RISE OF SKYWALKER analysis and trilogy retrospective

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This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Exploring Entertainment through a Gospel Lens

I have waited to write my analysis of STAR WARS: RISE OF SKYWALKER because there’s so much to say, and because it’s been unclear whether any of it needed to be said. The conversation among viewers has been lively. But I have a few things to say — some of it new, most of it not, and in no particular order. Let’s dive in.

The Movie vs. the Trilogy

The Rise of Skywalker is a Good Star Wars Movie

I’m serious. This was loads of fun throughout, told a good story, and — let’s get real — it’s way better than what most arm-chair moviewriters could have come up with. And by itself, I think it’s a good Star Wars film (though a bit too rushed and busy). Given how inflated with nostalgia the originals are, and how high expectations were, and how divided fans have been, this is about the best we could expect from anyone less than a superhuman moviemaker. 

Just because we can (in retrospect) improve it in our minds, doesn’t mean that any other writer would have done better. The final product of other writers would have had different flaws. It’s like a Platonic form: we all have in our head a vision of what an Ideal Star Wars film would look like. But any actual instantiation is going to deviate from the Platonic form in large and small ways. The only reason the originals don’t is because the Form is based off of them. Over time they have become the Form.

Some say Rogue One comes very close. But that’s a stroke of luck. It’s very hard to do that On Purpose. Even George Lucas himself couldn’t pull it off. There’s very few Perfect franchise films in the world (Pirates of the Carribean, Iron Man, and… I’m not sure what else). The bar is even higher for a perfect Star Wars film. So the fact that this movie is less than the originals but better than the prequels means it’s a success story. 

Hindsight bias is real. If we can find seemingly obvious flaws in a film, it’s easy to think that they could have been avoided. But according to psychologist Danial Kahneman (and he has plenty of evidence to back this up), this is a cognitive illusion. It’s actually really hard to parse out what we know only in hindsight from what we could have anticipated with what we knew before.

The Sequel Trilogy is a Bad Trilogy

Contrary to fan consensus, I loved The Last Jedi, The Force Awakens, and the Rise of Skywalker. But they suck as a trilogy. The Last Jedi was not a proper sequel to The Force Awakens, and The Rise of Skywalker is not a proper sequel to The Last Jedi. Thematically, Rise of Skywalker is a proper sequel to The Force Awakens. The Rise of Skywalker discards the themes of The Last Jedi to finish the story that The Force Awakens started (and which The Last Jedi discarded).

Some blame this on Rian Johnson, who willfully departed from The Plan, as it was likely sketched out to him by JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy. He saw what many fans saw: the story started by JJ Abrams was too derivative. Star Wars needed something new, and so Rian Johnson struck out into unfamiliar territory. I think he did a fantastic job (minus a casino), even if it’s not what some fans wanted. But it meant that the next director/writer would have to amend the Plan. (Spoiler: that didn’t happen.)

Others blame it on Kathleen Kennedy. Kathleen is a talented producer (one of the best), and she is successful in large part because she knows how to give creatives the space to assert their authorial voice. Too much mediocrity has resulted from executives overriding the artistic license of their creatives. And so when Rian Johnson proposed striking out into new territories instead of sticking with The Plan, she did what she does best: she gave him license to write the story in whatever direction he wanted.

Neither were bad decisions (by themselves). What made them bad decisions was not respecting what Rian Johson had done with the story after the fact, and shoehorning the trilogy into the old Plan even though it didn’t quite fit anymore. I don’t really blame them for this either. The fan backlash against The Last Jedi — both justified and unjustified — was overwrought and relentless. Of course they went back to familiar haunts. But the big “nevermind” of it all gave audiences whiplash and resulted in a bad trilogy.

