Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is fashioned to be the final punctuation mark on the nine films of the Skywalker Saga. It takes moments and ideas from every single one of the eight films and does its measured best to pay them off in some way or another. For added measure, it even throws in ideas and characters from the animated installments of the saga.
Naturally, spoilers follow.
Star Wars as poetry
George Lucas once said that Star Wars is like poetry – each installment rhymes with the others and and creates a cycled effect. There’s a reason The Phantom Menace, A New Hope, and The Force Awakens each start on a desert planet where a whiz-kid mechanic, strong in the Force is forced to leave home on their hero’s journey. There’s a reason they all ended with the mentor being run through with a red lightsaber and the hero left to cope with that loss while a large piece of enemy infrastructure needs to be destroyed from the inside.
For The Rise of Skywalker, the cycle must come to a close and the third installments of the previous trilogies aren’t as cut and dry as the openings. Revenge of the Sith is a tragedy, where Anakin Skywalker has been made a Faustian offer, a literal deal with the devil. He takes it and loses everything he cared about. Return of the Jedi, that same devil offers Luke Skywalker the same temptation, but Luke is able to reject it. The Rise of Skywalker asks how this would apply to Rey, a character that has genetic (though not nurtured) ties to the Palpatine family. Sheev Palpatine has, somehow, returned for what he hopes to be the final revenge of the Sith and complete subjugation of the galaxy.
It’s no accident that the first episode of the Skywalker saga is called The Phantom Menace and that same title character has been pulling the strings through each of the films, seen and unseen, and is referred to in the opening crawl of The Rise of Skywalker as “the phantom EMPEROR.”
The film itself has visual connections to each of the films in the saga. Shots from the podrace in The Phantom Menace find their way into the speeder chase on Pasaana. The arena on Geonosis is reflected in black and gray tones with the stadium of Sith cultists. The shot of the fleet arriving hearkens back to the shot that opens Revenge of the Sith, revealing the true breadth of the battle over Coruscant. The list goes on and on through each of the films, doing its best to tie the visual history of Star Wars into its culmination.
When you look at the underlying themes that permeate the saga, we’re left to examine central questions. In the prequels, Anakin’s central goal is to learn to save the people he loved from death and his quest drove him to the dark side. Luke is confronted with the same dilemma as his father. In their middle chapters, both Skywalkers were confronted with visions of those they cared about most suffering. Both end up on Tatooine and murdering a lot of people. Luke makes many of the same mistakes his father did, but ultimately asks the question, “Should we learn to save those we love from death?”
Luke sacrifices himself rather than play in that game and, at the end of Return of the Jedi, only the selfless act of his father is what saves him.
As we embark on the final leg of the sequel trilogy, the ending of the saga asks us to imagine what it’s like to actually be able to accomplish what Anakin couldn’t in his life and what Luke opted not to do in his refusal to that call in The Force Awakens. What happens when you can save someone that you love?
The line from the history of the saga that now seems the most heartbreaking and tragic after the additional context of The Rise of Skywalker becomes Anakin’s plea to his wife. “Love won’t save you, Padme. Only my new powers can do that.”
If only he’d known the truth, free from the manipulations of Darth Sidious.
“Learn to let go of the things you fear to lose,” Yoda told Anakin. And it was the right advice. Star Wars has always been about what it takes to act selflessly. Balance to the Force was never about the amount of light and dark side users on a scale. It was always more Eastern in its philosophy. Balance was about doing no harm and acting selflessly to help others. That’s what Star Wars was always about. That’s what the mentors in the opening chapters understood that their students didn’t.
Luke thought he understood what that sacrifice needed to be when he went into his exile on Ahch-to, but realized that apathy is something that actively harms those working to make the world a better place. He corrects himself when he balances his sacrifice to help while doing no harm of his own with his Force projection on Crait.
In The Rise of Skywalker, that’s what Leia is able to do for her son, to sacrifice herself to sever his connection to Palpatine and reignite the spark of hope and light inside him. Ben Solo is then able to pass that spark of life on to Rey. The legacy of the Skywalker family is, as tragic as it is, to teach the world how to be selfless, to love unconditionally, and to do no harm.
Sometimes Skywalkers learn that lesson too late, but they all do learn.
It’s fitting, then, that Rey takes the name of Skywalker, preaching their gospel to the galaxy beyond.
Failure: The Greatest Teacher
One of the most powerful moments in the film comes in the form of the history of the Jedi coming to help Rey. This is an echo from an unused idea for the ending of Return of the Jedi. In an early draft of that film, the ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda were to arrive in their immortal forms to help Luke defeat the Emperor. JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio were able to recycle this idea and tweak it, offering Rey the voices of half a dozen Jedi, including Luke and Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Ahsoka Tano, and Kanan Jarrus, among others.
In The Last Jedi, Yoda explains to Luke that the Jedi must pass on their strengths and the wisdom of their failures. This is what they’ve assembled to do for Rey. It’s no accident that we hear the voice of Mace Windu come to Rey, just before she uses his move to defeat Palpatine. In Revenge of the Sith, Windu deflects the Force lightning radiating from the Chancellor’s fingertips with his lightsaber, deforming his face. This biofeedback of Force energy is what Rey uses to end Palpatine in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style face melting. Why didn’t Palpatine just stop the lightning? Well, Luke’s presence helps us remember the wisdom he learned from facing Palpatine: that his overconfidence is his weakness.
“A thousand generations of Jedi live in you now,” Luke tells Rey, and never is it felt more literally than in that final scene.
It’s fitting that the final shot in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker echoes one of the most powerful shots in A New Hope, with Luke looking beyond to the horizon of his future as the binary suns of Tatooine set. The shot was echoed again many times through the saga, but the one it appears to be referencing the most comes from Revenge of the Sith. Revenge of the Sith closes on Owen and Beru Lars with young Luke in hand, looking off to the future in the sunset with the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi looking on. Rey is left to watch the sunset and the close of her story with the Force ghosts of the Jedi Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa looking on.
And with that, the story of the Skywalkers ends just as it began: on an out of the way planet called Tatooine with all the promise of the future ahead.
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