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In this synopsis of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I’ll run you through the story and most central themes, explaining why I feel it’s done such an excellent job in the face of a not-insignificant amount of controversy.
We’re Star Wars fans. We’re kind of hard to please, and the Sequel trilogy wasn’t exactly met with universal joy. I’ll admit that I was one of those people. However, I’ve since rewatched the films several times to ensure I have an accurate knowledge of the story for posts on this site (I know, what a challenging job!) – and my opinion’s changed quite drastically. I really like and appreciate them now and, contrary to the currently prevailing belief, feel that – with a closer look – The Rise of Skywalker is a fitting conclusion to the Skywalker Saga.
If you’re yet to see it that way, I hope this synopsis and delve into the overreaching themes will soften your approach.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker story
The Rise of Skywalker is reasonably unique in that it happens across just over 16 hours – less than a day. Most of the other films are set across many days, if not weeks, giving rise to the intense action you’d expect in such a rushed and panicked story environment.
The return of Palpatine
The opening crawl reveals the key setting for the final film in the Saga – the voice of Darth Sidious has echoed around the galaxy, broadcasted from a mysterious region. It unsettles all life, including Kylo Ren, who’s determined to find and eliminate the threat to his rule.
The Rise of Skywalker opens with Kylo Ren, the Supreme Leader of the First Order, massacring a planet with relative ease. A careful look reveals that this is Mustafar. With all his enemies vanquished, he locates and takes one of Darth Vader‘s Sith Wayfinders.
With this as his guide, he navigates through the Unknown Regions to Exegol, the ancient home of the Sith, to confront the mysterious voice of Sheev Palpatine. Alone, he marches confidently into the Sith Temple, humming red lightsaber ready at his side.
Descending through the Temple, a voice speaks to him from the darkness. It reveals that he’s controlled Ben Solo and Kylo Ren from the beginning, pulling the strings with Snoke and talking to the boy through the voices of Darth Vader and his previous Master. Ren, noticeably more cautious, continues to approach, still determined to kill Sidious. He finds the Sith Eternal cult ministering to the Dark Lord’s needs, walking past pretty disgusting half-completed clones of Snoke in vats.
Palpatine tells Ren that the First Order is nothing compared to his Sith fleet, scorning and mocking the Supreme Leader’s threats.
I have died before.
He holds out his hands, badly burnt, scarred, and deformed, promising that his ships will make the First Order into the new Galactic Empire, increasing its strength ten-thousandfold. He calls it the Final Order and tells Kylo he can have it, taking the mantle of the new Emperor. But he must kill Rey, thus ending the Jedi.
But beware… she is not who you think she is.
Finding a First Order spy
Chewbacca, Finn, Poe, R2 head to the Sinta Glacier Colony to collect information from Boolio, an Ovissian with contacts in the First Order. He transmits a message to them from within the First Order before TIE Fighters approach their position.
The Falcon has a narrow escape from the enemy TIEs, and Poe resorts to lightspeed skipping to escape the fighters (which can now track through lightspeed, as The Last Jedi introduced). While they’re successful, the Falcon takes significant damage.
Rey’s Training on Ajan Kloss
Rey continues to learn the ways of the Jedi under Leia’s tutelage on Ajan Kloss, the location of the latest Resistance base. She’s become exceptionally strong with the Force and meditates high in the air, surrounded by rocks. She’s searching for the voices of the Jedi hidden within the Force to guide her but is unable to find them.
Frustrated, she sinks back to the ground and vents to Leia before running her usual training course through the woods (a throwback to Luke Skywalker on Dagobah). Organa hands her the Skywalker saber, and she heads off through the trees. All goes well until her anger boils over. She loses focus, destroying the training remote firing on her and accidentally dropping a tree onto BB-8. When all is still again, she finds her peace again, dismayed at her actions and the damage she’s caused to her little friend.
Later, she hands the lightsaber back to Leia, telling her,
I will earn your brother’s saber one day.
Her mentor reluctantly takes it from her. A short time later, the Millennium Falcon lands at the base… aflame. Poe and Rey shout at each other in frustration at the conditions of BB-8 and Han Solo’s old ship. She embraces Finn, her oldest friend before the three confirm that they made contact with a spy, a “mole in the First Order.”
