If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.
Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.
Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.
For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.
When it was announced in 2012 that Disney had purchased LucasFilm and a new Star Wars trilogy was being developed, a million voices cried out not in terror but rather jubilation, even after the underwhelming prequels. The idea we would see Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and the classic trilogy characters again was thrilling, but it tapped into a powerful emotion that has come to define mainstream entertainment this last decade: nostalgia.
Nostalgia has always been present in popular culture. You would never have had 1999’s The Phantom Menace and all of the revived Star Wars content after it if not for a yearning to return to the comfort of a universe that defined millions of childhoods in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the period directors like Abrams and writers such as Chris Terrio—drafted it to co-write TROS after Trevorrow’s firing and the junking of much of his script—were growing up. A period in which creators such as Lucas or Steven Spielberg brought escapist entertainment back to the masses as super producers who launched entire empires, from on screen to merchandising to games to… you name it. Properties like Star Wars became cottage industries, about more than just the films themselves, and they swept up children and young adults into the worlds these creatives conjured. It’s why Generation X in particular are largely defined by pop-culture references in the way Baby Boomers often aren’t. It’s also why they keenly feel the pull of nostalgia in their storytelling.
In everything from cinematic franchises such as Star Trek or James Bond tapping into their iconic 1960’s roots or popular properties being reborn or sequelized—Ghostbusters, Doctor Sleep—through to classic TV shows being revived with the same legendary characters and actors—The X-Files, the upcoming Star Trek: Picard—through to contemporary masterpieces such as recently Watchmen telling vibrant new stories which revolve around legacy and the past defining us, the 2010’s has seen audiences look in the rear view mirror for comforting, reassuring fodder. Perhaps as a response to the chaotic events in politics and social change that have rippled across the globe particularly in the last half of the decade, audiences have clung to familiarity and narrative safety. Heroes have seen a powerful rebirth in our consciousness, hence why the MCU has become so prosperous or the Arrowverse on television. We have looked to what we know and we have welcomed stories which reinforce our primal, existential hope someone will be there to save us.
Star Wars, from its inception, has always been a fairy tale. Lucas built what would become Episode IV: A New Hope on mythical fable tropes, transposing them to the science-fiction genre as he sought to create his own version of the Flash Gordon serials from the 1930’s. It was always a story of pure good vs pure evil, hence the constructs of the Jedi and the Sith, or the Force as an intangible construct that could be bent toward either paradigm. Lucas’ original trilogy was designed as a classic heroes journey, as defined by the groundbreaking work of cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell, who in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces pulled together mythic constructs from dozens of historical cultures which shared common archetypes that boiled down to this: the journey of the hero sees them travel from safety into the unknown on a quest, in which they lay their past ghosts to rest with the help of a wizened mentor, defeat the obstacle in their way, and recover a treasure they then take back to their original home. In the process, they are changed and renewed. A journey without is really the journey within.
If you look at a significant amount of modern pop culture fiction, and the majority of the stories we are most invested in culturally, they often cleave to heroes journeys. This is something I’ve built my upcoming book, Myth-Building in Modern Media, around – this idea of the ‘Monomytharc’, that contemporary fictional mythologies in popular culture utilise many of these Campbellian structures to define their characters and worlds. It happens in Avengers: Endgame. You can see it in Game of Thrones, which infamously ended this year. It’s present in Star Wars from the very beginning and Luke’s entire story in the original trilogy tracks this mythological arc.
Luke ventures out from Tatooine a naive young farmhand, undertakes a quest to understand his true self with the help of a mentor (Yoda), faces the duality of his lineage pulling him between good and evil after learning Darth Vader is actually his father, and then refuses to allow Emperor Palpatine to corrupt him, enabling Vader’s own redemption as a consequence – which, too, fulfills a similar journey Anakin Skywalker takes in the prequels, only his being the inverse, turning away from good to evil. This duality, this eventual understanding of one’s true self, is key to how Star Wars is approached in every one of it’s eight episodic films. And the message is always this: good will triumph. Evil will be vanquished. The Force (for good) will be with you, always. The Rise of Skywalker is no exception. There are no surprises. There are no diversions. There is the nostalgic fulcrum of a narrative structure you, as an audience expect of this film.
That’s also a key point here: expectation. We have become hardwired to expect that triumph, even when we don’t see it reflected in our own lived experience.
