There was a time when Disney had me convinced that Raya And The Last Dragon would be heavily rooted not only in Southeast Asian culture but in the region’s various unique mythologies…and while to some extent that is true and Raya does pull from many sources (too many, some have argued), the final product is to the best of my knowledge an almost wholly original story, having no basis in any specific myth or legend, and inventing more monsters and mythical creatures than it borrows from local folklore. Does that disappoint the mythology buff in me? Well, yeah, but also no – because what we get instead is an ingenious, beautiful, and almost eerily timely story of division and human failing in a time of unprecedented chaos. Sound familiar?
Disney’s darkest animated movie in years, Raya wastes no time setting up its tragic tale. Set in a sparsely-inhabited dystopian world named Kumandra, where most humans have been transformed into stone by a swarm of unearthly black tumbleweed called Druun, the film never sugarcoats the feelings of fear and confusion that keep most of Kumandra’s survivors locked up in their individual castles and kingdoms, protected by shards of the magical Dragon-Gem – the only thing, besides water, that can repel the onslaught of the Druun, which have ravaged most of the land’s forests, deserts, and mountains. Splintered into factions representing parts of the Last Dragon (Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail), Kumandra has been trapped in this unsustainable status quo for six years, since a clash between Princess Raya of Heart (voiced by Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran) and Princess Namaari of Fang (Gemma Chan) led to the breaking of the Dragon-Gem and the ensuing power struggle over its fragments.
But Raya And The Last Dragon is the rare dystopian epic that doesn’t aim for a gritty or grungy aesthetic – in fact, it’s a vivid, colorful masterpiece of animation, a particularly admirable feat given how much of it was created at home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every detail, from the diverse and unique character designs down to the food they eat (be warned, this film will make you hungry) looks lovingly crafted and real. Even the parts of Kumandra that have been overrun by Druun are hauntingly beautiful, dotted by rows upon rows of eroding statues.
Visual splendor was never the chief selling-point for Raya, which perhaps misleadingly billed itself as an intense action film. There are fight sequences, all very fast-paced, well-choreographed, and intensely violent without so much as a single drop of blood being spilled (give us the R-rated cut, Disney!), but they’re not exactly frequent. That being said, they’re elevated by the distractingly beautiful settings in which they take place, and the array of unique weapons being used. For instance, what I thought was a dragon-mace in the first trailer was actually a glimpse of Raya’s sword, which transforms into a significantly cooler bladed whip. Namaari, her main opponent throughout the film, rides into every battle on a giant cat.
Speaking of which…am I the only one getting Catradora vibes from the occasionally flirtatious banter between the two women every time they clash, or the dynamic at play in their complicated relationship? I mean, even Kelly Marie Tran wants us to know her Disney Princess is unofficially gay. Raya And The Last Dragon is arguably Disney Animation’s gayest movie yet, which of course means that every interaction between the protagonist and antagonist is technically platonic, in the same way Elsa and Honeymaren’s interactions were technically platonic in Frozen II. But there’s something about their relationship still being the real thematic core of the entire movie (not to mention a myriad of “JUST KISS ALREADY!” moments, and every time they refer to each other as “dep la”, which roughly translates to “strangely beautiful” in Vietnamese) that makes me feel like Raya might have been more overtly queer in the writing process. It’s worth noting that, while there are several metaphors for broken trust throughout the film, including the shattered Dragon-Gem, it’s Namaari’s dragon-pendant – a gift to Raya – which ultimately best symbolizes that theme, representing not just Kumandra itself, but the most painful betrayal in Raya’s life.
The pendant is but one of many small details incorporated into the film– separate from the incredible level of detail in the animation I mentioned earlier – which flesh out Kumandra’s extraordinary world, although loosely borrowing/blending bits and pieces of various Southeast Asian cultures is not a strategy without its faults, particularly since the film didn’t put in the work when it came to representing Southeast Asian voice talent. Each region of Kumandra is at once unique and different (I’d love to explore more of Talon’s colorful floating markets in a Disney+ series), but the people and their cultures clearly influence each other across borders: particularly through their food, and through a shared reverence for the Dragons of ancient lore, still visible in their most common greeting – forming the shape of the Dragon-Gem with one’s hands and lifting it above one’s head to denote respect. Little things like this subtly make Kumandra one of the most realistic worlds in Disney Animation.
