Opinions on the Star Wars sequels have been polarized from the start, and from what I’ve seen, that’s no less true of Rise of Skywalker. I don’t see much point in wading into that — if you liked it then you liked it (I did), and if you didn’t you didn’t (I’m not liable to change your mind) — so I thought I’d post about something different. Instead I’d like to step back and evaluate what I consider to be the strongest and weakest narrative decisions made overall.
Spoilers for Rise of Skywalker, since both of these things play into the final episode.
WEAK: The First Order
What the hell is the First Order, anyway? Other than a name slapped on some bad guys?
Consider the Empire in the original trilogy. It doesn’t require explanation, because we all know what an empire is and what it does; we know what kinds of authority it probably has and how the common person probably feels about it. Nor do we need to know where it came from: the prequels eventually gave some backstory, but for the purposes of the original trilogy, it was simply the status quo of the characters’ lives.
But it’s different for the sequels. They can’t just handwave the First Order as the status quo; last we saw this setting, everybody was celebrating the overthrow of the evil Emperor and his jackbooted thugs, but now they’re . . . being oppressed again? . . . by more jackbooted thugs? Led by some offstage Emperor-type villain that came out of nowhere? Except it’s totally not clear if the First Order is in charge of anything?
Apparently if you dig around enough in the various Star Wars media you can learn that the First Order is basically an enemy state outside the New Republic that’s formed out of the remnants of the Empire, using contingency plans set in place by Palpatine, and that after they blow up the leadership of the New Republic in The Force Awakens they start taking things over again, which is why in the later movies it seems like they’re in charge of stuff. But you have to dig for this information, because it is not remotely clear enough in the films.
And on top of that, it’s kinda boring. In general I don’t bear the sequels a grudge for the ways in which they echo the original trilogy, because in general the sequels do interesting things with inverting or rearranging those pieces. The First Order, unfortunately, just feels like the Empire 2.0 with nothing particularly new or interesting about it. And when you get to the Final Order, there’s the omgwtfbbq enormous fleet of thousands of star destroyers that each have the planet-destroying capability of the Death Star, which Palpatine apparently pulls directly out of his ass, because the final threat has to be Even! Goddamned! Bigger! It was so far over the top I just utterly didn’t care anymore. While there were individual villains I liked very much in this trilogy, the antagonists as an organization were just kind of . . . there.
STRONG: The Force Dyad
While the specific idea of Rey and Kylo/Ben being a Force dyad should have been brought up sooner (I’d say at the end of the second film), I bloody loved the effect it had: the ability of those characters to communicate, interact, and even transfer objects over distance.
I burbled happily about this after The Last Jedi, because it was such an elegant solution to the problem of having two opponents you can’t put into the same room without ending your plot Real Quick. Letting them talk but not fight each other meant the story could build a meaningful relationship between them — which was not only satisfying on its own terms (a common flaw I see in stories of this type is that I have zero emotional investment in the hero/villain relationship because they’re essentially strangers to each other), but also necessary in the long run for making the end of their story work.
But here it paid off even more! I genuinely had an “oh shit” moment when he pulled the beads off Rey’s neck, and when their fight dropped Vader’s helmet to the floor, both times allowing him to fgure out where she was. And when she passes Luke’s lightsaber off to him behind her back . . . I was not the only person in my theatre punching the air. (Also, the little shrug he gives the Knights of Ren when he’s suddenly armed. Adam Driver had a number of excellent little beats like that.)
So I hope that whoever came up with the idea and effects of the Force Dyad got a nice parking spot and monthly cookie baskets for the next few years, because I honestly consider it to be the best storytelling decision in the entire sequel trilogy. It was new, and it paid off both emotionally and as a plot device, at more than one point in the story.
There were other good and bad things, but in terms of stuff that runs throughout the story, I genuinely think those were the worst and best moves they made.