With Star War: The Rise of Skywalker hitting Disney+, and since it’s May the 4th week, it is time now to revisit The Rise of Skywalker, a movie that is not even five months old and already aging poorly. At first watch, TROS is an uneven movie that provides some big, satisfying spectacles while crapping on The Last Jedi and any attempt to divorce Star Wars from fan service. At second watch, TROS is wildly uneven, and the big spectacle moments don’t make up for the failure of this movie to advance the Star Wars legacy beyond special blood and Skywalkers. I have said before that Star Wars is small, that the universe is limited, and TROS runs up against those constraints constantly. The Last Jedi attempts to open the story up, moving the Jedi out of the special blood arena and reclaiming the Force as something that can come from anywhere, not just Skywalkers.
In re-watching TROS, it is abundantly clear that Rey should have been a nobody, that the final scene should have been Rey embracing her identity as “just Rey”, a moment that would pay off the scene earlier in the film where she is sad, maybe even ashamed, to have no family name. In embracing her status as a nobody, Rey would cement the notion that the Force is not about special blood—a terrible idea that walks dangerously close to obsession with aristocratic power and white supremacy—and thus open up future Star Wars storytelling to an unlimited universe of possibilities. Instead, we remain penned in the same small plot of land where every Jedi worth talking about is related.
But Rey is not the only problem in TROS. The First Order is a HUGE problem. Frankly, it was a problem in The Force Awakens, too, and it never got addressed so by TROS of course they have to dust off an OG villain like the Emperor. The sequel trilogy relies too heavily on the iconography of the original trilogy, and it tries to replicate the scrappy underdog vs. totalitarian regime structure, even though the scrappy underdogs won back in the day and thus are no longer underdogs. From the jump, we never understand who the First Order is, how they acquired power, and what Leia’s Resistance is fighting. (And don’t say “but the comics/novels/animated series”, the vast majority of the film audience does not consume ancillary media, these things must be addressed in the movies themselves.) This puts TROS in an impossible position and basically forces them to bring back the Emperor—which is SO STUPIDLY LAUGHABLE—because there is no other way to explain the First Order so late in the game.
The simple solution is, of course, to let Kylo Ren be a bad guy. Commit to him as a reverse Luke, a Force warrior who commits to the Dark path, is tempted by the Light, but ultimately doubles down on being evil. What could this sequel trilogy have been if Kylo Ren was framed like Luke and Rey was presented not as a scrappy heroine but as his Light-side Vader? The sequel trilogy is not a complete failure, there are some good characters and interesting ideas here, but mostly there is an overwhelming sense of missed opportunity. Take these pieces and rearrange them slightly and many interesting new shapes emerge, especially around Kylo Ren and Rey. These are rich characters trapped in the most boring possible version of their story, but there are hints of what could have been, especially in TROS as Kylo Ren attempts to rebuild his shaken sense of identity after killing Snoke in the previous film.
Ultimately, TROS fails because it doesn’t imagine its own world big enough. Everything has to connect to something already established in the original trilogy, and very little is actually new. On second viewing, the best scene in the movie is the Babu Frik scene, because Babu Frik doesn’t feel like fan service, he feels of a piece with a world that doesn’t revolve around Jedi or empires. The Mandalorian works for a similar reason, because while it touches on events in the original trilogy, it is a story about new people in new places doing new things. Frankly, Star Wars needs more of that, and less of special blood and legacy inheritance. The sequel trilogy had a chance to go beyond those things, but TROS doubled down and ended up failing as a narrative as a result. Star Wars does not have to be limited to what can be repackaged from before. This is a world with magic space wizards, it can be about anything. Hopefully, as we move into a new era of storytelling, it will be with that wide-open spirit of possibility.