There’s been quite a stir among critics about the grand finale film of the 9-chapter Star Wars series. A vehement flurry of negative reviews has been rapidly passed around, and fans are anxious, angry, or defensive in the face of them. Many have yet to see the movie, and I must warn that this review will contain all manner of spoilers, if you are avoiding them. I do think, however, that this detail is necessary as I mount my defense for what I believe to be a weighty, moving, beautiful film. To all of the naysayers crying plot inconsistency or weak dialogue, I’m calling bullshit. The Rise of Skywalker is not a perfect film, but I submit that its successes far outweigh its shortcomings. I would argue that it is fundamentally and unavoidably Star Wars, and that it gives the Skywalker Saga the send-off it deserves in matters of theme, emotion and worldbuilding with stirring visuals, compelling music, and acting moments that build new character depths rather than relying on mysterious, platitudinal lessons from old and wasting masters in exile.
I want to address flaws before I move on to a celebration of the thematic fireworks at play in this movie. I don’t disagree with critiques citing unfair treatment of C-3PO, convenient force powers, or clunky pacing – I just don’t mind those things, as they’ve always been constants in the series. However, I really only have 3 solid problems with the film, as a whole.
- Chewy should have stayed dead. Robbing the plot of a really dramatic and meaningful loss was a mistake, and even if we were going to keep him alive, allowing us to think he had died for longer than 30 seconds would have been preferable.
- The Knights of Ren should have had a more substantial battle, or done anything impressive, really. For a force as formidable and scary as they were meant to seem, they sure did a whole lot of nothing and died really darn quickly. That’s a shame.
- I wish the kiss hadn’t happened. I respect that some people have read love in the dynamic between Rey and Kylo, but I just don’t see it. I think their connection comes from external forces – both Sith manipulation and Force Diadism – and they’re just responding to it with conflicted confusion in a very human way. Kissing someone in the heat of battle, the thrill of a near death experience, or elation at sudden victory makes sense to me, but still, I wish they hadn’t.
None of these flaws make me angry, though. I feel the same way about them, both as a fan and as a critic, that I do about Keanu Reeves’ woodenness in The Matrix. It’s the way I feel about that single badly animated shot in The Two Towers when Gollum says, “The Dead Marshes, yes, yes, that is their name,” and his head is rotated way too far on the model. It’s the same as when I wince at Tom Hardy’s voice choices in 90% of his films.
I still love movies with flaws. And I still think that flawed movies have value, and can be excellent, in spite of themselves! A macguffin isn’t a movie killer, nor a story killer, for me (or else we’d all also hate Citizen Kane and The Iliad, I guess). It’s a tool that can be misused or used to great effect. Magic operating unpredictably (or conveniently) doesn’t throw me, because it’s magic. And hyper-speed allowing people to flit easily around gigantic spaces in little to no time simply can’t stop a Star Wars cold, because that’s the whole point of hyper-speed.
If flawed films drive you mad to the point of shouting or wanting to act out violently, then I recommend that you don’t watch any Star Wars, ever, because magic, macguffins, and plot flaws have always been and will always be a part of this franchise. Do I think it’s possible to make a flawless Star Wars? Sure. It just hasn’t happened yet. Get over it, calm down, and let’s talk about the good parts.
This film is dripping with quotables that ought to be tattooed on someone’s arm or centered in a commencement speech, and I mean that in the best possible way. As the culmination of a series that has largely depicted found families, there are some particularly wonderful themes in The Rise of Skywalker that beg repeating.
- We go together. Whether it’s Finn insisting that Rey not isolate herself in her search for Exogol, or Zorii reminding a discouraged Poe that he isn’t alone, this film is intent on communicating a sincere message about loneliness in the face of big obstacles: the bad guys win by making you think you’re alone, but the truth is that you are not. Whether it’s a struggle against corrupt powers or something more mundane, Lando is correct in his advice to Poe: you win by having each other. A sense of community, and the compassion that comes from found family members fighting alongside you is the best way to forge a path through adversity. Even when you might be losing, Zorii isn’t wrong when she insists that good people will fight if we lead them, and there are more of us.