Retconning prior movies is Star Wars tradition

But what’s new? Retcons are familiar to Star Wars. Characters in A New Hope made assertions about Luke’s heritage that turned out to be entirely untrue, except from “a certain point of view.” I doubt they scripted A New Hope with the reveal in Empire Strikes Back in mind. And then they set up a sort of love triangle in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back that was retconned into being innocent sibling friendship. Here’s what I mean (this entire dialogue is illustrative):

The dialogue here is no different in kind from the moment in which Kylo Ren says that he was telling the truth about Rey’s parents, in a way — they were nobodies, or… they tried to become nobodies. He explains that they took on the role of junk traders and sold Rey to keep her safe, to protect her from the emperor. So Kylo Ren was wrong on everything significant, but correct in some superficial respect, so this means the previous movie wasn’t quite lying to us (or so we are supposed to think). It’s gaslighting Rey and the audience in the same way that Obi Wan does to Luke (and the audience), “from a certain point of view.”

The retcons of the original trilogy worked. The retcons of the sequel trilogy did not work as well. But this is as much about luck as anything else. Neither trilogy had great planning. One trilogy was lucky to pull off hamfisted and awkward character retcons and become a beloved classic. The other trilogy had the bad luck of being made 40 years later when everyone expects better. 

The Characters

JJ’s version of Rey is a good story. Rian’s version of Rey is just as good. 

JJ Abrams probably intended for her to be a Palpatine all along, given the way he foreshadowed the significance of her parentage and portrayed her skills with the Force. And it’s a good story. It’s a familiar haunt with familiar themes that still feels fresh. It gives narrative continuity to the nine Skywalker films. (Minus the hiccup of discontinuity in the final trilogy.)

JJ’s version of Rey’s character arc is excellent. She must learn confidence in her goodness while confronting the horrific badness of her ancestry. Rey is an example to moviegoers of the power of personal choice in forging new paths rather than slavishly following what’s come before (if only JJ would learn this lesson too). It’s also about breaking the endless cycles in which the evils of prior generations are passed on to the next.

If only they had stuck with this arc the whole time, instead of shoving this all into the third film (with vague foreshadowing in the first film). If the Palpatine reveals had taken place during The Last Jedi, the character development in Rise of Skywalker would not have felt so rushed or crowded. It would have had time to breath. It would have been great. As it is, it’s just good.

But Rian’s version of Rey was just as good. The idea that our protagonist doesn’t have to be from some grand lineage (good or evil) to be a consequential character is a breath of fresh air. The idea that the Force can find affinity with anybody, not just people with well-connected genes, is exactly what the franchise needed. Broom-boy at the end of The Last Jedi? I nearly cheered. I’m sad they didn’t stick with this. Rey would have been more relate-able, more down to earth had she really been just the daughter of junk traders and (otherwise) a nobody. 

Kylo’s redemption is competently executed but ultimately hollow

Darth Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi wasn’t really earned. But there are some important distinctions to make. First, strip away all other movies except the original trilogy, and Vader isn’t nearly the menacing evil we know him to be today. When it originally aired, there was not yet any slaughtering of Jedi children. There was not yet any scene in Rogue One where Vader dispatches dozens of rebel soliders with terrifying efficiency. He was an student of the Emperor, but most of his great evils were only ever alluded to, never shown to the audience.

Furthermore, when he turned on the Emperor, it resonated, because we all recognize that native sense that family is more important than any of our other projects, endeavors, and aspirations. The Emperor was killing Vader’s son. When he threw the Emperor down the pit, Darth Vader was not (necessarily) renouncing his aspirations for empire or his malevolent cruelty. He was simply prioritizing his own son’s life over any of those aspirations. That saving his son also toppled the empire he helped maintain was merely incidental.

Let’s contrast this with Kylo. In The Force Awakens, when Kylo stood on that bridge with his father, he did the opposite. He declared that his aspirations for power and might trumps family. He slaughtered his own father in cold blood, face to face (while his father was demonstrating ultimate fatherly love), in order to demonstrate to himself that his commitment to the dark side takes priority over even those he loves (his family). And in that moment, I said to myself (and told others) that any redemption of Kylo Ren would feel hollow.

