On the surface, it’s easy to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as a rejection of the more subversive elements of The Last Jedi – it re-litigates the origins of our heroes, dredging up a past its predecessor was more than happy to move on from. It could, if you wanted to get a little bit conspiracy-brained, read as corporate skulduggery. But where it counts, Rise backs up one of The Last Jedi’s most fundamental themes.
On a surface level, much of Rey’s arc in The Rise of Skywalker feels like a sharp left from where she was going in The Last Jedi. She does not outright reject the Jedi Order as a disillusioned Luke Skywalker had, but embraces Jedi theology and history, surrounding herself in the books of her short-time master and his ancient predecessors and she learns of the Force’s most esoteric abilities. She is not just a Force-sensitive nobody caught up in the eddies of galactic change, but a spirit bound in the Force through Ben Solo/Kylo Ren to one of the most dominant bloodlines of major galactic events, half of a long-prophecised dyad.
The daughter of nobodies...from a certain point of view.
Her parents were nobodies who sold her for drunk money? No, they desperately shielded their important child because she was the granddaughter of a Sith Lord, the fallen architect of the Galactic Empire itself. Add in a joke about Luke’s Force ghost chiding her about tossing lightsabers around and you’ve got yourself the fermentation of directorial bitten thumb aimed squarely at Rian Johnson. The time to let old things die, it would seem, is never.
But, as important as these reveals are to the mechanical structure Rise is built on, these elements are not really important in the grand scheme of the sequel trilogy. They’re puzzles and wireframes of J.J. Abrams’ beloved mystery box, an embrace of the nostalgic past that guides the film’s fanservice-forward approach to concluding the Skywalker Saga. But from a thematic perspective, Rey’s arc and its ultimate conclusion – which at first seems like perhaps the pinnacle of the film’s refutation of The Last Jedi, with Rey taking on the Skywalker mantle for herself – are exactly in line with The Last Jedi’s most valuable lessons and commentary on the wider themes of Star Wars.
It pays to remember, as often quoted in mockery of Rise’s nostalgia overload, that The Last Jedi’s true point is not “Let the past die, kill it, if you have to.” Kylo Ren’s firebrand words are alluring in their destructive attitude, but they are merely half of the film’s entire lesson. The second, vital coda to The Last Jedi’s message is the one delivered by Yoda to Luke, as the latter attempts to live up to his former student’s fiery words rather literally, by taking a torch to the ancient Jedi texts (or so he had thought, not realizing Rey had swiped some).
Yoda’s energising reminder to his own old student – that the past, good and bad, victory and failure, must be acknowledged in its entirety and learned from before it can truly be moved on from – is the message at The Last Jedi’s heart.
From the beyond, Yoda imparts his most vital lesson.
Simply trying to deny the parts of it we don’t like, or trying to sweep it away outright only serves to leave you beholden to it, as both Ben and Luke were, chained to it out of a sense of existential despair even as they spoke of turning it to ash. “We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda intones. “That is the true burden of all masters.” It is the burden of generations, too, as their successors build on what came before, taking what they learn as they add their own thoughts and ideas and interpretations, charting a new path instead of simply repeating the old one.
And so we come to Rey’s arc in Rise, an extrapolation of this idea folding out across the entire film. At first, it comes through simply as Rey trying to balance the anger and darkness she knows lingers in her – attempting to hide it is what leads to her force-lightning attack on Pasaana, seemingly killing Chewbacca in the process. Then on Kijimi, she finally comes face to face with the truth of her past thanks to Kylo Ren, revealed as what she sees as a great failure for someone looking to be a bastion of the Light Side of the Force: She’s the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, a child of the Sith’s bloodline. Shaken by the truth, she attempts to deny it further, trying to cut herself off from Finn and Poe during their mission to Kef Bir, literally confronting a specter of it in the shadows of the Death Star II’s ruins as she battles a Dark version of herself.
Rey almost repeats the mistakes of the past.
Having momentarily mortally wounded – and then healed – Kylo, she repeats Luke’s mistakes, fleeing to Ahch-To in hope of exiling herself. Confronted by Luke there, who at this point has taken Yoda’s words to heart, it comes time for her to accept not just the reality of her past, of her legacy, but more crucially that it does not have to define who she will become. If Rey wants to be a Jedi, she can be. If she wants to be something else, to leave that system behind, she can be. Just because she is a Palpatine does not mean she has to be a Palpatine. And having accepted and acknowledged her past, she is finally emboldened to face and ultimately defeat it on Exegol – backed not by the legacy of the Sith Eternal, but the spirits of the Jedi she had been longing to connect to from the earliest moments of the film, chanting for them to be with her.
That victory brings with it the moment Rise’s deepest critics see as the refutation of The Last Jedi, as Rey, now at peace with herself, tells, uh, some random lady on Tatooine that she is not Rey Palpatine, but Rey Skywalker, as Leia and Luke’s spirits watch on. On the surface, yes, there is frustration here – just as we were about to have a galaxy far, far away with the Skywalkers dead and gone, our heroine now wanders around telling anyone who asks that actually, they’re still here. They’re on Tatooine, to boot. (Skywalkers are like sand, they’re coarse and irritating and get everywhere all over your timeline.) But crucially, Rey isn’t actually a Skywalker. Well, she is, she takes the name as her own. But what I mean is that she is not one by blood, but by her own choice.
The Rise of Skywalker could have very easily made Rey a child of the Skywalker legacy in literal terms, that her fated destiny was always to truly be a member of this generational bloodline that she has heard all the legends of – that she was meant to be this hero because that’s what Skywalkers are, because it was in her blood. That would’ve felt like a rejection of The Last Jedi more than anything else, by propping up Rey as a tool of the fates instead of someone with her own goals and agency.
It’s important that not only is she not that, but that she rejects the fate of her actual bloodline – the destiny of the Dark Side, to be a Sith like her grandfather before her – to take the Skywalker name. And why does she do it? Rey becomes a Skywalker not as an embrace of the past and what the Skywalkers represent to us as an audience as the embodiment of Star Wars’ sense of nostalgia, but of an embrace of the family she found.
“Be with me.”
As she walks toward the binary suns of Tatooine, she doesn’t carry on the Skywalker line’s blood, but its ideals. She has learned the failures of the past, she has accepted what she was. But she’s also decided that doesn’t have to define her, and she can define herself however she wants – moving on to forge her own future, even if she does so under the banner of a familiar name. For all of Rise’s flaws, Rey’s arc feels like an important reminder of what The Last Jedi was about at its core.