As a lifelong fan of the Star Wars series, from the core movies to the spinoffs, extended universe stories, and games, I went to a midnight screening of The Rise of Skywalker opening night with hope in my heart that I would enjoy myself. For all the valid criticisms of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, I really enjoyed both, thanks in large part to their wonderfully endearing characters, fun dialogue, and impressive action sequences.
After watching it, I was generally really happy with The Rise of Skywalker. Sure, it was a little too quickly paced at times, and it really tried to bank harder on nostalgia than it needed to, but it was a fun film that took most of its cast of characters to good and fulfilling conclusions.
That said, The Rise of Skywalker failed to stick its landing, and there is one moment in particular that makes me feel that way.
Warning: Spoilers for the end of The Rise of Skywalker ahead.
I thought the ending of The Rise of Skywalker was fine. I would have preferred Rey to have just stayed a nobody, someone who demonstrated that you don’t have to be of special lineage to be important. But I didn’t hate her being a descendant of Emperor Palpatine. I didn’t mind her cheesy ending shot declaring herself an honorary Skywalker. What I did mind was that kiss. God, let’s talk about that kiss.
Right near the end of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey dies. She’s out cold, limp, the life has drained from her eyes. In comes Ben Solo / Kylo Ren, fresh off the heels of his miraculously Vader-like quick turn to the light side of the Force. He gives his life force to bring Rey back — an undoubtedly selfless move, but one that doesn’t really erase just how recently he'd been the brutal leader of a fascist regime. Rey looks at him in gratitude, and the two share a long kiss. Then Kylo Ben dies, and vanishes into thin air.
These 30 or so seconds of the film really bothered me, and were the only part of the whole trilogy that I don’t feel able to justify as making sense for the characters involved. I just can’t stop thinking about how unearned and actively harmful to the narrative that kiss is.
Let’s look back at Kylo Ben’s plot over this trilogy of movies. The backstory we're given per The Last Jedi is that he was pushed in the direction of the dark side of the Force when Luke tried to kill him in his sleep, and that part, at least, is understandable. He was a sad scared kid who ran to the person offering him power and safety, and I don’t blame him for ending up on the dark side in the first place. But, in the years that followed, he did nothing to show he wasn't a heartless evil space fascist — and was abusive and malicious to Rey in several instances.
To say Kylo Ben had anger management issues might be something of an understatement. He Force choked those he worked with for merely irritating him. Lest we forget, he murdered his own father, Han Solo, who had reunited with him to try and save him from himself. He murdered countless innocent people. He kidnapped Rey, forcefully tried to rip thoughts out of her mind while she was locked up, and told her she was worthless and that only he would ever see her as useful — a classic tactic of abusers, preying on poor self-esteem. He was not only a person who put a LOT of evil into the world, but Rey, in particular, had more reason than anyone not to have any romantic feelings for him.
It doesn’t help that Kylo Ben’s return back to the light side of the Force in The Rise of Skywalker felt rushed and unearned. One minute he’s, as usual, hell-bent on forcing Rey to rule beside him, the next he perceives his mom's death through the Force and suddenly experiences a change of heart. There's no indication that he showed any understanding of what he had been doing wrong, or why he had to change; he was just good all of a sudden. It felt like a weird plot contrivance that the narrative hinged on, despite how flimsy it was.
Part of the issue here is that this isn't the first time the Star Wars series has tried to let one of its fascist leaders, second-highest ranked Sith under Palpatine, part of the Skywalker family lineage, get away with a really rushed deathbed turn to the light side. While perhaps not as egregious in its execution, we should probably talk about Vader's death, and the many parallels to be drawn between it and Ben's turn to the light.
Both Anakin Vader and Kylo Ben see similar redemptions. Vader, at the last minute, steps in and saves Luke Skywalker from immediate death at the hands of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. As he's dying, the two share a moment. Vader basically decides out loud, as he is dying, to declare that he has been saved, brought to the light. Luke cries over the death of a man who was admittedly his father, but who had, mere hours earlier, still been driven to destroy all who opposed him.
That said, this scene, while part of a larger trend of the Star Wars movies trying to redeem their villains as good people before their deaths, didn't bother me nearly as much as Kylo Ben's kiss, and there's a key reason why. Vader isn't given a huge on-screen reward for his delayed apology. Vader dies suffering, aging, injured, and vulnerable. He's someone to be pitied as he passes. Meanwhile, Kylo Ben gets the girl. He gets to spend his last minutes as the handsome emo bad boy getting the romance, dying in the hero's arms, being suave and composed until the end. He gets a lengthy kiss as a reward for an eleventh-hour sacrifice for good, that came with no atonement or explanation of what had changed in him.
Kylo Ben is a barely reformed fascist leader and abuser. It’s good he came back to the light, and that he gave his life for Rey. But that’s not enough to erase that he was this series' primary villain. I just can’t fathom the Rey we know deciding that what we saw in this film was enough to not only redeem him in her eyes, and make her forgive his torture and kidnapping, but also feel enough romantically to kiss him. Much as Vader is still one of the primary villains of the Star Wars series, so is Ben Solo, and a rushed redemption doesn't erase his actions instantly. A heartfelt hug would have conveyed just as much tender, thankful appreciation and understanding of Ben dying a changed man without implying that our hero fell instantly in love with this recently evil ruler.
It really bothers me that this trilogy wrapped up on a fascist abuser getting his way, and briefly getting the girl, after a sudden about-face. If the writers wanted Rey to have a romance in the film, why not Finn? She’s been with him since the start of their journey, they’ve grown incredibly close, and there was even a plot throughout the movie where Finn seems to be repeatedly trying to build up the nerve to tell her something. (Director J.J. Abrams confirmed after the fact that this was about Finn's Force sensitivity, but in the context of the film, it easily could have been a romantic confession.) They’ve actually been supportive of each other, clung to each other in tough times, and grown a real on-screen bond.
When The Rise of Skywalker comes to home release, I’m seriously tempted to make a fan edit that cuts out this kiss. Sure, it's canon, but for all the reasons listed above and then some, I’ll enjoy the film more if I can pretend this didn’t happen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.