In a way, Star Wars has ended again. But it’s never really going to end. The “finality” of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a joke; this film wasn’t even the last Star Wars adventure many fans saw in 2019, since The Mandalorian’s season finale trailed the movie’s release by a week. But Skywalker does wrap up the trilogy of new movies that were first announced when Disney bought Lucasfilm back in 2012. No further numbered “episode” movies that add onto George Lucas’ original nine-film arc are expected to materialize in the foreseeable future. This puts Star Wars in the unusual position of having drawn to a close three separate times, with three separate trilogies.
Plenty of franchises have promised an ending, then continued anyway. But even at its most cynical, Star Wars isn’t exactly Friday the 13th in the 1980s, advertising a final installment, then releasing another sequel a year later. Though Star Wars has had multiple TV and movie spin-offs, with more on the way, the core of the series is those three trilogies, each separated by a decade or more, all of which were intended to tie up loose ends in their respective third installments: 1983’s Return of the Jedi, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, and now The Rise of Skywalker. Few film sagas get this many cracks at designing a satisfying ending.
There’s been a lot of debate, though, over exactly how detailed those designs have been. A lot of criticisms over The Rise of Skywalker focus on the new trilogy’s planning, or lack thereof. Co-writer and director J.J. Abrams kicked off the run with The Force Awakens, then ceded the middle installment, The Last Jedi, to writer-director Rian Johnson. With Skywalker, Abrams returns to the trilogy, and visibly scrambles to assemble payoffs, fan service, and callbacks to the Lucas-era films, all while offhandedly retconning Last Jedi.
Truthfully, though, a lack of forethought has always been a hallmark of Star Wars trilogies. Some of the first three movies’ biggest plot points were famously not part of George Lucas’ original set of ideas. Return of the Jedi in particular feels like spirited vamping. It introduces inconsequential but fun new characters (the Ewoks; the denizens of Jabba the Hutt’s palace of sleaze), and eventually falls back on the opening film’s plot, assembling another fleet of spaceships for another attack on an even bigger Death Star — only this time, with the three main heroes occupied elsewhere.
Years later, even with Lucas exercising even more control, the prequel trilogy picks up some story threads, but lets others drop. Sometimes, those dropped threads are productive: Revenge of the Sith has a singularity of purpose that the other two films in the prequel trilogy lack. Sometimes, they aren’t. (Did Lucas ever actually work out who clone-army-commissioner Sifo Dyas was, exactly?)
The best-case scenario for the lack of an overarching plan is spectacular middle chapters like the original trilogy’s The Empire Strikes Back and the sequel trilogy’s The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson clearly took his inspiration from old Star Wars movies, and from what he’d been handed with The Force Awakens. But somehow, he crafted a story that feels fresher and more personal, and he boldly avoids ending on an obvious cliffhanger, in imitation of Empire. It’s no accident that at the moment, Empire and Last Jedi are the most critically beloved Star Wars movies after A New Hope. Neither of those middle films had to attend to the messy business of wrapping up and paying off a trilogy.
Rise of Skywalker has to sort through that kind of messy business on an unprecedented level, since it’s also wrapping up a 40-year saga. Every Star Wars sequel or prequel has carried baggage from what came before, via mirrors, callbacks, and improbable familial connections. As the series has continued, the baggage has accumulated, giving Abrams the unenviable task of wrapping up his own movie, the full sequel trilogy, and the two previously ended trilogies all at once.
But sometimes, that feels like a self-imposed sentence more than an audience mandate, as if the filmmakers are taking cues from the pseudo-finality of Avengers: Endgame. Abrams clearly aspires to both the speedy, crowd-pleasing adventure of Return of the Jedi (what Pauline Kael dismissed as a “fun machine” back in 1983) and to the sense of saga-defining inevitability that gives Revenge of the Sith its darker, more operatic momentum. Since Revenge of the Sith was already the Empire Strikes Back of the prequel trilogy, and Abrams also wants to continue with the characters he helped create in Force Awakens, this means Rise of Skywalker is essentially trying to function as all Star Wars sequels at once.
