The Rise of Skywalker: A Critique

Mike Kelly
11 min readJan 13, 2020

Gallons of digital ink have already been spilled over the final episode in Star Wars’ sequel trilogy. I’ve read a ton of the reactions, and following in its predecessor’s footsteps, The Rise of Skywalker has split the audience. I fall pretty sharply on the side that thinks it was a disappointment. Since I saw it, I’ve been digesting, trying to make sure I knew what it was I felt towards it. Having done so, I now enter the Discourse.

The Lessons of The Last Jedi

There is a scene in The Last Jedi where Luke is teaching Rey about the Force. He has her sit on a rock overlooking the horizon and contemplate the duality of all things. Warmth and cold. Life and death. Peace and violence. And between it all, a Force that also exists inside of her. Luke then speaks:

“And this is the lesson: that Force does not belong to the Jedi.”

Since 1977, Star Wars had been the Skywalker Saga. The galaxy revolved around the fates of Luke and Anakin. As Anakin fell, so did the Republic. As Luke rose, so did the hope of a Rebellion. After the fall of the Empire, the Jedi rose again as Luke created a new temple to continue their legacy.

But this was always the tension. How can something that is so essential to existence itself be limited to the story of a single group of people? Who were they to reflect how a universal power is meant to be wielded? Why were they the sole custodians of the light?

Luke has come to an answer. The Jedi failed time and again. They saw the rise of Vader, the ascent of the Emperor, and even his own hubris led to the rise of Kylo Ren and the First Order. No one can own the Force, and no one should. He locks himself away from all others, from the Force itself, and comes to an island to die as the last Jedi.

But Luke makes the same mistake as the Jedi — he does not see the balance anymore. Instead he sees only one side of what the Jedi were. The Jedi saw themselves as holy knights, Luke comes to see them as corrupt failures. All or nothing, black and white.

It is only when Master Yoda finally appears to lecture “young Skywalker” that Luke confronts his views. Yoda sees that Luke is too blinded by his failures to hope any more. So he burns down the temple, the idea of the Jedi that Luke clings to, and forces him to look at what lies immediately ahead of him. Yoda then reminds him of what he has forgotten.

Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.

Yoda returns to teach his apprentice the same lesson Rey was taught on her rock. Balance.

This is what makes The Last Jedi great. Its message is simple, elegant, and yet so easily forgotten. Nothing is ever just one thing. Star Wars isn’t just the story of the Skywalkers, it is about all sides of all things that exist in the galaxy. Myths can be mutable. It’s the thing that you remember from your childhood, yes. But it also belongs to everyone.

This lesson is not limited to Luke and Rey. Finn struggles with simplistic (almost childlike) black-and-white thinking, only able to see the beauty of Canto Bight until Rose forces him to see the fathiers and children laborers upon whose suffering the world was built on. Poe is unable to see that his simple solution of blowing up everything in his way means that the costs to those he loves will be dire. His attack on a dreadnought succeeds, but costs all of the Resistance bombers and their crews, including Rose’s sister. He is so tunnel-visioned on fighting the First Order that he cannot conceive that Holdo has a plan to save what remains of the Resistance.

The final scene in The Last Jedi poignantly conveys the simplicity of this message. A child laborer on Canto Bight (a “nobody”) offhandedly uses the Force to pull his broom to himself, but then he begins to dream of fighting evil. In an almost unconscious gesture, he raises the broomstick like a lightsaber.

Star Wars is for everyone. Not just the Skywalkers and heroes of the age. You don’t need a high midichlorian count to be a hero, you just need the will.

The ultimate failing of The Rise of Skywalker is that it deliberately rejects this and returns the fate of the universe to those that had come before.

Rey’s Heritage

The most obvious way it does this is by retconning Rey’s parentage. Instead of the story of a nobody who dreamed of becoming greater than she was, we discover that she succeeds because she has special blood — despite her humble outward appearance, she was de facto not like everyone else, part of the same cabal of Force users that had defined the shape of the galaxy for decades. She is no longer one of the ignored millions, scraping by with salvage work to just earn enough to eat. She is instead a ruler-in-waiting, hidden away. She is a galactic Aragorn with a unique destiny.

