Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Might Spark an Old Fight

The trailer for the final film in Disney’s trilogy raises the notion that J. J. Abrams undid the twists of The Last Jedi. But that might be a bluff.

A still from the teaser trailer for "The Rise of Skywalker"
The director J. J. Abrams promises huge, reality-shifting twists. Behind the curtain often lies something familiar. (Disney)

Luke Skywalker is dead. Rey’s parents are “nobody.” Yet Star Wars: Episode IX will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. What Skywalker is rising? From where to where? The name is a provocation—one very much in line with the director J. J. Abrams’s love of teasing audiences like a magician. He promises huge, reality-shifting twists. Behind the curtain often lies something familiar.

The teaser that debuted at Friday’s Star Wars Celebration in Chicago is even less informative than previous teasers for Disney’s revamped saga, which is saying something. It opens with Rey, the Force-filled hero, panting and squinting in that most essential of Star Wars biomes: a desert. “We’ve passed on all we know,” Luke Skywalker, or his ghost, says in voice-over. “A thousand generations live in you now. But this is your fight.” Out of the distance comes a souped-up TIE fighter. As Rey hurls herself over it, lightsaber in hand, The Matrix’s bullet time appears to come to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. It’s a statement piece of an opening—a reassertion that Star Wars is, first, a nifty, visceral hybrid of Westerns, sci-fi, kung-fu flicks, and myth.

From there, it’s all quick shots teeing up YouTube analysis videos that will be many times the length of the teaser. Identifiably new elements appear sparse, and each one is a callback in a way. BB-8 has a minimalist droid friend, Dio, that looks both like a glue-gun nozzle and like a duck (it’s cute!). Lando Calrissian (played again by Billy Dee Williams, last seen in a Star Wars in 1983) pilots the Millennium Falcon. There’s a city in misty, rainy mountains (there’s always a new city in a new climate). There’s a desert chase involving speeder bikes or podracing or both. Rey and her crew look out over crashing waves to what appears to be the detritus of a Death Star.

To close comes the big twist: a cackle against a black screen. It’s presumably the voice of Emperor Palpatine, the grand villain Darth Vader threw down an exhaust shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi, the original trilogy’s closer. To confirm a Palpatine resurrection, Ian McDiarmid, the actor who played the emperor, appeared onstage at the Star Wars Celebration after the teaser’s premiere. Given that the big bad Snoke was severed to bits in Episode VIII—The Last Jedi, it seems fair to assume that Palpatine has been a phantom menace throughout the recent films, and that he’ll emerge more fully for the finale.

The 2010s Star Wars were never likely to escape the shadow of the original trilogy, but Palpatine’s cameo hints that Abrams might double down on the same nostalgia-drunk approach that marked 2015’s The Force Awakens, for better and for worse. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi then daringly scrambled, ditched, and defamed cherished ingredients of the Star Wars formula—with resulting acclaim and profits, but also rabid backlash among some fans. When Abrams was called on to replace the fired Colin Trevorrow as the director of Episode IX, it raised the likelihood of a deep sensibility clash across the three movies. Whereas Johnson is a radical, Abrams is a restorer. Would the latter hit undo on the former’s refreshing but controversial changes?

The new teaser certainly seems to want to project that the answer is yes. Among the most intriguing reveals of The Last Jedi was that Rey is the daughter of unremarkable junk traders, rather than descended from the Skywalkers. If true—the source here was the untrustworthy Kylo Ren—the very nature of the Star Wars saga would expand from being about hereditary greatness (a beloved fiction trope with nasty social implications) to being about how excellence can be born anywhere. The title The Rise of Skywalker raises the possibility that Rey’s a Luke relative after all, and that we’ve really just been watching a retelling of his story. Also notable is that the trailer shows Kylo Ren welding his helmet back together. Pointedly, The Last Jedi saw his mask—a symbol of Kylo’s and The Force Awakens’s fannish fealty to Darth Vader—destroyed.

Yet almost paradoxically, that this is a J. J. Abrams affair means that the trailer’s hints of recycling and rehashing could be feints. Taking the director’s publicity materials at face value is always foolish, as this is the man who pioneered the 21st-century Hollywood business of amping the audience via misdirection. The Rise of Skywalker title thus could refer to Kylo Ren, who might turn good and reclaim the legacy of his uncle Luke. It could refer to something about Leia (Carrie Fisher died before Episode IX was filmed, and Abrams built scenes around unaired footage of her past performances, rather than digitally re-creating her). It could refer to some greater curveball. A baby with the first name Skywalker? The galaxy’s latest dance craze? Or, per my colleague Adam Serwer’s ever less wild-seeming theory: Is Rey a clone of Anakin Skywalker?

The answers to these questions aren’t just of significance to the plot—they’re significant in an era of Hollywood reboots and sequels that only sometimes seem to bring novel ideas to the screen. Star Wars has always been rooted in the notion that greatness lies at the blending of a recognizable past with a creative vision of the future. It’s no surprise that the most heated debates around the series boil down to the question of which is more important: preserving or pioneering? Abrams’s final argument on that matter, and how it’s received, could echo through the generations as much as the Skywalker story.