The titular Dragon, however, is probably the film’s most controversial element – since Awkwafina’s shapeshifting Nāga Sisu doesn’t fit entirely comfortably within the otherwise somber story, and she’s never actually treated with much reverence, either by the characters in the film or by the film itself, which uses her as the butt of some fairly lazy jokes. Her design is also a rare misfire: with a disheveled feather-boa mane and a head that looks far too large for her serpentine body, Sisu looks awkward rather than awe-inspiring, only vaguely capturing the majesty of Southeast Asian water dragons as depicted in art and folklore for centuries.
But considering that its only other major misstep is a pacing issue and a blurriness between acts that makes the story feel rather more episodic than epic, I believe Raya And The Last Dragon is strong enough to kick off a new age of Disney Animation movies marked by more complex and mature storylines, and a lack of music I never once missed (until now, because I suddenly wish Namaari had a Disney Villain song gradually transitioning into a poignant romantic ballad).
The first trailer for Disney’s Raya didn’t make that big an impact when it dropped several months ago, despite its stunning animation, stellar voice-cast headlined by Kelly Marie Tran, and beautiful Southeast Asian setting. It caused plenty of heated discourse, though: as many fans understandably felt cheated by the way the film blends several vastly different Southeast Asian cultures, traditions, and myths; and others drew unfavorable comparisons to Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend Of Korra, saying Disney had blatantly ripped off the popular Nickelodeon series’.
The second trailer – released today, completely out of the blue as far as I can tell – is bound to be a shock for anyone who genuinely loved the first trailer for its maturity, somber tone, and grandeur. We’re about two months out from Raya‘s release, and suddenly Disney has decided to market the film as Lord Of The Rings by way of…Fast And Furious, I guess? I’m not complaining, because this movie still looks ridiculously awesome (emphasis on the ridiculous), but Disney’s misleadingly epic teaser trailers are becoming a bit much at this point. Then again, anyone who actually thought Frozen II was going to be a dark fantasy about the impending dangers of climate-change based on one scene of Elsa running over water was probably setting themselves up for failure.
But the key difference between Raya And The Last Dragon and other Disney animated family films is that Raya actually does have the stunning, gravity-defying action sequences its trailers promise. According to directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, a cut exists of the movie that could have landed it an R-rating for violence. That may be exaggeration, but their insistence that the film’s fight scenes are inspired by those of franchises like John Wick certainly gives me hope that we’re in for something spectacular when Raya leaps onto our screens in March, armed with her iconic wavy-bladed kalis, whip, and magic powers.
Thankfully, Disney Animation has broken recent tradition and given Raya an actual villain to bounce off of, and to fight. Although I appreciated Frozen II‘s villain twist (“the crimes and misdeeds of previous generations, if left unaddressed, are the greatest evils of our time” was a clever and brilliant message, albeit completely undermined in the film’s third act), I’ve been missing real Disney villains lately: their unapologetic campiness, their swagger, and their braggadocio. Raya’s nemesis, named Namaari and voiced by Gemma Chan, might not have a campy bone in her body, but she’s got the swagger, she’s got the braggadocio, and most importantly, she’s got back muscles that most Disney villains would kill for. I don’t know whether to ask for her workout regimen or her hand in marriage.
There’s always a chance that Namaari and Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who recently made her triumphant comeback to social media after years of relentless harassment from embittered Star Wars fanboys) will join forces by the end of the movie to defeat some greater evil, but before that happens we’ll get plenty of duels between the two, as they both hunt for the last dragon – the only creature capable of saving the land of Kumandra from an ancient evil. Set to modern epic music, the trailer invites us on a globe-trotting quest around Kumandra’s warring regions alongside a fellowship of anti-heroic misfits, including a con-baby with a troop of monkey minions. Each region seems to reflect a different part of Southeast Asia, from the forests of Indonesia and the Philippines, to the river-delta villages of Bangladesh. The new trailer showcases more of the area’s diversity than the teaser, while memorable sequences from the teaser are noticeably absent: the sequences that had viewers comparing Raya and Korra’s blue outfits and similarly-styled ponytails.
