How the Palpatine Twist in ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Misunderstands What Makes ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Work

     March 25, 2020

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*Spoilers ahead for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

In 1980’s The Empire Strike Back, Darth Vader—Sith lord, Empire heavy, about 90% machine parts—revealed to Star Wars‘ fresh-faced protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that his father hadn’t died in the Clone Wars. Darth Vader was Luke’s father. Cue trumpets, cue shock. At this point, it’s not a plot twist. It’s the plot twist; it’s chillin’ on the Plot Twist Mount Rushmore next to Tyler Durden, a dead Bruce Willis, and Norman Bates in a floral dress; it’s the plot twist people would Eternal Sunshine out of their brain and experience for the first time again if they could.

It also essentially broke Star Wars, possibly for good.

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Image via Disney/Lucasfilm

Case in point: The latest entry in the franchise and purported final chapter of the Skywalker Saga, The Rise of Skywalker. Reactions to this final Star Wars epic have been decidedly mixed. There’s definitely a lot of fun to be had; Babu Frik is a tiny legend, the action is fast and furious, and I’ll never not love Billy Dee Williams‘ inability to say a single sentence without it sounding like the beginning of the steamiest sex scene you’ve ever witnessed. Unfortunately, it’s also kind of a mess, and the film’s version of an “I am your father” twist lands with a thud so dull it might as well be a speech about trade routes. Mid-film, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) reveals to Rey (Daisy Ridley) that she is not, as revealed in Rian Johnson‘s The Last Jedi, the daughter of simple junk traders who sold her for booze money. She is actually the granddaughter of Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has also been pulling everyone’s strings the entire time. Cue trumpets. Cue…buh wha?

The problem here, first and foremost, is that there isn’t anything inherently dramatic about two characters being related. Imagine if Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had revealed that Indy chose the right chalice because he’s actually Jesus Christ’s grandson. Or if the only reason Frodo made it to Mount Doom in Return of the King was that he’s Sauron’s secret nephew, twice removed. Adding a blood-relation twist to a narrative doesn’t automatically add anything, really; more often than not, it’s putting a hat on a hat. And yet, from The Empire Strikes Back on, it’s been Star Wars’ “thing“. The second J.J. Abrams started dropping hints in The Force Awakens about Rey’s larger role in the franchise’s mythos, there was barely even a question other than “okay, so who is she related to?”

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Image via Disney/Lucasfilm

But that also fundamentally misunderstands what makes Vader’s revelation in Empire Strikes Back so effective and what makes a good plot twist in general. A twist should shock the audience, yeah, but it should also completely re-wire the protagonist’s journey in the most audacious way possible. In A New Hope, Luke not only learns about The Force but also that he’ll be the one to balance it, the Light to oppose the Dark, and who is a better embodiment of the Dark than the jet-black cyborg man with a voice like a baritone sax? Learning that he literally came from the Dark eliminated the straightforward path for Luke, took away the easy answer he thought he had. That twist is so dang effective because it so dramatically altered the path for both Luke and the audience, not because it completely replaced it with a new one.

Where the conversation gets a bit…touchy with the New Trilogy is when you realize Rey already experienced a twist like that, in The Last Jedi. Learning that she truly was “Rey from nowhere” took away all our easy answers. If Rey isn’t descended from one of the Big Star Wars Families, if there’s no clear “explanation” for her role in this grand epic, how does she find her way forward? It’s an uncomfortable question, which is the only kind of question a plot twist should ask. Johnson himself brilliantly explained the reasoning in a 2017 interview with Slashfilm:

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Image via Disney/Lucasfilm

“The hardest thing for all of us to hear and the thing that she doesn’t wanna hear, and maybe we don’t either, is that no, this is not going to be something where it’s going to define you. And the fact that you don’t have this is gonna be used against you by Kylo to try and pull him into your orbit. This is going to be hard. And you’re gonna have to stand on your own two feet and define yourself in this story.”

The problem with Rey actually being a Palpatine is that it’s a safety blanket disguised, poorly, as a dramatic reveal. Plot twists shouldn’t give the audience exactly what they asked for. I don’t think a ton of people in 1980 were like, “Man, I hope Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader’s son.” But over the years, that’s morphed into the only answer, beginning almost immediately with Return of the Jedi‘s reveal that, actually, Leia (Carrie Fisher) is also related to all the important people. The “drama” of Rey’s lineage comes from the fact that this is what Star Wars does, and this is all Star Wars is allowed to do. It returned everything to the track we’re used to, and I can’t think of a path more boring for the biggest sci-fi franchise out there.

Shouldn’t we be asking more out of Star Wars? The galaxy is infinite, so the possibilities should be, too. We all wish we could have been there on opening night of Empire Strikes Back, to experience that shock as something brand new. But if Star Wars only exists to give us easy answers, Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t have happened at all.

For more on The Rise of Skywalker, click here.

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