The End of an Era and ‘The Rise of Skywalker’

by Simon Williams on December 19, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

So I’m a child of divorce. An older child however, my parents broke up when I was a teenager and I had to deal with the thing at an age where I couldn’t deal with simple explanations.

It was messy, complicated and extraordinarily difficult, and a lot of my life has been defined by carving out positive relationships with both of my parents and finding a way to emotionally and spiritually evolve and understand what caused it. It’s been hard, but I feel it has made me a stronger person and made my relationships more meaningful, including with my folks.

Star Wars, at its best, explores these kinds of messy, difficult places in an arc mythic setting, better allowing us to delve into those emotional pits contained within us. The Empire Strikes Back forces us to confront the impact of our parents, making us question their roles in the oppressive societies around us. The Return of the Jedi deepened this theme, calling into question how much influence they had on their own fates, helping us find a way to forgive them. This groks well with an auteurist reading, looking at George Lucas’ own musings on authoritarianism and shifting views on Vietnam.

The Prequels, deeply flawed as they are, are probably the most blatant philosophical explorations of the series. “So this is how democracy dies, with applause.” The trilogy is an arc meditating on good intentions, how our most hallowed institutions can become corrupted. The Jedi are shown to not be the incorruptible force of pure good we imagined, but a deeply flawed institution wrapped in mysticism that allowed an authoritarian ethno-state to rise while they were busy with their own problems. Forget the rise of Vader, let’s talk about how well executed and how prescient the rise of Palpatine is. One thinks of Stalin, of Hitler, of Trump.

The new trilogy is trickier. The Force Awakens felt as though it was merely an ode to nostalgia, but with context of The Last Jedi the two become a kind of re-evaluation of the themes of the whole saga. Is it us who need to forgive our parents or is it they who must forgive us? We may feel nostalgia for institutions of old, but what if those institutions led us astray, say the Jedi helping spear on the war that led to the rise of the Empire? When we examine flawed institutions, need we abandon them in the name of progress, or is there a way to embrace them and improve upon them? Grow beyond the flaws of our forebears without abandoning all tradition?

And now with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, we come to a new philosophical pondering: Were we stupid all along and are these just a bunch of movies about space wizards for babies?

[ROCK FIST WAY DOWN]

Hey gang, are you tired of your movies being bogged down with themes and ideas? Do you want your overarching, decade-spanning franchises to just fill you with simple joys and lore-exclusive dialogue? Do you hate having to feel emotions? Well does J.J. Abrams have a movie for you! 

With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams does away with all those pesky explorations of philosophy and spirituality and offers the pure, simple pleasures that come with owning a snuggy. You get a handful of deep lore references, a bunch of running, and a variety of tie-ins that make you go “OH, I REMEMBER THAT FROM THE OTHER MOVIE! Isn’t remembering things fun?” Best of all, you get to do it in a context where all these new characters get flattened and buffed of all their original personality and dynamics, tying themselves all to the original series characters, so you don’t need to work even at having empathy or care! No more emotional labor, you can just get your jimmies off with the same dynamics you remember from last time!

FUCK ME this is a great feeling, nothing matters anymore! I don’t need to care about anything new at all, I can just keep replaying the same level in the same videogame over and over again forever! I don’t need to FEEL things I just want Macguffins and Fan Service! Hell let’s throw out film structure too! Let’s go with a first hour of repetitive fetch quests before bashing our action figures together until we get a big boom! Let’s bring back an old villain so that we can keep chasing old highs and we don’t need to worry about ideas like the ever-changing face of evil and the horrors of blind nostalgia, we can just be mad at the bad old man again! And SPOILERS!


How else can I talk about ALL THIS GREAT SHIT without SPOILERS!?!

So why keep our main villain, potentially the most compelling villain we’ve brought to this series, a main focus and our heavy? Why have our characters battling within themselves, and having the real enemies being their own insecurities and trauma? Why make an emotionally complex conflict where good and evil is decided through self-reflection and experience? NO LET’S BRING BACK THE BIG BAD FROM BEFORE! PALPATINE IS BACK and he’s not a clone or a reincarnation or an echo of the past that haunts our characters, he’s literally just been alive this entire time on an evil Sith planet hidden in unknown space, pulling the strings and literally representing all Sith and all evil, just for our hero to literally be called on by all the past Jedi to be representative of all Goodness and Virtue. And yes we want to appeal to the Jedi again because they weren’t a deeply flawed pseudo-military order whose hubris allowed for the rise of the empire, they are pure good and the prequel movies are just bad alone with nothing interesting to say and Last Jedi didn’t have any interesting points at all and I’m having a stroke!

God and why keep the Force an all-encompassing, beautiful presence throughout the universe? Why explore our place in the world and how power can manifest in any individual? Who needs a sense of empowerment and a feeling that they are intrinsically tied to all things? Who gives a shit about concepts of rising beyond class and family line to become something greater than you were destined for? Let’s make the Jedi a Master Race bloodline of Force Users who pass force usage from generation to generation like Sickle Cell! It’ll be great! Not just anyone can be a Jedi, so much riff-raff can become a Jedi that way, you have to have the right fucking blood type! Rey isn’t just some orphan who grew into a great force user through the mysteries of the universe and training, SHE’S A PALPATINE! MAY THE MOST PURE OF BLOOD BE FOREVER GIFTED WITH SPACE WIZARDRY AND MAY THE DEGENERATE LOWER RACES NEVER BE GRANTED WITH MAGIC! ALL HAIL THE JEDI MASTER RACE! 

JEDI UBER ALLES MOTHER FUCKER!

