This Star Wars article contains spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.
When The Force Awakens was released, one of the most impressive things about the movie was its commentary on the legacy of the Original Trilogy Star Wars characters. The Force Awakens presents its characters as Star Wars fans, making one of the primary fantasies of the Sequel Trilogy about becoming part of your favorite story.
As a fan in 2015, I felt like I was in Rey’s shoes, amazed at the familiar things around me. Rey, Finn, and Poe idolized Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. Even a stormtrooper, raised in the First Order’s halls, knew Luke Skywalker was a figure of mythic power who had disappeared from the galaxy. On the opposite side of the new galactic war, Kylo Ren idolized Darth Vader, while Captain Phasma wore armor made from Palpatine’s starship.
The Rise of Skywalker recontextualizes a lot of that, making the theme of legacy more literal. Instead of being stand-ins for fans of the Original Trilogy, Rey and Kylo are both blood relations to Original Trilogy characters, and are part of a “dyad” in the Force that directly ties into the “balance of the Force.” Rey is still seeking belonging, but finds it in the worst possible way, while Kylo tries to finish what the Sith started.
I entered the theater this December curious to see how The Rise of Skywalker would continue to explore the franchise’s legacy and its fandom, but left confused about whether it actually engaged with those themes and pushed them forward. The Rise of Skywalker fulfills the promise of each character’s role, putting Rey in Luke’s X-wing and Rebel helmet as she heads for a final confrontation very similar to his. Kylo Ren follows the same path as Vader, although for different reasons, turning to the light just in time to perform one good deed before he dies. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t execute these ideas well, making the movie feel like a rehash of Return of the Jedi, positioning the characters directly in their forebears’ footsteps and in a way robbing them of their own identities.
Director and writer J.J. Abrams spoke about why he chose to make Rey the granddaughter of Palpatine at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences press conference in December. According to a Variety interview, he and co-writer Chris Terrio said they wanted to present Rey with her greatest fear. Where Rian Johnson had challenged Rey by declaring that her parents were no one and she would never meet them, Abrams wanted to create an even more terrible option. She was part of the Original Trilogy story, but in the most grotesque possible way: she was the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, and this blood meant she was predisposed toward evil.
In The Force Awakens, we see Rey’s keen interest in following Luke’s path. While The Last Jedi shows a Luke who himself doesn’t want to participate anymore, The Rise of Skywalker restores that connection. It’s okay to base your life on your hero’s, Episode IX seems to say. What if Rey worries she won’t live up to Luke, as she does in the opening of The Rise of Skywalker when she struggles to connect with other Jedi? She can still fulfill her destiny, Episode IX assures us. Flying Luke’s X-wing is the ultimate expression of Rey fitting into Luke’s story. Even if she is a Palpatine, the story says she can also be a Skywalker. It’s empowering, but is it too similar to the story we’ve already seen?
I can see how Rey’s victory can be inspiring, even if the execution didn’t work for me. Rey channels every Jedi Master in history, from the Prequel Trilogy to animated shows and beyond. Her power defeats Palpatine’s Sith legacy because she turns his attack back on him and refuses to sacrifice her friends to get her way. This selflessness allows her to rise above impossible odds. It unlocks what she has been searching for all along: the history of the Jedi and her place in it. In The Force Awakens, she thought Luke was a myth and expressed amazement at the prospect of him even being real. In Episode IX, she’s part of the myth. “I am all the Jedi,” she says, surrounded by the spirits of those who came before.
But this also illustrates the movie’s character problem. Rey has gone from trying to find Luke to becoming every Jedi. It’s still a very personal story, since she wants to find her place in this legacy, but the script prefers quips over deeper conversation, which means the “every Jedi” scene also abruptly removes Rey from Rey’s big scene and replaces her with this inspirational crowd. (Consider the different take Avatrar: The Last Airbender had on a similar story, where Aang talked to his past selves in a penultimate scene but eventually had to make his finale decision alone, based on his own moral code.)
Kylo Ren/Ben Solo approaches the same conversation from a different angle. Kylo Ren spent the previous two movies idolizing Darth Vader. In The Rise of Skywalker, he orders his mask reforged, turning him back into a Vader-like figure. But the more vulnerable person Rey connected with in The Last Jedi is still there, too. The Rise of Skywalker treats Kylo Ren and Ben Solo like two different people, and, for Ben, returning to the light is about un-learning Vader’s fall. Their emotional journeys are opposite: while Anakin turns into Vader to save Padme, Kylo turns back into Ben at the urging of his deceased father. I could talk about this as a fan who rejects this read of the narrative in favor of the one the author intended, but that doesn’t fit how closely Ben’s story parellels Vader in the end. He sacrifices himself to save Rey and helps kill Palpatine, just like Vader did for Luke. In the end, Ben was like his idol after all, albeit in a way that felt more like repetition than homage.
Of course, Rey and Kylo aren’t the only characters with connections to the previous generation. Poe Dameron steps into the shoes of his idol Leia as general of the Resistance fleet. Finn and Jannah are ex-stormtroopers, trying to find new lives after the war. Finn becomes part of the Jedi legacy, discovering his own power in the Force, while Jannah may be Lando Calrissian’s daughter.
This puts the Star Wars franchise in a strange place, with all of its major characters re-treading the paths of those who came before in order to reach familiar outcomes. Rey has suffered tragedy and discovered power like Luke, Poe might find himself the head of a Resistance movement turned into a galactic government, and, like Han, Finn is inextricably connected to people to whom he once felt only situational loyalty. The galaxy is in roughly the same place it was after Return of the Jedi.
So, is this a story about how not learning from the past dooms us to repeat it? No: Palpatine has risen from the dead or was never dead in the first place, so it’s more like a story about how even if you do know the past, it will come back like a zombie. That happens in the real world too, with cycles of history: the same ideologies resurfacing 30 years later in different forms. The Sequel Trilogy certainly shows characters facing the resurrection of an old war and deciding to stick to their guns (whichever side of the war those guns are on). Maybe that is the lesson: Rey and Kylo both hold their ground. But this message lacks focus, with The Rise of Skywalker opting for spectacle instead of depth.
I set out to learn something about being a fan or being a millennial from Rey and Kylo’s stories. I walked out of the theater feeling like I hadn’t: it had repeated the previous story without enhancing it, any deeper message lost in the fleet of Death Stars and Palpatine’s clone laboratory. Like The Last Jedi, it’s a controversial movie among fans. The Rise of Skywalker feels like it’s trying to be a celebration of people finding their place in a saga as big as Star Wars: Rey connects to the Jedi who came before her and Ben Solo sacrifices himself like Anakin Skywalker did before him. But with the stakes emphasizing the galactic over the personal, it also feels like they never had a choice to begin with.