- It’s not stupid to believe in something. Finn’s journey in this movie is much more spiritual than anything. He spends the majority of his time chasing Rey, but even though I can see the argument for romance, I again think that there’s something deeper at play. His belief in the Force has been escalating since we met him in The Force Awakens – he readily shares his belief in it with others, and feels his way through situations more and more, and to good ends. I believe that the secret thing he wants to tell Rey is actually more related to him wanting to train in the Jedi way under her tutelage, rather than to confess a crush. Our trio of protagonists experience a great deal of fear in this film. It makes sense as a response to the horrors that erupt around them: it’s reasonable to be afraid when villains you thought were defeated generations ago rear their ugly heads (a timely message, given America’s recent rebirth of Nazism). Finn’s faith, however, is in something larger and – he must believe – more powerful than the will of evil, and he feels compelled to act upon that belief. It’s refreshing to see that in the average person, rather than only the trained Jedi or Sith.
- The Dark Side is in our natures, but we don’t have to surrender to it. If this film has anything to say, it’s that you don’t be afraid of who you are because you get to choose who to be. Luke and Leia both believe that many things are more powerful than blood, and it seems to be a realization that many Jedi have found in death, if the Voices of Jedi Past that Rey hears in her most dire hour of need are indicative. In a world where bloodlines have seemed to dictate a great deal of grief, it’s powerful to see Rey subvert the expectations of her lineage and choose an identity for herself. It’s even more meaningful to see her example pave the way for Ben to finally denounce Kylo Ren and use his last moments to preserve the ideals Rey and Leia stand for. In our own real world, obsession with race and bloodlines and heritage have led to divisions, hate crimes, cruelty, and inequality. What a beautiful way to show that Rey’s generation – and our generation, perhaps – are determined not to repeat the mistakes of their elders. In the heart of a Jedi lies her strength. Not her name, nor her family line. Just because people in our history have committed evils doesn’t mean we have to follow suit. I think the heroes of Star Wars would agree that we actually have a responsibility not to.
- Some things are just more important than unrequited love. I don’t care who it is. Rose’s love for Finn, Poe’s love for Finn, Zorii’s affection for Poe, Finn’s love for Rey, Kylo’s love for Rey, or Lando’s love for Leia: it simply doesn’t matter in the face of battles and lives at stake. Sometimes, there’s just a bigger battle going on, and I’m not upset or even annoyed that we didn’t have a focus on galactic romance. It’s important, I think, to note that Ben did not carry Rey out of the fight that won the war (though I was afraid it might happen, at first). Instead, he used their connection to giving her the support that she needed to walk out of there herself. The surprising picture we got of allyship from a Diad in the Force is a beautiful, moving thing – a power like life itself, to use words from the film. Like the Force Diad depicts, the connections between people aren’t always sensical, or wise, or even good. However, acknowledging those connections doesn’t make us weak – it makes us stronger. More than anything, it’s crucial to remember that we have the choice to make of those connections what we will, not what our grandfathers would.
In closing, I’d like to acknowledge one more point of interest from this film. Many – myself included – bemoan film and television writers who seem afraid to kill their darlings. Even this review cites Chewy’s false death as a mistake. However, I also want to pitch a potential justification, given that almost all of our named characters made it through The Rise of Skywalker alive. In real life, many veterans have insane war stories; flukes that gave them a way out, or missions that shouldn’t have succeeded but did. Though many die, the protagonists of those stories told are the ones who lived, purely because history is told by survivors. That’s the nature of war, and I must admit that if just this once, everyone lives, I’m not actually against the idea. It’s perhaps a tribute to those that didn’t expect to live, but did, somehow. Those are the story makers and the veterans who pass on that history to us. If Star Wars has chosen to emulate that bizarre and poetic reality, I cannot begrudge it.
Yes, this film is flawed at the edges, slightly silly, and begs a close viewing. Still, it is a joy to see actors delivering performances with their eyes, emotions, and expressions as often as with words. It’s potent to have this wild space opera end heavy with theme and sincerity. As a critic, I marveled and applauded. As a fan, I laughed and cried. The positives were and are so good that the negatives simply can’t get me down.
May you also rise above adversity, and may the force be with all of us, always.
P.S. I would die for Babu Frik, and D-0 is my hero.