‘The Rise of Skywalker’ Has a Death Problem

     March 27, 2020

Spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker follow below. 

There’s a moment in the first act of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker where it feels like the film is finally clicking into place. Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her crew have gone to Pasaana to seek the Wayfinder that will point them towards Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), but they’re tracked down by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his Knights of Ren. Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is captured, and a Force battle ensues between Rey and Kylo over the transport in mid-air. They struggle, and in a burst of surprising power, lightning bolts emit from Rey’s fingertips and blow the transport ship out of the air, and with it Chewbacca. One of the most iconic Star Wars characters is dead.

Rey and Finn (John Boyega) are rightfully devastated, and the event causes Rey to doubt herself and her intentions. How could she let this happen, but also what is this new Force power that seems to have emerged? Does it have something to do with her parentage? Is it her we should be worried about going to the Dark Side? These are all valid and interesting questions that point towards a thematically rich character arc. Unfortunately, Rise of Skywalker isn’t really interested in all that. The film reverses this devastating event just a couple of scenes later. Chewbacca’s fine! No harm, no foul. And the line “I guess he was on another transport” unintentionally conjures laughs, not relief.

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Image via Lucasfilm

Chewbacca’s fake-out death isn’t the only one in Rise of Skywalker, and it’s indicative of the larger problems of the film. This is a movie that’s not really interested in challenging or pushing audiences, instead taking the predictable/easy route that’s gonna lead to all good times, all the time. Which is maybe fine for a first or even second installment (maybe), but not the finale. Actions have consequences, and if Rise of Skywalker is the story of Rey resisting her true heritage and choosing a path for herself, her doubts and frustrations should have consequences beyond consistently leaving Finn uttering “Where’s Rey?” for the 17,000th time like the galaxy’s dumbest lost puppy.

The death of Chewbacca is reversed because, seemingly, that would bum audiences out, but the cost of making fans feel good is a near complete loss of stakes. The total loss comes a bit later, when yet another beloved character’s death is reversed: C-3PO. Much is made about the fact that the cost of translating the Sith markings that point towards the wayfinder is C-3PO’s memory. That’s not just the memory of his new friends, but also his old as all remembrances of the faithful droid’s adventures with Luke, Leia, and Han Solo will be wiped. That’s pretty sad!

Yet again, however, this “death” is reversed just a few scenes later. Once C-3PO gets back to the Resistance base, R2-D2 restores his memory—despite 3PO making a big to-do about how R2-D2 never backs up his memory. No worries here, folks. The C-3PO you know and love was only gone for a few sequences and now he’s back, good as new.

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Image via Lucasfilm

To be fair there are a couple of genuine deaths in Rise of Skywalker, but they lack impact for different reasons. Leia (Carrie Fisher) gives her life by using the Force to reach out to her son Ben/Kylo, although her death sequence is a bit befuddling because we’ve just spent two movies seeing Rey and Kylo communicate across the galaxy using the Force without losing their lives, and Leia even somewhat communicated with Luke (Mark Hamill) in The Last Jedi when she was laid-up in medical bay. All without anyone losing their life over this act. And yet here, simply saying “Ben” is enough to take Leia out.

I understand co-writer/director J.J. Abrams was in a tight spot when it comes to Leia, resigning himself to only using deleted scenes and alternate footage from previous films to create one final performance for the dearly departed Carrie Fisher. But Leia’s sacrifice here doesn’t really track, and as a result her sacrifice is less impactful.

Then there’s the big finale death of Ben Solo, which is incredibly dumb. Ben transfers some healing powers to a dead Rey after she defeats Palpatine, bringing her back to life. This was set up earlier in the film not only with Rey healing that snake-like creature on Pasaana, but also with Rey healing Kylo’s mortal wound after she straight-up stabbed him with his own ligthsaber. In neither of these scenes do we see a cost to healing someone else, so it’s a bit weird that Kylo just falls over and dies after bringing Rey back to life. Isn’t he supposed to, like, be her Force equal or something? What about that whole Force Dyad doo-hickey? Why did he peace out? This makes no sense.

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Image via Lucasfilm

But plot inconsistencies are ultimately whatever. What really sucks the life out of Ben Solo’s ultimate sacrifice is the fake-out deaths we witnessed previously with Chewbacca and C-3PO. We just sat through two beloved characters exiting the franchise in one way to another, only for those exits to be short-lived. The Rise of Skywalker quite literally tells you everything is going to be okay. It wouldn’t dare take these characters away from you. Even the Emperor came back to life after Return of the Jedi for reasons. It’s gonna be fine, dawg!

By the end of Rise of Skywalker, the stakes have been pretty wiped clean. You’re even pretty sure there’s no way Poe (Oscar Isaac) or Finn are gonna bite the dust, as they’ve been taking on one million First Order ships in the sky while Rey and Kylo battle the Emperor, and despite tons of whatshisnames losing their lives, Poe and Finn are getting by without so much as a scrape.

The Rise of Skywalker is a frustratingly safe film, especially in the wake of the two movies that preceded it. In Abrams’ Force Awakens, we witness the iconic death of Han Solo. It’s real, it sticks, and it hurts. But that showdown between Rey and Kylo Ren in the forest directly afterwards wouldn’t be near as dramatic without having just witnessed Kylo murdering his own father—someone Rey was coming around to as a stand-in father figure. Their lightsaber battle is dripping with tension, and the anger Rey feels towards Kylo Ren continues to fuel their excellent scenes in The Last Jedi.

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Image via Lucasfilm

Speaking of which, even The Last Jedi has an iconic death sequence that is 10 times more moving than any scene in Rise of Skywalker despite involving a character we just met. You spend most of The Last Jedi unsure of exactly what Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) is up to, but you’re pretty sure you respect her. After the reveal that she’s had a plan all along, and that Poe really should have just cooled his jets and trusted his superior, we witness Holdo make the ultimate sacrifice for the few remaining Resistance fighters left. She turns her giant ship around and light-jumps right through Snoke’s massive ship. It’s a stunning sequence executed perfectly, and it’s incredibly moving.

Ditto a scene from the finale during which you really think that Finn is about to lay down his life, having evolved over the course of the film from a somewhat cowardly man who only cares about keeping Rey safe to a believer in the Resistance willing to sacrifice his life to buy his friends and fellow fighters just a bit more time. It’s made all the more emotional when Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) pushes Finn out of the way, putting herself in harm to save his life.

Rose’s final line in that film has some resonance in the wake of The Rise of Skywalker. She tells Finn the path to victory lies in “not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” But there’s very little saving in Rise of Skywalker. Chewbacca ends up alive by complete and total accident, and the only person who seems to care about C-3PO’s restored memory is 3PO and R2-D2. Rey spends the whole movie putting her friends’ lives in danger by running away at the worst moments (she literally leaves everyone stranded on Kef Bir without so much as an “I’ll be back”), and her final showdown with Palpatine is driven more by striking down her own lineage than saving the galaxy.

But these problems, again, are indicative of the larger problems that plague this final entry in the Skywalker Saga. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio were more interested in making audiences happy or bringing back things they remember and saying “remember this?” than in telling an emotionally resonant story. Chewbacca can’t die because that’ll make you sad. C-3PO can’t lose his memory because that’ll make you angry. But in erring on the side of caution, the film undercuts its own finale, and what should have been the ultimate scene of redemption for Kylo Ren instead plays out like a confounding and emotionless whimper. The irony here is that in taking the wind out of the sails of Ben Solo’s death, the film ends up being a bummer of a different sort.

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