At the following briefing, Poe tells everyone that the message they’ve received “confirms the worst. Somehow, Palpatine returned.” Troops suspect he used dark cloning techniques, “secrets only the Sith knew.” Dameron explains about the Sith fleet named the Final Order. They have 16 hours before the attacks will begin on all worlds throughout the galaxy.
Rey, remembering something she’d read in one of Luke’s texts, brings the book before Leia. It tells of the need for a Sith Wayfinder to find Exegol. She plans to find it on Pasaana (where Luke’s search for it went cold), go to Exegol, and kill Palpatine alone. Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and BB-8 refuse to let her go without them and board the Falcon. Rose stays behind, studying the specs of the old Star Destroyers.
Just before leaving, Rey quietly talks to Leia.
There’s so much I want to tell you.
Tell me when you get back.
Organa then hands Luke’s old lightsaber back to her, and the two hug one last time. It’s the last time Rey will ever see Leia, although she doesn’t yet know it.
Rey, never be afraid of who you are.
Kylo Ren, with his newly reconstructed helmet and accompanied by the Knights of Ren, his mighty Dark Side warriors, throws Boolio’s head onto the table in a meeting with his generals. He tells the room that with the Sith fleet on Exegol, the First Order can finally become worthy of the title “Empire.”
Despite knowing of a spy in their midst and facing political opposition, Ren tells his armies to spread through the galaxy. They’ll destroy any worlds opposing them. In the meantime, he and his Knights will find Rey as Sidious tasked him.
On Pasaana, the crew of the Falcon head straight for the exact coordinates Luke Skywalker left. They split up to talk to the locals, feeling like they’re getting nowhere. Rey’s given a necklace by a young girl named Nambi Ghima. When asked about her family name, Rey’s face falls: she doesn’t have one or at least doesn’t know it.
At that moment, Kylo Ren reopens their connection through the Force. He tells her that Palpatine wants her dead. He’s not serving him, though: he has his own plans. He knows she wanted to take his hand previously and that she feels pain and anger from her parents’ abandonment. He then grabs the necklace from her neck and cuts off their connection, using the jewelry to trace her to Pasaana.
Rey runs to her friends, telling them they need to leave immediately since Ren will soon arrive with the First Order. A stormtrooper confronts them but is killed by a dart before he can alert other patrols. They follow a mysterious figure into a hut, who reveals himself to be none other than General Lando Calrissian. He’s stayed on the planet since first coming with Luke all those years ago, searching for one of the two Wayfinders.
He points them in the direction of Ochi of Bestoon, an old Jedi hunter who held the key to finding it. His ship remains where he left it, parked up in the desert – “no clue, no Wayfinder.” Directing them “out past Lurch Canyon,” Lando bids them farewell as the First Order approaches and is encouraged by Rey to find and join Leia and the Resistance.
Stormtroopers chase them out to Ochi’s ship, but the group takes care of them. They then sink into a serpent’s den, where they find the skeletal remains of the Jedi hunter and his dagger. It’s inscribed in the runic language of the Sith. C-3PO’s programming prevents him from revealing the location of the Wayfinder, although he can read the script.
The serpent then awakes and confronts them. Instead of attacking it, Rey uses the Force to heal its wound by transferring some life to it. Thankful, it then moves out the way and reveals the exit. They head for Ochi’s ship, which starts despite being dormant for many years.
Rey walks off into the desert, leaving the others behind at the ship. Meanwhile, the Knights of Ren surround them, silently taking Chewbacca (and Ochi’s dagger with him) captive. They load him onto a First Order transport. Rey sees Kylo Ren‘s ship approaching in the distance. He brings the altitude down so low that his TIE is virtually skimming across the ground. In a majestic feat, Rey flips over the ship, using her lightsaber to sever a wing and causing Ren to crash.
