Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Starting the film with the austere, almost-monochrome funeral of Princess Leia is a brilliant decision—it gives the audience a chance to breathe through the titanic loss of Carrie Fisher, which can't not hang like a shadow over The Rise of Skywalker. The scrapped plan to use deleted scenes from The Force Awakens smacked of the worst sort of necromancy—heck, they might as well have started the opening crawl with "THE DEAD SPEAK!"

Of course, it's not just Leia's funeral. We are mourning many—Admiral Holdo, Luke Skywalker, Admiral Ackbar, Paige Tico, and many other unnamed comrades lost along the way. Toward the end of the proceedings, a character remarks on the loss of the New Republic's capital on Hosnian Prime, blown away by Starkiller Base two films prior.

This is where we return to Kylo Ren. Whatever part of Ben Solo is still in him, it must carry the weight of his patricide, as the prior films intimated—but also the weight of the genocide committed in the Hosnian System, and before that, in the adoptive village of Lor San Tekka on Jakku. With his political rivals cleared out of his way and ultimate power in his grasp, Ren now has the resources to complete his mission. He drives ever forward, almost as if running from his conscience, and his regrets. He may even be glimpsing the blurry outline of a Force Ghost on the edge of his dreams.

This is where we begin: the galaxy has lost hope. World after world falls to the First Order. The death of Leia has sent shockwaves through the galaxy, and people everywhere wonder if heroes and leaders will ever rise again.

I still can't believe how the structure of the story unfolds from there—that this becomes a rollicking-but-melancholy road movie where Rey, Rose, Finn, and Poe take the Millennium Falcon to three key worlds:

1.) New Alderaan, a Naboo-esque garden planet, where we meet First Order propagandists and learn that the spiritual successors to the Organa family are now exiles and political prisoners.

2.) Nar Shaddaa, the Vertical City, smuggler's moon and home of the Hutts.

3.) Kamino, the cold and oceanic world last seen in Attack of the Clones, where the Old Republic produced clone soldiers for wars long past.

On each world, a different moral question is posed. Sure, our heroes get into all the usual scrapes, but there's something bigger afoot here. This isn't just aimless questing—it's answering the crucial question posed at the end of The Last Jedi: what happened to our allies at the Battle of Crait?

On New Alderaan, we find a kind of feckless centrism has taken hold as the First Order takes over, and our heroes have to rekindle the spirit of rebellion in a docile populace.

On Nar Shaddaa, they help an existing people's movement break free of the chains of the enslaving Hutts.

Finally, on Kamino, they search for the vast machinery of the Old Republic to begin rebuilding their fleet.

This is the basic structure, but really this is a series of conversations. Luke and Ben argue over the Dark and the Light. Finn and Rose find their newfound relationship fraying as Finn falls further in love with the dashing Poe. Poe himself is wrestling with how many lives his leadership has cost. Rey struggles with her enduring connection to Kylo Ren and her boundless empathy for Ben Solo. And Rose finds she has an unexpressed talent for rallying people with her words, a kind of inverted counterpoint to General Hux's goose-stepping speechifying in The Force Awakens.

"It's true that we have suffered heavy losses. General Organa and Master Skywalker are no longer with us. But we all know a Luke, a Leia," she implores via galactic transmission after the Resistance retakes the propaganda apparatus on New Alderaan. "They are your parents, your siblings, your friends, the people you love. They are you. You share in their courage, their love, their strength. All we are asking is that you join us. That you lend your voices to the fight. That you believe me when I say that I want a galaxy where no person of any species goes hungry, loses their home, or suffers under the fist of oppression. Join us. We're counting on you. Because we all have to count on each other."

And while The Force Awakens used remixed callbacks to muddled effect, I have to say I loved the way Rey and Kylo Ren's midpoint lightsaber battle culminates in a Revenge of the Sith-esque high-ground routing where Kylo ends up heavily injured and finding himself "more machine now than man" when he awakens aboard a Resistance medical frigate. With the opponent's Queen in hand, Rey quickly shuttles them both to Ahch-To (I cackled out loud when Kylo refers to it as "Porg Island"), where they are received by a familiar ghost.

What follows from there is nothing short of breathtaking, an eighteen-minute single-take silent debate/meditation/psychological duel between Rey and Kylo Ren, with the life of Ben Solo hanging in the balance. The action proceeds wordlessly through a nigh-psychedelic parade of symbolic images representing Rey's loneliness, her will to power, her attraction to the darkness, and Ren's conscience, his acts of mass murder, his belief in the power of the dark side to control the fates of worlds.

I truly appreciate that The Rise of Skywalker does this. In a way it becomes the moral core of this trilogy. I'm especially glad it doesn't make the mistake made in A New Hope with Alderaan and repeated in The Force Awakens with the Hosnian System: treating genocide as a mere plot point, refrigerating billions of people to make some baddies seem a bit more bad, with no further comment. The implication that Leia simply died of grief—that a lifetime of loss has simply taken her beyond life—rings especially powerfully here, since the original trilogy gives her nary a reaction at all.

And in the end, here, finally, what I hoped for all along: the way of the grey. Between the tormented Rey and the convalescing Kylo Ren, no, Ben Solo, there is a meeting of souls, a balance. A third path that threads between passion and peace, power and surrender, order and chaos. And what to call this new emergence? Not Jedi, not Sith—they look to Luke, who is grinning at them mischievously. These powerful scions of the grey. Skywalkers.

"Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to."

Newly at peace, Ben Solo elects to stay on Ahch-To in monastic repentance, but supports Rey from afar much as Luke did in The Last Jedi. When she rejoins the Resistance on Kamino, she finds them preparing to use the machinery of the Old Republic to produce massive amounts of weapons and warships. Instead, she implores them to trust in her plan: to reverse-engineer the lightsaber, the weapon that can sever anything, into an impenetrable shield. And to then distribute these shields to people's movements across the galaxies, so that what is most precious to them—their bodies, their lives—can be protected from the oncoming crush of the fascists who want to grind them underfoot.

I can barely write about those scenes of masses of people running, shields shimmering, barreling right through First Order troops, bouncing them effortlessly out of the way. Safe, for the moment, from the wages of war. Planet after planet, we see people's movements rise up against the First Order. It was all I could do not to cheer when the people of Canto Bight burned the casino to the ground.

At the end, we are left with our victorious fivesome: Rose, the political leader; Rey, the spiritual leader; Poe and Finn, the generals; and Ben Solo, the struggling conscience, the shadowy but repentant outcast. They are poised to lead a galaxy driven by respect for life, by the creed that all must be cared for communally, by a downright Buddhist ethos of spiritual non-attachment.

This is exactly the Star Wars I wanted, the finale that the nine-part Skywalker saga deserved. The cycle of Dark and Light, Imperial and Rebel, of star wars themselves, broken at last. A new dawn, a new future. A more radical statement than any studio film of this century has yet dreamed, with an ironclad belief in the power of people's movements.

And I'm sure there's some alternate universe where they did hand this back to JJ Abrams, and he made a fairly competent but mostly-unsatisfying spectacle that pulled more silly shenanigans than you could shake a stick at. But we're living in this universe, where this marvelous and magnetic film really happened. I left the theater grateful and enthralled and inspired, ready to do good, and awestruck by the power of storytelling.

Dara K. liked these reviews