Updated: Jan 31, 2020
It's taken me some time, but I've managed to boil it down to this: narratively, The Rise of Skywalker feels like two movies welded into one massive juggernaut moving at breakneck speed, with all frenetic action of an amusement park ride.
It's so jam-packed that it's quite easy to imagine the first five minutes serving as their own film. And this is not necessarily the fault of Abrams: unlike Christopher Paolini, who could simply split his final volume into two books in favor of allowing for more character-growth, this is Star Wars: and anything other than a trilogy is impossible.
I won't cover much of the film here because Brian Tallerico already does that well enough in his review on RogerEbert.com: "The midsection of the movie is its most effective. After a clunky first act that’s filled with way too many scenes of people talking about who they are, where they need to go, and what they need to do when they get there, the film finally settles into a groove with an excellent chase scene that somehow both echoes “Return of the Jedi” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” There is a nice subplot with an old acquaintance of Poe’s named Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and a fantastic, water-soaked lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo. These scenes don’t have the weight of course-correcting that drags the first hour or the desperate need to please of the final half-hour. When “Rise of Skywalker” can just be its own fun, sci-fi adventure, it succeeds."
He sums up the film by saying, "Whatever one thinks of The Last Jedi, if that film was trying to build a new house on familiar land, this one tears it down and goes back to an old blueprint. Some of the action is well-executed, there are strong performances throughout, and one almost has to admire the brazenness of the weaponized nostalgia for the original trilogy, but feelings like joy and wonder are smothered by a movie that so desperately wants to please a fractured fanbase that it doesn’t bother with an identity of its own."
The Critics and the Fandom
Now, to make things clear: these are the words of a critic from a site that positively lavished The Last Jedi with praise upon praise just two years earlier. And though both fans and critics managed to mostly concur on The Force Awakens, it's safe to say things haven't been the same since.
Let's take a moment to review the critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes for all three films of the sequel trilogy:
The Force Awakens: 93% critics to 86% audience (-7% gap)
The Last Jedi: 91% critics to 43% audience (-48% gap)
Rise of Skywalker: 55% critics to 86% audience (+31% gap)
Interestingly enough, if you compare every Star Wars film ever made, you'll come to find that the fans––and not the critics––tend to be the most critical.
First things first, though: Jedi is not as bad as 43%, and in the same way, Skywalker is not as awful as the 55% would seem to relate. They both also aren't quite as deserving of the positive scores they received either. It should also be noted that Episode II: Attack of Clones (easily the worst film in the saga) somehow acquired a 65% rating among critics and a 56% among audiences.
I think it's safe to say there's been some major overreacting going on in both camps. In no way is The Last Jedi or The Rise of Skywalker as bad as the aforementioned Attack of the Clones. They have flaws, certainly, but to brand them as the worst films in the saga is both absurd and downright spiteful.
Paul Tassi of Forbes.com really captures the essence of what took place in the following excerpt:
"To sum up what happened, fans were mad that The Last Jedi took traditional Star Wars arcs and shattered them, ignoring questions like the mystery of Snoke and Rey’s origins, and that the film turned Luke from shining hero to grumpy sacrificial lamb. And that’s exactly what critics liked about the film, that it broke away from tropes and tried something new.
"That’s why those same critics are so mad now because JJ Abrams did everything possible to undo so much of what Johnson did in The Last Jedi, providing specific answers to those questions that Johnson said weren’t important. [Abrams] mocks Last Jedi moments [such as]...Luke throwing away his lightsaber."
"But fans like it A) because they got those Last Jedi “fixes” they were looking for and B) it was specifically…made for fans. The film is rife with fan service, which is often viewed as a negative by critics, but you know who likes fan service? Fans. And that’s what’s happened here. Rise of Skywalker doesn’t care about erasing tropes, it embraces them...And it’s an admittedly satisfying end to the saga, albeit not a terribly original one. But it’s enough to satisfy most fans who felt burned by The Last Jedi, so here we are, with these wildly different takes on two movies that I would say, are both pretty great in their own ways, despite each of them having flaws."
Before moving on to whether they actually succeeded in proving their worth to the rest of the saga, I would like to draw out two positives that stuck out to me:
1) Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo: if there's one thing Rise of Skywalker proved, it's that Kylo Ren (who was originally feared to be a mere carbon copy of his grandfather, Darth Vader) was the best thing produced from this, at times, inconsistent, divisive, and ultimately bittersweet trilogy.
He suffers from the fear that he will not live up to the legacy of his grandfather (as evidenced by his rages when confronted with failure), is haunted by the death of his father, Han & struggles (and fails) to balance his attachment to Rey with his ambition for power. His story arch is easily the most unpredictable of any other character (though this is not to disparage Rey as it could easily be argued that she is his foil).
Thus the reason why it feels so worth it when he and Rey finally team up to take down Palpatine.
2) The Relationship between Rey and Ben: The connection between these two remains pervasive throughout all three movies, and it finally reaches its climax in a bittersweet, yet beautiful way in the final episode.
We hear Ben tell Rey that they are "two that are one," and nothing is closer to the truth. Like two sides of the same coin, both are consistently unable to overmatch the other when their environment renders them without any apparent advantages. Both are unable to summon the courage to kill the other when they gain that advantage, and both use the Force in an almost-symbiotic fashion to heal the other of mortal wounds.
That One Little Detail
At long last, the time has now come to decide whether this late sequel trilogy truly crafted a well-founded argument for itself. And to its credit, I must concede that Rise of Skywalker endeavors in nearly every conceivable way to justify its existence and the entire trilogy for that matter.
