Rose Tico once said that we’re going to win not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love. That wisdom is pertinent for Star Wars fans; amidst seemingly incessant criticism, I want to spend time actually liking Star Wars. I love all Star Wars, so in this series, I’ll walk through each of the films identifying five things I love about it. That’s not to say there are only five, but I’m limiting myself to five here. One note: because I think John Williams’ work on every Star Wars film is fantastic, I’m going to essentially assume that would make every list, thus I’m leaving it out intentionally. But without Williams’ music, we don’t have Star Wars as we know and love it.
We continue today with the final film of the Skywalker Saga, The Rise of Skywalker.
1. Everything Ben Solo
My favorite part about this movie was everything to do with Ben Solo. I know that there was debate about the whole Bendemption thing, but I’ll be honest: from the moment I saw The Force Awakens, I fully assumed and expected that Ben Solo would return to the light side. Why? This is the Skywalker Saga, and it seemed obvious that the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo would not end the final Star Wars trilogy as the bad guy. Plus, I assumed that Han Solo’s sacrifice to try to reach his son would pay off; it had to, right? This feeling became all the more entrenched in The Last Jedi (and made me actually really excited to see it), so by the time of The Rise of Skywalker, I knew it was coming. And I couldn’t wait to see it.
I thought the way they did it was fantastic. The filmmakers were obviously put in a near-impossible situation with the real-life passing of Carrie Fisher, but they still needed to have Leia play a pivotal role in Ben’s redemption. They did that by having Leia reach out with the Force to connect with Ben, in a move that was seemingly inspired by Luke Skywalker’s heroics at the end of The Last Jedi. Luke projected himself across the galaxy, but he couldn’t save Ben. Leia, however, could. So she projected herself across the galaxy (though not as fully as Luke did) to reach Ben. It’s a powerful moment. Ben had just told Rey that he could never go back to his mother, so what happens next is that she comes to him. Though it takes all the strength she has left, Leia willingly sacrifices herself to let her son know that she loves him. This is, finally, what breaks through the darkness of Ben’s heart and allows the light to seep in. This is then strengthened by Rey, who decides to give up some of her life Force to heal Ben, saving his life. She could have left him to die, but she chooses not to. She chooses to save him. And so all in a matter of moments, Leia has sacrificed her life to reach Ben and save him, and Rey has sacrificially healed Ben, saving him. The way to win is not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love. The end game was always saving Ben Solo. Leia and Rey both get that and reach out to him – as does one other person…
Han Solo. In a thrilling surprise, Solo returns to the franchise once more, even though he’s dead, and this is easily the most touching scene of the whole film. Even though he’s just a memory, it’s a chance for Han to let his son know that he loves him – or, more importantly, for Ben to let his father know that. The scene allows Ben to process the death of Leia and for him to realize that it is not too late for him to come home and honor what his mother fought for. And then the scene turns to mirror the moment from The Force Awakens where Ben killed Han; it plays out exactly the same… until instead of gutting Han with the lightsaber, Ben turns and chucks his lightsaber into the ocean. His redemption is complete. Ben Solo has returned.
And that leads up to the climactic Battle of Exegol, where Rey faces Palpatine alone… or so she thinks. As Palpatine, her grandfather, taunts her and says that if she doesn’t do what he says her new family will die, Ben appears. Rey’s true “family” hasn’t left her alone. So Ben rushes into the Sith Temple on Exegol, making quick work of some of the Sith Eternal troopers (by using the same move with a blaster Han did in TFA), and then he encounters the Knights of Ren. This is where J.J. Abrams and company perfectly build off of what The Last Jedi already established, as once Rey senses Ben’s presence, she uses their bond through the Force to pass the Skywalker lightsaber to him. And with a Han Solo-esque shrug that is literally PERFECT, Ben springs into action, taking down the Knights of Ren while Rey uses Leia’s saber to take out the guards. The two come together to face Palpatine.
And then things go sideways, and I don’t love how Ben is handled (as he’s unfortunately just cast out of the picture). BUT, after Rey defeats Palpatine (which is awesome in its own right, so keep reading for more on that in a minute), Ben returns. But Rey has seemingly died after the exhaustion and exertion of facing Darth Sidious, and so Ben finds her: and he then uses the technique she used earlier to save his life, transferring a bit of life to her. But since she is dead, it takes all the life Ben Solo has left. He brings her back, and the two share a kiss (which I liked)… and then Ben dies. And he’s really dead. I know that this was met with mixed reviews, and while I didn’t love seeing Ben die, here’s why I thought it worked so well: Ben Solo does what his grandfather, Anakin Skywalker, never could. In TFA, Kylo tells Vader that he would finish what Vader started, and in TROS, he does – only it’s Ben finishing what Anakin started. In the prequel trilogy, Anakin’s fall to the dark side was out of a desire to prevent Padmé from dying. George Lucas viewed true love as compassion, whereas the kind of love that is wrong is the attachment that the Jedi forbid. But Anakin’s love for Padmé is attachment, saying “I can’t live without her,” and he wants to do whatever it takes to prevent her from death. Palpatine tells him that the only way to do this is by succumbing to the dark side, but it doesn’t work. It was a selfish love. But in TROS, here’s what we learn: the way to truly keep someone from dying is found not in the dark side but the light side. It’s found in a compassionate, selfless love. It’s found in giving up your life to save theirs. That’s what Ben does here. Anakin couldn’t keep Padmé from death, but Ben could keep Rey from death. And it came not through leaving the light, but by returning to it.