Well, maybe not Attack of the Clones. (Although: that is the other Star Wars film with pivotally awkward romantic chemistry.) But yes, The Last Jedi is in there too. For all of the moments in Skywalker that can be read as walkbacks of Johnson’s work, there are plenty of times where Abrams attempts to honor that movie in the home stretch, however clumsily. The Force-fueled Skype sessions between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) remain integral to the story, and so does their uneasy emotional connection with the original-trilogy characters they each parallel — Leia in Rey’s case, Darth Vader in Kylo’s.
And their connection to each other is also significantly emphasized and deepened in Last Jedi, to the point where Skywalker has to see it through and find an emotional ending to their arc. While Skywalker retcons Rey’s supposed lack of a fancy lineage, Abrams does try to retain some humbler origins by revealing that Finn (John Boyega) is Force-sensitive. He was a Stormtrooper in the past, but could possibly become a Jedi in the future. Whether he does or doesn’t, his building Force abilities make a strong argument that individuals’ choices matter more than their history. They also pay off Johnson’s Last Jedi idea that Force users can come from anywhere.
So it’s not that Abrams seems determined to finish the saga without input from Last Jedi. He apparently just felt obligated to sequelize and tie up far more than just his immediate cinematic predecessor. Skywalker shares that problem with the other Star Wars finales, in different ways. Return of the Jedi plays off the first trilogy’s greatest hits, dealing with the fallout from Empire’s dramatic I-am-your-father revelation as it happily recreates the zip of the first film. Like Empire, it’s better-regarded now than it was upon release, benefitting from the way so many latter-day fans experienced the original trilogy as a single work, easier to watch and love as a cohesive whole than when doled out over the course of years.
Revenge of the Sith reversed that trajectory, critically speaking. It got pretty great reviews in 2005, as it broadened the scope of the prequels to tie further into the original trilogy. But in the years since, it’s been recategorized as just another clunky Star Wars prequel, fodder for windbaggy video analysis on YouTube and the occasional fan defense. (This reputation sells all three prequels short; it’s especially unfair to Sith’s downbeat grandeur.)
Rise of Skywalker refers to both of the previous trilogy wrap-ups, though the greatest hits of Return of the Jedi fittingly receive more attention from Hollywood’s most successful cover-band filmmaker. Abrams mirrors Return’s entire climax, with the hero facing off against Palpatine’s super-powered fascism, while her friends stage a dramatic siege on the bad guys’ mega-weapon. Sith gets quoted in part to hand-wave away a plot point also connected to Return of the Jedi: a repeated line from Sith about how “the dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities that some consider to be unnatural” is meant to explain how Palpatine continues to quasi-live even after he was chucked down the shaft of an exploding space station at the end of Episode VI.
Skywalker mirrors Revenge of the Sith in another, subtler way. Sith opens with a large-scale rescue sequence, where Jedi partners Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker rescue Chancellor Palpatine (oops!) from the openly villainous General Grievous. Though much of the film heads inexorably toward tragedy, this passage is both a wonderfully sustained bit of swashbuckling action-adventure, and an oddly touching glimpse at the brotherly closeness between Obi-wan and Anakin. Rise of Skywalker echoes that breakneck-yet-bittersweet quality, sending Rey, Finn, and Poe on their only real on-screen adventure as a trio, racing through a fast-paced, banter-heavy first hour. Both Sith and Skywalker take fond last looks at their droid heroes. R2-D2 proves his mettle again in the opening section of Sith, a treat for longtime fans. C-3PO gets his biggest role since the original trilogy in Abrams’ new movie.
C-3PO’s story in Episode IX has a meta dimension, reviving his fussy-nuisance shtick from the original trilogy (minus some of the bile) before requiring a reset of his memory in order to access a crucial bit of McGuffin-hunting information. Halfway through the movie, the cyclical adventures of the new Star Wars generation becomes all new to Threepio, who regards his friends with freshly rebooted eyes and renewed skepticism over their recklessness. At the same time, his pre-erasure willingness to sacrifice his memories for the greater good carries an unexpected poignancy, even if Abrams isn’t willing to commit to the idea. (It’s a lighter version of the new trilogy’s favorite overused trick: the fake-out pretend death. It also misses the opportunity to restore C-3PO’s wiped memory of the prequels!)
