DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor—SPOILER WARNING
“This will be the final word in the story of Skywalker,” declares Ian McDiarmid’s revenant Emperor Palpatine in a line from “The Rise of Skywalker” ad campaign; after watching the movie, I can’t help but hope he’s right. My expectations for the trilogy-capper slowly dwindled as the middling-at-best reactions emerged, but I wasn’t expecting to leave the theater angry at what I had witnessed. After a promising if overly familiar debut with “The Force Awakens” and a masterful second act with “The Last Jedi” that called on “Star Wars” to mind the past but not be bound to it, opening up a universe of possibilities in the process, “Episode IX” closes this trilogy on a whimper, a narrative mess concerned only with recycled iconography and pleasing unpleasable “fans.”
With my ever-growing love for Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” a film this follow-up seems intent on actively erasing, I was never going to like “The Rise Of Skywalker” as is. There’s much to discuss, but I’d like to zero in on it’s most unforgivable sin; the revelations about the trilogy’s central protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley).
Rey’s arc from the beginning of this trilogy has centered around her trauma over her parents abandoning her before she was old enough to remember them; her deepest desire is that they had reasons beyond selfishness for doing so. “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise Of Skywalker” offer contradictory answers, delivering two distinct resolutions that could have been individually satisfying had one not served to undermine the other.
In “The Last Jedi,” Rey admits to herself and the audience that her parents were nobodies, junk traders who sold her into slavery for money to buy booze. Her being strong with the Force arises not from her lineage but rather because, as the movie suggests, the Force belongs to everyone, not just a few lucky bloodlines.
Rather than continuing this to its logical conclusion, with Rey forging her own identity in spite of her lowly origins, “The Rise of Skywalker” pulls a 180 and reveals her parents left her to hide her from her grandfather, the aforementioned Emperor Palpatine. Rey’s arc then mutates into her trying to escape a draw to the Dark Side that’s apparently her birthright.
Either way, Rey’s arc is about realizing that where she comes from doesn’t define who she can be, but whereas in “TROS” this is due to her heritage’s infamy, in “TLJ” it’s due to its lack thereof. Whichever of these you prefer (I fervently favor the interpretation of “The Last Jedi”, as it expands the scope of the “Star Wars” universe, while Rey being the progeny of an infamous villain is a bit too reminiscent of Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father for my tastes) what’s undeniable is that in a properly developed narrative, you can only have one; that the films include both renders them dramatically and thematically incongruent.
It’s not just the shift in Rey’s arc that leaves this one feeling so out-of-place next to its predecessors, however; Palpatine’s return, so inexplicable the film doesn’t even pretend to have an explanation, proves just as debilitating. Having the final antagonist of this trilogy be a character with zero presence or build-up in the previous two chapters, and one the protagonists know only in the abstract, saps all dramatic tension from Palpatine’s scenes, what few there are anyway. It’s clear the only real reason he was brought back is because director J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Chris Terrio were either unwilling or unable to write a story with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) ascending to be the main villain, despite the conflict between him and Rey being the trilogy’s driving force up to this point.
There’s plenty more to rag on, from the audacity in wasting Keri Russell on a role solely designed to reassure us of Poe’s (Oscar Isaac) heterosexuality to all but writing Rose out of the story in what can’t be seen as anything but a capitulation to the online hordes of bigots who chased her actress Kelly Marie Tran off social media to the effect of footage featuring the dearly-missed Carrie Fisher being spliced into the movie unconvincingly, to the point that you start thinking it might have been more respectful to just have Leia pass on offscreen between movies.
But for now, I’ll rest my case.