Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is still four months away, but with a trailer, Vanity Fair magazine spreads, and a big showing at the D23 expo in August, the film is feeling much closer to release. And the story and characters are starting to come into focus. From early publicity for the film and the new revelations at D23 – WHAT is Rey doing with that red double-bladed lightsaber!? – we already know a decent amount about The Rise of Skywalker, which will conclude the trilogy that began with J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens in 2015. So let’s take a look at what we know and what it could potentially mean for the finished film. After all, the title itself offers a strange mystery: which Skywalker will rise after all this time?
Up until Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Star Wars sequels traditionally took place 2-3 years after the preceding film (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones took place 10 years after Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace). TLJ eschewed the tradition by setting itself shortly after Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As a result, the usual off-screen character building did not occur. This time around, Lucasfilm is making it clear TLJ and The Rise of Skywalker take place further apart from each other; about a year or so. In that time, the Resistance has regrouped with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) getting accustomed to a leadership role, Finn (John Boyega) dedicating himself to the cause, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) continuing her training in the Jedi arts.
And yeah, that last one certainly sounds surprising, doesn’t it?
To an extent, all three characters will have a newfound confidence as they’ve come to understand their place in the universe and what it means to fight the First Order. Since this is the final episode of not only the third Star Wars trilogy, but of the nine-film cycle first teased by creator George Lucas in the early 1980s, we’re going to presume they succeed in crushing the First Order and whatever Imperial remnant keeping it reinforced. At the same time, the characters face a greater challenge in helping to found some sort of galactic government which will last more than 20 years before a group aligned with the Dark Side can topple it. How director J.J. Abrams could make that element interesting is anyone’s guess.
Although the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy was meant to showcase three different directors as they resolved the Skywalker Saga, The Rise of Skywalker went through a troubled pre-production phase. Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow was originally signed to pick up the story after Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, but shortly before he was set to begin fully developing the film, Lucasfilm fired him. As always, “creative differences” were to blame. The search began anew for someone who could wrap the series up and do it to Lucasfilm’s specifications. And once again, they turned to Abrams, who infamously turned down the opportunity to direct The Force Awakens when it was first given to him.
This time around, though, Abrams said he felt a certain freedom to expand beyond Star Wars storytelling grammar into something new. His comments suggest he listened to critics who mentioned The Force Awakens felt a little too much like the original Star Wars. Presumably, this means the series will not end with a rag-tag group of fighter aces launching an attack against a Death Star the size of a solar system. Which isn’t to say the Death Star will be absent from the film. The trailer offered fans a glimpse of wreckage from one of the destroyed Original Trilogy battle stations peacefully resting on an unknown planet.
That shot, and Abrams’ comments, suggests he picked up some of TLJ’s “let’s blow up Star Wars!” attitude, even if the film includes the series’ third desert planet.
Instead of Tatooine or Jakku, the desert world seen in the first trailer is called Pasanna, which now suggests desert planets are fairly common in the Star Wars galaxy. Another environment to be featured is a planet of ice and snow called Kijimi, where viewers will meet Keri Russel’s scoundrel character Zorri Bliss. At the D23 Walt Disney Studio presentation in August, Russell teased Zorri as “cool and shady,” before adding she is “an old friend of Poe’s.” Make your own guesses about what that means.
Other new characters include a new droid called D-0, Richard E. Grant as First Order Allegiant General Pryde, Namoi Ackie as Jannah — a character still shrouded in secrecy despite Ackie’s appearance at Star Wars Celebration — and the Aki-Aki, inhabitants of Pasanna.
The film will also feature the long-delayed debut of the Knights of Ren. Despite getting a big tease in The Force Awakens, the group did very little besides stand in the rain during Rey’s lightsaber flashback. Or was it a flash-forward? Either way, they will be part of her present situation in The Rise of Skywalker. Curiously, though, it is unclear if they will be taking orders from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) or working to dethrone him as Supreme Leader of the First Order. And considering their absence from the story so far, were they ever really his disciples – as suggested in The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi – or do they serve a older, darker evil. The trailer released during Star Wars Celebration featured the distinctive laugh of Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), which leaves us wondering if they are part of his latest phantom menace?
