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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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[This is a reprint from my blog.]

One interesting aspect of our current era of cinematic universes and mega-franchises is that the stories behind the scenes often feel more interesting, and more dramatic, than the ones on screen. I like most MCU movies, but I’d pay a lot more than a movie ticket’s price to know the answers to questions such as why Patty Jenkins was fired from Thor: The Dark World, or what the creative differences were that led to Ava DuVernay leaving Black Panther. And when it comes to Star Wars in the Disney era, these questions feel even more urgent, because the decisions being made are so much more baffling. Is it really possible that one of the hottest IPs of the century, the potential cornerstone of an empire of spin-offs and merchandising opportunities, was written in a method not unlike the party game where everyone writes a sentence in a story, folds the page down, and then hands it to the next person? I’d give a lot for a record of what went on in the meetings where the shape of Disney’s Star Wars movies—and particularly the sequel trilogy—was decided on. And frankly, I think such a record would be a great deal more illuminating, not to mention entertaining, than The Rise of Skywalker.

From a distance of thirty thousand feet, you could make an argument for how Disney handled the new Star Wars trilogy. Let J.J. Abrams, elevated fanboy extraordinaire, bring the series back to life, combining his obsessive fannishness with his unerring eye for casting and genuine interest in depicting complex, winning female heroes, and thus take the franchise into the twenty-first century without losing sight of what it was. Then bring in Rian Johnson, who has never met a genre convention he didn’t immediately want to examine and dismantle, to take the whole thing forward, establishing new parameters for what Star Wars can and should be. Finally, bring Abrams back to soothe fans’ hurt feelings and give them the triumphant ending a Star Wars story ultimately needs.[1]

Move closer in, however, and the problems with this approach become clearer. Someone should perhaps have remembered what happens when you give Abrams a second crack at a beloved science fiction franchise, how his worst fanboy tendencies, his desire to write to the audience rather than the characters, have a history of overwhelming anything resembling coherent or compelling storytelling. Someone should also have remembered that he’s a great guy for setup, but simply a disaster at paying it off. Not that Abrams shoulders all the blame here, of course. The Last Jedi gets better and richer the longer it has lingered in my mind, but it must be acknowledged that it moves the overall plot of the sequel trilogy not even an inch, and in fact dismantles some of the scaffolding built by The Force Awakens, which Abrams was presumably relying on to finish the story. I say again: it is simply bonkers that writers working on different chapters in the same story were allowed to do this to one another. There’s been far too much vitriol directed at Kathleen Kennedy, much of it clearly misogynistic, over her stewardship of the franchise under Disney, but it has to be acknowledged that many of her decisions in that capacity have been simply inexplicable.

Not least among those decisions—and another question I would dearly love to have answered is whether it’s Kennedy or Abrams who is more at fault here, though ultimately they both shoulder the blame—is how The Rise of Skywalker scurries away from nearly all the interesting, progressive choices made by The Last Jedi, kowtowing to the hysterical baying of violent, racist so-called fans. These are the people who drove Kelly Marie Tran off social media because they hated Rose so much—for daring to be a woman of color in “their” Star Wars movie. So The Rise of Skywalker sidelines Rose in a way that feels openly contemptuous not only of the character, but of the people to whom she meant so much. A main character in The Last Jedi, she gets a measly 76 seconds of screentime in Rise, and only one character interaction that could conceivably be called meaningful.[2] Along the same lines, fans who have spent the last four years caterwauling about how “unrealistic” it was for Rey to defeat Kylo Ren in lightsaber combat have gotten their reward in a duel in which he thoroughly trounces her. Even the fact that everyone keeps calling Kylo “Ren”—which is  the equivalent of calling Darth Vader “Darth”—feels like a capitulation to an inattentive yet outraged fandom’s inability to grasp that Ren is a title, not a name.