So yes, I loved everything about Ben Solo in this film. My only complaint is that there wasn’t more of him.
2. “I am all the Jedi”
While Ben’s return to the light might be the heartbeat of the movie, there is no doubt about it: Rey is the main hero. She has endured much hardship and tragedy, including in this film the revelation that her grandfather is Palpatine, fighting off the temptation to darkness. This movie plays into Rey’s temptation to the dark side (first established in The Last Jedi): she shoots Force lightning from her hand in anger (presumably killing Chewbacca), she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter, she has a vision of herself on the Sith Throne, she faces off against a Sith “version” of herself, and she nearly gives in to Sidious’s urging. She resists all of this, telling Palpatine, “all you want is for me to hate, but I won’t. Not even you.” Such is the way of the Jedi.
All of this leads up to the final encounter between Rey and Palpatine. Sheev restores himself at the expense of Rey and Ben, leaving them both unconscious and weak. Ben awakes first, rising to face the Emperor, but Palpatine throws him off a ledge. All hope seems lost… except for Rey. As she lays on the floor of the Temple on Exegol, with Palpatine attacking the fleet above with Force lightning, Rey stares at the sky and whispers, “Be with me.” The very first scene of Rey in this movie – which, I might add, is epic – sees her meditating and asking “be with me” to the Jedi of the past… to no avail. Despite her best efforts and her earnest desire, Rey cannot connect with the Jedi who came before her. She begins to think it’s not possible. But here, with all hope for the galaxy fading fast and Rey too weak to even stand, the Jedi from the past speak to her through the Force. And this is all just so cool, with so many different Jedi calling out to her through the Force, strengthening her to stand and face Palpatine once more.
Some of the Jedi who speak to Rey are no-brainers, who we would have expected to appear in the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga: there’s Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness), Yoda (Frank Oz), and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). Then there are a couple other very prominent Jedi from the films who return here: Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). A few lesser known Jedi from the prequels appear too, whose inclusion comes as a surprise: Luminara Unduli (Olivia D’Abo), Aayla Secura (Jennifer Hale), and Adi Gallia (Angelique Perrin). But what is most cool of all, in my opinion, are two very prominent and notable voices that speak up: Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) and Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze Jr.)! This technically marked the first live-action appearance for either of them, but they’re no strangers to fans. Ahsoka is the main character of The Clone Wars (and starred in Rebels, and since then The Mandalorian, too), while Kanan is one of the main characters of Rebels. Both represent everything a Jedi should be, and both are fan favorites. To hear their voices join these other Jedi is so awesome!
They empower Rey to stand and face Palpatine, and she says, “I am all the Jedi” as she uses both Skywalker lightsabers to fend off Palpatine’s attack. Even this is perfect and fitting, as of course Palpatine must be defeated, but Rey cannot strike him down in anger or else she herself will succumb to the dark side. In fact, if you notice, whereas Ben Solo strikes down the Knights of Ren with his lightsaber, Rey merely uses the Force to direct the guards’ blaster fire away from her and toward the others. Defense, not attack. And that’s what she does against Palpatine, defending herself against his relentless barrage of Force lightning and deflecting it right back at him. Palpatine is not killed by Rey’s anger but by his own hubris and arrogance. He thinks he can overpower a scavenger girl from Jakku, but he doesn’t realize his mistake until it’s too late. He is killed by his own Force lightning, which Rey merely deflected back at him.
This whole encounter is great, and it serves as a fitting climactic duel of the saga. The Jedi from the past – movies and shows – speak to Rey through the Force, strengthening her to stand and fight against the one who has been the phantom menace all along.
3. Palpatine and Exegol
When the first teaser trailer for Episode IX was released, it was a genuine shock to hear that sinister and all-too-familiar laugh at the very end: Sheev Palpatine, Darth Sidious himself, the Dark Lord of the Sith and former Emperor of the Galactic Empire, was back! We didn’t know how, and the movie doesn’t really explain it either, aside from the quotation that “the dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” The novelization explained further how Palpatine actually returned, and while the statement “somehow, Palpatine returned” has become a running joke among fans, the reality is that the movie’s explanation was probably sufficient for most moviegoers. And from the very beginning of the opening crawl – “The dead speak!” – we learn that Palpatine has returned.
