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‘The Rise of Skywalker’ Didn’t Kill the Past—the Past Killed It

Without any interest in charting a new course, the last ‘Star Wars’ film in the Skywalker saga is a shot of nostalgia that quickly wears off, leaving only unfulfillment

Disney/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

The Emperor Palpatine who appears in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has seen better days. He’s suspended at the end of a metal tentacle, kept alive long after he was supposed to have perished. He can’t walk under his own power, and he’s seemingly lost his vision. He’s trying to reclaim his former influence, but he’s a husk who lacks the vitality to rule the galaxy again. All he has are grounded ships, half-grown clones, and a recognizable but broken body that doesn’t work as well as it once did. He has no new ideas and no new blood.

That makes him the barely living embodiment of a movie with little life of its own. The Rise of Skywalker looks and sounds snappier than its decrepit, quasi-resurrected villain, and it’s a better hang than the last lord of the Sith. But at its heart, if it has one, it’s just as soulless, uninspired, and tethered to the past. J.J. Abrams’s ending to the trilogy he began in 2015 offers a few laughs and a lot of familiar faces, but no new message and no added dimension to the Skywalker saga—no clever twist on the original trilogy, no surprise or subversion, no new layers of long-loved classics retroactively revealed. It isn’t the worst-written or the worst-acted Star Wars movie, but it is the most misconceived. And in failing to forge its own identity, it tarnishes the predecessors that it so slavishly imitates.

Abrams is a serial recycler—bringing back Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness was a warm-up for the Palpatine reprise—and in his first film in the franchise, The Force Awakens, he carefully retraced George Lucas’s steps. To recap Episode VII (and thus, inadvertently recap Episode IV): A droid bearing information vital to a rebellion led by Princess Leia lands on a backwater planet, where it crosses paths with a Force-sensitive orphan. This hero from humble origins rides the Millennium Falcon off the planet but becomes embroiled in a struggle for survival against an evil Empire—not just any evil Empire, but essentially the same Empire as the one from the original trilogy, complete with an enormous superweapon that blows up planets. Her mentor and father figure is killed by Darth Vader’s grandson, who’s joined the family business of being a helmet-wearing dark sider who serves a Sith-like supreme ruler. As the superweapon readies to fire on the Rebel base and Leia and her allies count down to their destruction, the hero taps into her powers and rides forth to rescue them. Daring rebel pilots make a trench run and destroy the superweapon, but Vader’s descendant escapes.

In many ways, The Force Awakens’ obvious parallels to A New Hope were forgivable: In Disney’s first Star Wars film and the inaugural entry in a new trilogy, Abrams was tasked with going back to basics, rebooting the Skywalker saga after a decade-long drought, and distancing the series from the stain of the prequels. It accomplished its mission to restore Star Wars to cultural prominence and make a massive amount of money, and it also introduced a winning, diverse cast to accompany the holdovers. Having paid homage to tradition, that cast had the potential to pick up the mantle from Han, Luke, and Leia and put its own stamp on Star Wars in the next two films.

Rian Johnson’s sequel, The Last Jedi, was indebted to the original trilogy too, but it wasn’t faithful to a fault. Johnson made Luke a reluctant teacher who wanted the Jedi order to end, decreed that Rey’s parents were nobodies, and hinted at hidden depths to the Force. Whether because The Last Jedi didn’t make as much money as The Force Awakens or because a change-averse segment of the fan base objected to Johnson’s reimagining of the franchise’s formula, cowriting and directing duties for Episode IX passed back to Abrams (by way of Colin Trevorrow), who soon set about erasing any trace of The Last Jedi’s swerves away from The Force Awakens. (OK, he kept the porgs.) Each director handed on the baton, and the next one threw it over his shoulder and went in a different direction.

In The Rise of Skywalker, the Emperor returns (although he never really left). This time, his toys are Star Destroyer–sized, but they’re still capable of destroying planets. Lando returns, too, as do Wedge Antilles and the second Death Star. Rey learns that she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter, and the movie builds toward a finale that almost perfectly, pointlessly parallels Return of the Jedi’s.

