Photo: Walt Disney Studios
Before I proceed I’d like to say that I’m a fan of all things Star Wars and will always be for the entirety of my life. I was introduced to the series by a classmate in the 3rd grade and I was hooked ever since. That isn’t to say that I’ve accepted some of the decisions made in the films with blind loyalty. Jar Jar Binks is a bigoted pantomime of Caribbean peoples, Boba Fett is one of the most overblown villains ever and General Grievous is just pointless. But none of those missteps caused me to fall out of love with the series, but I’ve come close over the past few years. So with a heavy heart, I share my opinion of the “Rise of Skywalker” and why it is a film that NEVER had a chance.
The Wake of The Last Jedi
While Episode II, “Attack of the Clones” remains a universally panned outing for Star Wars, almost no film in the series is more polarizing than Episode VIII, “The Last Jedi” (TLJ). Director, Rian Johnson, made a series of drastic statements with his film and shifted Star Wars into more cynical waters. Our lifelong hero, Luke Skywalker, had become jaded and disillusioned in self-imposed exile. Our new heroine, Rey, was told the parents she had so desired to rediscover were “nobodies” that sold her into slavery. And the evil empire du jour, the First Order, had the Resistance on the ropes. Personally, I loved the direction of TLJ. I lauded the choice to show that the good guys don’t always win and our heroes are ornery and flawed. I loved that Poe Dameron is just a bro who thinks too highly of himself and gets locked in the brig for defying orders. I loved that the crew’s harebrained scheme falls flat on its face. But most of all I loved the over arching theme of destiny, or the lack there of.
For the entirety of the new trilogy, fans have theorized about Rey’s origins. In TLJ, having her parentage minimized gave a breath of fresh air to the series that the galaxy was NOT to be inherited by the wills of the Skywalkers (Anakin/Darth Vader, Luke, Leia, Ben/Kylo Ren) but returned to the whole. That the Force, the galaxy and Star Wars itself was for everyone. That was a massive risk on the part of Johnson and one that caused backlash that severed the fandom in twain.
In the fallout from “TLJ, the Star Wars fandom revolted. Some claiming that the film was a slap in the face to the Skywalker legacy (it wasn’t). Some said that it was simply a bad film, (it wasn’t but its not perfect). And others claimed that by not making Rey a Skywalker that it cheapened the story. These are all talking points of a fandom that has lost its imagination. While the prequels are not great, its high points are still incredible. The “Duel of the Fates” between Obi-Wan Kenobi/Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul remains one of the most hyped moments of the entire saga. The same goes for the inevitable confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker. These moments were amazing because they were allowed the freedom of enjoyment, a suspension of disbelief.
The prequels also existed in a post-internet but pre-social media era. Fansites became shrines to the Star Wars story, message boards became its clergy and congregation. But it wasn’t until social media that the nerd rage monster, that can sometimes take the form of Fandom, emerged. It was as if the whole of the Star Wars community forgot that Episode II ever existed, because they had a new punching bag. That lack of trust, the eagerness to have the hottest of takes made it cool to trash on Star Wars. Not to mention a new wave of energy took their criticism into a much seedier, darker place. The vitriolic, anti-woman rhetoric that surrounded the new trilogy is most evident in the reaction to TLJ. Hell, it was loud enough to have Russian bots co-op the critical commentary around it. Its something that nearly caused me to abandon the series altogether. But with the final film slated to release I chose to follow through.
Star Wars, By Committee
I tried my best to go into “The Rise of Skywalker” as blank as possible. I had no expectations of the film other than being wowed visually. If there is one thing director, JJ Abrams, does well its distinct and colorful frames. I loved the color palette of “Skywalker” as well, leaning heavily on blues while our last trilogy closing film, “Revenge of the Sith” splattered us with red and orange in its final act. With that said, “Skywalker” doesn’t feel like a film that wants to close the series with a bang. It feels like one that’s running away from its direct predecessor as quickly as it can.
“Skywalker” tries its best to evoke the feeling that we had from Episode VI “Return of the Jedi (RotJ)”, which to me, is folly. Everything the TLJ set up, was thematically done away with. Rey is as important as ever, precisely because of who she is and because of what she can do. Poe Dameron is back to being “new Han Solo” even though he’s proven to be a terrible leader. Finn is the only character that has any form of development and maturity through the series. Going from deserter to a general that leads by example, even if he is motivated by unrequited love. This is not the fault of Rian Johnson, but of Abrams. The film seeps with old tropes and artistic cowardice. Abrams leans so heavily into the original trilogy that the final act of Episode IX becomes indistinguishable from Episode VI.
Episode III, “Revenge of the Sith (RotS)”, helped redeem the prequels with its final act specifically because of its uniqueness. The galaxy was at stake, but it would only be decided by two concurrent, personal battles. It was the first time we had ever seen two opponents fight with two same colored lightsabers, highlighting that it was friend vs. friend. So little of the prequels borrows from the original trilogy, that it feels like it is its own contained narrative. It helps those films feel unique, even in their imperfections. This was something that I desperately wanted from the new trilogy but only one of them, TLJ, dared to stand on its own feet.
Abrams obsession with restoring Star Wars to its original trilogy glory has come at the cost of his two attempts, Episodes VII and IX, lacking identity. But it also feels like a massively capitulation to a vocal cohort that simply couldn’t bear the thought that Star Wars wasn’t their personal fan-fiction. “Skywalker” reminds us just how courageous Johnson was with the Star Wars brand, even if the execution wasn’t the best. I still enjoyed my time in the theater, there are still moments of “Skywalker” that made me gasp, smile and choke up. But I can’t help but think of what the film could have been had TLJ been understood or lauded. And that’s the unfortunate legacy of the new trilogy.