This lessens her. We’ve all seen ourselves as heroes of our own story, but very few of us have dynastic names and legacies that carry the weight of history. We all strive to make our own names, our own legacy. So when Rey is revealed as a Palpatine, her triumphs are diminished — she didn’t become more powerful through her own efforts, it was fated. Her failures aren’t her own, it’s because the Dark Side is in her blood.

Luke Skywalker faced similar challenges. He was a farmboy, a nobody, brought into galactic conflict by the accident of a droid purchase. He learns from the past through his mentor Obi-Wan, but he forges his own legend as the Hero of Yavin. Rey is an echo of Luke — a nobody who is strong in the Force coming into their own.

When Luke’s heritage is revealed, though, it is a true character moment for him. Vader has been a focal point for his anger — the Sith that killed his father and his mentor, robbed him of a peaceful life, is inextricably bound to him. When Vader reveals himself in Cloud City, Luke faces two horrible facts — the father he idealized is not actually dead, but instead a twisted, evil creature, and gnawing darkness may exist in him as well.

Faced with this, Luke has to come to grips with who he is. His natural impulsiveness is now seen as a sign of the Dark Side encroaching. He fears his untrained power, seeing how it corrupted his father. For him to calm the conflict within himself, he needs to bring his father back. And he does so in the final act aboard the Death Star, when he throws away his lightsaber — a rejection of the Dark Side, and a reclaiming of his father’s Jedi heritage. He shows his father that even though he knows he will die, that he will die as himself — not just his father’s son, but as a new Jedi.

Rey is given none of this journey. Palpatine is nothing to her but a legend. Her parents’ choices weigh on her — they abandoned her to a life of scrounging and scarcity. Her own tendency to the Dark Side is out of fear of abandonment, being alone. It drives her to empathize with Kylo Ren, an orphan by choice, and try to bring him back.

However, none of these motivations come to fruition in TROS. If she accepts the revelation that her parents did everything they did for her own good, why does she repudiate them and call herself a Skywalker in the end? Luke was hardly a father figure to her — constantly rejecting her and only begrudgingly teaching her. She even held him at saber-point while he confessed to nearly killing Kylo. Why adopt Luke and Leia as parents when she has had her biological parents re-contextualized? Instead of becoming her own person, someone who has internalized the harsh truths of her own existence, she ties herself to a name only because of the weight it holds.

Rey could’ve been so much more. She was someone drawn from obscurity, not defined by her relationship to anyone else, but defined by her willingness to step up and do what was right. She could have been a model for us to emulate — we don’t need to be born heroes, we just need to have the strength to stand up and fight — but instead she becomes a vessel for the same conflict from the past 30 years. Another Skywalker.

But Rey is not the only character that is diminished by TROS. There is another.

The Problem of Rose Tico

I unabashedly love Kelly Marie Tran. In the media tour following The Last Jedi, there are pictures of her wide-eyed and smiling, genuinely excited to be a part of Star Wars, excitedly hugging girls cosplaying as the mechanic Rose Tico. Her story should have been incredible — a woman of such excitement and fun rising from acting obscurity to become a great character in the biggest film franchise of all time.

Should have been.

It was the sad inevitability that a woman of color rising to prominence within a space that had previously been “claimed” by a harshly critical, primarily white male audience would bristle at an “interloper”. In the weeks following the release, Tran joined Daisy Ridley in removing all her social media to avoid harassment from that weaponized minority. What should have been joyous was curdled by a fanbase who would not accept it.

Rose Tico was another nobody. A mechanic on a Resistance ship who believed in legends. Unlike Rey, she wasn’t Force-sensitive. She wasn’t a hotshot pilot, or great with a blaster. She was just someone who stepped up when someone needed to step up.

Rose also empathized with the downtrodden — she couldn’t help but see the darker side of the galaxy, one that was built upon the suffering of the innocent. She was someone trying to make tomorrow better however she could.

And she was a person who loved. While I personally think that her arc of falling for Finn was a bit too rushed, she embodied the idea that destroying what we hate wasn’t the answer — we are redeemed through protecting what we love. It is the deepest irony that this character was the one who became the focus of a mob who saw her “destroying” what they loved.

Perhaps the most pernicious sin of Rise of Skywalker is that it agrees. Due at least in part to the backlash, Rose Tico has barely a minute of screen time in TROS and her role in Finn’s life is supplanted by another actress. It appears that Rose became a problem that Disney didn’t want to solve.