Finn then screams at her, telling her they’ve got Chewie, pointing at the transport ship that’s just taken off. Rey reaches out and grabs it with the Force, pulling it back. Ren then emerges from the wreckage and flames, pulling the ship in the opposite direction. As the anger boils inside her, Rey loses control and unwittingly unleashes a powerful lightning bolt into the transport, blowing it up. She screams as she believes she’s killed Chewie before she, Finn, Poe, and the droids escape in Ochi’s ship.
In deep space, they stop for a moment to come to terms with Chewbacca’s death. Rey feels tremendous guilt, knowing that the power came from her, although Finn tries to console her by stating that Ren was pushing her. He tells her that he knows her, but she feels that nobody does.
They also reactivate D-O, Ochi’s little droid.
Chewbacca had, in fact, survived, having been placed on a different transport. Along with the Millennium Falcon, he had been transported to the First Order and placed in custody.
Poe, Finn, and Rey can’t think of another way to find the Sith Wayfinder until C-3PO mentions that it’s saved in his memory banks. To learn what it says, the group heads to the First Order-occupied world of Kijimi, one of Poe’s old haunts, to find a droidsmith named Babu Frik. They run into Zorii, Poe’s girlfriend from his previous walk of life, who leads the way.
Babu completes a complete memory wipe of the protocol droid, who says an emotional goodbye before his systems shut down. He’s then able to translate the Sith inscription, telling them to go to a moon in the Endor system and find the ruins of the Second Death Star.
Zorii asks Poe to leave the war and come with her. He’s tempted but refuses. With C-3PO reactivated (without his memory), Rey sees Kylo Ren‘s ship in the atmosphere and her enemy’s presence on Kijimi’s surface. Although it’s time to leave, she suddenly feels Chewbacca’s presence and so leads a rescue mission.
Poe flies Ochi’s ship straight into the hangar. The group launches a surprise attack, penetrating deep into the command vessel to rescue the Wookiee. Rey splits off to relocate the dagger and Chewbacca’s effects in Ren’s quarters while Finn and Poe free their friend. They’re eventually captured and set to be terminated. Here, General Hux shoots the firing squad, revealing himself to be the spy. He’s not with the Resistance, but he needs Kylo Ren to be taken out, leaving him free to resume control of the First Order.
While Rey investigates Kylo’s quarters, he reopens their Force connection once more. The pair duel between their respective spaces as Ren tells her that Ochi killed her parents. Enraged, she attacks him. Eventually, Kylo realizes precisely where she is and orders his men to converge on her position on board the ship.
Ren lands in the hangar where Ochi’s ship is located and confronts Rey, who sends the droids to find Finn, Poe, and Chewbacca. At the general’s request (ish), Finn shoots Hux in the leg to make their escape look more convincing. Then they, along with C-3PO, BB-8, and D-O, board the Falcon and head back to Rey’s hangar.
Here, Ren reveals that she is, in fact, Palpatine’s granddaughter (well, the son of one of his clones). He saw what she would become and her raw power, so he sent Ochi after her and her parents. To protect her, they took the lives of nobodies, junk traders and left her on Jakku, where she would be safe.
Kylo also tells her that Palpatine doesn’t know that they share a dyad in the Force and that, together, they’re more powerful than he. One last time, he offers her his hand. Although she’s tempted, she resists and leaps from the hangar into Finn’s waiting arms on the Falcon‘s boarding ramp as it emerges behind her.
As she makes her escape, Ren watches in anger. Later, Hux tries to tell his story of Finn, Poe, and Chewbacca’s escape. Allegiant General Pryde doesn’t buy it and executes the commander of Starkiller Base on the spot.
As directed by Ochi’s dagger’s inscription, Rey and her friends head to Kef Bir in the Endor system. Having read the blade himself, Ren also goes to the moon alone to stop her from locating and following the Wayfinder.
After meeting a group of stormtrooper deserters (living off the scraps of the Death Star II), Rey, with no time to spare, crosses the dangerous waters and climbs the wreckage, as directed by the clues in the dagger. In the Emperor’s old throne room, she finds the Wayfinder. However, she must duel a Dark Side vision of herself, representing her deepest fears and possible future (throwback to Luke on Dagobah, again).
