It's taken over 40 years but we've finally done it: we've completed Star Wars. And we've finally acknowledged that this was the Skywalker Saga, stuck the name in the title, and ended the entire franchise with that single word... though, at the same time, also made this the Palpatine Sage. Which I quite like. I like the duality of two families fighting for supremacy, battling their own inner demons and angels, and ultimately destroying each other almost entirely. I guess Rey truly was the "one" of prophecy, given that she has been trained by the greatest Jedi and is the granddaughter of the greatest Sith, with the chance to choose either side equally, and kind of chooses neither. That probably is as close to "balance within the Force" as we ever could hope for.
I also like that one of the big take home messages here is that family and blood aren't that important. Look back over the entirety of Star Wars and it's a bit of a recurring theme, despite how much these epic, galaxy-spanning plot lines have revolved around a single group of people. But Rise of Skywalker makes it definitively clear: who you are is not defined by where you come from, and neither is your family. Your family are the people you love, the ones that care for you, not those you're related to. That's a powerful and incredibly meaningful message which I hope gets heard loud and clear.
Unfortunately, the same clarity can't be said for every part of Star Wars and certainly not this sequel trilogy. I don't think I'll ever forgive Disney for reopening the galaxy far, far away without first plotting out a route; it's up there with Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy in terms of wasted potential. There are so many amazing sequences, ideas, characters, and plotlines in Episodes VII-IX but they're interspersed with clunky dialogue clearly used just to get from point A to point B, loose ends, and almost laughably stupid attempts at maintaining consistency. Supreme Leader Snoke is just one glaring example: a character that was set up with so much intrigue in Episode VII, then promptly (and jarringly) killed off in Episode VIII, before being written out in a single, oddly placed line of dialogue in Episode IX as just a puppet, an effect, nothing worth truly thinking about - indeed we have an entire jar of Snoke's just ready to go! 🤦♂️
What makes it all so frustrating is that, individually, I really like all three films. I'm in that minority of Star Wars fans that thought The Last Jedi was a much-needed breath of fresh air and was pumped to see where it went next, even if it was overly heavy-handed at times. I was also happy with The Force Awakens and would have been content with three films that plodded along in their own little way, repeating bits of the original trilogy with minor updates and a better cast. Individually, then, both films are fun, enjoyably content that happily sit high up the list of Star Wars episodes for me; together, though, they left RoS with too much of a balancing act to stick the landing.
The result is, yes, stupid little retcons like Snoke-puppet, but also a very boring first quarter to what should have been the most exciting Star Wars film of my lifetime. In about 30 minutes we get rushed through what was clearly the bits of original draft outline for Episode VII that were cut by Rian Johnson, allowing J. J. Abrams to bring the story back around to something he felt comfortable with. Yes, the ramifications of TLJ are still felt throughout the film, which is positive as I think they were very well set up, but it's obvious that JJ had expected elements like the Sith compasses and Knights of Ren to be more setup at this point. I think it also hints at parts of TLJ which were taken from original scripts and then twisted in ways which didn't work. For example, it feels like the whole pointless (though fascinating from a world building perspective) side plot on the Casino Planet in TLJ may have been intended to show the duality of excess under the Empire when paired with the effective Slave Planet shown in RoS; had the gang been visiting the Casino to find the first Sith compass, it would have made a lot more sense. It feels like the whole plot got cut, then Johnson needed to fill some time (or maybe just really liked the idea of the Casino Planet setting), so crow-barred it into the plot (poorly).
The incredibly sad loss of Carrie Fischer doesn't help either, giving us a weirdly offhand and stilted Leia who's mood is almost indistinguishable, sapping a lot of life out of the scenes between her and Rey (despite an altogether exceptional performance by Daisy Ridley, who really should get much more credit for being the only lead character in Star Wars history to be both believable and enjoyable to watch). To be clear, Fischer is a legend and amazing actress, and I think the studio did the right thing of reusing previously filmed but unused clips of her for the performance, rather than resurrecting her digitally, but it took me out of the film and just made me sad to wonder at how much better it could have been had the real Leia been present.
All of that said, once we get back to what feels like the real plotline – Rey, Poe, Finn and friends teaming up to hunt down magical do-hickies, then rejoining to lead the Resistance in one final, go-for-bust fight – Rise of Skywalker transforms. It's fun, energetic, beautiful and interesting, with some much-needed character development (that doesn't first require a major character to regress into a one-dimensional caricature of themselves *cough* Poe in TLJ *cough*) and several really clever moments. Big setups from the previous films, including the reveal of Rey's lineage, Palpatine's survival, and that entrance at the darkest moment of despair by Lando and so many other ships. That payoff makes the entirety of TLJ absolutely necessary; only after the complete lack of support on Crait does that level of help turning up hit the gut that hard. I cried. It also makes the line about it "not being a Navy, but just lots of people" have a nice "broom boy" moment and nod: the fight against evil isn't won by armies, but by ordinary folk taking a stand. I can get behind that all day, every day and it's a great moment.
- I remain unimpressed by Rey choosing the name Skywalker. I think it would have been much better had she just said "Just Rey" when asked "Rey who?", even with Luke and Leia standing by. I'd rather the Skywalker's die with Ben; it feels more fitting and tonally consistent.
- The many, many fan nods throughout the film were excellent. Like, absolutely perfectly done, I don't think a single one made me roll my eyes!
- J. J. Abrams is just a great writer of people. He's like Joss Whedon in that respect, which means we finally get some nuanced and interesting takes on these characters. Poe in particular is so much better then he has ever been before and I'm a little mad that it took this long.
- There are still far too many loose threads. Who the hell is Maz and why did she have Luke's lightsaber (or join the Resistance so late)? Why even bother with the Knights of Ren when they just stand around looking menacing and don't even show Force powers, despite all being outcast Jedi apprentices? What did Finn want to tell Rey for like two films but never manage? Why did Palpatine even need the First Order, why not just show up and blow everyone to smithereens with his clearly superior fire power?