But the new trailer does confirm that the mysterious masked man seen battling Raya in the teaser was, in fact, her father – and the ritual guardian of Kumandra’s dragon gem, as I guessed at the time. Daniel Dae Kim will voice the role, which will surely be brief: he barely gets to speak a single line in the trailer before we cut to Raya placing flowers at a shrine with a statue of him. It’s somehow comforting that, with the world as unpredictable and chaotic as it is, you can always rely on Disney Animation to kill their protagonists’ parents. Some things never change.
But what about you? How excited are you based on this new trailer? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
For a while, the only official material we’ve seen from Disney Animation’s upcoming epic Raya And The Last Dragon is a few pieces of stunning concept art, one poster that wasn’t meant to leak, and a new poster released yesterday in anticipation of this morning’s first trailer release. And today, I am both surprised and relieved to discover that this is one of the few cases where the finished film actually seems to look just as good as – if not better than – the already beautiful concept art.
Set in the lush, vibrant kingdom of Kumandra, the first trailer for Raya gets off to a good start instantly, with a stringed instrument providing haunting, atmospheric background music over scenes of our brave young heroine, Raya, – voiced by the talented yet criminally underrated and mistreated Kelly Marie Tran, making a brave comeback after her role as Rose Tico in Star Wars made her the subject of cyberbulling and targeted harrassment by racists – while she prepares for the fight of her life. We see a wide range of different landscapes and locations throughout Kumandra in the trailer, most notably a palace or temple complex perched on a tall, arch-shaped rock formation which appears to be taking some architectural influence from real-life locations in Southeast Asia such as the temples at Bagan in Myanmar. Raya And The Last Dragon will become Disney’s first film set in Southeast Asia, and follows a pattern established over the past several years by Disney in that it stars a bold, capable, adventurous princess in the lead role – though, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear from the trailer if Raya is a princess by birth, and if that will make her ineligible to join the official Disney Princess line-up.
She might pull a Mulan and simply get in because she earned the title on her own. In the trailer’s first thirty seconds, we see Raya donning the outfit of a warrior meant for stealth missions (she has an entire room full of weapons, which I hope to see explored to the fullest): and then embarking on one such stealth mission herself, leaping from rooftops in the rain and vanishing into a network of deep, subterranean tunnels which presumably lie beneath the aforementioned palace/temple. The entire sequence is gorgeously animated, exquisitely filmed, and evocative of action films and spy thrillers. After a hold-up in a tunnel full of traps (falling nets rather than the usual spikes jutting from walls or disappearing floor-tiles), Raya reaches her destination – a massive, circular chamber housing what I have to imagine is the “Dragon Gem” she mentions later in the trailer as the magical artifact she’s sworn to protect: but on this particular occasion, she has company. A warrior is already there before her, wearing a fanged dragon mask to hide their features, and engages her in combat – although the warrior wields a large, wavy-bladed sword called a kris, Raya is using a martial arts style which employs two short staves: this could be Arnis, a fighting style popular in the Philippines, but which is believed to draw on influences from throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and India. The fight between the two warriors is interspersed throughout the rest of the trailer, with Raya and her opponent evading each other in a sort of dance.
From there, we jump to a desert setting – which is interesting, because Southeast Asia isn’t really known for its deserts. Raya, now carrying her very own kris, is on a quest to find the Last Dragon of Lumandra, as she informs us through narration, so this could perhaps take place further afield, maybe even in India or China: not that it will matter much to Raya, who is lucky to have on her side a large pangolin/pillbug hybrid creature named Tuk Tuk, whom we are introduced to as an adorable baby in the opening sequence but is already enormous when we see him carrying Raya through the desert at high speeds. This, coupled with Raya telling us that she trained her whole life to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem makes me think that her fight in the cavern isn’t with an enemy, but instead a ritual she must have undergone to become said guardian – some sort of “passing the torch” ceremony meant to prove her worth and strength. But it seems like, despite her best efforts, something bad is happening to Kumandra and the Dragon Gem isn’t enough to keep several different kingdoms or clans united: these are the four groups we see moments later attending an event held by a man and a young girl who is probably his daughter and undoubtedly Raya. Maybe she is a Princess by birth after all. While a few of these groups might just be there to provide worldbuilding, two at least look like they are probably important to the story: the group dressed in dark green, equipped with a small army of elephants and led by a long-haired man who looks a bit like the warrior in the cavern; and the group to their left, dressed mostly in white, led by a very regal woman with a striking haircut, who come with a bunch of giant dog…wolf…creatures. A little hard to tell what’s going on there, but I am very intrigued. Will we get huge battles in this movie with war elephants and some mythical beasts? I hope so!