And I absolutely love it. Yes, I get some of the concerns that people have with it, but I think it makes total and complete sense to have the franchise’s big bad villain return for the final chapter. He has been the phantom menace all along, from the very beginning. As Leia says, he has been behind everything, “always, in the shadows.” That’s Palpatine. He was the phantom menace in the prequel trilogy, manipulating people and events to bring about his desired outcomes as the secret Dark Lord of the Sith. And even in the original trilogy, he only had one scene in the first two films combined before being the main villain of Return of the Jedi, so we learn that the main villain of the first two films actually was working for this guy. And then with The Rise of Skywalker, we learn that Palpatine was behind the events of the sequel trilogy as well. Of course he was. That makes tons of sense to me. It picks up on the tale of Darth Plageuis, with the Sith seeking immortality, it picks up on the themes of the Skywalker saga (it was always Palpatine as the main villain), and I think it’s well-done here too. I loved the reveal that Snoke was a clone (though I very much wish we had learned a bit more about that), and I loved when Kylo hears Palpatine say, “I have been every voice you have ever heard inside your head” – but he hears it not just in Palpatine’s voice but in Snoke’s and Vader’s as well. All of this is great.
So too is Exegol. Closely connected with Palpatine is this ancient and mysterious Sith world, where a decrepit and dying Palpatine has been ever since ROTJ. This is the home of the Sith Eternal, worshippers of the Sith, and they’ve built a massive fleet for their Sith Eternal Emperor. Eventually, Palpatine decides that it’s time to reveal himself to the galaxy, which lures Kylo Ren to him. I love pretty much everything about Exegol, as it’s so great to see an ancient Sith world in a Star Wars movie (this is the first and only time that’s the case), it’s great to see these secret machinations of the Sith Eternal, and it’s just so spooky and creepy looking. Palpatine does too, as he’s supported by an ommin harness and is apparently being kept alive by the Sith Eternal. The search for Exegol, the journey to Exegol, the encounter on Exegol – I think it all works brilliantly.
And a lot of that is thanks to Palpatine. He appears early on and in the climax, and only sparingly in-between, but Ian McDiarmid is as good as ever, and his scenes with Rey on Exegol are particularly great. Then he draws the life Force from Rey and Ben, restoring himself to full strength, and he hams it up, reveling in the roar of the crowd – before displaying his power.
So yeah, to sum this all up, I think the whole storyline with Palpatine works, because in my mind of course the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga would reveal Palpatine to have been the big bad guy all along. That just feels coherent and consistent. And Ian McDiarmid is fantastic in the role in making it happen, while the design and story surrounding Exegol is fantastic. I love the planet and really hope we see more about it soon.
4. Lando arrives
The sequel trilogy brought back most of the heroes of the original trilogy: Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO. Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb, too. But missing was Lando Calrissian – until The Rise of Skywalker. I remain so happy that TROS brought Lando back, as I can’t imagine making the whole sequel trilogy without including him. I thought they did it well, and Billy Dee Williams remains great. There really are three “reveals” with Lando in the movie. First is when we are introduced to him, on Pasaana. He’s disguised, but he then takes off his helmet to show the heroes – and the audience – who it is. The second “reveal” is when he shows up to speak to Poe, telling him that they won because they had each other. That was absolutely perfect. But even better than the first two is the third “reveal.”
All hope seems lost for the Resistance. Their ships are getting picked apart, including the death of Snap Wexley. And unbeknownst to the pilots, Rey and Ben Solo lie unconscious on Exegol. It’s over. And Poe begins to say as much, apologizing and saying that he thought they had a shot… but there’s just too many of them. But that’s when we hear the familiar voice of Lando Calrissian, saying, “But there are more of us, Poe. There are more of us.” John Williams delivers here (as he always does), giving a triumphant and heroic blaring of the main title as the entire screen is literally filled with ships, more than we could possibly count. The Millennium Falcon swoops down in front of them all, with Lando letting out a gleeful laugh, and the Falcon charges ahead alongside Poe, leading the galaxy fleet into battle against the Sith Eternal fleet. The galaxy isn’t dead yet – and it’s because the people of the galaxy are rising up to fight.
To me, this is a fitting conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. The galaxy will always need heroes, but as the influence of the Skywalkers nears an end, there’s hope that the heroes of the galaxy are the people of the galaxy, anyone who stands up to hatred and terror and evil and fights against it. So long as there are good people who will fight, evil cannot win. So yes, the galaxy needs the Skywalkers, needs Rey, needs Poe and Finn and Lando, to lead them in this, to inspire them that it’s possible to stand up to tyranny. But, inspired to fight, the galaxy rises up to the challenge. This isn’t the Resistance navy; “it’s just people.” And that’s why this victory feels so decisive, so final, so lasting. I’m confident there will be more conflicts and challenges in the years to come, and we’ll learn about them eventually. But as the Skywalker Saga draws to a close, we nonetheless remain confident and hopeful, because the good people of the galaxy have stood up to evil, and must continue to do so. Evil will always be around. But so long as there are good people to rise up and fight, evil can never win.