If this were reality, given the emergence of fascist demagogues such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro etc… or the normalisation of right-wing tropes that are encouraging intolerance and violence across the globe, Kylo Ren would undoubtedly have been the one to rise in this story. He and Palpatine would have killed Rey and simply dominated the universe with their Final Order, something they probably could have done with relative ease at multiple points in this trilogy. Yet, as audiences, we expect the Jedi and their quasi-Buddhist philosophy of quiet strength and tolerance to prosper. Much like after Avengers: Infinity War, when Thanos actually did manage to wipe out half of the universe and half of our heroes, the question for Endgame was never: will they defeat him? It was always: how will they defeat him? And how will those lost heroes return? Everyone knew they would. It was satisfying to see occur but it was a given. Thanos may boast he is inevitable but the only inevitability about Endgame was in how it ended. We wouldn’t have expected anything less.
It is quite remarkable just how similar the last act of TROS is to the final act of Endgame, actually, having spent the majority of the running time pillaging from half a dozen different famous and beloved pieces of popular culture. It is at various points ‘Indiana Jones and the Rise of Skywalker’ or ‘Harry Potter and the Sith Wayfinder’. The ending, however, is particularly in step with Endgame’s expected denouement of bringing all of our heroes as close to destruction as possible, in the face of impossible, universe-shattering odds, only to have a Gandalf in The Return of the King or Littlefinger in Battle of the Bastards-style last minute turn of the tide which allows Rey and company to succeed. Endgame, without question, did it better, having thoroughly laid the groundwork for the breathtaking moment of spectacle in which the entire MCU shows up to take down Thanos. There is nothing like that in TROS. Even with your expectation that it will happen, the last act is built on an ever-collapsing house of cards in which the rules of the entire story are re-written on the spot to up the stakes again and again and again. It is, among many things in TROS, that doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It’s hard for me to admit as an admittedly huge fan of JJ Abrams work for almost 20 years that this was the first time I walked out of one of his projects knowing, in my heart of hearts, that it just wasn’t very good. Star Trek Into Darkness depreciates the more you watch it but even that I emerged from initially delighted (perhaps because I’m a Trekkie as opposed to being more of a casual Wars fan). Emerging from TROS felt a little like coming out of the other side of a chaotic head rush, a confluence of elements which should have made sense but didn’t. Abrams puts together a film which, whether intentionally or not, seems willfully determined to run with abandon in the opposite direction to The Last Jedi in almost every way. The frenetic opening scenes quickly throw back in Palpatine with zero context, quickly explain Snoke, quickly establish the tropes that Abrams relies heavily on in his construction of Star Wars narratives—treasures and quest items—and foregrounds the questions that Rian Johnson intended for audiences to do away with entirely: who is Rey? Why is she special? And what does this mean for the end of the saga?
This, too, was an inevitability. One of the key negative reactions from the entitled fanboy base of Star Wars following The Last Jedi was that Johnson’s suggestion that Rey was nobody—despite TFA foreshadowing the contrary—and everyone had the potential to become a Jedi, or indeed a ‘sky walker’, was just virtue signalling, liberal BS. The noisiest fan base did not want to accept that Rey would not conventionally have a destiny, and it’s clearly something Abrams believed too. Abrams and Terrio are fanboys, let’s not forget, in something of a different manner to Johnson; the latter was keen to try and transform Star Wars, to push and challenge at the tropes and perceptions constructed over the previous seven films, keen to use his knowledge of the franchise to subvert those Campbellian structures.
In doing so, Rey and Ren started to feel more like complicated humans filled with a dangerous sexual energy, Finn embraced a journey of tolerance and bonding with Rose Tico (in TROS reduced to little more than an exposition machine) to help an underclass stymied by fascist-enabling capitalist structures, and Poe pushed against conditioned swaggering masculine heroism in the face of powerful female leaders. TROS ejects all of that almost instantly. Rey is now on a conventional Campbellian journey, as is Ren in opposition. Finn ends up caught between plotlines, tethered to Rey in one moment and then elsewhere the next. Poe is simply reverted to a cocksure amalgam of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, saddled with a conventional spiky romance with Keri Russell’s sexy trader Zorri. Leia resorts to awkward platitudes (they really should have not had Carrie Fisher in this because it just looks and sounds uncanny). Even Luke, from beyond, ends up telling Rey “I was wrong”, handing back the lightsaber he threw away. All of The Last Jedi’s nuance is underwritten.