Here and at several other key moments — the reclaimed Solo-ish gestures of a reformed Kylo Ren, say — Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio realize an inspired hybridization of Return of the Jedi’s chummy sense of fun and Sith’s heavier sense of series history. They acknowledge the formulaic pleasures of this space-serial adventure, as well as their characters’ willingness and desire to break free of old patterns.
At its best, this lends Rise of Skywalker a prismatic effect. At its worst, the new movie searches for its own homegrown sense of inevitability, and comes up short. The solution to Rey’s Palpatine dilemma — how she can defeat this massive evil without becoming what she most fears and loathes — amounts to a massive hedge, a Jedi-inflected version of the old action-movie cliché of a hero killing in semi-passive self-defense. Though Return to Jedi retreated into the safety of hug-ready Ewoks, the cuddliest versions of Han and Leia, and another Death Star run, it also featured Luke Skywalker throwing down his lightsaber and rejecting hatred in the face of withered Sith evil. Rey rejects Palpatine by lending her lightsaber to Kylo for a few minutes, then re-acquiring it so she can use two lightsabers to push away Palpatine’s Force lightning. That ending converts emotional turmoil into physical mechanics.
It’s no surprise that Rey defeats Palpatine, nor does it need to be. Not much that happens in Return of the Jedi or Revenge of the Sith is especially surprising — Empire and Last Jedi have to take the burden of creative surprises. But the Skywalker filmmakers seem to arrive at their own conclusion by process of elimination, where anything too far afield from previous movies has been crossed off a brainstormed list.
To some degree, Skywalker seems self-aware about this. Abrams and Terrio know they’re evoking memories of earlier films and competing with them at the same time. Yet the retreads of Return of the Jedi and the self-referential “rhyming” of Revenge of the Sith both extend their reach further into the world outside of fantasy and fandom. Luke’s decisions in Return of the Jedi have some philosophical depth, and Sith is explicitly about a society complicit in its own descent into a fascist state. The newest finale gins up some resonance about the vigilance required to keep fascism from rising again, but it’s mostly secondhand, almost incidental.
Rise of Skywalker’s reverence for the past may be necessary in a way Abrams and company probably didn’t intend. They’re out to placate the fans, but instead, they may be helping to banish this saga, in this form, from movies. More than either previous series wrap-up, this finale has been made with a strong awareness that more big-screen Star Wars will eventually follow. To its credit, the film still feels conclusive. Revenge of the Sith ends with a lot of good guys dead, but the key characters from the original trilogy — Obi-wan, Yoda, Vader — had to survive. Return of the Jedi similarly ends with a lot of good guys surviving. But the sequel trilogy methodically kills off Han, Luke, and Leia in spite of their respective curtain calls, and manages not to feel too grim about it.
Fusing the fun-machine exhaustion and mythic grandeur of the other trilogy-cappers turns Rise of Skywalker into a messy exorcism. It’s by turns delightful, muddled, cathartic, and frustrating, sometimes within the same scene. And what could be more post-1977 Star Wars than that? The series’ final shot, true to Skywalker’s everything-to-everyone nature, mashes up the final shot of Revenge of the Sith (itself an homage to the famous two-moon horizon of the first Star Wars) and a strong image from The Force Awakens, with a dash of the Force-ghost finale from Return of the Jedi. Blurring the iconography of Rey and BB-8 into that of their predecessors is simultaneously heartening and a little sad, like a blip from C-3PO’s erased, restored, imperfect memory. With three trilogies, a renewable fan base, and money to be made, Star Wars is always beginning again, and always ending again. In its imperfect way, Rise of Skywalker captures those endless endings perfectly. With the saga over, maybe the next chapter can find a way to end better.