One of the many things I love about this movie is the feel of adventure that accompanies the first half-or-so, reuniting Rey, Finn, and Poe on a fun adventure trying to find the wayfinder. I really love that, and the thrilling race to find the wayfinder is so well-done. From Poe lightspeed-skipping the Millennium Falcon back to Ajan Kloss, to the gang all heading to Pasaana together, to their adventures on Pasaana, to meeting Zorii on Kijimi, to infiltrating a Star Destroyer, to their journey to Kef Bir and the Death Star ruins, the first half of the movie is a fun adventure flick, with our heroes all together in search of this secret macguffin. I really love that. But I also love that they brought C-3PO along.
He is the first character we ever heard speak in a Star Wars movie, way back in 1977, and has appeared in every film besides Solo. He’s a classic character in the saga, but in my opinion, The Rise of Skywalker is easily his best role. He’s part of the team that travels the galaxy in search of the wayfinder, but he also provides some truly great comedic relief. For example:
- When the gang is flying their speeders on Pasaana trying to escape, Threepio exclaims, “Excellent job, sir!” when he thinks they’ve lost them… only to then immediately exclaim, “Terrible job, sir!” when he discovers that they, in fact, did not lose them.
- After falling through the sinking fields, Poe calls out for the others as he tries to find them. But then Threepio appears and says, “You didn’t say my name, sir, but I’m all right.” This is actually probably the funniest line in the film, in my opinion.
- While in the tunnels beneath the sinking fields, as the group tries to figure out where they’re at, Threepio asks, “This isn’t the afterlife, is it? Are droids allowed here?”
- As the group mourns the loss of Chewbacca (they think) and the dagger, feeling that all hope is lost, Threepio in all seriousness adds, “So true. The inscription lives only in my memory now.” The others realize that this means there’s still a chance, but that thought doesn’t even seem to cross Threepio’s mind. He just mourns the loss of the dagger right along with the others.
- On Kijimi, as they try to avoid being spotted by First Order patrols, Poe says that he knows what they should do. Threepio responds, “So do I. We should leave.”
- As Babu Frik prepares to hack Threepio’s brain, leading to a complete memory wipe, Threepio suddenly says, “Oh, I just had an idea of something else we could try…” and at that moment he is deactivated. It’s the timing here that’s so great.
- When Threepio is rebooted, he sits up and says, “I am C-3PO, human/cyborg relations! And you are?” To this, Poe says, “Ok, that’s gonna be a problem.”
- As the crew tries to flee Kijimi, Poe exclaims, “Threepio! Move your metal ass. We’re almost there.” To this, the newly-rebooted Threepio responds, “How dare you! We’ve only just met!” There’s a lot of little jokes about his memory wipe, but they land really well.
- As another example of that, when on Kef Bir he hears the name Babu Frik, Threepio calls him “one of my oldest friends!” Again, it lands great.
- When reunited with R2-D2 back on Ajan Kloss, Threepio insists that he would remember if he had a best friend, and is insistent that the droid won’t stick anything in his head… but the scene is cut perfectly to this happening, and it’s the editing here that makes this gag work well.
So yeah, Threepio is a star. This is his best performance. But before wrapping this up, I want to point out that it’s not just humor that Threepio provides in this film. He actually provides one of the most emotional moments of them all. After hearing Poe say that if this mission fails it will all have been for nothing, Threepio makes a choice: he decides to sacrifice himself for the good of the others and of the mission. They need to find out what the dagger says, but the only way to do that is by wiping Threepio’s memory – meaning that he won’t remember them any more. They are hesitant to do it, but it is Threepio who wants to go through with it. So he takes one last look at his friends, then goes with it. He’s sacrificing himself for the others. It’s a poignant moment that is softened for the audience by his memory being restored later (and the fact that we could easily see it coming with the little remark about R2 backing up his memory), but keep in mind that Threepio doesn’t know about that nor think it possible. So he’s actually choosing to make the sacrifice, and it’s a touching scene.
And then one last Threepio moment comes at the very end. As the Resistance celebrates on Ajan Kloss, Threepio asks, “did you hear that?” when Rey lands in the X-Wing. These are the final words spoken by Threepio in the film, and among the very last words in the movie period. But this is a callback to the very first line we ever heard from Threepio – or anyone – in a Star Wars film, when he says the very same line at the beginning of A New Hope. It’s the ending of a saga over four decades in the making, and Threepio has been there every step of the way. And fittingly, he saved his best for last.