This article contains spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.
Since the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final film in the “Skywalker Saga”, the internet has been ablaze in untangling its divisiveness. The reception to the J.J. Abrams-directed feature has been mixed at best, however, most critics agree that the film is a messy ending to the Skywalker story. The Rise of Skywalker defies a logical narrative conclusion in favor of empty franchise iconography. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio disregard character arcs built from the previous films and sloppily come to an unfulfilling conclusion. The Rise of Skywalker has been widely regarded as “fanservice”, but which fans do Abrams and Terrio attempt to serve and which fans get sidelined?
The raucous internet response to a Star Wars film is not news (after all, the certainties of life are: death, taxes, and Star Wars Discourse). However, Star Wars fans are not a monolith. There are different factions within the Star War fandom, many of which have expressed disdain for the most recent film. One of the most vocal and controversial groups within the fandom is the Reylos, fans of the romantic pairing (or ship) of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver). In The Rise of Skywalker, newly “redeemed” Ben Solo gives his life to save Rey, and they share a kiss before Ben dissapparates. Okay, so a win for our problematic fave right? On the surface, this appears to be a win for the Reylos and validation of the relationship they had seen since the very beginning. But not even the Reylos were pleased with The Rise of Skywalker. How do you make Reylo canon and fail to satisfy the Reylos? To truly understand the degree to which Rise of Skywalker fails to achieve dramatic catharsis, we must understand the arc of Rey and Kylo Ren over the trilogy.
In 2015’s The Force Awakens, Abrams introduced the world to the new face of the resistance with Rey, as well as the latest member of the dark side, Kylo Ren. Immediately, a subsection of fans gleaned onto the connection between the characters. These fans, most of which are women, took to Twitter and Tumblr to invent their own narratives based on the film. The Force Awakens, in its female protagonist and marketing, presented a unique opportunity for Star Wars fans to imagine romance from a female perspective. Just as quickly as fans found the ‘ship’, backlash grew from other members of the Star Wars fandom who considered the pairing toxic. Reylo drew criticism for glorifying abusive behavior and ignoring Kylo’s murderous tendencies. Much of the criticism that has been pointed at Relyo is valid, but it was by no accident that fans perceived the tension and went on to extrapolate a Rey/Kylo romance. Abrams intentionally crafted Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens to fit into the mold of emo space prince, riddled with internal conflict and insecurity. Both Rey and Kylo present equally complex and mysterious backgrounds begging for interpretation. I’m not a Reylo (FinnRey forever), but Ridley and Driver’s chemistry is undeniable.
Rian Johnson pushes their connection even further in The Last Jedi. Rey and Kylo are linked through their Force bond which allows them to have their late-night chats. Beyond their physical connection, they have an inherent narrative connection. Supreme Leader Snoke tells Kylo that Rey is his equal in the light side. Kylo and Rey represent opposite sides of the Force meant, in some way, to bring balance. Reylo fans interpret this quest for balance as one that will be resolved through a romantic relationship between Rey and Kylo. Critics of Reylo maintain that the relationship is manipulative, but defenders of the ‘ship’ note that Ben Solo himself has faced abuse and manipulation. Since the start of the trilogy, the pairing has sparked endless debate, inspiring the potential for a nuanced exploration of these ideas in Episode IX. In The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has the opportunity to delve into this character dynamic and reveal new information about how the Force works. Although The Last Jedi ends with Rey refusing to join Kylo’s side, we’re left open to the idea of redemption for Kylo Ren, and fans of Reylo are reinvigorated in their hopes for their ship becoming canon.
However, in The Rise of Skywalker, Reylo’s story comes to an end without anything satisfying to say about the characters or their connection to the Force. All the character development from the previous films are halted and nowhere is this more egregious than with what becomes of Rey. It’s revealed that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, tying her power and importance to a man we previously assumed was long dead. Rey never gets the proper time to reflect on this news because of the film’s aversion to quiet character moments; The Rise of Skywalker jumps from plot point to plot point like a video game. Ben Solo’s redemption arc suffers from the same pitfalls. Redemption is difficult but not impossible, however, no time is taken for Kylo Ren to atone for his sins because The Rise of Skywalker has few moments of reflection.