Hey you, kid, did your parents abandon you? Did you grow up in foster homes and in poverty? Or did you grow up a minority or queer, always having the world tell you you’re lesser because of who you are? Did you have a hard life? Do you need escape and want a sense of empowerment? Do you want to believe you can be more than society tells you? TOO FUCKING BAD! YOU HAVE THE WRONG CHROMASOMES! The bloodwork is in and are genetically predisposed to NEVER BEING A JEDI! You have the pre-existing condition of BEING NORMAL! HA!

HA.

Ha.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9457752d) Rian Johnson 2018 SXSW – “The Director and The Jedi”, Austin, USA – 12 Mar 2018

Okay I think I’ve cooled down. I just… I just had to get that out of my system. The Rise of Skywalker… hurt. And what gets me is I should have seen it coming.

The Last Jedi was an important movie for me. Rian Johnson made a film that not only wrapped the original series and prequels together, making a more coherent and thoughtful series amongst them unified in philosophy, but also a piece of art that brought new thoughts to the series and deepened the ideas of its predecessors. I was in a minority, it seemed.

Two years ago I sang the praises of Last Jedi to the heavens, and in the week that passed between the critic’s screening and the general release the entire critical community I inhabited tittered excitedly among ourselves eagerly awaiting the mass response of the fandom. Then the fandom got a hold of the thing and exploded. To this day the Audience Score for The Last Jedi sits at a miserable 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, partially due to the systematic targeting of the film by certain political forces but mostly due to a huge percentage of the public’s active dislike for what the film was doing. They hated the new characters, they hated the role of Luke as a wounded warrior, they hated the philosophical musings.

The ultimate two twists: firstly that Rey had no important parentage, secondly that the force was a greater and more abstract presence than stated by the flawed and hypocritical Jedi Order, were both smacks into the face to this group. For me, they were the appeal. The film brought the musings of Star Wars into an intimate and real place where we could learn from it and apply its thoughts to our own lives. As alluded to above, for my money this was always what Star Wars was. Its mythology, its an arc framework with which we can better understand our place in the universe.

The fanbase hated that. J.J. Abrams, according to interviews, especially hated that. It shows too, as The Rise of Skywalker in many ways not only feels like a walk-back from Last Jedi, but an active refutation of it. It is structured as a series of highly repetitive action beats, wherein revelations and plot twists are thrown at us and resolved every few minutes. No less than nine times do characters appear to have been killed just to be brought back a few minutes later. Several major cameos arrive without any real reasoning behind their current station, nor any gravity brought to their presence. Character arcs from the previous films are either actively ignored or retconned entirely.

I feel as though this write-up has gotten away from me. As mal-constructed and masturbatory as my reviews normally are I can already sense this one is in another league. I really want to have a structured, complete autopsy of this film and a calm discussion of how I feel it fails not only at its own goals but at the goals of the series as a whole but I can’t help it. I’m too close to this thing. I hurt.

I realize this may, despite my ramblings, be an example of taste. My Star Wars has always, first and foremost, been defined by thoughtfulness and a personal, hand-crafted touch. The films have always felt like philosophical experiments, where when Lucas was at the helm he poured his thoughts on Vietnam, WWII, parentage, The Bush Era, Imperialism and Authoritarianism out in a constant stream. Through the various animated series, books and the best of the games, we had a myriad of voices muddying and playing with these ideas, either playing with the functions of Good and Evil and the arbitrary distinctions we use to define them as in the KOTOR games, or say in the Clone Wars series exploring the actual political underpinnings that lead to the rise of Authoritarian Regimes and how national narratives can become warped and distorted.

With The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, we had a duology of films that explored nostalgia, playing with the lines between what is and isn’t worth remembering and worshipping, and ultimately coming to the conclusion that while we need to look to the past for our identities, we must inherently wrestle with the flaws of our forebears and attempt to grow past them.

The Rise of Skywalker is interested in exactly none of this. I’m reminded of the now infamous quote by Game of Thrones Showrunner David Benioff, “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.” The Rise of Skywalker is invested in, first and foremost, action and callbacks. It wants to revel in the past without exploring it or adding anything to the narrative. It wants to worship something it doesn’t care to understand.

I really should be going into detail. I should go into how much less cinematically interesting this film is than its predecessors, featuring none of the stirring camerawork of Last Jedi or the Original Trilogy AND none of the fabulist practical effects and art deco design brought by the Prequels and Force Awakens. I should talk about how the action direction feels restrained and confused, with much of the action blocking featuring the exact same beats and long pauses where characters stare at eachother with arms at their sides. I SHOULD talk about how the script sidelines characters of color, cutting Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tiko into a cameo with billing, John Boyega’s formerly scene-stealing Finn into a vestigial appendage without real motivation or arc, or how the return of Lando Calrissian ends up feeling merely forced and awkward. But, honestly, I can’t bring myself to care right now.

I want to end this review. I want to give myself some time to digest and wait and see how the public responds to this thing. The President is being impeached, I need some mental space and maybe I’ll do a proper write-up in a few months.

Before I take my leave however, I want to give comment on an element of the film I find to be the most illustrative example of this film’s failings and frustrating goals.

Carrie Fisher receives first billing for The Rise of Skywalker, despite being deceased throughout production. This is exceedingly obvious watching the final product. Actors act around her, and occasionally we see a few different takes of the same shot edited into a single conversation. The line around her face where they digitally inserted her into scenes and costumes she was not there for is obvious. All of her dialogue is canned and warped around innocuous nothing statements. They, effectively, resurrected the dead for a nothing role. They brought her back just to give her no content.

Call me cynical, call me vitriolic, call me dumb, but that says more about the film than I ever could.

See you, space cowboy.

Simon Williams

Simon Williams is a media critic and filmmaker originally from Columbus Ohio. He makes short films about sad people who don’t speak their minds because he himself is a sad person who does not have that issue.

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