'Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker' Is A Love Letter To The Larger 'Star Wars' Universe

It has been three days since I have seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I've also struggled to put my thoughts down, as my colleagues' critical consensus is as far from my own experience with Episode IX as diametrically possible. In short, I loved every weird, twisty, lore-heavy second of Lucasfilm's final installment in the Skywalker Saga. It was everything I wanted, including a few things I hadn't even dared to hope to see. So how did I end up here, while so many other pop culture critics ended up on the other side of the fandom chasm? I don't know. And frankly, that's okay. Instead, I'm going to dive into why Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker worked so well for me and many other fans who have long been invested in the conclusion of the Skywalker legacy.For me, the most important thing to remember about Star Wars is that it is a fairy tale. Each film begins with "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." This is the sci-fi equivalent of "Once upon a time." George Lucas based Star Wars on the spaghetti westerns he grew up with: serials that borrowed heavily from both samurai films of Japan and "sword-and-sandal" epics filled with ancient mythology. Blending those elements added up to a soap opera in space, with all the twists, reveals, and "from a certain point of view" switchbacks that come with the territory. In short, at the end of the day, Star Wars is the story of a space wizard family and their magical, sentient swords. Star Wars began life as a simple black-and-white morality tale that evolved into an epic saga about the Skywalker family. Each film built upon the last. First, there was only Luke Skywalker, orphan farmboy. Then, The Empire Strikes Back revealed Darth Vader began life as Anakin Skywalker, Luke's father. The narrative was expanded again with the addition of Princess Leia Organa as Luke's secret twin sister in Return of the Jedi. The potency of the Skywalker family was confirmed in The Phantom Menace with Anakin being a virgin birth, a child of prophecy meant to bring balance to the Force. Whatever "balance" means when the galaxy if full of thousands of Jedi and exactly two Sith.Jedi can and do come from every corner of the Star Wars galaxy. Prior to Attack of the Clones, their order numbered around 10,000. A minuscule percentage in a galaxy of over 100 quadrillion sentient individuals. Supplemental materials to the main Star Wars movies have given us some of its best characters. Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's Togruta padawan is perhaps the best-known Jedi outside of the live-action films. Ezra Bridger and Kanan Jarrus from Star Wars Rebels have fleshed out what it meant to be Force-sensitive in the years immediately after the destruction of the Jedi Order. Comics, novels, and video games have delved into the histories of the likes of Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Count Dooku. We've met Cal Kaetis and Cere Junda, Shaak Ti and Luminara Unduli. Each one a Jedi or former Jedi with no blood ties to either the Skywalker bloodline or the Palpatine family.This is why I never understood the desire to disconnect Rey from the Skywalker lineage. The films are about a very specific family line, most likely begun through the machinations of Palpatine via Force manipulation. An extremely male-dominated family line that shunted aside Leia in favor of a more traditional "hero's journey" archetype in Luke. I've talked at length about my minority opinion that The Last Jedi either misstepped or misdirected by having Kylo Ren convince Rey she was no one. But here's the pertinent part: 

"While Chosen One narratives are old as time, most of them have been about white men. I will stand by my guns that women and PoC deserve this power fantasy and Episode IX can make a liar of Kylo Ren."

