[CONTENT WARNING: liberal spoilers for Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker]
To talk about Exegol properly, you also need to talk about hyperspace and faster-than-light travel. In theory, any form of travel requires energy, and as a general rule the more exotic the type of travel the more energy you need. This flows from the basic physics of how universes like ours work: since anything that can happen will happen if given enough time and energy, the existence of low-energy exotic travel would leave a detectable fingerprint in everyday life. Sean Carroll uses a similar argument to prove there is no afterlife.
Star Wars, of course, is full of space magic. In that universe one person can not only shoot lightning bolts from their fingertips for dozens of seconds, when we all know a single split-second cloud-to-ground strike requires a whopping 1.21 gigawatts, but said person can project them over thousands of kilometres and selectively direct the lightning towards certain objects while avoiding others. Strictly applying the laws of our universe to theirs is a fools’ game, even though “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” implies we do share a universe.
But Star Wars does happen in a universe. It has physics, and those physics should be consistent across different times and spaces. Since this is a work of fiction with dozens of authors, of course, that’s almost guaranteed to be false. Hyperspace is a good example of this.
“Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova, and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?“―Han Solo, to Luke Skywalker […]
Quick jumps into hyperspace could be unsettling to even experienced pilots, but those with the proper stamina and training could overcome this.
Large objects in realspace cast “mass shadows” in hyperspace, so hyperspace jumps necessitated very precise calculations. Without those, a vessel could fly right through a star or another celestial body. Because of the danger, there existed predetermined hyperspace routes which interstellar travelers could take. The discovery of a new, safe hyperspace route could play a pivotal role in war, as it would allow naval forces to move faster unbeknownst to their adversaries.
In the early years of Star Wars, faster-than-light travel was a delicate process that required meticulous planning and was largely confined to predetermined safe passages. Nowadays, hyperspace is completely different.
… during the Clone Wars, a cruiser carrying an injured Anakin Skywalker had its hyperdrive accidentally triggered while still in a planet’s atmosphere due to damage from droid fighters, and despite the proximity to the planet the ship successfully jumped to hyperspace without being destroyed. Jyn Erso and her company jumped into hyperspace from inside the atmosphere of Jedha after the Death Star destroyed the moon’s Holy city. While fleeing Lothal in a U-wing, Hera Syndulla jumped to hyperspace right in front of an Imperial construction module and flew through the hangar, successfully getting out the other side and making the jump. Desperate to save the remaining Resistance escape ships, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo engaged the hyperdrive of the Resistance cruiser Raddus directly into the path of the First Order Mega-class Star Dreadnought, the Supremacy, heavily damaging it and effectively vaporizing all traces of her ship.
Hyperspace travel has become so trivial by the time of Rise of Skywalker that Poe managed to shake loose some First Order pursuers by rapidly jumping in and out of hyperspace, landing each time in the middle of a dense debris field that sometimes took him within kilometres of the surface of a planet. Not only did every single one of his pursuers follow his super-dangerous tactic, they were able to pull off the “precise calculations” for hyperspace on-the-fly and in reaction to Poe with sufficient accuracy to always be behind him and within firing range, plus avoid any nearby walls. Remember, an important assumption of both The Last Jedi and the original trilogy was that it’s impossible to track someone when they jump into hyperspace.
Rewriting the laws of your universe is caustic to suspension of disbelief, the lifeblood of all fiction, but if done gradually over time you can kinda get away with it. Rewriting those laws quickly is a very different story. Ok, fine, hyperspace travel is now trivial. But if that’s the case, why didn’t Poe pop out of hyperspace rotated, so that the Millennium Falcon‘s guns directly faced his pursuers? Why didn’t he pop out on the opposite side of a planet, mere metres from the surface? Just moments before, he was able to break through an ice wall that normally would have destroyed the Falcon by jumping into hyperspace, contradicting how it behaved in both The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens (as this invulnerability makes Han’s hyperspace jump behind Starkiller‘s shields trivially easy). Conversely, why didn’t Poe’s pursuers delay coming out of hyperspace, taking advantage of their invulnerability to plow through the Millennium Falcon and any part of the debris field that could have otherwise threatened them?