As the Rebels mount a desperate assault on an unstoppable superweapon that’s about to become fully operational—thanks to a landing party that targets the weapon’s obvious vulnerability so that a fleet led by Lando can take it out—Rey, Ren (now Ben), and Palpatine duel in a throne room. Rey (the Luke analogue, wielding Luke’s lightsaber) resists temptation, Ben (the Vader analogue) rejects the dark side and helps her, and together, they overpower Palpatine (again). Ben dies and becomes one with the Force, and Rey escapes and rejoins the victorious Rebels (in the same X-wing that Luke flew). Then we watch Ewoks celebrate, just for old times’ sake. Also, it turns out that Poe Dameron was a spice smuggler, because now that he sometimes flies the Falcon, he may as well have had Han Solo’s old job.

The movie’s main problem isn’t that it’s overstuffed, frenetic, and crammed with rushed character introductions and inelegant exposition, products of Abrams’s desire to systematically dismantle the legacy of The Last Jedi and cram his own middle film into the final one. It’s that Abrams isn’t replacing The Last Jedi’s ideas with any of his own. He’s borrowing liberally from the past that The Last Jedi’s Kylo was desperately trying to kill.

Yes, Rey chooses to adopt the Skywalker surname, and yes, she wields a yellow lightsaber at the end, presumably symbolizing a fresh start for the Jedi. Ultimately, though, this is a rehash of the same old story, except that its sentiments are heavier-handed and its twists are more foreseeable the second time around. The reveal of Rey’s parentage isn’t nearly as affecting as the reveal of Luke’s, both because it’s predictable and because there’s no prior relationship between her and Palpatine, as there was with Luke and Vader. The Rise of Skywalker assures us that determined underdogs can band together to defeat tyranny, that it’s essential to maintain hope in the face of hardship, and that darkness is redeemable and temptation can be tamed, but we could draw the same lessons from Lucas’s films. What did the ending of this trilogy teach us that Star Wars didn’t decades ago?

When Disney purchased the franchise from Lucas, it seemed like a no-lose situation. Best case, we’d get more good movies, and worst case, the new movies would be bad but the old ones would be unaffected. Now I’m not so sure. The Rise of Skywalker works hard to reverse The Last Jedi’s decisions, but by redoing the original trilogy, it also unintentionally lessens the significance of the first six films. What about the prophecy that Anakin was the Chosen One who would destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force? If he didn’t destroy the Sith, the balance he brought lasted only 30 years, and his last-second redemption didn’t stop his grandson from wanting to be just like Darth Vader, what good did he do? Did we all endure the prequels for nothing?

Nor is there any real reason to think that Rey’s triumph will change anything in a more lasting way. We know the Emperor has died and come back before, so what’s to stop his essence from inhabiting another body on another secret Sith planet? The Skywalker bloodline may have ended with Ben, but the Palpatine clan could continue through Rey or other undisclosed offspring. If Rey starts training a new generation of Jedi, one of them could turn, too, and the cycle of suffering could begin again. This entire trilogy is based on the disheartening idea that the happy ending of the original trilogy wasn’t a lasting solution: War soon broke out again, just as bad as before. There’s no fundamental difference between the endings of Episode VI and Episode IX, so why would this latest peace stick?

This was all avoidable. If Abrams had honored Johnson’s contention that Rey didn’t come from special stock instead of launching a creative tug-of-war, then for once, a Star Wars hero really would have had humble origins: no immaculate conception, and no famous father or grandfather. That would have sent a more inspiring message than any of the Resistance’s platitudes about hope and friendship. The aggressive retconning of The Last Jedi did away with that possibility, but even still, Abrams could have broken new ground; maybe Rey and Kylo could have challenged the traditional binary conception of the Force and found a balance that blended dark and light. A radical reimagining of the last act of the trilogy would have been even more effective following The Force Awakens, but Abrams was content for that sameness to extend right through to the twin suns in the saga’s closing scene.

It’s demoralizing that Lucasfilm’s brass believes fans will accept only one version of Star Wars. It’s even more demoralizing that they might be right. But even fans who found The Last Jedi jarring may reject Rise’s hand-me-down story. There was no need for Palpatine to appear in this movie: The central Rey-Kylo conflict, and the battle between the Resistance and the First Order, could have carried the film. The Emperor was an interloper with no place in this story—which somehow remained true even after Rey’s lineage was revealed—but Abrams was determined to retell the same story we’d seen before. Instead of serving as the culmination of the Skywalker saga, then, The Rise of Skywalker undercuts and diminishes it. Chewie got his medal, Disney will make money, and Abrams gets to say he shot a scene on Tatooine, but what did Star Wars fans get from the final installment of the story that started in 1977? A shot of nostalgia that soon wears off, and a lasting lack of fulfillment. That’s one wound that even the Force can’t close.