When new Star Wars movies come out, I do something that might not be typical for most fans: I clear a day out of my busy life and spend it watching the film several times. By the writing of this review, I have seen it seven times. I say this in a half-hearted way of establishing my credentials when addressing some of what I feel are the stranger criticisms of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (henceforth just The Rise of Skywalker because I do not feel like writing out the whole title!). Along the way I shall inject why this movie was good for Star Wars fans and from a Catholic perspective. In short, I believe this review shall encompass the very reason why this blog exists in the first place.
I put out the briefest review of The Rise of Skywalker on Facebook, saying “There will be some who will nitpick aspects of this movie, and even I rolled my eyes at one or two points. But for this Star Wars fan, The Rise of Skywalker was immensely satisfying.” Since Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (also henceforth The Force Awakens) was released in 2015, there have been people from all corners of the internet coming out to tear apart aspects of the new trilogy like they had invented Star Wars themselves. Of course, one could say that I am one of those legions of World Wide Web trolls, but that is aside from the point. While I feel the barbs leveled at the prequels were justified (and my hat is off, in many ways, to Red Letter Media here), I have never understood most of the bad things people say about the new ones. It seems to me (and I could be wrong here, but my instinct says otherwise) that those who grew up with the Mary Poppins-esque original trilogy wanted the new ones to be basically carbon copies of the old ones. And actually The Force Awakens is very similar in tone and structure to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (look, from here on out I am referring to all Star Wars film by their shortened title!). You know, the first one, the proto-Star Wars. While it had some of the old (read elderly) characters from their predecessors, the new Star Wars film featured fresh faced individuals who took control of the direction of the story, whether we liked them or not. That is life. Things change, my friends, there is nothing we can do about it. Faith is a good way of dealing with such events. Try it some time when you are raging over aspects of Star Wars that are ultimately way down on the priority list.
So why did I like The Rise of Skywalker? Before I continue, a warning: spoilers ahead. Ultimately, as set down in 1977 in A New Hope, Star Wars movies are about trusting in a higher power to help guide you to doing good in the galaxy. That higher power is what is referred to as the Force. As a practicing Catholic whose most important relationship is the one with God, that is a sentiment I can get behind. The rest of the stuff–the space ships, aliens, and lightsabers–are just tools used to tell the story of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) learning to use the Force as a Jedi. And because he is predisposed towards heroism, he uses it for the side of light. It was an original concept in 1977 and because it was told in such a way where heroes were heroes and villains were villains, it spoke to something timeless in all of us. Christianity (whether you acknowledge it or not) teaches us that everyone is inherently good. I believe that is something that is in everyone, Christian or not. Salvation history is full of missionaries believing this very concept. Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the new Star Wars movies has the same basic instinct, and that is really all you need.
Of course, our beloved main characters do not go throughout the entire Star Wars sagas untested. After all, how interesting would it be for them to just do good repeatedly without any stakes. In the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker is tested by the revelation that his father is Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), the ultimate movie villain who uses the Force to do evil throughout the galaxy. What a kick in the power converters to want to know your father for so long, only to find out that he is the galactic boogeyman. Rey has basically the same motivation: to become a Jedi and find the identity of her parents. Her big moment comes in The Rise of Skywalker when she discovers that Emperor Palpatine is her grandfather. So that sucked for her. The true test comes when they are asked to join the Dark Side in order to save their friends. For both Luke Skywalker and Rey the choices presented are clear: they can opt for the easy out or the hard way, instant gratification or the often difficult way path of glory and redemption. As with Faith, and to echo the words of Luke in The Rise of Skywalker, “You have everything you need,” to face such challenges and make the right decisions. Sadly our culture says otherwise, and we more often go for whatever feeds our growing latent laziness. I have a theory that this is why Darth Vader and the villains in Star Wars are so popular, but that is another issue.
Thus, again, Rey finally confronts the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) in The Rise of Skywalker whose Final Order forces are busy destroying Rey’s friends and their paltry band of Resistance fighters. Rey is in the Sith throne room, the place where all the events of the film (and really the preceding two) have led her, and is surrounded by a horde of Sith. All hope seems lost. She appears friendless, and the Emperor is driving this point home with all his powers of persuasion. But just when she is on the verge of giving in to the lie she has been telling herself that she might just be bad after all, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) (now Ben Solo, which says about all you need to know about what happens with his character in the film) shows up to remind her that she is not friendless, that there is a spark of life left in the galaxy. Ben’s redemption is all the proof she needs, and is a nice reminder that no matter how far we fall in life, God offers a way back. Unfortunately, the Emperor seems beyond such gestures. Evil is real, and he is it. And even though in the end it is Rey who faces the Emperor alone, she receives further evidence that she is not on her own when the previous Jedi speak to her in spirit. The scene where the deceased Jedi lend their support to Rey is my favorite, and is the real culmination of everything Star Wars. That is why I liked this film.
There were a few things that I did not like in The Rise of Skywalker. The whole thing with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) being the spy because he wants to see Kylo Ren lose is kind of dumb and could have been excluded. But most of the things that people will nitpick at, I would suggest, are very minor quibbles compared to the overall thrust of the story and its inexorable movement towards the showdown with the Emperor and the Sith. Okay, so there are new abilities in the Force that allow Rey and Kylo Ren to pass things back and forth to each other when separated by vast distances. Is that not okay because that was never seen before in a Star Wars movie? If this is a problem for you, I would remind you of two things: first, it is science fiction and thus the Force can do pretty much whatever the writers want it to do; secondly, the first way the Force is described in Star Wars is when Obi Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) in A New Hope calls it, “. . . an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” That is enough for me. I like heroism and people doing good. That is what I want in the world, and please God I do my best to affect it. That is where The Rise of Skywalker shines, and the prequels failed so utterly, incidentally.
I liked watching Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) pilot the Millennium Falcon in The Rise of Skywalker. I loved seeing Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, may she rest in peace) as Rey’s new Jedi Master. This was a bit of validation from the expanded Star Wars universe that I spent so much of my youth reading books that continued its tales. Leia became a powerful Jedi in these novels, so seeing her lightsaber made those years not a complete waste of my time, or at least that is what I told myself. There were some other Easter eggs that tickled my fancy, such as seeing the Ghost from the Star Wars: Rebels cartoon series and hearing the voice of Kannan Jarus (Freddie Prinze Jr.) in my favorite scene. If you have not watched the Rebels show, it gets my highest recommendation, and Jarus became one of my favorite characters. In the end, though, these are all lesser points in the face of the lesson that we all have a choice between good and evil, of what is easy and hard. Sometimes doing right can be easy, but often it is hard, and when we can face ourselves (often the hardest part, and something Rey had to do) and triumph, we come out so much better in the end. This aligns so much with my Faith, and it is not something I can easily ignore.