This finally gets us back to Exegol. It’s a planet the Sith have been using for their base, quietly building an army of Star Destroyers. Despite Star Destroyers being listed as “the most resource-intensive ships the galaxy had ever seen” and with only a handful of them present on-screen during all of the other movies, the Sith have not only secretly built thousands of Star Destroyers but also managed to fit (each?) with Death Star-style cannons capable of destroying an entire planet. These aren’t recycled from the Galactic Empire, either, as the Battle of Jakku wiped out the last of those twenty-five years prior. They were able to hide all this infrastructure by occupying Exegol, a secret planet in the “Unknown Regions.”
At the time of the Galactic Civil War, the Unknown Regions was regarded as an unexplored region that was separated from the galaxy by a labyrinth of solar storms, rogue magnetospheres, black holes, gravity wells, and things far stranger. Strange creatures were known to inhabit the void. This maze was considered impassable and many exploration ships and probe droids were lost trying to breach it. By the time of the Battle of Jakku, Imperial computers at the Jakku Observatory had found a safe route through this maze which involved taking multiple short hyperspace jumps through the maze. This journey took several months.
Slight problem: there should be no such thing as “Unknown Regions” if hyperspace exists. Space is three-dimensional, so even if a volume of space contains dragons there’s nothing stopping you from warping to all points outside of it and mapping what you can from there. “Space” is called that for a reason, the densest nebula have about 10,000 molecules per cubic centimetre. To put that in perspective, if you ingested enough plutonium or Sarin nerve gas to equal that density within your body you’d be A-OK. So simply training one telescope on the “Unknown Regions” should get you a pretty good idea of what it contained, and multiple measurements from outside should allow you to triangulate the location of everything it contains. Hyperspace drives seem pretty cheap, if they can be included in teeny one- or two-person ships like X-wings and TIE/sf fighters, so anything you couldn’t see from the outside could be mapped by getting unmanned probes to take tiny hops inside via hyperspace, record everything they see, then hop back out.
Rise of Skywalker tries to hand-wave this away by forcing the main characters to traverse a nebula to get to Exegol, one so dense you couldn’t fly through it in a straight line. Presumably, this impossible nebula was too dense to safely traverse in hyperspace. But what was stopping these characters from going around it in hyperspace? Exegol itself isn’t in the nebula, and IIRC we see ships aligned with the New Republic popping out of hyperspace just above Exegol. The movie itself seems aware that three dimensions exist, as at one point Poe orders all fighters to fly in the same plane as all these Star Destroyers to minimize the damage they’d take. So why does space have three dimensions at that point, but two dimensions otherwise?
That would be bad enough, but the very same movie also establishes you’re invulnerable in hyperspace, via Poe’s crashing through an ice sheet and repeated hops into the middle of multiple debris fields. Plowing through the nebula in hyperspace is at least plausible, even if only around the fringes. Not only does this movie forget about the third dimension, it forgets its own laws of physics.
Getting to Exegol is said to be incredibly difficult. The only safe way to travel is via a MacGuffin known as a Sith Wayfinder, which must be attached to your ship in order to guide you. Stray too far from what it tells you, and a dragon’ll get you. Rey manages to grab Ren’s Wayfinder and arrive at Exegol before that massive fleet leaves to take over the galaxy, with her ship broadcasting location data to the New Republic. Without using a Wayfinder, though, Poe and friends are able to use those signals to safely navigate the “Unknown Regions” without any casualties. Shortly after, tens of thousands of ships from planets sympathetic to the New Republic make the same journey, some apparently hopping there via hyperspace. Is it incredibly difficult to get there, or so simple that tens of thousands of ships can make the passage? And if some sort of signal can traverse the “Unknown Region,” made by decades-old technology capable of fitting into an X-wing no less, why couldn’t that same signal be used for mapping it?
The “Unknown Regions” are isolated from the rest of the galaxy and considered impossible to map let alone navigate. Yet Starkiller base was manufactured there and the remains of the New Republic had no problems getting to that base once they knew it existed. How can the “Unknown Regions” be considered isolated yet so easy to enter?