One of the few thoughtful scenes takes place on Kef Bir, the tumultuous oceanic moon of Endor. Rey and Kylo are in the midst of battle when Leia uses the Force to project herself and reach out to her son. Rey uses Kylo’s hesitation as an opportunity to stab him, but immediately regrets it and heals his wound while saying she “wanted to take Ben’s hand.” This scene is supposed to be a vital moment in building their relationship, but the motivations are too incoherent to constitute effective development. Leia bears the weight of Kylo/Ben’s change of heart, and Ben has little agency in his own redemption. Therefore, when Ben finally does turn — and he and Rey fight Grandpa Palpatine side by side — the moment feels unearned. Palpatine reveals that Rey and Ben are part of a Force Dyad, but the film fails to explore this; Ben dies moments later. Abrams and Terrio want the pairing of Rey and Ben Solo to be significant but don’t have any of the set-up to make the inevitable conclusion fulfilling. This film seeks to recreate the events of Return of the Jedi without the characterization that makes these events significant.
After Ben Solo dies — relieved of any responsibility for his actions — we never see him again, not even as a Force ghost. Rey is left alone to deal with the aftermath of his actions. The Rise of Skywalker adds more trauma for Rey — unearthing her family history, her evil ancestry, losing Leia and then Ben — without the proper time to navigate it. Rey never gets closure, and by ignoring her emotional resolution, The Rise of Skywalker exacerbates the worst qualities of Reylo. Rey’s parentage reveal implies that Kylo was indeed lying to Rey to manipulate her. Without the time for Kylo’s repentance, Rey is forced into a relationship with a man who’s caused the deaths of Han, Luke, and Leia. Instead of dedicating time for growth, Rise of Skywalker rushes to the finish line to the detriment of both Rey and Kylo’s arcs. By the end, their relationship feels unresolved, making the kiss they share feel equally empty.
While Reylos accept a mild win in seeing their headcanon realized on screen, The Rise of Skywalker mischaracterizes what they found valuable in the relationship. Making the relationship canon was never the real end goal. Fans were drawn to the subtext; the small intimate moments are what went on to inspire countless transformative works. There is no subtext or depth to Rise of Skywalker that supports fan’s fantasy. Instead of resolution for Rey or Ben, Abrams’ “service” to fans consists of Chewbacca getting a medal because…he didn’t get one in Return of the Jedi? Reylo was born from implicit connection and understanding. Fans latched onto the shared loneliness between Rey and Ben Solo, imagining a story where the light and dark could find balance in their bond. The Rise of Skywalker ultimately fails to deliver on its promise of catharsis. Now all fans can do is find hope in imagining a better ending for these characters.
The mishandling of Reylo in Rise of Skywalker speaks to the larger issue of emotional payoff that plagues Abrams’ film. Abrams attempts to play on nostalgia that will appeal to Star Wars fans but forgets that stories need build-up to feel satisfying. This type of storytelling can work in The Force Awakens, but in The Rise of Skywalker — a film meant to be the epic conclusion of not only the trilogy but of the entire Skywalker saga — reverting back to recognizable motifs feels hollow. Rey claims the name of Skywalker because the audience recognizes the name. In terms of Rey’s journey, this makes no narrative sense and therefore incites no emotional response. Ben Solo dies to revive Rey, but without the proper time devoted to Ben’s redemption, there is no catharsis in his death. Relationships take work. Redemption takes work. Without that work, the conclusion feels unresolved and unaffecting. The feigned happy ending is unearned. In actuality, Rey ends the trilogy just how she started it: alone on a desert planet.