But the more glaring walkbacks in Rise cut to the very heart of what The Last Jedi was trying to do with Star Wars, and how it was trying to take it forward. Johnson purposefully made Rey the daughter of nobodies, rebelling against the franchise’s obsession with dynasties and with making every Force user the progeny (or ancestor) of another major character. Rise, through an incredibly tortured bit of sophistry, not only reveals that she is actually the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine (whose return as the new trilogy’s ultimate villain was presumably imposed by Jedi‘s disinterested killing-off of Supreme Leader Snoke), but that she and Kylo Ren are a “Force dyad” (and that Luke and Leia were one as well), thus cementing the franchise’s preoccupation with a single, convoluted family tree. The fact that Rey adopts the surname “Skywalker” at the film’s end is presumably intended as a wholesome, uplifting moment, but given everything that comes before it—including a kiss between her and Kylo—it also feels more than a bit incestuous.

The Last Jedi seemed to close the book on the matter of Kylo Ren’s capacity for redemption by having him make the active choice to embrace evil and a lust for power, even after Rey helps him free himself from the malign influence of Snoke. But Rise not only gives him a second bite at the apple—along the way revealing that Leia, who in Jedi pronounced her son “lost”, was always planning to make one last stab at saving him—it completely rewrites his character. In the film’s final scenes, the person on screen is not a repentant Kylo Ren trying to make amends for his many horrific crimes—which include, I will remind you, mass-murder, genocide, and the enslavement of children; I mention this because both the films and the fandom like to pretend that the worst thing Kylo has ever done is kill his father, when really it barely even scratches the top one hundred. Instead, it is Ben Solo that we’re watching, and the film works hard to make him seem human and down to earth—pulling a Han Solo-ish face when he realizes how outnumbered he is as he rushes to Rey’s rescue, breaking out in a relieved smile when she kisses him. It’s notable, though, that he gets virtually no dialogue in these scenes, as if speaking would break the spell and remind us who this character is and what he’s done. And then he dies—which, to be fair, I find more satisfying than the alternative, but is also clearly a copout, a way of trying to appease Kylo’s haters as well as his fans.

Still, if you pull back from the disappointment of how Rise refuses all the interesting avenues offered it by Jedi, there’s something fitting about the whole affair. It’s easy to miss this, because Rise is such a busy, overstuffed movie[3], following Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo as they criss-cross the galaxy in search of various plot tokens that will lead them to Palpatine’s hideout, where he has amassed a vast fleet armed with planet-killing weapons that will permanently shift the tide of war against the rebellion. But just as he recapitulated A New Hope when he made The Force Awakens, Abrams follows the general contours of Return of the Jedi with this movie. So we have Palpatine as an ultimate villain, a visit to Endor[4], and a plot that hinges on the unconvincing, last-minute redemption of a dyed-in-the-wool villain and a lot of Force woo-woo. It completes a familiar template: one film that is frothy and fun and raises expectations of a great ride ahead; one film that is darker and more cerebral and makes you think the entire enterprise might actually be saying something as well as being fun to watch; and one film that squanders all that promise by trying to repeat the lighter first chapter, and only succeeds in delivering a mish-mash of tones and an ending that feels cobbled-together and unearned. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Kennedy and Disney had planned it like this from the beginning.

And the truth is, in some respects Abrams outdoes Lucas. This is chiefly down to the fact that Daisy Ridley is an infinitely better actor than Mark Hamill. In her performance as Rey, Ridley is playing essentially the same combination of good-hearted naiveté and reflexive heroism as Hamill’s Luke. But she never fails to find greater depth, and interesting little notes, in her version of the character. Her Rey is matter-of-fact and self-contained, but also vulnerable and querulous and angry. Throughout the film there are moments—when she verbally spars with Poe after he brings the Millennium Falcon back to the resistance base battered; when she sadly but firmly informs Leia that though she wants her blessing to halt her Jedi training and go off in pursuit of Palpatine, she will do it either way; when she shrieks in horror at having seemingly caused Chewie’s death with her Force powers—where Ridley’s choices take what should have been trite, over-familiar beats and make them feel human and specific to her character.

