Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
It’s impossible to assess Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in a vacuum. Each movie in the latest Star Wars trilogy has been a response to the one that came before it. If J.J. Abrams’ first entry, The Force Awakens, tried to avoid the fate of the ill-reviewed prequel movies by hewing a little too closely to the plot of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, then Rian Johnson’s inventive Last Jedi questioned why fans and directors worship at the altar of old I.P. instead of forging ahead with something new.
If Rey’s parents were nobodies, as Johnson tried to establish in that film, that meant that not just Skywalkers and Palpatines could be the heroes and villains of these stories: Anyone could be a Jedi (including the enslaved kid with the broom featured in the last shot of Johnson’s film.) Shaking off the dust of past movies allowed for new kinds of character arcs and stories, and a path for Rey that didn’t fall in step exactly with Luke’s before her. Hero Luke Skywalker and villain Kylo Ren don’t agree on much, but in that movie they kept repeating the same sentiment over and over again. To quote Kylo: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” Only then could the new cast step outside the original trio’s shadows and create something fresh.
Johnson’s thesis offered a way forward for films too often bogged down by their predecessors. And yet it proved rather unpopular with a small but loud contingent of fans who have put quite a bit of time and energy into their worship of what came before, namely Luke Skywalker. The harassment targeted at Johnson and several of the cast members — most notably Kelly Marie Tran, who was driven from social media by racist and sexist trolls unhappy with the film — manifested in a campaign to “remake” The Last Jedi. (There are, of course, legitimate critiques of the movie not rooted in sexism or racism, but as with all things on the Iinternet the bigots tend to find a way to be the loudest.)
We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Leslie Jones faced a starkly similar experience when she took a role in an all-female Ghostbusters reboot. Another set of fans tried to tank the Rotten Tomatoes ratings for Marvel’s first female superhero movie, Captain Marvel, before it was released — forcing the site to change how fans review films. So it’s not all that surprising that a film in which an iconic male hero reveals himself to be a rather cynical grump and a new female hero rises to become even more powerful than the men who came before, would rankle a loud subset of fans.
What is somewhat surprising, however, is that Abrams seems to have capitulated to that contingent of fans with The Rise of Skywalker. If Johnson begged the franchise to let the past go, Abrams counters with a movie so obsessed with history that it literally resurrects every important character from the original George Lucas trilogy, as Force Ghosts, memories or, in the case of Palpatine, some sort of Force zombie. The Rise of Skywalker is not just a thematic refutation of what came before. It feels as if Abrams read every critical tweet in Johnson’s mentions from the last two years and answered each one, scene by scene.
The tension between the two filmmakers pervades every directorial devision. Take the lightsabers: In the last shot of Abrams’ The Force Awakens, Rey presents Luke with his old lightsaber. The camera spins around the two figures as they stand for an awkward amount of time staring at each other, epic music swelling in the background. Johnson returns to the same scene in the The Last Jedi, but immediately subverts expectations: Luke takes the lightsaber, a prop coveted by fans for decades, and tosses it over his shoulder, off a cliff. It’s a thesis statement for the rest of the film: Out with the old and expected, in with the new and unpredictable.
Mad about Johnson’s cheekiness? Don’t worry, there’s a scene in The Rise of Skywalker in which Luke awkwardly explains that he was wrong when he said the Jedi Order needed to end and that Rey should go confront the big, bad Emperor Palpatine to save the Jedi religion. When Rey tries to toss away her lightsaber, Luke scolds her, “A Jedi’s weapon ought to be treated with more respect,” admonishing his actions in the last movies as much as hers. The Rise of Skywalker even brings back Luke’s lightsaber and throws in Leia’s heretofore unseen lightsaber for good measure.
The characters in The Rise of Skywalker quite literally cling to these tokens from the past. Kylo destroyed his Vader-like helmet (a symbol of his childlike obsession with his grandfather) in The Last Jedi but pieces it back together and resurrects a shrine to his grandfather in The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams brings back Lando Calrissian so he can fly the Millennium Falcon in the galaxy-defining battle at the end of the film, just as he did in Return of the Jedi. Rey flies Luke’s old X-Wing. When trying to commune with her son, Kylo, Leia holds a medal she gave to Han and Luke at the end of A New Hope. So much for letting the past die.
For those who complained that Rey, Finn and Poe — the new trio of heroes — were all split up in the last movie, The Rise of Skywalker features at least three different MacGuffins for them to pursue together. In perhaps the most shameful apparent surrender to toxic fandom, launching Rey with Finn and Poe into space means that Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose is sidelined. She stays at home, working on ships, uttering only a few lines. The kiss she shared with Finn at the end of the last movie is never acknowledged or discussed. It’s hard not to see this as a victory for the trolls.
And then there’s the biggest change of all: Rey’s origin story. There was a rather sexist argument circulating that Rey couldn’t possibly become such a powerful Jedi in such a short period of time, despite the fact that Luke had done just that. In what feels like a direct response to that silly argument, The Rise of Skywalker includes a very long scene of Rey training to be a Jedi on an obstacle course. And for those who believed that Rey had to be related to someone we’d seen before in the Star Wars universe in order to ever wield that kind of power, guess what? Abrams retcons Johnson’s decision to make Rey a nobody in an incredibly clunky conversation between Kylo and Rey. Kylo awkwardly clarifies that he didn’t technically lie to her before when he said her parents were filthy junk traders because her parents were hiding as filthy junk traders.
Great dialogue, it was not.
And so the truth that Abrams plotted all along is revealed: Rey’s father was the son of the evil Emperor Palpatine. No, Rian Johnson, not anyone can be a powerful Jedi or Sith. Only these two really specific people related to the two most famous families in the galaxy can be the heroes of this story.
Palpatine is just one of many characters resurrected for the sake of paying homage to the Lucas films. Chewbacca seems to have died in a crash, until it’s revealed he was on another hidden ship and survives. C-3PO’s memory is wiped, and he bids goodbye to his friends — until R2-D2 simply restores 3PO’s memory backup. Luke, Han and Leia all make cameos after they’ve died to help Rey and Kylo along on their missions. And Rey and Kylo, too, suddenly has the power to heal and, apparently reverse death. Each, in turn, uses the Force to save the other from dying.
But being able to bring back any character means death doesn’t carry much weight in this universe anymore. What’s to say the Emperor couldn’t resurrect himself yet again? When Kylo revived Rey at the end of the movie, it wouldn’t have been shocking if she had done the same for him, each transferring their Life Force into each other for the rest of eternity. (Free idea, SNL.) By refusing to let go of the past, this series has become devoid of meaning or consequence.
Abrams has always praised The Last Jedi for its “subversions” and “bold choices,” but he also recently told the New York Times, “I don’t think that people go to Star Wars to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’” (The cast, similarly, seemed to throw Johnson under the bus, with John Boyega intimating that The Last Jedi was a “hard shoot,” Daisy Ridley admitting she cried for joy when Abrams rejoined the films and Mark Hamill admitting he was “demoralized” by Johnson’s choices.)
But fans don’t make great filmmakers. Their reverence for what came before leaves little room for artistry or invention. And their bullying ruins the fun — both on and off camera.