The trailer leaves us with only a tantalizing glimpse of the Last Dragon – through a colorful illustration in a scroll and a fleeting, feathery silhouette. But far more striking is the kaleidoscopic title card, which shows us tiny, blue-hued hints of other things I already can’t wait to see in clearer detail: Raya, standing on a cliff, looking out towards a huge staircase carved into the side of a mountain; and a mace carved into the shape of a writhing dragon. Raya looks to be the most heavily-armed Disney Princess in history, and I hope she gets to use all of that weaponry at some point: assuming the warrior in the cavern is not an enemy but rather a mentor or ritual opponent, there’s no sign of any other villain – except perhaps in the scroll, where we see the Last Dragon locked in combat with a black and purple swirl of cloud. This black and purple motif is possibly mirrored in the cavern, which is filled with glowing purple flowers which cover the walls and hang from the ceiling: but don’t seem to be the same glowing flowers we saw in the concept art and leaked poster, as those were bright blue. My takeaway from this is simply that we should be on the lookout for all sorts of significant botanical specimens in this film. I do also want to point out that I genuinely hope there’s a physical villain in Raya And The Last Dragon, only partially because I still feel cheated that we never got an epic third-act battle in either Moana or Frozen 2.
So what do you think? How do you feel about this first trailer, and how excited are you to see Raya in action? Share your own thoughts, theories and comments in the comments below – and if you come from the Southeast Asian region, please feel free to share any information about your own culture that you feel may have influenced the film!
The Skywalker Saga has concluded in fire, blood and Force lightning. After forty-two years of incredible journeys across the stars, from Naboo to Mustafar to Tatooine and Endor, from clone wars and intergalactic trade disputes to hopeless rebellions, empires, and the like, we have finally reached the story’s final, and defining, chapter. And that means it’s time to discuss all the major reveals, revelations and shocking surprises in a movie that is largely made up of such moments, in my spoiler review of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker.
And, um, SPOILERS AHEAD, obviously.
There is a lot to love in this film, and a lot of elements and plot-points that have already been generating arguments and heated debates throughout the Star Wars fandom. We’re going to go through each of the film’s most divisive surprises, from low-stakes squabbles to the-fate-of-the-universe-hangs-in-the-balance battles.
Let’s start the ball rolling with two moments that absolutely could have been high-stakes scenes, but were quickly undermined. The first involved everybody’s favorite Wookie, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and his fakeout death on the desert planet of Pasaana. Chewie is captured by stormtroopers and almost gets carried away in a transport shuttle, before Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) use the Force to drag the ship this way and that in a potentially fatal game of tug-and-war. This moment echoes an iconic The Last Jedi scene in which Rey and Kylo struggle for mastery over Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber, but here the outcome is that Rey suddenly unleashes a fiery explosion of Force lightning to try and overcome Kylo’s grip, blowing up the shuttle and giving us a hint of her Sith heritage. Fortunately for Rey, Chewie wasn’t killed in the explosion after all, and survives all the ensuing violence to finally get rewarded with his very own medal, having waited forty-two years to get recognition for his help in destroying the Death Star. Later in the movie, the same sort of scenario involves C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), who has to have his memory completely wiped so that he can be made to speak Sith, so that Rey can find the ruins of the Death Star, so that she can discover a Sith Wayfinder which Kylo ultimately destroys in the palm of his hand, so…there was no reason for C-3PO to have his memory wiped at all. Thankfully the movie remembers this and has an irate R2-D2 (Hassan Taj/Lee Towersey) reverse the override and restore C-3PO’s fond recollections of his best friend. The moment when he “dies” is still emotional, and does lead to some funny jokes, as all good C-3PO scenes do, but all of those theories about “Sith-3PO” were making mountains out of one very small, unimportant molehill.
