Death Stars are so lame.
Oh, the Galactic Empire gave the concept a go—twice, actually. Both literally blew up in their faces. The upstart First Order figured they’d improved on the concept by getting back to the basics: What’s the point in building a whole new Death Star when you can just stick a gigantic laser cannon in a planet? As we saw in The Force Awakens, that didn’t go so hot, either.
So (spoiler warning, though you learn about this next point in both the trailers and the second sentence of the movie’s opening crawl) Emperor Palpatine—recently dead but, through the miracles of galactic science and evil, still capable of a nefarious plot or two—has hatched a shiny new plan. And both First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren and wanna-be Jedi Rey figure prominently in it. The first will be Palpatine’s younger, more mobile avatar in the galaxy, the Emperor hopes; his spiritual son, if you will. The second will be—if all goes well—dead.
But as we’ve seen, Kylo Ren tends to have somewhat violent relationships with his would-be father figures. And honestly, Kylo’s not quite sure he wants Rey dead. She could be a powerful ally, he believes, if Rey could somehow be turned to the Dark Side. Together, they’d be unstoppable.
But Rey has no intention of joining the Dark Side. She’s got other things on her mind: finishing her Jedi training, protecting her friends and, oh yeah, saving the galaxy, too.
Death Stars may be a little passe in this new galactic era. But the Jedi … well, despite always seemingly on the edge of extinction, the old order still has life in it yet.
For most of the movie, Rey stands as a worthy inheritor of the Jedi order’s lofty, altruistic goals. She’s the film’s primary hero, doing all manner of heroic things and risking her life in all manner of ways. She’s willing to sacrifice herself for her friends and for the galaxy, of course, but that’s old news: The ultimate sacrifice for her involves something a little more complex, and she shows a willingness to make it if she must.
But perhaps the thing most resonant about Rey’s story is that she’s more than just a warrior here: She’s a healer, and her kindness and willingness to help even threats pays dividends.
Of course, all of Rey’s associates—Poe and Finn and Leia and Chewbacca and many, many others—show off their own forms of heroism and sacrifice. Indeed, even droids sacrifice for their cause, and in strangely poignant ways.
The Force is still (ahem) a force in Rise of Skywalker. Though Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace offered a naturalistic explanation for it (midichlorians, as you recall), it acts and feels much more spiritual, and leaning heavily into an Eastern understanding of spirituality—a near-Taoist yin-yang sense of the cosmos. The Light and Dark sides of the Force are locked in eternal conflict, and we hear at least one reference to the Force needing to be brought “in balance.” (In practice, of course, the Light Side Jedi have always seemed pretty interested in conquering the Dark Side, which leads to a certain spiritual dissonance in worldview messaging, but we move on.)
That Force gives its users, both Light and Dark, a variety of impressive powers: The ability to levitate objects, fire off lightning bolts and, for the first time that I’m aware of, the ability to magically heal others. When those who are strong in the Force die, their corporeal selves sometimes vanish peacefully. They also have the power to return in a more ghostly form, offering advice and such.
We see Rey levitating with her legs crossed while meditating.
[Spoiler Warning] The Rise of Skywalker offers one more new twist here, however: We learn that all the Jedi (and all the Sith over on the Dark Side) who’ve previously lived and died somehow live within their still-living representatives. While meditating, Rey seeks to establish a connection with deceased Jedi in two scenes, repeating the phrase “Be with me.” She subsequently hears the encouraging Jedi voices of some who’ve gone before her from within her psyche—an idea that this film plays out in ways that previous installments have not.
Two primary characters share a kiss. Poe Dameron renews acquaintences which someone who appears to be an old flame; at one point, he looks at her and flicks his head toward a more secluded spot—a silent invitation, the movie suggests, to engage in a more intimate encounter. The old flame shakes her head no. One female character wears a low-cut top.
Back-to-back blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em scenes during a crowded celebratory sequence show a gay female couple kiss and hold hands. The two brief scenes take place in the background, not the foreground, and they’re not the camera’s primary focus.
If you count up all the planets and Death Stars destroyed, the Star Wars movies have always had an obscenely high body count. Rise of Skywalker has that, too, but the violence here can feel more intimate and visceral than we’ve seen before. We see a couple of people (and creatures) sport some bloody wounds. In the aftermath of one battle in which Kylo Ren slays many opponents, we see bodies and a dismembered arm lying next to a corpse.