Escaping from her vision, she drops the Wayfinder. Kylo Ren picks it up, emerging in the room. He tells her that she’s proven herself to be a Sith, deep down, and that now she can never return to Leia, the same as him. He destroys the Wayfinder, meaning that the only way she can get to Exegol is with him.
Her fury bubbling over, Rey attacks Kylo Ren, driving him back. Leia sighs across the galaxy as the girl gives in to her emotions and shows her inner Dark Side. There is only one course of action left for her now. She lies down and reaches out to connect to the Force, sending a wave of love and kindness to reach her son and her apprentice as they fight. Like Luke in The Last Jedi, the monumental effort of such a task exhausts her, taking her life. The moment Chewbacca finds out about her passing is incredibly emotionally powerful.
Although the two warriors have tired, Ren has emerged victorious. Rey lies in front of him, and he’s about to deliver the finishing blow when Leia’s connection reaches him. He staggers, dropping his lightsaber, which Rey promptly seizes and activates, impaling his midriff.
The fight is over.
At that moment, though, Leia’s sacrifice hits Rey. She switches the lightsaber off and reels with emotion as she recognizes she went too far. She regains her inner peace and composure, Jedi attributes. Using her Light Side powers, she heals Ren’s wound.
I did want to take your hand. Ben’s hand.
Leaving Ren (and her friends) on Kef Bir, Rey takes his ship and jets off. Left confused and conflicted, Kylo stands on the ruins of the Death Star and remembers the conversations he had with his father, Han Solo.
Kylo Ren throws his red lightsaber into the sea with renewed resolve, killing Kylo Ren and saving Ben Solo.
With Kylo Ren no longer existing, Palpatine engages General Pryde to lead the Final Order. He sends a Sith ship to Kijimi, destroying it. Each ship in the fleet has “planet-killing weapons.” In Poe’s words, “of course they do.” The Final Order then broadcasts an ultimatum to the galaxy: surrender to the Sith or die. Lando joins the Resistance.
After healing Ben Solo, Rey heads straight for Ahch-To and hides on the island on which Luke Skywalker exiled himself. She burns Ren’s TIE, intending to isolate herself on the planet just like Luke, to protect the galaxy from herself. Scared and enraged, she holds her lightsaber for a moment before casting it into the flames too.
A hand reaches out and grabs the weapon before it can be incinerated. Luke Skywalker’s Force ghost emerges from the flames.
“A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect,” he says. The two then quietly chat as Skywalker helps her understand that fear must be confronted. Her greatest fear is the evil within her. Gently, he encourages her to face Palpatine, her grandfather. If she doesn’t, the Resistance will lose, and the Jedi will become extinct.
Luke gives Rey Leia’s lightsaber. She had surrendered it to him at the end of her Jedi training to protect her son, Ben, from her vision of his death. She knew that someone would reclaim it and finish her journey one day. Skywalker tells her to take both lightsabers to Exegol. Although it’s her fight, a thousand generations live in her.
She takes the Wayfinder from Ren’s ship while Luke Skywalker lifts his X-Wing from the ocean. Rey has everything she needs.
The Resistance uses D-O’s memory banks to plot an airstrike. They then receive a transmission from Rey through Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing. She’s heading to Exegol, leaving course marker signals to pave the way.
Finn and Poe plan to attack Exegol, sending Lando and Chewie off in the Falcon to call other systems to the fight – to tell them there’s hope.
On Exegol, Rey lands to confront her destiny. She enters the Temple and finds the frail body of Palpatine. At the same time, the Resistance, led by Poe, engages the Sith Eternal fleet above.
Darth Sidious welcomes Rey home, telling her he never wanted to kill her – he wanted his grandchild to become Empress (lies). She tells him she has not come to take the throne but to destroy the Sith as a Jedi. Palpatine sees through this, knowing of her hatred, anger, and desire for revenge. He tells her to kill him – to strike him down in anger – and his spirit will pass into her by doing so.
As all the Sith live in me, you will be Empress. We will be one.
Finn and the Resistance destroy their target, but the First Order simply reset their systems. With nobody else seemingly joining them, Poe simply tells his troops and pilots to “stay alive” as long as they can and continue hitting the Sith fleet until their last breaths.
