‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Erases the Power of Rey’s Story and Surrenders to Sexist Trolls
J.J. Abrams’ “final chapter” in the new “Star Wars” trilogy backtracks the boldest ideas of the previous entry, “The Last Jedi”—and in the process, succumbs to bad-faith “fans.”
Note: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Midway through Rise of Skywalker, a bolt of lightning cracks the sky in two. It’s a moment of illumination—or at least, it’s supposed to be—revealing a new, unexpected answer to a mystery the Star Wars saga had previously put to rest. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi resolved the intrigue surrounding the heroine of this new sequel-trilogy, Rey, and her parentage with a gracefully simple, bold assertion: Rey is…just Rey. A scavenger from Jakku, descended from ordinary junk traders who left her behind on the planet, sold her off, and never looked back. Not the daughter of some space aristocracy or legacy lineage, but a hero of her own making. And that was enough, until that lightning strike.
Pushed to the limits of her abilities and desperate to save a friend, Rey shoots bolts of electricity from her fingertips—just the way Emperor Palpatine could before Darth Vader killed him at the end of Return of the Jedi. We soon learn that Rey from Nowhere is in fact Rey Palpatine, granddaughter of the sinister puppetmaster behind the Sith’s plots to take control of the Force in the original and prequel Star Wars trilogies. It’s a baffling twist, not least because the movie never touches on just when, exactly, or with whom Palpatine procreated. (Try purging that image from your head once it’s in.) To those invested in The Last Jedi’s ideas about the Force and heroism, it’s also a crassly cynical letdown.
Johnson’s installment dedicated itself to democratizing the Force, breathing new life into a mystical idea that had, until now, always appointed a Skywalker—Anakin, Luke, Leia, Ben—as the central heroes and/or antiheroes in the story of saving the galaxy. That Rey’s parents were ordinary people meant anyone from anywhere could be born a hero; what determined a person’s place in the world was who they chose to be, rather than their last name.
The Last Jedi’s parting shot underscored the beauty of that notion: a stable boy on Canto Bight—who, like Rey, was pawned off by his parents—uses the Force to summon a broom to his hand. The yearning notes of Luke’s theme play as he looks up in time to see the Millennium Falcon jump into hyperdrive. Inspired, he lifts the handle of his broom just so, evoking the silhouette of a Jedi and his lightsaber. The Force is for anyone, the scene seemed to say—and so is Star Wars. It was a bold, meaningful idea for the franchise, and necessary to opening up its future.
Having Rey confront the loneliest answer to a lifelong burning question felt like the dramatic equivalent of Luke learning that his father was actually Darth Vader, Johnson has explained. The Empire Strikes Back injected notes of gray into a previously black-and-white situation, denying the Jedi-in-training (and the audience) the easiest recourse: to hate the villain and want to see him die.
The Last Jedi pulls something similar with Rey’s story, denying her the luxury of a predetermined destiny. “Rey is our protagonist. And the truth is, in the story, the toughest possible thing for her to hear is, you know, you’re not gonna get the easy answer that you’re so-and-so’s daughter, this is your place,” Johnson told me after The Last Jedi’s release. “You’re gonna have to stand on your own two feet and define yourself in this world. And you always want to throw the hardest thing at your protagonist.”
The resonance between Luke’s and Rey’s stories boiled down something essential about Star Wars’s appeal, rather than just replicating a plot point, the way Rise of Skywalker does. In separate ways, The Last Jedi jettisoned many of the new trilogy’s remaining, overly-literal parallels from past films—not in an effort to discard the legacy of Star Wars, but to build on it. To free it.
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be,” Kylo Ren tells Rey in one of the film’s many bits of meta-text, after he strikes down the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke. We knew little about the shadowy figure who seduced Kylo to the Dark Side, except that he seemed to fill the role of a Palpatine-type with sparklier taste in robes. His unceremonious death cleared the board for a renewed focus on the trilogy’s more compelling antagonist: Kylo Ren himself.
But instead of taking the baton from Last Jedi and running with it to new heights, The Rise of Skywalker retreats right back into the safety of nostalgia. (The movie sends its heroes to the carcass of the Death Star; it does not aim for subtlety.) Director J.J. Abrams and co-screenwriter Chris Terrio resurrect the actual Palpatine—the same guy we watched explode at the end of Return of the Jedi—and for the most part hand-wave away the many questions that brings up. How is he alive? Who cares. He is a space zombie now. He wheels himself around his Snoke-cloning lab, delivering garbled monologues while a coliseum packed with his fellow space zombies go absolutely ham for it all in the background. No one so much as blinks at the space zombie cult. No one has time to absorb much of anything.
We learn Palpatine fathered a son at some point. That son, whose name is never mentioned, and his wife, played by a tragically underutilized Jodie Comer of Killing Eve, are Rey’s parents. The Emperor ordered his granddaughter’s death when he sensed how powerful she would become, so her parents went incognito, hid her away, and died refusing to give her up. Rey from Nowhere becomes Rey Palpatine, the youngest of an aristocratic bloodline whose most famous member sparked two unnecessary galactic wars. This is better somehow, because Sheev Palpatine is important and Rey is not.
