WARNING: Spoilers ahead for The Rise of Skywalker
Regular readers of my blog will know I was somewhat torn in my initial verdict on The Rise of Skywalker (see my original review here). Most of my misgivings on a first viewing were to do with how many of the fascinating ideas in The Last Jedi were discarded.
Had I been writing/directing The Rise of Skywalker, I would have created a very different film. For a start I would not have brought back the Emperor. I wouldn’t have had a secret hidden Empire with planet killing Star Destroyers. I wouldn’t have bothered bringing back Lando, or Princess Leia for that matter.
Instead, I’d have set it a few years on, with Rey busily training some new Jedi (possibly including an older version of “Broom Boy” from The Last Jedi – or one of them could also have been a new, secret Skywalker, perhaps born to Luke’s wife unbeknownst to him). In the meantime, the First Order would have gained the upper hand against the Resistance, with Kylo Ren as a galactic despot who still harbours secret longing for Rey to rule with him.
I’d have had Poe now leading the Resistance, with Finn and Rose at his side (the latter featured much more prominently). I would have worked in the story Finn’s past, going into where First Order Stormtroopers are “harvested”, and would have also revealed that Finn is Force sensitive in much more major ways that in the finished film (ie, I’d have had him receiving a certain amount of training from Rey as well).
The “Reformation” of the Jedi, spoken of by Luke in the previous film, and alluded to in the finale when Rey half-inched the sacred Jedi texts (which Yoda knew about, of course), would be properly explored. I would have had the Jedi Order itself undergo a radical change, whereby it embraces certain elements previously considered to be the purview of the Dark Side (romantic attachments, for example). In the same way that Protestant priests were allowed to marry whilst Catholic priests weren’t, the new Jedi Order would contain similar reforms; accepting that strong emotions are not necessarily something that leads to the Dark Side, but something that, in balance with the logic and traditional meditative calm of the old Jedi Order, can actually make the Jedi more compassionate.
As for Rey’s background, I wouldn’t have developed anything beyond what was revealed in The Last Jedi, except to underline that her emergence as the most powerful Jedi in a thousand generations is the will of the Force (language echoing what Qui-Gon says in the prequels, who is also something of a maverick amongst the Jedi, and whose ideas are a foretaste of the Jedi Reformation). This will of the Force business is why she could wield the Force so easily and quickly (someone like Maz Katana could say this).
Kylo and Rey’s Force projecting relationship would have been the main focus, but with a very different outcome. Eventually Rey would unleash her newly trained Jedi, and Kylo and the First Order would fall. Rey would give Kylo every chance to surrender, but in the end she is forced to strike a blow that cripples him, in order to end the war and bring victory. This action tears Rey apart, providing a massively emotional conclusion to their doomed, unrequited love. Kylo is then imprisoned by the new Jedi Order; an impotent, spent force, visited by Rey in the aftermath out of pity, as a New Republic is born, and the Jedi increase in strength and numbers once more.
Of course, JJ Abrams’s version of The Rise of Skywalker was nothing like that, and at first I was disappointed. But it also occurred to me that the original draft of Return of the Jedi had also been very different. For a start, there was no second Death Star. Instead, the rebels made an attack on Coruscant, the Imperial seat of power. In that battle, Han, Lando, and the Millennium Falcon all perish. In the meantime, Luke joins the Dark Side – or so we think, until in the finale it is revealed to be a ploy to destroy the Emperor and the Dark Side from within. Nonetheless, Luke is greatly psychologically damaged by his actions, which involve the destruction of his own father, and he ends up in self-imposed exile, whilst Leia (who is not his sister in this draft) is separated from him, alone in a bittersweet victory as she is declared Empress of the New Republic.
As I watched The Rise of Skywalker for the second time, I was aware of the younger children around me in the cinema; eight-year olds loving every fast-paced second. It occurred to me that much as I would now be intrigued to watch a film based on the original draft of Return of the Jedi, my eight-year old self would have much preferred the film we got. It further occurred to me that eight-year olds now watching The Rise of Skywalker would much prefer the film that exists, to the film I outlined above. Ultimately, Star Wars is inspired by the Saturday matinee Republic serials of the 1930s/40s, and to assign to it a deeper, more adult Arthurian melancholia in a fully committed way would ultimately be a betrayal of the franchise. Yes, it can flirt with those kinds of themes (and it does, brilliantly, in both The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi), but Star Wars is, in the end, meant to be an entertaining, thrill-a-minute spectacle. Re-watching the original film always brings me back to that conclusion.
With this in mind, as I watched The Rise of Skywalker for the second time, I was able to let go of my ideas of what it should be, and simply enjoy what it was. And what it is works very well on the whole. Kylo’s redemption – with Leia’s intervention, his “memory” of Han Solo, the lightsabre bait and switch, his stand with Rey against Palpatine, and ultimately his heroic sacrifice – are satisfying, moving, and triumphant. Rey’s earlier act of mercy, sparing his life, yields a great reward.
Besides, as it stands, The Rise of Skywalker underlines three key themes of the entire saga. Redemption (as detailed above), choice (Rey choosing to be a Skywalker and not a Palpatine, regardless of her lineage), and the triumph not just of good over evil – Richard E Grant’s character baffled by the inexplicable appearance of the massive rebel fleet (“They’re just… people”), is quite wonderful – but also of courage over fear (as underlined by Luke’s appearance on Ach-To).
Yes, there is fan service, but it is done very well. I particularly like Lando’s encouragement to Poe as he laments that he isn’t ready to lead. Lando wisely tells him that he wasn’t ready, nor was Luke, Han, or Leia. It felt like a very “CS Lewis” moment (like the ending of Prince Caspian, when Caspian tells Aslan he doesn’t feel ready to be King). Also, did anyone else spot John Williams’s cameo? The new themes he contributes to this film really are excellent, and the more I listen, the more I love them.
True, the film rehashes elements from the original saga, but as has been observed elsewhere, it’s like poetry; it rhymes. History repeats itself. The sins of the fathers are revisited on their children. Besides, there is also enough originality to justify this “remix” of the earlier work.
In short, I came out of The Rise of Skywalker the second time, very much feeling like I’d seen a different film. I enjoyed it on its own terms, and I suspect that just as my generation won’t hear a word against Return of the Jedi, in future years, those who were eight-years old when The Rise of Skywalker was released won’t hear a word against it either.