The recent, and last, installment of the Star Wars Episodic saga, The Rise of Skywalker, is alive on the silver screen. The film opened to a successful $176.5 million (75 million less than The Force Awakens, mind you) and is sure to be a landmark in pop-culture history.
No matter the numerical success of the new trilogy, these last iterations of Star Wars have been met with mixed reactions of applause and criticism. The rifts in Star Wars fandom are especially something to behold. To no one’s surprise, social media has exacerbated the excitement, as well as the disappointment, in these films. J. J. Abrams recently responded to some of the criticism The Rise of Skywalker has received, adding, “We knew starting this that any decision we made — a design decision, a musical decision, a narrative decision — would please someone and infuriate someone else.”
He’s right, you can’t please everyone. However, that did not seem to stop him from trying, since The Rise of Skywalker casts its net so wide in an attempt to appease, well, everyone, that it ends up nearly having the opposite effect.
The Substance and Accidents of Star Wars
An important question which is, perhaps, not asked enough by Lucasfilm and co., is, what makes Star Wars Star Wars? What makes Star Wars what it is? Much to the frustration of fans, this question has been answered differently with each trilogy in the saga. While the prequels focused on the lore of the universe, the originals utilized this fantasy and sci-fi world to serve as background to a classic tale of the Hero’s journey. Indeed, George Lucas referred to Joseph Campbell as, “my Yoda.” The Disney trilogy, however, conflates the background and lore of Star Wars with the elements of the classic story.
In other words, the recent iterations give equal time to plot, character development, and storytelling (the substance) as it does to blasters and lightspeed sequences (the accidents).
It is no surprise that when a corporate giant like Disney purchases Lucasfilm, their focus is going to be on how to get the most return on their $4b purchase. This often means that if a director has to choose between developing the story and characters or having more scenes with x-wings and stormtroopers, the former is taken behind the barn to get a laser blast between the eyes. After all, the accidents, the wrappings and trimmings, the things that can be made into toys and rides, those are the things that can be sold at a premium.
Wherever the story might go creatively, it is bridled by a huge checklist of things that have to take place, regardless of their helping the story or not. This is shown right away in The Rise of Skywalker when Palpatine is immediately introduced and suddenly conjures up a fleet of Star Destroyers. This serves no real purpose other than the fact that there must be a space battle in the movie. Where did they come from, who built them, who is manning them? It doesn’t matter. We need Star Destroyers. Thousands of them.
This checklist looms large over the entire film. Perhaps most troubling is that when the story is entirely structured around these accidents, they are used to expedite the story’s progress. How do Rey and the gang escape a planet being surveilled by Kylo Ren’s cruiser? Keri Russel is here to give Poe a special imperial coin, which provides them with full clearance to First Order ships.
One of the hallmarks of the original films was that all of the accidents of the Star Wars universe were part of the background. Just like how smartphones and tablets and other appliances fit in our life, if and when the bits and bobs of Star Wars were referenced, it was done naturally, without shining the limelight on them (other than lightsabers, of course). Compare the Keri Russel space-coin bit with Episode 4; the characters use cleverness, grit, and brawn to bust out Princess Leia. It’s a simple mission, but there are enough obstacles in the way that it allows tension to build and characters to grow. Not so with Skywalker. This film has the equivalent of a dozen or so of these sequences back to back to back at x2 speed.
In a set of quests more akin to a Harry Potter film, The Rise of Skywalker finds our band of merry Resistors in search of a MacGuffin that will help them get another MacGuffin that will lead them to the Emperor. Along the way, we learn more about Rey’s lineage, the drama between her and Ren is allowed to build, the character arcs start to take place, and even at times are satisfying, but instead of giving these emotional plot points time to breathe, they are bogged down with the stuff of Star Wars.
Abrams seems to be in a crunch. Not only does he have to fit in Disney’s required list of things, but he effectively has to fix what he and fans didn’t like in The Last Jedi, all while introducing even more new characters and trying to fit the plot of 9 films into one. The entire film is laced with a sense of cognitive dissonance. At one moment the character’s chemistry and their arcs start to work and play on the heartstrings, the next there is a Star Wars thing you know and love but on steroids. It’s almost physically impossible to have a reflective moment in the film.
There is still plenty to critique in The Rise of Skywalker, the expository dialogue, for instance, is a tragic break from the original trilogy. When a planet-destroying laser is fired, the scene is followed by someone explaining what you just saw; when a spy is shown to help our friends, he literally says, “I’m the spy!” This goes on throughout the film. Once again, compare this to A New Hope where, without any dialogue, with simple camera angles and music, you visually pick-up everything you need to know: the rebels are small and insignificant in comparison to the massive empire, and they are on the run.
The Rise of The Manichaeans
However, something The Rise of Skywalker does do well is it holds onto the necessary dualism in the Star Wars universe. Whereas The Last Jedi hints at departing from a Manichaean-world where there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, Abrams reverts back to Lucas’ roots.
Lucas was in no small part inspired by the classic serials, Flash Gordon and The Lone Ranger. These stories that inspired a generation of filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas were straightforward, which is something a sci-fi fantasy adventure has to be. You knew who the good guys were because they wore the white 10-gallon hats and the bad guys wore the black ones. This dualism works in the Star Wars universe because, in the midst of the aliens and spacecraft and all the lore, we need a protagonist we can sympathize with, whose temptations and fight are clear to us. The light side and dark side, the Jedi and Sith, the rebels and the empire, they fit the bill nicely.
It is interesting that the more progressive audiences detest this part of the new trilogy. Whereas they enjoyed the prospect that Rey, and in turn, Star Wars, might have been a story of becoming. The new trilogy teased a kind of modern philosophy, a neo-Hegelian attempt to craft your own identity apart from institutionalized systems and bloodlines. All of this, of course, would have entirely subserved the ancient philosophy the original trilogy was built on. Instead, Abrams takes the old route. The tried and true. Perhaps so much so that it becomes less creative, where the film’s big reveals end up landing flat.
There is a way to stay within bounds that is creative, Episode 9 ultimately fails to strike this chord, however. Because it so conflates the incidents of Star Wars with the story itself, the creative aspect seems to wither.
With ticket sales down and Star Wars excitement treading water, what should Kathleen Kennedy and the folks at Disney do moving forward? For one, they might take a cue from their writers. In a recent interview, Abram’s co-writer, Chris Terrio, provides helpful insights on Finn’s Force sensitivity, the decision behind Rey’s lineage, and why they felt that they had to bring Palpatine back. While some of his answers seem to be him trying to have his cake and eat it too, they seem apt enough. If only the film itself was allowed to convey the writer’s intentions. Despite the characters having a millstone of merchandise and expository dialogue tied around their neck, they do shine every so often. And when they do, those moments stick with you.
The simple lesson learned is that before you reboot such a massive franchise (we will all get our chance at this one day, I’m sure), you have to make sure the little fun things you would like to see are in line with the substance of the story. When disappointment surfaces after something like The Last Jedi (which I still enjoyed enough, by the way), the circumstances of Star Wars simply do not serve as a good life-preserver. Once the folks at Lucasfilm and Disney realize this, perhaps then we will get a less convoluted story still with plenty of lightsabers and Millennium Falcons for everyone to enjoy.