Except for, of course, missing the single, most important detail in the history of the dubbed "Skywalker Saga."
For a man who stated the following, the logic behind the disregarding of this "detail" doesn't make a whole lot of sense: “This is about bringing this thing to a close in a way that is emotional and meaningful and also satisfying in terms of actually answering [as many] questions as possible,” said Abrams, back in October 2019. “So if years from now, someone’s watching these movies, all nine of them, they’re watching a story that is as cohesive as possible.”
The key to "satisfying" and making this story "as cohesive as possible" is relatively simple, and it still surprises me that all the many executives, producers, and various persons involved were yet unable to understand this one, fundamental truth, which I give below.
The Story of Anakin is the Story of Star Wars
Virtually every Star Wars fan will be able to tell you that from the very beginning, the original six films were the story of Anakin Skywalker, and his infamous alter ego, Darth Vader. From his turbulent rise to his egregious fall, and at last, to his subsequent redemption, his story has been the glue that has tied every episode together.
So...if you're going to make direct sequels to someone's story, then it only makes perfect sense to either include or at least reference that someone in some capacity.
But for some strange reason, the authorities seemingly chose to almost completely ignore any reference to the prequels––or Anakin for that matter. It's almost as if they went out of their way to write sequels to the original trilogy on the basis that the proceeding events never took place. But then, that's directly refuted by the quote given above, and we are left right where we were before.
Now, one could argue that this "ignorance" occurred because of the less than positive attention heaped upon said prequels. But, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this criticism, this had the exact opposite effect to that which was intended; and the popularity of those prequels (and Lucas) only rose, not at all diminishing.
If Anakin is Dead, How Does His Story Continue?
It's clear the reveal that Rey is the granddaughter of Palpatine was an effort to tie in her story with that of the previous films and replace the need to continue that of Anakin's. Unfortunately, it came across as a little tacky due to being underdeveloped and not clearly explained or executed.
In response, some may argue that since Anakin already died, it was impossible to truly "continue" his story.
However, I think otherwise. Allow me to explain.
In the end, The Rise of Skywalker's big reveal shouldn't have been that Rey was a Palpatine, but that the "Chosen One" myth surrounding Anakin Skywalker was just that: a myth. In fact, there's really no possible way to reconcile all three trilogies without doing so in some fashion.
Think about it: if Anakin is indeed the Chosen One, then the Story of Skywalker truly ends with the culmination of Episode VI. But if it in fact, continues, then that must simply mean that Anakin wasn't the Chosen One after all, which then puts to question the entire theory of a "Chosen One" in the first place!
From who or what then did this theory spread in the first place? The only plausible answer has to be Emperor Palpatine, who is famous for pulling strings and manipulating the lives of others from afar.
To better understand this, let's briefly revisit we already know about Anakin's backstory: According to Episode 1, this young boy from Tatooine was supposedly conceived via the Force itself in one of the most significant turning points in the entire history proceeding it.
Later, in Episode III, we are informed by Palpatine that the Sith can manipulate the Force to create life. Through this idea, Palpatine endeavored to seduce Anakin to his allegiance with the promise that he could save his beloved Padmé from a premature death. Further hints were later dropped that hinted Palpatine himself may have been the force responsible for Anakin's conception––an idea which was never really followed through.
However, there just so happens to exist a deleted scene from the film that explicitly confirms this to be the case. In that scene, Palpatine acquaints the young Skywalker with the knowledge that he "Arranged for [his] conception" using the powers of the force "to will the midichlorians to start the cell divisions that created [him]."
This revelation would subsequently make Palpatine the supreme mastermind behind every event that took place in the years after.
But how does this tie in with the story of Rey? Well, there exists a solution which not only answers how Rey cannot be a direct Skywalker and yet own powers equatable with those of Anakin's but also ties the sequel trilogy to the original six in a way nothing else could have possibly hoped to achieve.
And the answer is this: Rey is not the granddaughter of Palpatine, but the actual "daughter," having been conceived in the same way as Anakin.
We must not forget that Anakin ultimately proved to be Palpatine's great failure; for though he successfully converted him to the dark side, Anakin ended up with all but one of his limbs removed in the climactic duel with his master, Obi-Wan––not to mention having most of his organs and body fried by fire––and because of this, he lost much of his power when becoming Darth Vader.
Not to mention that he ended up turning against Palpatine, inflicting severe bodily harm that should have killed him (but somehow didn't).
Thus, it makes perfect sense that Rey should be the body he was looking to inhabit (instead of feeling rushed and overly-complicated as it was in the film). It makes sense to assume that Palpatine (being one of the most paranoid and suspicious beings in the galaxy, and rightfully so), prepared a way for himself to be avenged should he be betrayed.
And the story would almost certainly have resonated more, had Christensen somehow reprised his role as a Force ghost to help guide Rey; for, with his own experiences, he would undoubtedly be the domineering force that would have best aided her in avoiding his own mistakes.
I rest my case.
So, All that Aside, did The Rise of Skywalker Manage to Justify Itself?
After much deliberation, I have to say no. Skywalker managed to be a better film than what I was expecting, but ultimately, its downfall (in my mind) stemmed from a failure to truly justify undermining Anakin's sacrifice, and its entire existence in the first place.
If you look at this ill-fated trilogy as a monument of nostalgia for the original Star Wars films, then you'll likely enjoy it. But I find it impossible to appreciate as the last three chapters of a nine-chapter saga.
At the end of the day, The Rise of Skywalker is a good film with a number of unfortunate shortcomings. But that's really all it is: a good film––and not a great one.