Kylo shows little hesitation in killing aliens and people alike—in the opening moments hacking through dozens of non-humans in a harsh battle sequence. He performs a Darth Vader-esque chokehold on one of his underlings—more violently than we’ve seen Vader do, though not necessarily as lethal. Countless storm troopers, rebels and extras fall to light saber slashes, blaster fire, magic lightning, crashes and explosions.
People fall, or nearly fall, from some pretty lofty heights. Characters get sucked into a quicksand-like trap. The life force is sucked out of a few folks, one way or another. The head of a sentient alien being is tossed on a table.
We see lots and lots of firefights and saber battles. Someone expresses a longing to see Poe’s “brains in the snow.” Our main characters encounter a pile of bones. “Never a good sign,” says C-3PO.
Three uses of the word “h—,” two of “d–n” and one of “a–.” We hear bit of name-calling here and there as well.
We hear that Poe was once a “spice runner.” Though the movie doesn’t explain exactly what “spice” is, the extended Star Wars canon makes it clear that it’s an illegal substance that forms the foundation of a recreational drug. (It’s perhaps a nod to the addictive spice found in another seminal sci-fi series, Dune.)
Palpatine’s cadaverous new life seems augmented by a phalanx of chemical components, and the guy’s body is attached to some sort of technological tether that, presumably, pumps him full of whatever he needs to keep his constitution in order.
Characters bicker a bit, and they engage the help of a couple of shady characters at times. They use subterfuge to gain access to a First Order ship as well.
It’s the end. Only not really.
The Star Wars universe will continue well past Rise of Skywalker—on TV, in video games, in fan fiction, in toys, in shiny new movies. But certainly, this episode—Episode IX—closes the book on the core Skywalker saga that launched the whole universe and has been running for, oh, 42 years now.
I need not reiterate, really, that the franchise has been perhaps the most influential pop-culture force in the last half-century. The original movie redefined what it meant to be a “blockbuster,” and it’s largely responsible for the cinematic world we live in today: Sprawling, multi-movie storylines; special-effects spectacles; obscenely passionate fans. Without Star Wars, it seems unlikely we’d have the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Harry Potter saga or much of anything that routinely lands on the top of the box-office charts. Star Wars, in many respects, changed the world, and so this film truly marks the end of an era.
So does it end that era well?
The final trilogy—The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and now The Rise of Skywalker—seem as though it’s become progressively more problematic. The violence, while largely bloodless, can feel more visceral and even grisly than it did in some earlier segments (though, admittedly, even the earliest allowed our heroes to spill the ropelike guts of a tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back).
While the original Star Wars movie featured only a single swear word—and some, I think, steered clear of profanity altogether—The Rise of Skywalker peppers the dialogue with about a half-dozen profanities. In a first for the Star Wars cinematic universe, we very briefly see a same-sex couple onscreen. It’s a content concern that families have not been forced to address in this franchise, but one that will now require intentional thought if younger eyes notice this brief scene.
And, of course, parents will have to navigate with the issue they’ve always had to deal with in this franchise: the ever-present, all-powerful Force.
Aesthetically, there’s plenty to pick at, too. This movie requires even a greater level of suspended disbelief than in the past.
But for fans of this franchise, The Rise of Skywalker works: not necessarily logically, but emotionally. And it works well.
Rey, Kylo, Finn and Poe have never been more engaging. Some of the action sequences might make you want to jump out of your seat and cheer. The film ties up the saga powerfully and sometimes beautifully, if not cogently. And for those inclined to learn and teach some lessons through the magic of film, this one has plenty to choose from: how love triumphs over hatred. How courage trumps fear. How our choices, not our backgrounds or lot in life, define who we are. How it’s worth fighting for what’s good and right, even when the odds against triumph seem so very long.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—and really, all the Star Wars movies—have always leaned into emotion. These are movies you feel, and that you don’t necessarily want to think about too much.
But on some level, that’s unfair to these movies. They do want us to think, to think about the heroism, sacrifice and friendship we see. Those are thoughts worth having here. And these themes—heroism, sacrifice, friendship and love—are why (along with some cool light saber battles) I embraced the series from the very beginning, when I was 7 years old. And why, even today, hearing the opening orchestral fanfare makes me grin like I’m 7 again.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.