The relationship dynamics in Rise Of Skywalker are next on the list, not only because of how screentime is wasted on them, but because of how unbearably messy they are. It’s no secret anymore that director J.J. Abrams and The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson couldn’t ever figure out any sort of continuity between their films, but the whiplash of seeing our protagonists leap at light-speed from one relationship to the next here seems to imply that Abrams can’t even establish continuity with…himself. Rey and her possibly Force-sensitive friend Finn (John Boyega) were the sequel trilogy’s “original” love story, back when Finn was cool for about five minutes, but that was before the fandom collectively went crazy for “Reylo”, the popular coupling of Rey and Kylo Ren that finally gets payoff in Rise Of Skywalker with the pair’s first kiss and declarations of mutual love – sort of: Driver and Ridley speak volumes with subtle gestures, and don’t really need to say anything at all. Such is not the case for Finn, who spends a large part of the movie waiting to tell Rey something, presumably something romantic, before just…forgetting? Moving on? He clearly has some emotions for her at the beginning of the film, despite having been caught up in a romantic entanglement with fellow Resistance fighter Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) in The Last Jedi, and with fellow ex-stormtrooper Jannah (Naomi Ackie) here in Skywalker. But then again, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) also maybe has a thing for Rey, or was I the only one getting that from their weirdly flirtatious exasperated argument in the film’s opening scenes, which even features droid BB-8 humorously looking back and forth between the two characters as Rey reprimands Poe for lightspeed-skipping in the Millennium Falcon, and Poe tells her off for damaging BB-8 (even as relationships crash and burn around them, Poe and BB-8 are resolutely loyal to each other: there’s a love story for you, and it would still be less weird than whatever was going on between Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and the much-younger Jannah during the film’s finale). Meanwhile the film continues to tease the idea of semi-romantic tension between Finn and Poe in the subtlest possible way, while also giving Poe a former female love interest of his own, one who doesn’t really have a whole lot to do except be Poe’s former female love interest. I think the crucial element here is that she’s female: after all, gotta squash all those gay rumors. Having a two-second lesbian kiss is surely enough to make up for no substantial LGBTQ+ representation in forty-two years (and for certain countries, it was apparently too much).
Let’s move on to female characters, who, with the obvious exceptions of Rey and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, in her final, posthumous appearance), tend to get the bare minimum of screen-time or development. I’d be hard pressed to tell you what I thought of Jannah, Rose Tico or Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), none of whom actually has anything to do except look cool, stand around, or stand around and look cool. Both Jannah and Zorii are at least technically supposed to have a handful of emotional beats each, but Rose especially seems to exist solely to make sure angry audience-members don’t ask where she went. But she might as well just not be here at all – she has maybe two or three throwaway lines, few if any character-building moments, and seemingly no acknowledgement of the fact that she was Finn’s love interest in the previous movie. I didn’t even think they were a particularly cute couple, but after the nightmare that actress Kelly Marie Tran went through, experiencing bullying and harassment from toxic fans, it seems suspiciously convenient that she’s little more than an extra in this film.
Other characters who fail to make an impression (and don’t worry, we’re almost done with the film’s big negatives), even after being hyped-up in the marketing, include Dominic Monaghan as another extra whose name I have already forgotten; Lupita Nyong’o reprising her role as Maz Kanata (another female character pretty much wasted); the super-creepy alien assassin Ochi of Bestoon (Liam Cook), who killed Rey’s parents and was then devoured by a giant sand-worm; and, unfortunately, Rey’s actual parents, played by Billy Howle and Jodie Comer. Yes, the very same Jodie Comer who is one of the Hollywood’s biggest rising stars at the moment – how are we not talking about the fact that she is in Star Wars, people?
J.J. Abrams was always going to have to struggle to come up with an explanation for how Rey’s parents could technically be nobodies, but also somebodies: what he devised is pretty complex, so stick with me here. Rey’s grandfather is Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and her father is Palpatine’s hitherto-unknown son. Before this extraordinary reveal, it was never indicated that Palpatine ever had a son, or a family, or a life, for that matter: not as the Emperor, not even as Sheev Palpatine, Senator from Naboo. Not only are we never told the son’s name, or when he was born, where he came from, or whether he was Force-sensitive himself, but we are never given the answer to the most glaringly obvious question that arises as a result of this reveal: who, dare I ask, was the poor unfortunate soul that birthed Palpatine’s son, and…um, why? Was he born when Palpatine was still a relatively human person, or after Palps had transformed into the ghastly, shriveled-up hobgoblin that we’re most familiar with? Anyway, Rey’s Father, it is revealed, chose to be a nobody instead of embracing his family name, and that’s why he and his wife sold their daughter into a torturous life of basically slavery, to protect her from Palpatine – because of course any good parent, knowing they’re about to die, would choose to sell their own child to an abusive community of junk-traders and scavengers rather than, oh I don’t know, leaving her with people who might actually care about her safety! And of course it makes sense that, after killing the parents, Ochi of Bestoon didn’t fly back to Jakku and hunt down the only human girl in a village that we saw in The Force Awakens was probably less than a mile wide. In other words, while the parents were marginally necessary, it would’ve probably made more sense to have her be, like Anakin, the result of Palpatine’s meddling with midi-chlorians (or are we still trying to ignore those were ever a thing?). She could still have been a Palpatine, and we wouldn’t be left with the horrifying implied revelation that Palpatine actually fathered a child.
