Michael Darling

Three Things Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Got Right

It was an impossible task. The creative talent behind the ninth movie in the central Star Wars storyline were given an impossible task. They were asked to take a franchise that has dominated popular culture for more than four decades and bring it home. This effort must have required a planet-sized gut check for all concerned. They had to know there would be dissatisfied fans for one very simple reason: different groups of fans wanted different—even diametrically opposite—movies.

What J.J. Abrams and company accomplished is a miracle. As an author, I often judge a movie by the story and how it is executed. The following are three ways the filmmakers satisfied the requirements of the story and, despite fan opinion to the contrary, how they got those three vital elements right.

Fair warning: there be spoilers ahead.

The Lineage of Rey
Since The Force Awakens, the question of Rey’s ancestry has been a major plot point. Who were Rey’s parents? Why did they abandon her on Jakku? Like Anakin, are these emotional scars the reason Rey is drawn to the dark side of the force? There had to be a purpose and, if unanswered, these questions would have torpedoed the story of our plucky heroine. Not only did these questions need to be answered, they had to make a difference. Trivia does not a successful tale make.

The questions were posed and, in The Last Jedi, apparently abandoned. When Kylo Ren tells Rey her parents were nobodies, it seemed to put the issue to rest, although not in a way that felt satisfying. Was Kylo telling the truth? Or were his actions misdirection for another reason?

Certainly, it played into Kylo Ren’s plans to make Rey feel like she was small and weak so he could convince her to join with him. As it turns out, her parents were nobodies “from a certain point of view,” which was classic Star Wars plotting. Instead, in TROS, Rey is revealed to be the grand-daughter of Emperor Palpatine. Once I got past my initial reaction (who would make a baby with the creepiest humanoid in the known galaxy?) I realized this moment was not only shocking, it satisfied one of the most important aspects of the SW universe, which is the balance of light and dark.

Kylo, as we suspected, is the Skywalker who rises in this film. As the son of Leia, his heritage is that of the noble Jedi and his struggle to be fully vested in the dark side is made more poignant because we want him to embrace the light rather than complete the dark legacy of his grandfather, Darth Vader. In making Rey a Palpatine, the film provides a parallel that brings emotional balance to the story. In precise counterpoint to Kylo, Rey’s heritage is the dark side, but she fights for the light. It’s really beautiful when these characters finally understand why they are connected and why they are essentially fighting opposite sides of the same internal conflict. This factors into bringing Rey to equal footing with Kylo as well, as she finally knows why the dark side seems to want her, and from that moment, all her choices carry greater weight. It also lets the characters share romantic closure without that awkward “sister kissing her brother” factor that consigned Luke and Leia’s kiss to the Vault of Cringe forever.

The Return of Palpatine
It’s hard to know how long the filmmakers debated over bringing Emperor Palpatine back. Most likely, it was sooner than later they realized they hardly had a choice. It may have been scribbled on a dog-eared corner of a notebook for years before the movie was made because it was necessary to bring the story home. There is so much fan service in the third trilogy (and I could write a complete article on just that) and it’s only done by making sure the many endings call back across the decades to the story beginnings that have entertained a generation.

Bringing Palpatine back was also a means of making the Empire finally smarter, if only a little. The saying, “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it” became a kind of unspoken guideline for the Empire and the First Order. It’s notable that so many highly rated movies in the franchise have a giant planet-killer of one kind or another, but they always have a fatal flaw. In Rogue One we find out that the fatal flaw was part of the design. Yet every other Death Star and Starkiller Base had a similar problem, which was exploited by the rebels to bring it down. As story consumers, we like the “finesse beats strength” trope and have done ever since David slung a torpedo into Goliath’s exhaust port. By the time we arrive at TROS, we’ve seen those iterations enough. In a brilliant stroke of genius, Palpatine learned from past mistakes. While he was prodding the First Order with Snokes (glad that he was explained!) Palpatine was secretly building a better solution. The rebellion was going to have to work a lot harder and become more directly involved in separating the Emperor from his big toys this time. The solution was great as well as a much-needed step up, and it felt like an improvement because it was Palpatine with the plan.

Two more reasons. In the original trilogy, the Emperor turned out to be the bigger, badder wolf pulling Darth Vader’s strings. In the prequels, we find out how he became Emperor while setting up Anakin for failure so he could get his Darth. Then, the third trilogy. To close out the story, we needed a villain capable of dirty deeds and domination. Where to get one of those? Either someone in the First Order would need to take control or we would need a completely unknown character to come out of nowhere. Bringing in a new villain presented problems. Witness the rise of Snoke, who we never felt comfortable with as an ultimate bad guy and therefore was dispatched, which was a wise move. With Vader redeemed and one with the force, options were few. Again, the producers looked for balance and fan service. Bringing Palpatine back meant his influence, like the Skywalkers, carried from the first film to the last. Emotional closure. Additionally, he’d already established one Empire and was the best candidate to do it again.

Finally, Palpatine was needed to confirm Rey’s lineage. Any number of characters could have told Rey she was a Palpatine, but having her own grandfather tell her to her face was so much stronger. And, in the last line of the movie, we have the emotional satisfaction that the Palpatine family’s journey to oblivion is complete.

The “Death” of C-3PO
One small quibble. How many times was a major character killed, or at least presumed dead, only to resurface in this series? Maybe one or two too many. But for some characters, it was necessary and resonant. Necessary because the original characters needed to have an end for the series to be ended. Especially where the major characters were concerned, each one of them needed a fitting, separate, and different conclusion to their life. We would only be comfortable seeing the series end if our heroes ended heroically as well. Han Solo died so his son, Kylo, would find out that the most despicable acts are insufficient to change who you really are—a lesson Vader also had to learn so, in a way, Kylo did follow his grandfather’s footsteps. Leia died so that Kylo could also see that there is no power greater than putting true human principles above oneself. And Luke surrendered himself because he realized that good survives only when one generation shows the next generation how to carry it forward.

As a note, these choices also put a helpful fence around the Star Wars Expanded Universe. We will see more stories about our favorite classic characters (keeping fingers crossed for the Obi Wan Kenobi series) and an open-ended universe would make it difficult to create stories either with these characters or without them. Parameters and limits actually give freedom to writers.

Going back to the balance of the entire story, C-3PO presents a problem. He’s the only character to have a role in every one of the nine films and whose status is never really threatened. He gets switched off and disassembled but is never truly lost and never makes a sacrifice willingly. Whatever happens, he keeps shuffling along and spouting commentary, which is in keeping with who he is. Even R2-D2 is presumed to be beyond recovery for a while in The Force Awakens. For the universe to be complete, C-3PO had to die. He does so in a way that is both thoughtful and noble and makes him ultimately heroic. I found his scenes in TROS to be his most effective and touching.

To draw a final parallel, Rey’s destiny was to find success despite her heritage. The makers of Rise of Skywalker did the same thing. Both came into the story of The Rise of Skywalker with significant, seemingly impossible, challenges to overcome. Both did overcome them admirably and well.

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