One of the quotes from earlier describes a journey into the “Unknown Regions” as taking “months.” While the length of Kylo Ren’s journey to Exegol is tough to judge, we know that a ship is able to travel from Exegol to the planet of Kijimi and destroy it with a Death Star Cannon within days, perhaps even hours. Only hours elapse between Rey and Poe’s arrival on Exegol. Lando’s reinforcements arrive on roughly the same timescale. So is it a long and arduous journey to Exegol, or a short one? And if it only takes hours to get deep inside the “Unknown Regions,” why was nobody able to map it on the timescale of decades or centuries?
Lightening is a frequent event on Exegol, to the point that it occurs in-frame every second or two in every shot at ground level. Both Kylo Ren and Rey land on the planet, yet neither person does anything to protect their ships from being hit by lightening. Worse, both take a long walk under a giant floating structure that’s only a few metres off the ground. On-screen, we see lightening arc underneath this structure. Yet neither character is hit by lightening, despite them being the shortest path between the structure and the ground by a significant margin. Nor for the matter do the Sith attempt to protect a ground antenna that we’re told is critical for navigation out of the “Unknown Regions.” It’s not, actually; when the New Republic arrives to blast the antenna, the Sith smoothly transition to using an antenna on top of one of their own ships.
The Star Wars universe may be riven with plot holes, but Rise of Skywalker takes this to absurd levels. There was no need for Poe to dip in and out of hyperspace, hell there wasn’t any need for them to be physically present for a message from the First Order mole when they live in a universe with instantaneous interstellar communication. The “Unknown Regions” are irrelevant given the vastness of space, you could easily have put the secret Sith base on a backwater like Endor and gotten the same effect. Building that many Star Destroyers requires tonnes of resources, so you could have easily had Rey and friends investigating stolen resources, encountering unexpected First Order resistance, and naturally been drawn to Exegol where they’d be surprised by the re-emergence of the Emperor and become the underdogs against his armada. The lightening looks cool, but isn’t necessary.
Lets face it, JJ Abrams is a lazy writer who disguises that by setting up mysteries. When he has years to brainstorm a solution, the results can be pretty good. When he doesn’t, you get something like Rise of Skywalker. I’m not good at spotting plot holes on-the-fly, but the entire runtime I was left astounded by the sheer amount of inconsistency on-screen. Let’s pick on a short segment of the movie, shall we?
- Rey and friends visit Kijimi, a planet under First Order blockade so strict that nobody is allowed on or off. They make it there undetected, despite a First Order Star Destroyer in orbit above them and storm troopers that patrol so frequently they literally cannot spend more than a few seconds in the open.
- Rey believes she’s accidentally killed Chewie, but on Kimiji she senses Chewie’s alive and on said First Order transport. How? We know the Jedi can sense millions of lives being snuffed out, and identify force-sensitive individuals, but Rey is still very new to the Force and Chewbacca isn’t force-sensitive. Even if we wave away those difficulties, we’re now left to wonder why Rey thought she’d killed Chewie when she should have been able to sense his life-force on another ship, one that was much closer to her at that point than the Star Destroyer was on Kijimi.
- Zorii Bliss, a hardened criminal and old friend of Poe’s, has spent years desperate to get off Kijimi and at long last has her ticket: an authentication token from a First Order officer, which allows her to evade the First Order blockade. It’s explained onscreen that these are incredibly tough to get. When Rey announces Chewie is alive and Finn and Poe agree to rescue him, Bliss immediately hands over the token without asking for anything in return. She doesn’t even accompany them on the rescue mission, even though she could have provided muscle or even hid in the ship’s panels, while a now-useless C-3PO is invited along.
- C-3PO is storing a Sith text in his memory banks, but he’s unable to translate it due to programming put in place by the Old Republic. Problem: the Old Republic were very dismissive of the Sith and considered them on par with myths and legends. The Sith prefer to work quietly from the shadows, to the point that even the Jedi could spend centuries ignorant of whether or not any Sith existed. So why would the Old Republic ban anyone from reading Sith texts?
- Speaking of which, if the Old Republic were so paranoid of the Sith why did they bother to give droids like C-3PO the ability to read Sith texts but not communicate their contents back? It seems far more efficient to prevent C-3PO from being able to read Sith texts entirely, or to go the opposite direction and give him an irrational desire to translate secretive Sith texts and communicate the contents to everyone.
