In partial defense of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's Rey twist
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's dramatic Rey reveal is in some ways a frustrating reversal of The Last Jedi — critics have referred to it as a "crassly cynical letdown" and a "crushing disappointment," among other things — but it's not actually a total repudiation of the themes of its predecessor, from a certain point of view.
After J.J. Abrams presented the mystery box of Rey's origin in The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi seemingly opened it by revealing that her parents are actually nobody of significance; they were mere junk traders who sold her away for drinking money, Kylo Ren tells her. With this reveal, Johnson presented Rey, a character in search of answers about her "place in all this," with the hardest possible thing she could hear.
"If she were told that she's related to this person, or Luke is her this, or whatever, that'd be the easiest thing she could hear," Johnson explained on The Last Jedi's bonus features. "That's everything she wants that would instantly define what her place is in this universe." Instead, not getting easy answers about her parentage is the equivalent of hearing, as Johnson explained, "You're wondering who you are? Okay, well, you have to find out who you are for yourself."
In addition to challenging Rey, the reveal also hammered home the broader theme that one need not simply be the descendant of a hero to become a hero themselves.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams dramatically revises the information we learned in The Last Jedi. We now find out that not only did Rey's parents not sell her for drinking money, but they weren't unimportant people at all, as her father was actually the son of Emperor Palpatine. They were "nobodies" because they were doing their best to hide from that past. Already, the reveal is proving to be highly controversial, with many seeing it as an explicit rejection of the ideas Johnson communicated.
Yet The Rise of Skywalker ultimately does arrive at essentially the same thematic conclusion. Had The Last Jedi built its key reveal around denying Rey an easy answer about her identity, only for The Rise of Skywalker to provide her with exactly that easy answer by making her the daughter of Luke Skywalker or another hero, that would feel like an unforgivable departure. It would come as a comfortable reassurance to Rey that she's a special, noble person with a predetermined role in the story of the rebellion.
Instead, learning that she is the descendent of pure evil is another hard truth, and just as in The Last Jedi, it again forces Rey to find her own place. All throughout The Rise of Skywalker, Rey is encouraged by Kylo Ren not to do so and to simply accept the fact that her bloodline determines who she is. Instead, Rey's journey concludes with a powerful dismissal of her heritage.
"Some things are stronger than blood," Luke tells Rey in The Rise of Skywalker, a line that feels very much in keeping with The Last Jedi.
When Rey takes on Skywalker as her surname in the film's final scene, it's not to suggest she must be a part of this lineage to matter. Instead, this is not only a way to carry forward the legacy of characters who have passed on, but also one last move by Rey to, just as Johnson had hoped, find out who she is for herself. Johnson determined Rey's bloodline isn't vital to her identity now, and by crowning a Palpatine as the last living Skywalker in the end, Abrams suggests the same.
Indeed, Abrams wanted The Rise of Skywalker to serve as a conclusion to all nine Star Wars episodes, and given that the saga's conflict now largely revolves around Skywalkers and Palpatines, having a Skywalker give his life for a Palpatine drives home the point that no one's past — not their actions and certainly not their bloodline — has to decide their future.
Some argue the twist is disappointing in that it takes away the idea that a person doesn't have to descend from anyone of significance at all, good or evil, to play an important role in the story. It's a fair point, but on the other hand, it's not as if The Last Jedi introduced that concept to Star Wars for the first time. The series is already full of tons of heroes coming from nothing, from the smuggler Han Solo becoming a rebellion leader to FN-2187, one nameless, faceless stormtrooper in the crowd, becoming Finn, Resistance legend.
Others have expressed disappointment that The Rise of Skywalker backs away from the suggestion in The Last Jedi that one can come from nothing and still be incredibly strong in the Force, yet one's connection to the Force still isn't directly tied to lineage. Both of these themes remain, with or without Rey.
Ultimately, The Rise of Skywalker's Rey twist doesn't fully sit right, if only because we were already satisfied with the answer provided last time around. The whiplash from one reveal to the other is awkward, speaking to the trilogy's overall inconsistency of vision and apparent lack of planning. Besides, if such a similar point was going to be made in the end, was the reversal even necessary? Still, the two twists aren't as inconsistent thematically as they may first seem. As Abrams recently put it, "one of the themes of the movie is that anyone can be anything regardless of where you're from." Johnson couldn't have said it better himself.
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