In Rise of Skywalker, it’s not entirely clear what actually turned Kylo Ren back to Ben Solo. Was it Rey’s mercy? Was it his mother, reaching to his mind and calling his name? We simply don’t have the same clarity that we have in Return of the Jedi. (It has been leaked by an insider that deleted scenes may provide more clarity: when Rey used the force to heal his physical injury, she also healed his psychological scars. This, in combination with his mother speaking to his mind, changed him back into Ben Solo.)

When Vader is watching his son being force fried by the Emperor, we can recognize the turmoil and conflict in his gaze — even though he is wearing a helmet! Because this is something we can understand and relate to. We anticipate what he is feeling and thinking, because fatherly love and concern is a fundamentally human experience that afflicts the conscience of even the most evil people in the world. In contrast, Kylo’s redemption seems rooted in supernatural quackery that none of us can relate to. 

It sorta works in the movie, but largely because of Adam Driver’s terrific acting. Thank goodness for that.

Finn is a under-developed character

He’s excellently acted. The idea of centering a huge chunk of the story on a former Storm Trooper is an excellent idea. But after the first half of The Force Awakens, I forget he was ever a Storm Trooper. The writers made his defection part of his early character story — he runs from danger until he learns courage in the face of danger in The Last Jedi. But there’s almost nothing about Finn’s personality or worldview that betrays him as a former Storm Trooper. He might as well have been a Resistance coward learning courage.

Here’s an experiment: In the final film (Rise of Skywalker), swap all of Finn and Poe’s character lines and actions (except perhaps while on the planet Kijimi, which has significance in Poe’s past). Does the movie suffer very much? 

To illustrate by contrast, here’s four alternative versions of Finn:

  • Finn is trained as a Storm Trooper to kill without mercy, but he struggles with this. He sees himself as weak where his compatriots are strong. Until one day, he sees a feared and fearsome Resistance fighter (Poe) exercise compassion and mercy on an enemy. With the Resistance, he is taught that his compassion is not a weakness, but a strength. He learns that the Resistance’s tenacity and courage is found not in ruthlessness, but from mercy and love.  Over time, he replaces self-loathing with confidence. He becomes the character who seeks for creative, non-violent solutions to their problems. He loathes firefights. Instead of blasting their way through enemies, he’s always looking for a way to use subtlety and stratagem instead. He becomes an asset to the team whenever they need ideas, and they respect his desire to rarely use a firearm.
  • Finn is trained as a Storm Trooper to kill without mercy, and as such, his sense of empathy is stunted. However, as an enforcer, he loves law and order, and turns on his former employers when he realizes they are agents of chaos instead of order. But even with the Resistance, he carries with him a ruthlessness from his former training that scares his Resistance colleagues. They try to temper his excesses and teach him the value of mercy and compassion, qualities he sees as weaknesses. He becomes a huge asset to the team as he helps them to see how The First Order operates and thinks. Over time, you start to see him engaging in little acts of unrequited kindness, and occasional mercies, which are landmarks on his journey from learned sociopathy into empathy.
  • Finn is basically as he is in the current films, but he frequently tries to persuade other Storm Troopers to defect (to no avail). He never kills another Storm Trooper and is always irritated when others do. Having been a Storm Trooper, he sees his own face under every helmet, a former version of himself. In the final film, in the heat of battle, Finn accidentally finds himself in a room surrounded by Storm Troopers. We don’t hear from him again, until a downturn in the battle, when Finn comes in with the calvary to save the day — a legion of Storm Troopers (helmets off). Finn has finally got his wish, and managed to turn some of his former compatriots.
  • Finn, as a Storm Trooper, is accustomed to working with a crew of other troopers. (You never see a Storm Trooper acting alone.) This means that when he is separated from his fellow Troopers on his journey to join the Resistance, he experiences existential fear. He feels exposed, like he’s performing without a net. But as soon as he is among Resistance fighters, he once again feels safe, even though they are his former enemies. He is most certainly not the character who goes off on solo missions, but is the one who brings the calvary, who leads side by side with others and finds safety in a crowd of fellow, trained fighters.