Even apart from the anti-climax of Rey’s lineage loophole, truly, nothing about this Palpatine story works. First he sends Kylo to kill Rey. But when that doesn’t work and she shows up at his evil lair instead, he explains that, actually, this was his plan all along. Then he lays out the same catch-22 he bamboozled Luke with 36 years ago: If Rey kills him, he wins. And this time, he says, his spirit will transfer into her and all the past Sith will live on through her.
He goads her and insults her and makes long, drawn-out callbacks to Return of the Jedi and gushes endlessly about his new fleet of Star Destroyers, each now essentially equipped with its own Death Star. There’s bigger lightning! More Death Stars! That’s what us Star Wars rubes want, right? Finally, Rey mercifully just shuts Palpatine up and kills him. And nothing happens. All of that spirit-transfer stuff was made up, I guess? So Palpatine explodes (again) and no one breathes a peep about whether his death this time is for real. Everyone cheers, Chewie gets his medal. We’re not supposed to think about it more deeply than that. (There’s a distasteful strain of condescension that runs through The Rise of Skywalker in more instances than this.)
The most generous reading of the whole botched subject of Rey’s parentage might go something like this: she rises to greatness despite the stain on her family name; no matter what’s in your blood, that tells us, you can still choose to be a hero. Which, OK. Setting aside that this reading reduces the point of Rey’s story to a near photocopy of Luke’s (one better resolved in Return of the Jedi than in this mess), it also holds true only of the last half of one film. If Palpatine’s presence and Rey’s contention with the Dark Side had been signaled earlier, Rise of Skywalker’s conclusions about bloodlines and fate might feel less muddled. But that isn’t what this trilogy has been about, until now.
TROS is so hellbent on facilitating Palpatine’s rushed entrance and exit (he’s like Grandpa Simpson whistling his way into that restaurant), it’s as if Abrams and Terrio scrambled for a loophole specifically to mollify the “fans” upset that this hero—worse, this girl—dared to wield such incredible abilities with only her own strength. No, no, they’ve now assured those sectors of fandom. You see, her power comes from someone else, a (male) character you already know and accept.
Watching one of the biggest movie franchises in the world seemingly cave this way to bad-faith complaints is disheartening—especially when taken with TROS’s other, numerous reversals of The Last Jedi’s gestures toward inclusion. Rose Tico (played by the ebullient Kelly Marie Tran) became the first woman of color to co-star among the leads of a Star Wars film in Johnson’s Episode VIII. Her earnest, heartfelt presence seemed to infuriate certain viewers, who inundated the actress’ social media with abuse. Rather than stand by her in Episode IX, Abrams and Terrio can’t seem to sideline Rose quickly enough, for no defensible reason.
Rose delivered one of The Last Jedi’s most powerful lines after stopping Finn from sacrificing his life in a doomed attack on a First Order siege cannon: “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not by fighting what we hate. But saving what we love,” she said, before planting an innocent kiss on him. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rose delivers little more than technical jargon and remains offscreen for most of the film; she could just as well be an extra.
Abrams and Terrio also devote a stunningly fastidious energy to extinguishing the romance that had bloomed between Rose and Finn. The two barely speak in TROS. Rose stays behind while Rey, Poe, Finn, and the droids take off for a ludicrously convoluted fetch quest; she explains that she’s needed at Leia’s Resistance base, though she seemingly does very little there. Once all the main characters are in the same place again during the climactic third-act battle, Finn orders Rose to leave without him while he battles on with a new character, Jannah (a lovely, if underwritten ex-Stormtrooper), at his side. At the end of the film, as the Resistance celebrates its victory, Finn spares little more than a glance and a back-pat for Rose, then bounds off into a group hug with Poe and Rey. Her exclusion is so pointed, it seems all but purposely cruel.
Palpatine’s unnecessary return necessitated a regression for Kylo, too. At the end of The Last Jedi, Han Solo and Leia’s son was poised to be the Big Bad of Episode IX; instead he found himself back inside his mended Vader cosplay and subservient to Palpatine for much of Rise of Skywalker, the better to mimic Vader’s redemption arc.
Yet it’s strange to think that Anakin Skywalker was once a boy from nowhere with a great destiny, unrelated to anyone powerful or “important.” (Yes, the midichlorians chose him to counter the Sith’s efforts to take control of the Force, I know. I will not be saying the M-word again.) Bookending the saga Anakin began with the story of a girl from nowhere who sets right what he helped unbalance might have been resonant. But who cares for that when there’s another billion-dollar franchise to set up and potential spin-offs to tease? (This is the capstone to a nine-film series, yet unresolved hints about Finn’s potential Force sensitivity and Janna’s secret origins—strangely teased in the film’s last few minutes—nag away at these characters’ closure.)
Rey ends her journey alone in a desert much like the one where she began, far from her found family. A nosy woman pries about her last name and Rey adopts “Skywalker,” a touching gesture designed to appeal to Luke and Leia super-fans like me, but which I found distinctly unsatisfying. Why must Rey acquiesce to some stranger who demands to know her identity? Why can’t she be allowed to forge a new legacy of her own? The implied answer, I suppose, is that it’s more important that the Skywalker dynasty (and Disney’s IP) lives on past the screen life of the scavenger girl whose bravery and strength proved so divisive.
I think of this ending and then the one that showed a little boy from nowhere dreaming of freedom and endless possibilities on Canto Bight. Between the two, I know which I prefer.