What do Shakespeare, the Bible, and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” have in common? The theme of mercy plays a major role in all three.
In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare wrote some of his most memorable and insightful words: “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
The Bible, of course, is filled with thoughts on mercy, such as Psalm 51:1 – “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”
When I went to the theater to see “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” I wasn’t expecting a story in which mercy was an overriding theme, but that’s exactly what I got – and it allowed the film to have a deeper impact than your standard fun and rollicking adventure in a galaxy far, far away.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
In this final film of the new “Star Wars” trilogy, major developments have occurred. It is revealed that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is somehow alive and pulling the strings for what has occurred in the previous installments, “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.”
The series heroine, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is revealed to be the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, which explains why her Force powers are so strong. Though she sets out to defeat him, she struggles with the darker parts of her legacy and comes to worry that the dark side will overpower the light inside of her and turn her evil. The choices Rey makes throughout the story, however, confirm her commitment to being a hero – and those choices often involve the decision to act out of mercy.
The first moment in which mercy plays a role occurs when our heroes – Rey, Finn, Poe, Threepio, Chewbacca, and BB-8 – are trapped in an underground cavern. The only exit is blocked by a large, angry snakelike creature that seems ready to attack. Though this could have turned into a standard “Star Wars” faceoff with a weird space alien, it quickly becomes something entirely different.
Rey notices – or maybe senses – that the creature is angry because it has a wound and is in severe pain. Though filled with fear, she slowly moves towards it, places her hands on the wound, and uses her Force powers to heal it. The creature then slithers away, opening the way for the heroes to return above ground.
In an instance when it would have been the natural reaction to fight, Rey chooses mercy over fear and anger – and it saves the day. It foreshadows another act of mercy later on that will come to save the galaxy.
Throughout the three most recent “Star Wars” films, Rey faces off against the villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has chosen to follow the Dark Side of the Force in pursuit of power. Making this more interesting is that Kylo is actually Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia – and grandson of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. Kylo famously killed his own father in “The Force Awakens,” making it seem impossible that he would ever be a hero again.
Kylo and Rey have a connection in the Force, and he repeatedly tries to convince her to join him in his pursuit to rule the galaxy. But Rey constantly refuses. She also senses that there is still something redeemable inside Kylo that would allow him to turn away from his chosen path.
When Rey and Kylo engage in a light saber duel later in the film, each one tries to get the other to switch sides. It appears that Kylo has the upper hand in defeating Rey in battle until his mother Leia (Carrie Fisher) distracts him through the Force from afar with a final message of love, trying to remind him of the good person he was before all this began.
While he’s distracted, Rey mortally wounds Kylo with her light saber. Yet as she holds him while he is slowly dying, she sheds a tear for the person that Ben was and chooses to use her Force powers again to heal a man who had become a wounded animal.
Between Leia’s act of love and Rey’s act of mercy, Kylo finally comes to reject the dark path he had chosen. Rey not only saves Kylo’s body, she saves his soul.
Rey leaves him where he is while she flies off to confront Palpatine. But Kylo still has to face another demon from his past: the way he murdered of his own father. In an unexpected yet welcome cameo, Harrison Ford appears as Han Solo to talk with his son one final time. The movie posits that he is simply a memory from Kylo’s brain, but with all the supernatural goings on in this universe, he could easily be something more.
Kylo admits his sin to Han – and Han forgives him and notes that Kylo Ren is dead, but Ben Solo has returned to life. The lost sheep, in a sense, has returned to the fold because the shepherds – both Rey and Leia – didn’t give up on him.
After being shown mercy by Rey and now by his father, Kylo must forgive himself in order to move forward and try to make amends for the crimes he has committed. He does this, but knows he has a debt to pay, so he takes off to join Rey in her final confrontation with Palpatine.
Yet Rey herself, emotionally and spiritually exhausted by all the violence and seemingly impossible fights, is initially ready to give up on being a Jedi, just as it was revealed Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) had done in the previous film. But just as she throws away her light saber, Luke is there as a Force Ghost to catch it and return it.
I should explain that when Jedi die in what can only be called a state of grace, they are absorbed into the Force and can communicate and interact with the regular world as Force Ghosts, similar to the way that Catholics believe the saints can hear our prayers and intercede for our intentions.
Luke, who has become a mentor and spiritual father to Rey, advises her that withdrawing from the world is not the solution. The battle must be fought by good people, otherwise evil will win. This convinces Rey to confront Palpatine over the fate of the galaxy.
Though the battle between Rey and Palpatine involves lots of flashy special effects, at its heart it is a spiritual battle between saints and demons. When she is seemingly defeated, Rey prays, “Be with me,” to the deceased Jedi from the past. Like a communion of saints, they give her the power she needs to take down her grandfather.
Along the way, Rey is also helped by a now-redeemed Ben Solo. When her fight with Palpatine is over, Rey has expended so much energy that she is quickly dying. It is Ben who now uses the Force to heal her mortal wounds and return her to life. In so doing, he dies himself, a noble death in which he is reabsorbed back into the Force because he is in a state of grace.
The mercy that Rey modeled throughout the film has now been returned to her, saving her life, saving the galaxy, and allowing her to live as a force for good. It’s a profound spiritual lesson that should leave audiences thinking about more than the fun action sequences that were part of the “Star Wars” journey.
But as the film closes, another unexpected theme comes to the fore: that of spiritual adoption.
Rey has never known her real family – and what she learned about her grandfather didn’t make her too excited to be a part of the Palpatine bloodline. But with support from Luke, Leia, and Han, Rey found herself part of a new family – a family that had her best interests at heart, a family that welcomed her and showed her love and selflessness, even though they had no physical obligation to do so. They taught her that her bloodline doesn’t determine her destiny; her choices do.
That’s what happens in real world adoptions. Kids, who are often viewed as damaged by their pasts, are taken in by families who will love them and give them a new hope (pun intended).
At the very end of the movie, Rey returns to Tatooine to bury Luke and Leia’s light sabers in a symbolic ritual to indicate the story is moving beyond the past. She then takes out her own light saber to symbolize a new beginning.
A woman passing by says she hasn’t seen Rey around there and asks her name. For the first time in her life, Rey knows who her family is. She is a Palpatine. Yet she knows at heart that she does not represent what that name suggests. She has become the woman she is because of Luke and Leia. And so, she tells the stranger that her name is Rey Skywalker, as she spiritually adopts the parents who have already spiritually adopted her.
The Skywalker bloodline may have ended, but Rey becomes just as real a manifestation of the name as if she were related by blood.
In a Christian sense, it recalls the words of Romans 8:15, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption.”
And this moment serves as a fitting ending for the saga of a family that has captivated our attention for generations with morality plays about the struggle between good and evil inside all of us.