This is perhaps because Abrams isn’t that kind of filmmaker. He is almost a love child of Lucas’ stringent fascination with myth and mystery and Spielberg’s imaginative wonder and emotion. Abrams tells stories from the heart whereas Johnson works a little bit more from the head. Abrams understands the heroes journey as a quest narrative, and that’s how he and Lawrence Kasdan wrote The Force Awakens – the quest there was to find Luke, who was the treasure in the cave at the end of the story Rey faced key trials to reach, learning aspects of herself in the process. If TROS has Sith artefacts then TFA had Jedi maps but the essential construct was the same. TFA borrowed heavily from A New Hope in the process but it worked fine because it was, at the same time, rebuilding and reconstructing a world and establishing characters, journeys and mysteries.
If you look at Abrams’ career, how often does he ever end a story? Mission Impossible, Star Trek, Lost, Alias – all are either yet to be ended or were concluded by other people. Endings are far far harder than beginnings. Sticking landings is tough and Abrams was tasked with not just unconventionally for him ending a story he initialised, but also course correcting from The Last Jedi—a film he would have done entirely differently—and creating a grand unified theory of the entire 42 year old Skywalker saga. Like Endgame, the culmination of Star Wars’ first true cycle, not just the end of a trilogy.
As a result, Abrams enables the kind of nostalgic safety that The Last Jedi ran away from. This isn’t the same Ren who barked “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to”. This is a Kylo who encourages Rey to embrace her own past, embrace the key connection and truth about her parents—which you’ll probably be able to guess after the first few scenes—and embrace her crucial link to the entirety of the franchise to date. Rey was always important. There was always going to be an ultimate destiny. There would always be an ultimate battle. And consequently, everything is on turbo.
The Millennium Falcon hyper-jumps between systems and landscapes for the ultimate space chase. The First Order unleash the biggest fleet of star destroyers any Star Wars film could possibly deliver. We get call backs galore – characters (Lando Calrissian, Wedge Antilles), entire moments from previous films repurposed (such as the X-Wing rising out the Dagobah swamp), and Force powers that wouldn’t go amiss out of a video game. It teases the deaths of major characters and then almost instantly rolls back on them. Though Abrams is more intelligent than just pandering to fanboys who wish to see very expensive fan fiction on screen, TROS is essentially just that – a nostalgic, re-heated mash up of everything you have loved about Star Wars for four decades charged to maximum. There is however one thing it lacks, aside from much in the way of logic at key points, especially the final act, that TFA and TLJ both had: soul.
The Rise of Skywalker left me empty in a similar fashion to The Iron Throne, the final episode of Game of Thrones. Both of them were enjoyable, both were highly anticipated, but both were constructed on narrative expectations of mystery and payoff that audiences had largely predetermined, and seeing them play out as expected left a hollow evaporation. I’ve thought almost nothing about Game of Thrones since that finale when I expected to be turning it over for years. Compare this to Watchmen, a masterful examination of legacy and nostalgia which points out how dangerous those elements can be to the modern day, and we’re legions apart. Similarly, The Rise of Skywalker escapes into the ether the moment it has finished. There is none of the rousing spirit of how A New Hope ended or even the cathartic victory of Return of the Jedi. It ends, in true Campbellian fashion, by returning to the beginning and marking that territory, with the last shot playing on perhaps the most iconic shot in Star Wars. That sums up TROS and, in many ways, the cinematic trend of the 2010’s. The determination to look back rather than boldly push forward.
The Rise of Skywalker is, creatively, the weakest Star Wars film since Revenge of the Sith and, possibly even Attack of the Clones. At times frenetic, bereft of storytelling logic and poorly written, it reduces this sequel trilogy to less a point of renewal and satisfaction but rather a pointlessness. If we had known this was where it was all heading, would we have thought twice as to whether it was a good idea? The billions of dollars in box office receipts would have been worth it for Disney but what does TROS truly add for us as audiences? What does it say about our world today, except that fascists are bad and we should all stand together to stop them? That was a message the original trilogy communicated, if less overtly in terms of gender and cultural equality. The Last Jedi especially suggested that Star Wars was on the cusp of a genuine rise of the masses, that the children of tomorrow born not of a quasi-mythical, mystical lineage like Ben Solo or now Rey Palpatine would all become sky walkers, could all harness the Force in order to balance the dyad of good and evil in humanity. For a while, we hoped perhaps that’s what The Rise of Skywalker meant as a title.
In the end, it means exactly what you expected it to mean. And that’s both the most inevitable and disappointing way for the Star Wars saga to, for now, come to a close.
DIRECTOR: J. J. Abrams
WRITERS: Chris Terrio & J. J. Abrams
CAST: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Richard E. Grant, Lupita N’yong’o
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