Most importantly, Ridley can believably convey anger and darkness. When The Rise of Skywalker tells us that Rey’s anger at Kylo and Palpatine is putting her in genuine moral peril, it’s convincing in a way that it never was for Luke, because Luke never actually seemed that angry at Vader or the Emperor, no matter how much they hurt him or his friends. In the film’s climactic scene, Rey attacks Kylo, driven by anger into an undisciplined barrage which he quickly turns to his advantage. She is saved by Leia reaching out to her son in the last minute, staying his hand by reminding him of who he used to be. In that moment, Rey takes advantage of Kylo’s distraction and fatally stabs him. There’s a part of me that still thinks Kylo’s story should have ended there—if nothing else, it would have been wonderfully cathartic for a character to whom the films keep offering second chances he doesn’t deserve to think that he’s been given another one, only for it to turn out to be a trick by two women who have had all they can stand of his bullshit. But at the same time, Ridley makes it clear that in killing Kylo, Rey has crossed a moral event horizon that she may not be able to live with. When she chooses to save him (through a Force-healing technique that the film introduces a scene or two earlier), it’s annoying, but also feels earned—a genuine moral choice that Rey has to make if she’s to remain true to who she is and what she wants to be—in a way that Luke’s refusal to kill Vader never did.

By the same token, Rise edges a little closer to selling Kylo’s “redemption” than Return ever did with Vader. Not all the way, to be clear—as I’ve said, the film has to ignore most of Kylo’s sins, and rewrite his personality, for the idea to even come close to seeming plausible (it also trots out Harrison Ford as a Force ghost to offer Kylo unearned absolution, and opine—against all available evidence—that he is strong enough to shoulder the burden of fighting Palpatine). But when Rey saves Kylo’s life, it’s an act of unearned compassion and greatness of spirit that feels like the sort of thing that might shake an entitled person out of their whiny self-absorption. That Kylo’s shock over Rey’s choice is what pushes him to renounce the dark side is much more convincing, and more moving, than the idea that Darth Vader is suddenly a good guy because he saved his own son’s life.

In the end, though, it’s all for nothing. Like Return of the Jedi before it, The Rise of Skywalker runs aground on the shoals of its fuzzy, poorly-defined conception of what the Force is, what the light and dark sides are, and what, in the end, good and evil are. As he did to Luke, Palpatine insists to Rey that by hating him and acting on that hatred, she is giving herself to the dark side, and that killing him will only cause her to become the new dark lord. The fact that in Rey’s case this is emotionally convincing—again, Ridley is great at conveying Rey’s anger and how it edges her closer to darkness—doesn’t make the catch-22 of it any less annoying. If you’re going to insist that anger and violence in response to evil and injustice can only lead to evil themselves, you need to offer a counter-strategy that is not only convincing, but resonant and thematically satisfying. Rise, like Return, can only offer lawyerly quibbling, with a side of special-effects extravaganzas. By killing him, Palpatine explains, Rey will be making herself a vessel for the spirits of all the Sith lords who came before them. So Rey, instead, becomes a vessel for all the Jedi. How does she do this? What does it mean? The film doesn’t tell us, presumably because it has no idea—it just sounded neat. And then Rey, with the force of the Jedi behind her, kills Palpatine anyway, which is now not a dark and morally corrupting act for… reasons, I suppose.[5]

It’s a particular shame because, waiting in the wings, there was a character and a plotline that could have cracked this entire trilogy wide open, made it something special and new and taken the franchise forward, and which instead was completely squandered and ignored. I am talking, of course, of the one new thing The Force Awakens brought to the franchise, the idea that stormtroopers are brainwashed child soldiers, and that some of them might choose to rebel. Abrams himself did very little with this idea once he’d introduced it, and Rian Johnson, though obliquely referencing Finn’s past in a storyline that saw him embracing a global morality as well as a personal one, left the broader implications of stormtrooper rebellion untouched. Nevertheless, The Rise of Skywalker was perfectly positioned to take this idea forward. Rey can’t kill Palpatine without giving in to the dark side? The rebellion can’t hope to overcome the enormous fleet he’s built? Then why not subvert the people without whom that fleet is so much space junk? Why not use Rey’s powers, and Finn’s intimate knowledge of the stormtrooper psyche, to reach out to people whom this series has always treated like canon-fodder, despite the fact that we now know they were kidnapped and enslaved? Isn’t that the essence of what Rose tried to teach Finn in The Last Jedi—winning not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love? Wouldn’t offering that as an answer to the dilemma Palpatine poses to Rey be infinitely more satisfying than some heretofore-unheard-of Force power?