This is not to say that Rose’s character in TLJ was perfect. She made odd character choices and she barely interacted with anyone in the broader Resistance. But none of this is an unsolvable problem. These shortcomings could have been addressed in another movie by having her interact more with the other big players of the cast to develop her character more fully. TROS elects to simply jettison the foundation built by that character, giving her less screen time than some third-tier characters.

The outrage over this has touched on all the usual flashpoints — the sexism and racism inherent in sidelining the first woman of color to headline a Star Wars movie is impossible to deny. This action also sends a message to the worst elements of its fanbase — you were right, we won’t give you anything you don’t want.

Or in short: Star Wars isn’t for everyone. It’s an unchanging story that an exclusive cabal of people has veto power over.

This is where TROS crosses the line between a mere renunciation of what TLJ wanted to do and becomes a movie that is actively harmful. It’s an implicit justification of the actions of those who bullied the cast off the internet (and continue to do so!).

“We are what they move beyond” was Yoda’s soft lament to Luke, acknowledging that time moves on as apprentices become the new masters. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t want to move beyond the legends of the past, it wants to encase them in crystal.

Chewie Gets His Medal

TROS treats the people and objects of Star Wars past as unchanging relics as well. It’s not unlike a museum where items are shown under glass, unable to be touched or used in new ways. These symbols are rarely used for the benefit of the story or characters, and instead as a constructed machine for the audience to remember other movies they liked.

Chewie‘s medal is the most obvious example. At the end of A New Hope, Luke and Han received medals for their actions in the Battle of Yavin. Chewie was alongside them at the battle, but was oddly left out of the ceremony and not granted a medal. It was a weird quirk, one of those odd bits that defined the ramshackle nature of the original trilogy.

As part of its attempt to play on nostalgia, TROS wants to “right” this “wrong”. After the battle above Exegol, Maz hands Chewie a medal.

Why? Who is Chewie to Maz, or Maz to Chewie? They haven’t had any scenes together, and it’s possible they didn’t even know each other. Why does Chewie alone merit receiving a medal for his role in the final battle instead of the thousands of others? The answer is breathtakingly simple — this is the movie breaking the fourth wall, pointing to the audience, and saying “Hey, remember this?”

It’s nostalgia, and nothing else. There is no character moment for Maz or Chewie. Even if this medal was Han’s from the original trilogy, as some have theorized (it’s never even hinted at), we don’t get any idea of how Chewie feels to receive his dead friend’s keepsake. It’s an empty gesture that exists for the benefit of the audience.

If it were just one thing it would be a weird and forgettable moment, but these permeate the movie. Wedge Antilles makes a half-second cameo in the final fight, in the gunner position of the Falcon. Lando Calrissian returns, but isn’t given much of anything to do — his last 30 years is explained by an offhand comment that he decided to just stay on a random desert planet he and Luke explored. The second Death Star returns as a simple setpiece, the Emperor’s former throne room framed perfectly for a few moments. There’s even a shot of a few Ewoks, only there to evoke memory.

Compare these references with a scene in The Last Jedi. Shortly after Rey’s arrival, Luke sneaks onto the Falcon and is reunited with R2D2. He sternly tells his old friend that he is not going to return to help the Resistance. R2 pauses, thinking, and then plays the original message Leia left in his memory banks — “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

This is a symbol of the old movies, but the beauty of it is that it is used in a way that the characters of the world respond to, in a different context. When Luke sees that message again, after 30 years, what does it mean to him? Does he see the message that changed his life? Does he see it as a repetition of what Leia is asking him to do at that very moment — to return to help the Resistance at their “most desperate hour”? Does it crack his resolve?

Nostalgia can be an empty cataloging of symbols, but when those symbols are used in a new context, they can take on new nuances that adds to its original meaning. Luke’s moment with the hologram spurs him to shift his thinking. Chewie gets a medal.

Rise of Skywalker makes me sad because it wastes so much -not just from the Last Jedi, but from the entire history of Star Wars. The characters are squandered — I barely got into the misuse of Finn and Poe — the legends are diminished, and the interesting regions of the galaxy are filled with mundanity. This new trilogy becomes a collection of toys we’ll never play with, encased behind glass.



Mike Kelly

I’m trying to find a good place to scream into the void about video games.