The first words in the scrolling text that opens Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker are “The dead speak!” It continues on with a few things to remind us where the story left off. But those first three words are all we really need, because as the film progresses, the dead will indeed speak over and over.
This is the final film of the Skywalker Saga that began in 1977 with what would become Episode IV: A New Hope and eventually restarted with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Because it is the final film in the series (the last film in the last trilogy), its main task is to bring the story that has taken over forty years to tell to a satisfying end. Star Wars is such a cultural touchstone that opinions on how well that has been accomplished will vary. My own opinion is that the series does not go out with a bang, but rather with a sigh.
This episode continues the stories of two characters with strong connections to the Force: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and grandson of Darth Vader, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) an orphan who has tried to become a Jedi by training with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Ren has chosen to follow the Dark Side and has been trying to bring Rey to join him and together rule the galaxy. They continue their dance of trying to convert each other through this film. Both are seeking a hidden planet where the real power is to be found and grasped or eliminated. While there are other characters involved in various subplots, these two are the real heart of the story.
Ren (aka Ben Solo) fashions his own version of Vader’s mask, and when wearing it has something of Vader’s ominous voice. He has taken the title Supreme Leader, and seeks to grab all power for himself, but would like Rey to join him. Together they would be a formidable power.
Rey, on the other hand, rejects the Dark Side. She trained with Luke, but still feels unworthy to carry his lightsaber. When she sets off on her mission, Leia tells her, “Never be afraid of who you are.” But who is she? That becomes a central question as the film plays out. What is it about her that has made her such a focus of the Force? (And since this is the final film, it will be revealed—but not in this review.) The knowledge of her background will be a challenge for her to accept.
There will be lightsaber duels, space fighter dogfights, explosions, and all the other accoutrements of Star Wars. There will be redemption, sacrifice, and even resurrection. Love will be declared. Loss will be devastating. And the story will be wrapped up with some tears and some celebrations. Then there will be a coda that takes us back to Tatooine, where the Saga began to bring the circle to a close. (Sigh)
But what about those first three words of the scroll? The dead speak! Initially it is because the dead Emperor Palpatine has been making a comeback. But then we get to see or hear others from the past episodes who have died as the story played out. Luke, is prominent, even though he died at the end of The Last Jedi. Now a glowing personage, he continues to teach Rey what she needs to know for her final battle. But in a decisive scene for Kylo Ren’s character, there is another visit from one who has died. Who are all these who speak from the grave? Well, they are essentially the saints of the Saga. Through their words they bring healing and they bring power. As Rey must face her final challenge, she gathers strength from many of these voices.
The scripture that comes to mind is Hebrews 12:1. After retracing the history of Israel’s heroes, the author says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that has been set before us.” [NRSV]
Star Wars has always attracted theological/spiritual reflection. The Rise of Skywalker gives us a chance to consider the idea of the fellowship of the saints. It is not just what we think of sitting drinking coffee in the fellowship hall after worship. It is not even just what it means to come around the Lord’s Table as God’s people. It is also an attachment to the whole history of God’s salvation. We are joined to those who have come before us. And we are joined to those who will come after us.
As we look at the end of the Skywalker Saga, we are able to see the whole arc of a story in which faith in action has been passed on from one to another. It has not always been an easy passing. There are those who have been corrupted, but also those who have found redemption and restoration. The past brings ist strength to a new day—a dawning of new life.