These are all very different versions of Finn. In each, his past as a Storm Trooper (and not merely as a “runner”) becomes consequential to the entire character arc, his worldviews, his assumptions, his aspirations, and his personality. He carries that upbringing and training with him, for good or bad, and it shapes who he is as a person in ways the audience can see and understand. What we have is not bad. It’s just a missed opportunity, an under-utilized premise.

A brief note on the Force (and the Jedi)

What follows is entirely my own head-canon. 

I think that there’s a tug-a-war in Star Wars movies between two fundamentally different conceptions of the Force and of the Jedi. One is the Force-as-a-superpower and Jedi-as-warriors, and another is Force-as-a-spiritual-gift and Jedi-as-sages. The prequels thoroughly cast the Jedi as superpowered warriors, while the originals included overtones of Jedi as spiritually-gifted sages. (Though the originals contained bits of both views.)

Personally, I strongly prefer the spiritual gifts analogy over the superpower analogy. I think part of the magic and charm of the originals is that, in an overtly religious way, the Jedi were treated as conduits of wisdom and knowledge from a higher source. I prefer to think of Yoda as an eccentric sage than as a seasoned warrior (even if he was the latter at some point). And when Yoda moves an X-wing out of the swamp, it’s not him doing it — he is appealing to a higher power (the Force) to do it for him. 

And this is why “size matters not.” It’s not a matter of exertion at all. In contrast, in both the prequels and the sequels, it becomes a superpower instead — as illustrated in the moment when Rey and Ren are playing tug-a-war with a spaceship. You can see them exerting themselves. This isn’t a higher power they are calling upon, appealing to, as Yoda did. This is a superpower, a telekinetic muscle they are flexing (demonstrated in the exertion in their faces and posture). 

If the force is merely a superpower, you can imagine bad, good, and (most importantly) neutral Force users. But as originally framed, the Force is morally inflected in a way that superpowers are not. There is a light side of the force, and a dark side of the force. You cannot successfully appeal to the Force (light or dark) while being neutral. And this is why (in my own head-canon), the stronger the Force is with you, the more good (or evil) you become.

I prefer to think of Luke becoming a Jedi having more to do with his moral maturity than his practiced skills with a lightsaber. He learns the wisdom of patience, compassion, and love, and in so doing taps into the “spiritual gifts” of foresight and connectedness with the Force. This doesn’t mean that sages can’t be warriors (Mormon, anyone?). It just means that being a warrior isn’t essential to being a Jedi (in my mind). Yoda could be a Jedi master, even if he never once wielded a lightsaber. It’s spiritual centeredness that is at the heart of their creed.

On these matters, the prequels got it all wrong, the Last Jedi shines a bit, the Rise of Skywalker is muddled, the Force Awakens is neutral. But all is forgiven, because the originals were a bit muddled too. I don’t think any writer in the Star Wars universe has really had a grasp on what this all really is or what it really means.


Lots of people loved The Rise of Skywalker. Lots of people didn’t. JJ Abrams is on record saying that both camps are right — and perhaps it’s because JJ Abrams himself is conflicted. Anonymous sources claim that JJ Abrams really dislikes (in some respects) how the film turned out. (It’s a fascinating but unverified thread at that link.) I think it’s a perfectly good film, a worthy installment to the franchise, and it introduces the best Star Wars character since the originals (Boba Frik). We really shouldn’t expect any movie to adequately capture what our nostalgia has done to the original trilogy. New wine can’t always compete with aged wine. (Not that I’d know.)

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One comment

  1. Hey Jeff! I enjoyed this analysis of the Rise of Skywalker, especially tying the Force back into a moral realm, as it always seemed to be but strayed from over time. Random non-sequitur here: is there a way to suggest topics to you to investigate or write about? Or anyway to work with you on a paper addressing I think may be needed for an LDS audience? I was a TA for Ed for a couple years, and consequently tend to sit in sacrament meeting with thoughts as I hear things that over the pulpit that could be clarified. How can I contact you with some thoughts?

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