Originally published April 5, 2020
With the recent release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on Blu-Ray, I think it’s only fair to reflect on the most recent entries into the main Star Wars canon. With many highs and many lows, the Star Wars sequel trilogy will go down as one of the most strangely handled multi-billion-dollar media products in recent history.
Initially, the plan was for three different directors to helm each of the movies in the trilogy: J.J. Abrams for The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi, and Colin Trevorrow for The Rise of Skywalker. However, a few factors seemed to have thrown some fairly big wrenches into this scheme. One was Johnson’s extremely divisive handling of The Last Jedi that alienated many fans; a reaction that Disney probably didn’t fully expect, and simply wasn’t prepared for. Another big wrench was Trevorrow as a director. His 2017 film, The Book of Henry, was panned by critics and bombed at the box office. I can only imagine Disney didn’t feel as secure having him conclude one of their biggest franchises after this, and especially after the fan fiasco The Last Jedi had created. This led to them bringing back J.J. Abrams to conclude the trilogy, a director who’s more known for beginning things than finishing them (looking at you, Lost). Disney needed to nail The Rise of Skywalker while also bringing back all the fans The Last Jedi had left in the dust, and in doing so, made one hell of a mess of a movie.
A problem that was immediately apparent upon watching The Rise of Skywalker was that the pace was at such a breakneck speed, there was barely anytime for anything. Whether it be development of story or characters, or the constant MacGuffin hunts the characters go on, something would happen, and then we were suddenly at the next scene with little to no reflection on or any kind of logic explaining what had happened. The film continued like this for nearly the entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime. As an audience member, The Rise of Skywalker seemed to just happen to me rather than having me experience it.
The most disappointing part of this jam packed, retconning, nostalgia-baiting, wild goose hunt of a movie was how the development of Rey- the main protagonist of this trilogy- seemed to be put on the back burner. The Force Awakens was a pretty great introduction for Rey as a character and although that movie gets criticized a lot for being a re-tread of A New Hope (rightfully so), the scene is set for her in the trilogy pretty well and her arc in the movie is apparent, even if very predictable. Rey was finally the strong female Jedi lead that would be an inspiration to girls everywhere. This is not to say that Princess Leia wasn’t a strong female character, but she did fall into a more stereotypical damsel in distress role in A New Hope and in the first act of Return of the Jedi...but I digress.
The Last Jedi, for all of its faults, did really great things with developing the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren, as well as expanding Luke Skywalker into more than just the straight up goody two-shoes he is in the original trilogy, even if many were off put by his newfound grumpiness (including Mark Hamill). By making Rey have some mysterious internal darkness, as well as having her begin to somewhat empathize with Kylo, they created one of the best developed female heroes in recent history. Her internal conflict of longing to be wanted and staying true to the morally good within her comes to such a perfect head when Kylo Ren reaches his hand out to her, asking if she wants to be his partner after the two take out Supreme Leader Snoke and his goons together. Her ultimate rejection of him not only signifies an important step for her as a character, but for female protagonists in general, choosing not to succumb to the cliché lure of needing to be at a man’s side.
With everything The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi did well with Rey, The Rise of Skywalker did wrong. The problems don’t just lie with Rey in The Rise of Skywalker, her total unraveling into blandness is more of an unfortunate side effect of all the previously mentioned problems with the movie. Her internal conflict is reduced to a superficial encounter with her evil “Sith self” that is used more for trailer-bait than any kind of character development. The seemingly shoe-horned connection between her and Palpatine erases any possibility of interesting evolution with her character, proving to be more of a nostalgia / prequel cash-in than a good choice in storytelling. And most damning of all is that kiss between Rey and the recently re-converted Ben Solo, which caps off one of the silliest climaxes in a film I’ve ever seen. It’s not only a downright out of character act by both, it totally goes against any progress Disney was making with Rey as a strong female hero. It only seems to prove that when the company had their backs against the wall and needed an all pleasing, generic movie that had to make up for The Last Jedi, they chose to sacrifice almost everything that made their main protagonist interesting and that made her stand out as the strong female character that a generation of young movie goers was supposed to look up to. Instead, we were left with a Rey that was so much less than she could have been. And I guess that’s the real story of Rey and The Rise of Skywalker; they could have been so much more, but they were just more of the same.