XII sequel-sequel trilogy. Instead, for some crazy reason, Disney (read: Kathy Kennedy) was determined that Kylo Ren had to die. Who is Kylo Ren? By the time of The Rise of Skywalker, he’s the last surviving member of the Skywalker lineage. That’s who he is in the internal framework of the story. Externally, who is Kylo Ren? By the time of The Rise of Skywalker, he’s basically the only character that everyone in the Star Wars fandom agreed was the best part of the new trilogy.
What feels like a lifetime ago—back when I still had hope and optimism regarding this trilogy of movies—I theorized that the so-called “Sequel Trilogy” was actually a backdoor-prequel trilogy, setting up another trio of stories, featuring Kylo Ren as a Vader/Emperor-level big bad, all set in the aftermath of Episode IX.
To be clear: I actually continue to believe that Disney will return to the well and release a Star Wars Episodes X-XII. It might take them a decade, but they’ll get the itch, they’ll find the right angle to take, and most of all, they’ll be too tempted by the potential profits to leave the series lying dormant. No matter how many stand-alone movies they make, they won’t be able to resist the easy marketing that comes with “the next Star Wars trilogy.” Furthermore, there will be tremendous pressure on Disney to try again after the giant wet fart that was Episode IX. Of course, Episode IX didn’t have to be such a wet fart, but there were so many wrong-headed decisions made in the very rushed development of The Rise of Skywalker that, in hindsight, it’s easy to see how it was doomed from the start.
How did it fail? What went wrong? In terms of the whole Skywalker Saga, of which this movie was designed to be the conclusion, what happened?
It boils down to one critical thing: JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio crafted a story that tried to contextualize the whole Skywalker Saga into an epic battle between the Skywalkers and Emperor Palpatine. I’m sorry to say, not only did the movie fail miserably at this, but it was the wrong thing to focus on in the first place. The story of Star Wars is not about Emperor Palpatine, per se. It’s about the balance of the force. It’s about darkness rising against the light, the light rising against the darkness in response, and the cycle/tug of war that persists between those two sides. It’s about the people caught in the middle of that struggle, choosing one side or the other, sometimes changing sides, and dealing with the consequences of their choices.
Every trilogy has dealt with that primary theme.
In the prequels, the light has been the dominant force in the galaxy for a thousand generations. All the while, the darkness has plotted, schemed, and waited in the shadows until the right moment and opportunity to strike. By the time the darkness made its move, the light side was so unprepared, so lethargic from so many years unchallenged, they were completely taken by surprise and nearly entirely wiped out. The darkness rose against the light, sides were taken, allegiances were changed, and the galaxy suffered the consequences.
In the original trilogy, the darkness has been the dominant force in the galaxy for one brutal generation. In that time, the light has survived in the form of a desperate rebellion and the few people scattered around the galaxy who still hoped for better days. Luke made his choice to leave his home and join a quest for good. Han made his choice to be selfless for a change. And Darth Vader made the most pivotal choice of the saga, putting his love for his son above the allure of the dark side. The light rose against the darkness and the galaxy rejoiced with the result.
In the sequel trilogy—at least the first two movies—this theme of choosing between light and dark was especially prominent. In the most powerful scene of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren tells his father that he feels the pull and is struggling to do what he knows he must (Han thinks he means a struggle to resist the call of darkness; in fact, Kylo means the opposite). In the end, Kylo rejects the temptation of the light and chooses to be evil. In The Last Jedi, Kylo is even more conflicted. Far from finding contentment with his evil choice in the previous movie, he’s a man ripped in half. He converses with Rey throughout the movie and, for a time, we think she might even reach him and pull him back to the light. Instead, in the end, he does what every Sith is called to do: He kills his master, assumes the throne of evil, and seeks for an apprentice to join him. He made his choice and demanded the galaxy bend to it.
The final movie of the trilogy should have been about the consequences of Kylo’s choice. It should have been about the last-ditch effort to save him from the darkness and, failing that, the need to destroy him and the darkness he possesses. A movie focused on that story would have been, not only a fitting end to this trilogy but—as it would have centered around the last remaining Skywalker—also a fitting end to the whole Skywalker Saga. The struggle between light and dark had never been better visualized and personified than in Kylo Ren. Not even with Darth Vader did we see so much angst and turmoil over the tug of war between the two sides of the force. Vader only wrestled with it for half a movie; Kylo struggled with it for the first two films of the trilogy!
And yet, when the time came for movie three, Kylo’s importance in the story dropped to the bare minimum. He became little more than a plot device, yielding his role as the co-primary star of the trilogy (alongside Rey) and becoming, for the first 2/3 of the movie, a perfunctory villain, before—in the final third—undergoing a rushed turn to the light that accomplished nothing more than a worthless sacrifice.
To make things worse, with the last Skywalker dead, the writers—Abrams and Terrio—were stuck in a corner, needing someone to put a thematic close on the whole Skywalker Saga. But, without properly understanding what the Saga was about, Rey was cast as the ultimate savior, vanquishing Palpatine who, in this story, had been recast as the personification of all evil past and present. Upon doing so, she—being the granddaughter of Palpatine for no good reason whatsoever—decided to adopt the name Skywalker, taking what should have been Kylo’s big redemptive moment and co-opting it for herself.
A saga that, for eight movies, had been about the balance of the force and the perpetual struggle between the light and the darkness, and which—in Episode VIII—was very clearly setting up the need for a third (grey) alternative, instead ended in the blandest, basic, paint by numbers “defeat the big bad to save the day” way possible, concluding a forty-year saga on a supremely sour note.
So I’m sorry: I know it’s been a year-and-a-half but I’m still not over it, and I probably never will be, either.