So to have The Rise of Skywalker reveal Rey's parents were "no one" only from a certain point of view felt very in line with the themes of the saga. Rey's isn't any more beholden to Palpatine than Kylo Ren – possibly the great-grandson of Sheev Palpatine via space magic – Luke and Leia Skywalker, or Anakin Skywalker are. Though I suppose the increasing power levels through each generation proves why the Jedi Order banned their members from getting it on.Speaking of forbidden love, I went intoT he Rise of Skywalker in trepidation of how the film would handle Rey's connection to Kylo Ren. The Last Jedi set them up as star-crossed lovers, a strange turn of events considering Kylo spent the entire run of The Force Awakens stalking, kidnapping, and literally mind-raping Rey while she was strapped to a gurney in a very purposefully uncomfortable scene. But there was no denying the chemistry between the characters. Splitting the difference was an excellent compromise. At the end of the day, Kylo Ren got exactly what he wanted: he became like his grandfather, Darth Vader. By sacrificing himself to save Rey from death, Ben Solo got a redemption arc. But letting him die, Kylo Ren wasn't let off the hook for participating in the enslavement of children, actual genocide, and patricide. I've seen the argument that Ben Solo should have been allowed to live because he was being influenced by Palpatine his entire life, molded into the monster he became. But that argument doesn't hold water for me, because Finn is right there. Another person who was manipulated from early childhood by evil forces, in a much more direct and unforgiving way. Stolen from his parents, stripped of his name, and trained to follow orders without hesitation or thought, Finn never broke. The First Order spent Finn's entire life trying to mold him into a perfect weapon, yet when it came down to it, he made the choice not to fire on innocent civilians. Kylo Ren had a choice, and he chose darkness.But mostly, The Rise of Skywalker worked for me because it is a love letter to lore nerds. To those of us who poured countless hours into the Expanded Universe, only to have it be cast aside and rebranded as Legends, it's a breath of fresh air. Abrams pulls extensively from the reject pile, shining up each plot point and reconfiguring it to work with the story being told. While the most obvious is the return of Palpatine, my favorite conversion of a Legend to canon was the story of Princess Leia Organa, Jedi. Finally, after four decades, audiences not only got to see Leia Organa wield a lightsaber, they got to see once and for all that she was better at it than Luke. On Ahch-To, Luke's Force Ghost tells Rey the story of how he came to be in possession of Leia's lightsaber. After the Battle of Endor, Luke trained Leia on the very same planet, using the very same courses, that Leia would return to for Rey's training. He says Leia chose to end her training when she had a Force vision of the future, but the line sells Leia short. The woman had made a lightsaber. She was a Force Ghost at the end of The Rise of Skywalker. She survived the vacuum of space. All extremely advanced skills. She was a Jedi. But most heart-breakingly, Leia gave a gift of her son, Ben Solo. At the climactic turning point of Kylo Ren's arc, Leia reaches out across the galaxy with the last of her strength in a Hail Mary attempt to return Ben to the light. Yet her body does not dissipate until after Ben's death, much later. Lore nerds know Jedi don't fade into the Cosmic Force until they are truly gone. With Carrie Fisher's untimely death, Harrison Ford (bless him) stepped into the void left by her passing. Han Solo can't be a Force Ghost, but there he was anyway. You can almost see the original idea: Leia projecting herself across space, much like Luke did in the climatic Battle of Crait in The Last Jedi. But without Fisher, instead audiences are left to piece together that Leia is sending a vision of Han to shepherd their son away from the darkness. Then she stayed with him until the end of the line.Then there are the dozens and dozens of little pieces of lore woven throughout the story. The concept of Rey and Kylo Ren being a dyad adds a new layer of nuance both to the Sith "Rule of Two" and the yin and yang mosaic of the "Prime Jedi" in the Ahch-To temple. The Wayfinders, fashioned in the style of Sith holocrons, being able to navigate the shifting landscape of hyperspace anomalies in a similar manner to the space-faring Purrgill aka space whales. Rey learning the ancient art of Jedi healing from the Sacred Texts she "borrowed" from Luke, and in turn, accidentally teaching the life-saving skill to Kylo Ren via their Force-bond. A narrative rhyme from when he accidentally showed Rey how to access the Force via the same means in The Force Awakens. The fact that Finn is Force-sensitive (and probably Jannah too, based on her story of how her entire legion mutinied). Poe Dameron running away from his family's legacy as heroes of the Battle of Endor in his teens, only to return (probably when his father died) to take up the mantle of responsibility. The return to Mustafar and the cultists who worship the legend of Darth Vader. The reveal of the Sith Eternal, an ancient civilization biding their time in the Unknown Regions, bent on galactic domination. The admonishment that a lightsaber, which is imbued with a sentient kyber crystal that bonds with the Jedi it chooses during an ancient ritual, should be treated with a modicum of respect. Chewbacca being gifted Han Solo's medal of honor, the way you'd give dog tags to a fallen soldier's family. Rey's lightsaber being the extremely rare yellow of a Jedi Sentinel. All of these things were a metaphorical glass raised in toast to 42 years worth of ridiculous, scenery-chewing, optimistic entertainment. That's not to say The Rise of Skywalker didn't have room for improvement. Rumor has it the film at one point had a four-hour edit. The Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker visual dictionary proves as much. Things were left on the cutting room floor that would have better served the story, especially in regards to Rose Tico. Sidelined in favor of getting Finn, Poe, and Rey back together, Rose still played an important role that appears to have been sacrificed in the name of runtime. Those hyperspace skips Poe does at the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker? Those are only possible because Rose created a way for him to do it in (relative) safety. It grew out of an initiative she started in order to find a way to stop the First Order from tracking the Resistance's ships through hyperspace. Rose also created a brand-new way to drop proton bombs from B-wing and Y-wing fighters, instead of relying on ponderous bombing ships. She named the new system "the Paiger" in honor of her late sister. Rose was also doing encryption work with the Resistance droids and reverse engineering First Order tech to bypass their jamming and find other weaknesses. All things used in the final battle. Truly I wish they had left that subplot in there instead of turning the character into a cypher. Another 20 minutes wouldn't have hurt anything, Disney!Other complaints are mere quibbles. For fans who weren't heavily into the Legends lore or mainlining all the new content Disney has put out, I wish they had found time to explain that Palpatine had been puppeteering the galaxy for decades (if not centuries). I wish Lando's time on Pasana had gotten fleshed out more instead of the details relegated to the visual dictionary where we learn the tragedies that befell him after the Battle of Endor which led to his self-imposed exile. I wish we'd seen a map of the of Endor system, just to better confirm where the Ewok homeworld is in location to the Ocean Moon graveyard of the Death Star. And, of course, I wish Disney hadn't been cowards. Let Finn and Poe be boyfriends! Or put all your chips in and just make Poe, Finn, and Rey an official throuple. Just look at the way they were all holding hands at the end!Overall though, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was exactly what I wanted: a weird, mystical conclusion that wasn't afraid to dip a toe into the more bizarre end of the Star Wars mythos. I, for one, can't wait to see where Lucasfilm goes next.