- The Rebel Alliance is famously dependent on droids, to the point that they put sentient R2 units in all their small craft. Yet nobody in the remains of the New Republic has the technical skills necessary to read C-3PO’s memory, human or droid, even though Rey and friends suspect R2-D2 has at least a partial back-up of C-3PO’s memories.
- Rey and friends are uncertain if C-3PO has a backup, but why would C-3PO himself be uncertain? We see later on that restoring his memory requires physical contact between him and R2-D2, and even if it didn’t he should be pretty certain whether or not R2 has a copy. Yet his agony over whether or not to go through with the procedure is also due to uncertainty.
- Extracting the text from C-3PO’s memory is possible, we’re told, but as a side-effect all of his memories will be erased. But his ability to remember the Sith text and to translate it are treated as independent of one another. So why is C-3PO’s memory dependent on the rules of what he can and cannot translate?
- The black-market droid expert that Bliss knows is incapable of backing up C-3PO’s memory, and nobody asks them to. This seems trivially easy, especially if R2-D2 himself can contain his own memories, long 3D holographic messages, plus most of C-3PO’s memories.
- In a touching speech, C-3PO announces he’ll go through with the procedure after one last look at his friends. In response, Rey and friends treat C-3PO like shit. Poe explicitly complains about C-3PO talking so much, and it’s obvious nobody bothered to sit C-3PO down to explain the situation after his memory wipe.
- The entire arc, from C-3PO first reading the dagger to him having his memory restored, takes maybe 20 minutes of screen-time. The plot does not change one bit if they’d instead had C-3PO be unable to translate it and Poe remember a friend of a friend who knew written Sith. The memory wipe arc existed solely to force the introduction of Zorii Bliss and emotionally manipulate the audience.
- Within hours or days of Rey and friends leaving, the entire planet of Kijimi is destroyed on-screen by one of these new Star Destroyers. No mention is made of the blockade being lifted, nor would the First Order have reason to lift it. Yet during the final battle, Zorii Bliss shows up to help and brings the black-market droid expert with her. How did those two survive?
I could go on and on, mentioning things like light sabres that are incapable of cutting biological tissue, a dagger that’s variously treated as ancient or decades old which contains a map that depends on a decades-old wreck remaining precisely as it is despite heavy weathering, how thousands of ships scattered across the galaxy can be made ready for battle within hours, the useless Knights of Ren, the forced kiss between Ren and Rey, how Rise of Skywalker rolls back the character development and themes within The Last Jedi, how abandoned ships can be started after years in the desert or underwater, or how the movie denies that bloodlines are important while simultaneously retconning Rey to be Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter. Oh, and surprise! Both Luke and Leia knew her true parentage, and never bothered to mention it to Rey.
At least the Rose Tico haters out there will be satisfied by it. All the women know their place and follow whims of the men in their lives, Rey included. Rose Tico? She frets about the secret New Alliance base, and only contributes some generic knowledge about First Order tech that somehow also applies to the Emperor’s secret armada. General Leia? Carrie Fisher’s untimely death limits her to fretting about the base doling out one-liners, until she telepathically distracts Ren long enough for Rey to stab him. Maz Katana? Frets about the base providing two-line bits of exposition that cover for Fisher’s untimely death, then hands a medal to Chewie that fills in a continuity glitch from Episode 4. Jannah? She’s sitting on her hands with a platoon of First Order deserters until Finn suggests going on the attack. Zorii Bliss? Hands Poe a MacGuffin. As for Rey, Rise of Skywalker‘s retcon turns her into a puppet of the Emperor who only existed to give him a new body. She provides Ben Solo with a weapon even though he’s perfectly capable of disarming one of his foes, only fights back against the Emperor after Ben is seemingly killed, and has to rely on other Jedi for her strength.
Rise of Skywalker is a step backwards from The Last Jedi, a mess of a movie that makes no sense.
[HJH 2019-12-23: Fixed some minor grammar errors and ambiguous phrasing. It also seemed mean to drop the “women know their place” line without explaining myself, so I tacked on one more paragraph.]