The Sith Eternal cult bows before the two Palpatines. The Sith Lord declares that the time has come for Rey to strike him down.
All you want is for me to hate, but I won’t. Not even you.
Palpatine calls her weak, but she recalls her parents’ self-sacrificial love for her and refuses to give in to the darkness within her.
Sidious uses one last trump card. He opens the Temple’s roof and shows Rey her “new family” – her friends and the Resistance. If she will not strike him down and take control of the fleet, she cannot save them from certain death. Overcome with fear momentarily, Rey suddenly senses the presence of Ben Solo, who has made his own way to Exegol. He’s her last hope, so she draws her lightsaber.
Although Ben’s delayed and beaten up by the Knights of Ren, he manages to hold his ground.
Rey approaches Palpatine, seemingly doing his bidding. She reaches behind her, apparently preparing to kill her grandfather in revenge, much to his cackling delight. But the lightsaber vanishes from her grip. Using their dyad in the Force, she’s passed it to Ben, who uses it to quickly vanquish the Knights. Rey, meanwhile, activates Leia’s saber and dispatches the Sith guards surrounding the Emperor.
Before long, she and Ben are reunited in front of Sidious. He knocks them both down using the Force and begins pulling the life from them. With glee, he discovers that they’re a dyad in the Force and that their combined presence is strong enough to completely heal him without the need to transfer his soul.
Stand together. Die together.
Poe and the Resistance fleet are being annihilated in the upper atmosphere, quickly losing most of their ships. Poe gives up, seeing the impossible odds in front of him. Just then, Lando and Chewie arrive with a fleet they’ve gathered from across the galaxy. The Final Order will be tackled here and now.
Rey and Ben lie side by side as Sidious, his body now completely healed, stands over them. It seems all is lost. Ben Solo awakens first, and Palpatine throws him into a chasm, believing he’s killed the last Skywalker. He then fires his Force lightning into the air, spreading the power through the atmosphere and disabling most of the Resistance ships.
Rey lies there, asking the spirits of the Jedi from ages gone by to be with her. She hears their voices. Obi-Wan, Anakin, Mace, Yoda, Ahsoka, Qui-Gon, Kanan, and Luke are among those who speak. They encourage her to “rise.” Palpatine turns his lightning on her as she blocks it with Leia’s saber.
A scavenger girl is no match for the power in me. I am all the Sith!
And I… I’m all the Jedi.
Rey pulls Luke’s lightsaber, dropped by Ben, into her other hand and, using the two weapons as a crossguard, advances towards the Emperor, reflecting his lightning back at him. This kills him (again) – once and for all.
At his death, the Temple collapses, and the Sith fleet falls. The strength it took to defeat Palpatine ends Rey’s life. She collapses, dead, on the ground.
Ben Solo climbs up from the cavern into which he was thrown. Picking up her lifeless body, he transfers all the life force he has left into her, bringing her back to life – something only possible because they are a dyad in the Force. His actions save Rey, but the exhaustion kills him. They share a kiss before Ben Solo, redeemed, falls back and passes away, becoming one with the Force. Rey escapes Exegol in the X-Wing and reunites with her friends.
Leia’s body vanishes simultaneously as she has waited for her son to join her.
Celebrations and Aftermath
As the Resistance celebrates, Maz Kanata hands Chewie his medal. Finn, Poe, and Rey hug, their jobs finally completed.
Shortly after, Rey returns to Tatooine, where the Skywalker saga began. She lands the Falcon at Luke’s old farm homestead, now abandoned, windswept, and sand-filled. She buries her two lightsabers – Luke’s and Leia’s – here, driving them down into the sand, and activates her own newly constructed weapon with its yellow blade.
A passing woman asks who she is.
The Force ghosts of Luke and Leia watch on with smiles plastered across their faces.
Rise of Skywalker themes and arcs
As the concluding episode of the Skywalker Saga, it’s essential to address the key themes. I won’t explain them all in down-to-the-letter detail, but I would like to give you something to think about the next time you watch it.