There’s the slightest hint that Rise might be moving in this direction when it introduces the character of Jannah (Naomi Ackie), herself a former stormtrooper who rebelled with her entire battalion.[6] But just like Finn, she is completely indifferent to the lives of the stormtroopers who are still under the First Order’s sway, enthusiastically joining the rebellion’s side in a final battle in which entire ships are destroyed. What’s more, Jannah is the vector through which the film reveals that she, Finn, and all the other rebelling stormtroopers are Force-sensitive. Fans have been hoping for this revelation about Finn for a while, so at first glance it might seem like a way of elevating the character’s importance. But upon further reflection, it’s an idea that just gets more and more ugly. If only Force-sensitive stormtroopers are capable of rejecting the First Order’s brainwashing, doesn’t that make all the others inherently killable? Doesn’t it negate the significance of Finn’s moral choice? And is that, perhaps, the point? Fans—myself very much included—have been pointing out for a while the perversity of the films focusing on Kylo Ren’s putative redemption in the same story in which another character, who was raised with none of the advantages and protections that Ben Solo enjoyed, simply chose—at great personal risk—not to hurt helpless people. But if Finn only rebelled because the Force compelled him to (Jannah even says “it was like we didn’t have a choice” when describing how her battalion refused to slaughter civilians), then he’s not actually morally superior, just lucky. And, implicitly, Kylo can’t be blamed for all the evil he committed, because he was being pulled to do evil by the Force, just as Finn was pulled to do good.

It’s a sterile, offensive take on morality that overwrites what should have been the heart of these movies. But perhaps that choice was inevitable. There’s no room for Kylo Ren, after all, in a story about Rey and Finn reaching out to the stormtroopers[7]. And the new Star Wars movies—at least the ones created by Abrams—remain obsessed with dynasties. Hence this last one’s title, and the revelation of Rey’s ancestry, and her connection with Kylo, which also ties them both to Luke and Leia. A story about Rey using the Force to reach out to the faceless slaves who make up the First Order would have been a different sort of Star Wars—the kind I thought The Last Jedi was promising us. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Abrams and Disney, in their terror of alienating “fans” who can’t stand to see this series change and progress, turned away from that story, and gave us one with a hollow, corroded heart.


[1] Though of course, this was not the original plan. Rise was supposed to have been directed by Colin Trevorrow, who as far as I know has yet to establish an identity as a director, and who is still credited on the film’s story.

[2] Anyone hoping for friendship between Rey and Rose in this movie will be sorely disappointed. Rise isn’t quite a Bechdel fail, because Rey develops a bond with Leia, who becomes her Jedi master. But these scenes are limited to leftover lines recorded by Carrie Fisher for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi before her death, and the resulting interactions are thus stilted and strained. And Leia’s death means that Rey ends the movie with no female relationships.

[3] Again, this is partly Johnson’s fault for doing so little heavy lifting on the plot front.

[4] Though only the briefest glimpse of ewoks, which seems positively cowardly, yet another capitulation to the tastes of fans who are still, thirty-six years later, terrified that someone might think that they enjoy kid stuff.

[5] Among other things, this is yet another reminder, after Frozen II last month, that a lot of people in Hollywood have watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, but none of them have figured out what made it such a great, satisfying story.

[6] One wonders whether Abrams thinks that introducing Jannah makes up for the appalling misuse of Rose, as if women of color were interchangeable, and anyway there can only be one of them at any given time.

[7] Remember, Kylo has been Supreme Leader since the end of The Last Jedi, a period during which, we’re told in Rise, the First Order has stepped up its campaign of child abductions. So far from being the person who could reach out to the stormtroopers, he’s the ultimate cause of their suffering and dehumanization.

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