Can The Return Of Rey Redeem The Sins Of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker?

It's official — Daisy Ridley will return as Rey in a new "Star Wars" film. Set 15 years after the conclusion of the sequel trilogy, the film will feature the nobody scavenger turned Jedi Knight training a new generation of Jedi — fingers crossed this attempt goes better than Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill). The currently-untitled film was announced at the 2023 Star Wars Celebration; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is set to direct a script by Steven Knight.

I like Daisy Ridley as an actor. Now, admittedly, the only lead performance of hers I've seen is Rey. In that part, though, she exudes charisma and is plenty capable with meatier material too; she always gave the character emotional depth even when that wasn't on the page.

Still, it's hard for me to be excited about this because of where we last left off Rey's journey: 2019's "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," the finale of the sequel trilogy and the 9-film "Skywalker Saga." That movie was a disappointment. It left a bad taste in my mouth that's never gone away. I'm not alone in thinking this; "The Rise of Skywalker" got the lowest box office gross and worst reviews of the sequel trilogy. Its failures make a follow-up especially challenging, both from a story perspective and the simple question if anyone will care.

Charting the sequel trilogy

To understand where "The Rise of Skywalker" failed, let's look at the sequel trilogy as a whole. I don't think "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is going to stand the test of time — its negative reevaluation has already begun. Why? It's a smoke and mirrors show, built on vague mysteries with imagery and characters you recognize thrown in. Those are the only tools that Director J.J. Abrams, who has likened storytelling to a mystery box, has in his arsenal.

That said, Abrams has a great eye for casting. "The Force Awakens" is strongest in its first act, when it's focused on introducing the new characters: Dark Side acolyte Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Stormtrooper defector FN-2187/Finn (John Boyega), and finally Rey. A scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, Rey was abandoned by her parents and hopes in vain they'll come back one day. When she hears the Force calling to her, she gradually realizes that her path lies in front of her, not behind.

"The Force Awakens" set up these characters, relying on the charisma of their actors, and then Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" gave them dimension. Rey's journey continues to be about identity; the climax of her arc is admitting her parents were nobodies who abandoned her. She has to forge her own identity and that's a lot harder than inheriting it.

A disappointing finale

I think "The Last Jedi" is a great movie — it's ambitious, beautiful (props to cinematographer Steve Yedlin), and emotionally moving in a way almost no other modern blockbusters are. However, it also proved controversial thanks to its storytelling decisions. Johnson cared more about making the movie he wanted to make than supplications to "Star Wars" mythology.

Some viewers didn't like that Luke had gone down a cynical path (never mind that the film is about him growing out of that). Others claimed it didn't build on the mysteries of "The Force Awakens" in a satisfying way — or rather, in the way "Star Wars" fans wanted, such as Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) not turning out to be an undead Darth Plagueis. There was also a nastier backlash tooted by reactionary culture warriors. I'll defer to "Star Wars: Rebels" star Freddie Prinze Jr. for the explanation: "[Angry fans are] just pissed off that Han Solo gave the f***ing Millennium Falcon to a girl."

That leads us to "The Rise of Skywalker," where Abrams returned to direct (with a script by Chris Terrio) after writer-director Colin Trevorrow departed. "Rise" is a terrible movie, born of creative cowardice and emblematic of everything wrong with 21st-century pop culture. In trying to please everybody, "The Rise of Skywalker" pleased nobody.

Rey in Rise of Skywalker

"The Rise of Skywalker" undoes every theme and swerves every character arc its predecessor established.  Snoke met his end in "The Last Jedi," setting up Kylo Ren to be the main villain of Episode 9. Instead, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) somehow returns. Finn is back to following Rey around like a puppy rather than standing on his own. Trevorrow's script, where Finn incites a Stormtrooper rebellion, is so natural a conclusion to his character I'm confounded why it was changed. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is virtually eliminated from the story — even getting a whole scene explaining why she isn't coming on this adventure — in an apparent act of appeasement to the internet trolls who spewed vile bigotry in Tran's direction.

Rey gets it the worst of all. "The Rise of Skywalker" undoes her backstory; now, she's the secret granddaughter of Palpatine. This alters her entire character — she's no longer a nobody from nowhere — and frankly, the third film in a trilogy is too late to change your lead like that. Rey being a nobody is also more compelling, whereas her being a Palpatine is just a lesser retread of Luke's original trilogy arc — the humble hero is actually a descendant of the villain.

Worse, this revelation undoes the central idea of "The Last Jedi," that the Force lives in everyone and anyone can become a great hero or terrible villain. Now, only those from elite bloodlines can become great, which is solidified when Rey chooses to adopt the Skywalker surname as her own.

Moving forward

When the credits of "The Rise of Skywalker" rolled, I wasn't interested in continuing Rey's story. It's not just that the film took it in what I felt was an unsatisfying direction, it's that it uprooted what I liked about her in the first place. The character whose journey I wanted to follow was no longer there. Trying to continue Rey's story from "The Rise of Skywalker" is like drinking from a poisoned chalice.

I don't think enough time has passed, either. It'll be less than a decade after "The Rise of Skywalker" when Rey returns to the screen, meaning the bad memories of it won't have faded enough for any excitement to overcome them. Going back to Rey so soon is also reflective of my current problem with "Star Wars" as a whole; an utter refusal to do anything new. The Disney+ "Star Wars" series ("Andor" excluded) have devolved into a cameo parade. That's not storytelling, it's playing with action figures.

Frankly, I'd rather see Ridley in new parts than watch her return to Rey. The "Star Wars" curse, where the film's leads fail to find success outside of the franchise, hangs over it. Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac (who played Poe Dameron) have escaped it. While John Boyega's filmography is hit or miss, he's getting work; he gave a strong supporting turn in last year's "The Woman King." Ridley, though, seems to have been bitten by the curse; she admitted that she's had struggles getting cast.

On the other hand, maybe a second chance as Rey will let Ridley a chance to clear a black mark on her resume and become the movie star she has the potential to be. If not? Mark Hamill was locked out of stardom after playing Luke and as a result, we got one of the most brilliant voice actors alive. Maybe Ridley's career will go down a similarly unconventional path.