Family and destiny
Palpatine tells Rey,
The only family you have here is me.
And yet she has her adopted family – the Resistance, her friends, and Luke and Leia – with her. Who we are is more than the blood flowing through our veins. Our pasts, including our heritage, don’t set our futures. We are who we choose to be – thus, Rey declares herself a Skywalker at the end.
Both Anakin Skywalker and Kylo Ren are redeemed through an act of self-sacrificial love and a refusal to bow to the Dark Side. Their actions save their loved ones from the threat (Palpatine, in both cases). In the process, they overthrow their dark persona (Darth Vader/Kylo Ren), losing their lives but saving the galaxy and coming back to the light.
In The Phantom Menace, Yoda tells Anakin that fear is a path to the Dark Side. Anakin fails and betrays his ideals because he fears for Padme’s life, creating Darth Vader by giving in to his rage.
Rey is also scared, but mostly of herself and the darkness within her. As shown throughout The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, she’s constantly angry and genuinely believes she’s destined to take the Sith throne.
She tries to hide from that fear by isolating herself like Luke but is guided by Skywalker to confront her fear. While he was in exile for many years, he eventually learned the same lesson.
By facing her fears, the path all Jedi are destined to take, she overcame them and defeated the Sith once and for all.
Many people were initially dispirited by The Rise of Skywalker, feeling it was too political, trying to please both the lovers and haters of The Last Jedi. Objectively, though, the story continues in the same way. J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson do have different storytelling techniques. Still, the more I’ve thought about, the more clear it is that the two films are very interwoven.
Leia’s sacrifice mirrors that of Luke. We get a greater understanding of the effort such a long-distance Force power takes, showing the Skywalker power. When Luke returns as a Force ghost, he’s calm, collected, and the Jedi we all know and love.
Ben’s redemption is cleverly done since Rey is battling with herself as much as she’s fighting with Kylo Ren. In her triumph, she saves Ben, too.
I love this film, although I didn’t at first, I admit. I’d recommend watching all three Sequel films together to really see the story flowing across them. They aren’t too bad after all, and I look forward to seeing where the characters of Rey, Poe, and Finn end up next.
Question: Why doesn’t Leia want Rey to find Exegol?
Answer: Rey insists on going since she’s the only one who can get there. Leia initially tells her, “No,” but then relents.
She’s cautious about letting Rey go because she knows of her natural anger and how easily she could be corrupted and fall to the Dark Side. Similarly, Yoda and Obi-Wan didn’t want Luke to head to Bespin – he wasn’t ready and was rash. They feared Vader would turn him.
However, Leia realizes she has no other choice, so she lets Rey go with her blessing.
Question: Why didn’t Palpatine’s soul inhabit Rey’s body when she killed him?
Answer: Sidious tells Rey to strike him down in anger so his soul can inhabit her body, and the two can become one. Yet, when Rey does kill him, he doesn’t do this.
That’s simply because she had to do it in anger. This is the way of the Sith, and by killing him in revenge for the deaths of her parents and her Resistance friends, she would become one of them. Palpatine could then transfer his soul into her.
However, she refuses. Palpatine then drains the life force from her and Ben Solo. Since they’re a dyad in the Force, it fully heals him, allowing him to stand and wield the Force without needing a new body.
When Rey stands again, with the help of the Jedi from generations gone, Sidious no longer needs her, so he tries to kill her with his all-devouring Force lightning. Using the lightsabers of Luke and Leia, Rey deflects his lightning back at him. She doesn’t instigate the attack (the sign of the Dark Side – as she has done throughout the film so far) and simply reflects the Dark Side back at her grandfather. Thus, his soul has no Sith to transfer to when he dies.
He’s definitely dead this time. Probably.
Question: Why does Rey bury the lightsabers?
Answer: Rey travels to Tatooine to bury Luke and Leia’s lightsabers to honor their legacies and finally lay them to rest, right where it all started.
She’s taken on their name to carry on their message of hope, but she’s her own person – not defined by the past but expanding on it. Rey no longer needs their lightsabers: she has her own.
As Yoda says to Luke in The Last Jedi,
We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.