Apart from the messiness of the Rey Palpatine reveal, the Emperor’s return is a welcome one. His resurrection is completely unexplained (“The dead speak!”, the film’s opening crawl reads, and that’s about as much explanation as you’re gonna get), but it’s nice to see that he isn’t totally back in shape after being tossed into the hellfire that was the second Death Star’s utter obliteration: now, the Emperor’s limp, skeletal body moves around on the end of a long metal crane-arm extended from the ceiling of his throne room on the Sith planet Exegol, like a creepy ventriloquist doll speaking with the voices of a thousand generations of Jedi. McDiarmid is obviously fabulous, and even gets to briefly return to a form we last saw him take in Revenge Of The Sith, as he sucks the life force out of Rey and Kylo Ren to repair his broken body and restore his strength. This time around he’s extra moody, having just discovered that his granddaughter doesn’t want to take part in the Palpatine family photo-op with his millions of ghostly Sith followers. And so, with no choice left to him but to destroy the universe, he unleashes the Final Order.
The Final Order is appropriately ominous at first, as we see hundreds of titanic star destroyers rise from beneath the ice of Exegol, each armed with a planet-destroying weapon, to wreak havoc on the galaxy and establish Palpatine’s dominion. But these weapons are only used, to obliterate a single planet, and as a result the Final Order is ultimately defeated by a cavalry of space-goats. For the record, I have no complaints about that – in Star Wars, the underdog always comes out on top, and we love to see it. The film’s epic finale has Lando Calrissian and about a billion other spaceships pop out of hyperspace to come rescue the goat-riders and put an end to General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) and his menacing fleet – though not before a couple more deaths, including that of pilot Snap Wexley (Greg Grunberg), who gets shot down just before the battle turns in the Resistance’s favor. Bad timing, Snap.
But few of the film’s scenes hit home quite like Leia Organa’s death, and the extensive use of ghosts, Force-ghosts and Jedi voice-overs. Midway through the movie, as Kylo Ren and Rey duel to the death amongst the shattered ruins of the Death Star, Leia finally reaches out to her son through the Force, using all of her Jedi training to find her son, the Ben Solo she knew and still loved, and bring him back to the Light Side. She succeeds, but has to use all of her remaining strength to achieve victory over the corrupting influence of Palpatine and his puppet Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis), who had stolen Ben away from her and turned him into Kylo Ren. In the end, though Leia passes away in the attempt, she is a crucial element in the Skywalker Family’s victory over the Sith, just as we had all hoped she would be. There is no doubt that, if Carrie Fisher were still alive, then Leia would have had a much larger role in this film, but what we get is still powerful and emotionally satisfying – Luke Skywalker’s Force-ghost tells Rey that Leia actually trained to be a Jedi after the fall of the Empire, and he even gives her Leia’s very own lightsaber, which Rey subsequently uses, along with Luke’s a.k.a Anakin’s, to defeat Palpatine, symbolically uniting the power of all the previous Skywalkers against the Emperor. But it’s not just the Skywalkers who stand with Rey – it’s all of the past Jedi, who visit Rey as voices in her head as she lies, almost lifeless, on the ground at Palpatine’s feet: and I’m not even just talking Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Yoda (Frank Oz). A whole bunch of fallen Jedi give advice and courage to our protagonist in that moment, from Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness) Qui-Gon Jinn (voiced by Liam Neeson) and Mace Windu (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), to some of the extended universe’s most notable heroes like Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein), who apparently died a Jedi despite (a) being alive the last time we saw her, and (b) leaving the Jedi Order in The Clone Wars. Fittingly, the final word is given to Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) himself, as the Jedi-turned-Sith-turned-Jedi tells Rey to restore balance to the Force and finish what he started. But even as a thousand generations of Jedi live inside Rey (something she acknowledges in an Iron Man-esque growl of determination, with her “I am all the Jedi” line), so too does Ben Solo have his own ghosts. Soon after being redeemed by his mother’s purifying love, Ben has a conversation with the ghost of his father, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who actually appears physically – and, weirdly, also has audible footsteps, despite being intangible – and, in typical Han fashion, abruptly cuts his son off before he can start apologizing for all his sins with a quick “I know”, echoing his long-ago declaration of love to Princess Leia.