Taking another look at the environments revealed so far – a desert world and a winter world – you might make the fair assumption The Rise of Skywalker might go to a forest world and complete a tour of classic Star Wars environments. One shot in the trailer even sees Kylo facing off against foes in a patch of dead trees. Some believe the story will take the characters back to the forest moon of Endor, where Palaptine’s first master plan was undone by a Jedi with incomplete training. Considering the film’s position as the grand finale, it seems reasonable to take things back to that first ending. But we’d also like the spirit of new ideas to prevail and see the final conflict take place in a new, as-yet-unrevealed setting.
And while the film has to create new locales and characters, it also has to wrap up some longstanding plot threads. Reportedly, the origin of the First Order will be revealed. For those who remember the Thrawn Trilogy of novels or the 1990s Dark Empire comic book series, Palpatine’s involvement in those events seems almost assured. And in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, he told Anakin (Hayden Christensen) he was looking for a way to cheat death. Maybe he found it.
Meanwhile, the connection Rey seemingly severed with Kylo at the end of The Last Jedi will reportedly turn out to be deeper than that film suggested. Fans of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games already noted the similarity between the characters’ connection and the idea of Force Bonds introduced in those games. Is it possible their bond will yet redeem Kylo and end the misery Palpatine inflicted on the galaxy? Considering the film promises to be the end of the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith going back millennia, we’re willing to bet on it.
Then again, new material shown at D23 suggests something else. Quick cuts teased a resupplied and reinforced Resistance, a red-eyed C-3PO and, perhaps most disturbingly, Rey brandishing a double-sided red lightsaber. Considering she trained with a staff back on Jakku, the lightsaber variation makes sense. But the red blades suggests the Sith may finally win. Or, perhaps, she will have to fall in order for the Skywalker to rise.
Or, it was just an excellent fake-out for the D23 audience. Either way, the final chapter in the Skywalker Saga will not be a simple retelling of Return of the Jedi.
The film will see the return of Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Billy Dee Williams in their roles as General Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, and Lando Calrissian. Despite Fisher’s tragic death on December 27, 2016, Lucasfilm resolved to maintain Leia’s existence in the ninth film even before Abrams signed on to direct. Once he did, he recalled scenes cut from The Force Awakens he could use to feature the character in The Rise of Skywalker. At Star Wars Celebration, he said editing her material into a new context felt like working with her again. And at D23, Abrams called Leia “the heart of the story.”
Lando, meanwhile, returns to pilot the Millennium Falcon once again after he flew the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy to defeat the Empire in Return of the Jedi. It is unclear why he’s back, but we’re happy to see him no matter the reason.
And then there’s Luke. Though the character was seen dying in The Last Jedi, it is important to note the special Force ability allowing certain Jedi to remain conscious entities after the termination of the body. As Yoda put it in The Empire Strikes Back, Force-sensitives are “luminous beings” and not the “crude matter” of a physical form. And as revealed in Revenge of the Sith, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) was the first Jedi to return using this technique. That Luke would return in this manner to train Rey or advise Leia is hardly a surprise. What may be more surprising is the single photo of him released so far: seemingly corporeal, he stands next to R2-D2 amid a field in flames.
The notion of a Jedi returning bodily to face the ultimate evil is not the craziest idea ever suggested in a Star Wars story. Early drafts of Return of the Jedi featured Anakin Skywalker returning to his human form to face Darth Vader and the Emperor. This, of course, predates the decision to make Anakin and Vader the same person, but the idea persisted for some time. It never came to pass for Jedi, but perhaps Abrams finally employed the idea for this final Skywalker Saga film.
Offering the film one more sense of finality, composer John Williams stated in 2018 that it would feature his last Star Wars film score. If he truly decides to step down – Williams subsequently agreed to compose a music loop for the Disney Parks’ Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge environments – it will mark the end of an incredible era. Williams’ themes are as indelible as classic lines like “I have a bad feeling about this,” lightsabers, and the jump to hyperspace. Though composers like Kevin Kiner (of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels) and Michael Giacchino (of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) maintained the musical grammar developed by Williams, every subsequent film from 2019 onward will be different. And should the film truly bring the Skywalker saga to a close, it is all the more fitting that Episode IX be the composer’s final bow.
Unless, of course, he’s still with us when Disney breaks down and begins developing of Episode X.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens everywhere on December 20, 2019.