There are many echoes reverberating in The Rise Of Skywalker, from quick but powerful payoffs, to a number of startlingly poetic parallels. Even Luke Skywalker is still developing as a character even after his death, finally managing to lift his X-Wing fighter jet from the waters of Ahch-To even after infamously failing to do so on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. Ben Solo echoes Anakin’s redemption arc by turning to the Light at the end of the movie, helping Rey to defeat Palpatine. And it’s Palpatine’s own Force-lightning which Rey deflects back into his hideous face, ultimately disintegrating the Emperor (in what appears to be a Raiders Of The Lost Ark callback) and preventing Rey herself from succumbing to the Dark Side. And then, she sort of dies.
But thankfully, all those Force-phone calls between Rey and Ben were actually leading up to something, and something big: while in The Last Jedi they mostly just provided the two characters a way to communicate, Rise Of Skywalker adds a new wrinkle to the relationship, allowing Rey and Ben the ability to transfer physical objects via telepathy, including a beaded necklace, Darth Vader’s helmet, and a helpful lightsaber. Ben, cradling Rey’s dead body in his arms after the battle, is able to take things one step further by physically transferring his own life to Rey, reviving her but also killing himself in the process. Rey is quick on the uptake and manages to steal a kiss from the redeemed Jedi, just before he fades away into the Force, leaving Rey Palpatine to carry on with the massive burden placed upon her by generations of Jedi, Sith and Force meddling.
One thing she will not be carrying anymore is the Palpatine family name, which she abandons in the film’s final scene in exchange for “Skywalker”. The scene is a poignant one: Rey goes to Tatooine and buries Luke and Leia’s twin lightsabers just outside the Lars moisture-farm where the story began back in 1977. The Skywalker siblings’ Force-ghosts, united in death, look on as she takes up their family name and sets out into the double sunset with BB-8 beside her, and a lightsaber of her own (a lightsaber that I and many others think is yellow, while others claim it’s white). This is undoubtedly the film’s most controversial move: on the one hand, it makes sense that Rey wouldn’t want to be a Palpatine, and it’s poetic for her to adopt the Skywalker name, making sure that their name never dies out from the galaxy. On the other hand, fans are upset that Rey didn’t simply choose to keep the Palpatine name and redefine her grandfather’s legacy, proving that you can still be a good person, no matter where you come from or who your family happens to be. Both arguments are understandable, but at the end of the day it comes down to the fact that Star Wars has always been the story of the Skywalker family – to let their memory die out, buried in the sands of Tatooine, would be a dishonor to their legacy.
And with that, the story of Skywalker is finished, once and for all. Peace has been restored to the galaxy. Balance in the Force has been achieved, through the actions of Rey Skywalker and Ben Solo, champions of the Light and Dark, who came together in what they called a “Force dyad” to become the “two that are one” – remember my Star Wars recap reviews, where I told you that duality would have a part to play in this last movie? I didn’t even expect that sort of shoutout in the film’s own dialogue (I expected it to be all in the subtext), but the confirmation was highly appreciated. The Empire, The First Order, and The Final Order have all been vanquished, and nobody needs to build any more Death Stars. For the first time, the galaxy is completely tranquil, and we no longer need to worry about what Sith Lord will rise next, because there won’t be another Sith Lord. This is it. This is the end.
We, the fans of this incredible franchise, have finally brought the story home. There will undoubtedly be much more Star Wars to come in future years, whether in the form of prequels or sequels, but I hope that Disney never feels the need to resurrect Palpatine once again, or bring the Skywalkers back. Any tampering along those lines would serve only to ruin the perfection of this pure, beautiful moment.