Star Wars: Episode IX -The Rise of Skywalker
starring Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Billy Dee Williams
written by J.J. Abrams & Chris Terrio
directed by J.J. Abrams
by Walter Chaw J.J. Abrams's Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker (hereafter The Rise of Skywalker) is a breakneck, National Treasure-style quest flick so intent on the prize that it takes its eyes off the goal. It's slick and frictionless, offering nothing to hold on to and holding on to nothing in return. In it, our heroes rattle off facile one-liners and play around with childish surface emotions as though they were experiencing them for the first time. There aren't any stakes, and because of that most of the dialogue centres around how everything is very desperate and the Last Time and run! hurry! don't look back!, but looking back is really all it does. By turns dishonourable and irritating, it plays on fond nostalgia with invasive, clumsy fingers, undoing the considerable goodwill engendered by a trilogy series that began with the same director, hitting the right notes to resurrect the franchise in The Force Awakens--and continued with a genuine auteur piece in Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi that seems a unicorn in an increasingly fearful marketplace. Those films, whatever their flaws, were for fans that had grown up in the last forty-two years: the one for their remembered joys, the other for their grieved losses. This one's for an algorithm.
Star Wars has always been about binary choices, and it's binary choices that are the last refuge of the very young and the very frightened. Star Wars itself was the first film I saw in theatres. Until I was much older, I believed that every movie was like it: full of possibility, limited only by imagination, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. The original trilogy ultimately pioneered the idea of leaning into cross-medium marketing possibilities, and all of my friends had tie-in action figures and playsets. We spent every lunch-hour at school plotting the further adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia (and others, depending on who had what toy)--quests we would then enact in the sandpits and weekends of our childhood. The Empire Strikes Back was a terrible disappointment, because, for seven-year-olds, the prospect of the bad guys winning was something insupportable for our sheltered, privileged, halcyon existence. The movie ended too soon; the heroes spent too much screentime apart. Luke didn't finish his training, everyone was in pain and imperfect, and there were threads that would not tie. When I was ten, The Return of the Jedi opened, and for a while, it was my and my friends' favourite film. The bad guys died. Your dad turned out not to be an abusive monster after all (or at least, he still loved you deep down inside). You were somehow discovered to be the lost Anastasia for a dynastic storyline, and the right people wound up satisfyingly dead.
But then you grow up. Star Wars presented to my generation the idea that there is a dark side full of hate and anger and a light side that isn't. It taught us that the dark side was extraordinarily powerful while also warning us that it was attractive and easy. I think we all imagined we were Luke Skywalker then, and gave him admirable attributes he didn't necessarily display in the course of the films. Our suture with him led us to build something like a golden calf out of this golden boy. We believed we were good and hoped to be recognized as such. Binaries. There's a light side and a dark side; the grey represented by Han Solo is scrubbed into a blinding white by the end. Even double-dealing horndog Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is a respected General for the revolution by the time it's over. His original fate was to die in the final run against the second Death Star. Lucas lost the thread. At some point, he became someone who couldn't kill Harry Potter and install Hermione, the most powerful wizard of her generation, as the new headmaster of Hogwarts. He had to marry her off to the lovable oaf and pretend everyone lived happily ever after in this perverse domestic half-life. Lucas began as the Rebellion and ended up somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Empire. His THX 1138 had worker drones working their lives away to afford plastic cubes, which they collected and with which they decorated their cells. He had a decision to make: struggle, or manufacture plastic cubes. We all have that decision to make.
Critics of Star Wars--Harlan Ellison, one of its harshest detractors, among them--identify it as a children's story: a tale for the very young or very frightened that affirms their inherited value in a chaotic world beset with aliens. The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth (and allegedly final) installment in this saga of the Skywalker clan, had the opportunity to challenge that critique but validates it instead. I used to always bristle at the jab that these movies were just for kids. I realize now that becoming defensive at criticism likely confirms the predilections and biases that inform that criticism. Not unlike J.K. Rowling's tales of a boy wizard, Star Wars had this one chance at the end to be a work of literature rather than an outrageously popular young-adult artifact, and it blinked. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I'm disappointed this series goes out not like a point around which to rally but like a puzzle to be solved; on the other hand, I'm still a child, full of fear, and I'm grateful to see things I recognize and feel things I remember as surcease, however brief, of sorrow. I'm forty-six this year--at around the midway point in The Rise of Skywalker, our heroes visit a celebration that happens once every forty-two years (the current age of Star Wars). This circle is closing and I'm grateful for it, but this is the first Star Wars film I didn't think about after it was over, whether to comb through in disappointment or ruminate over in hopefulness and wonder. While it's a closing of a chapter in my life and a work of exceptional craftsmanship, it isn't a work of great art. It doesn't have ambition. I'm able to leave it behind because, as a thing that functions, it has served its purpose.
The plot is a straight line, literally in exposition and in an animated graphic that recurs throughout showing the start and endpoints. Don't be afraid. The good guys need to find a map to the bad guys so they can kill the bad guys. They hope that more good guys will help them kill the bad guys, because there are a great many bad guys and only a few good guys. And there are horses. There's a repeated refrain meant to resonate that talks about how the way the bad guys win is by convincing the good guys they're alone. I think the way the bad guys win is by making the good guys the bad guys. In spite of itself, and possibly because of how muddy its messages and interpretations are, The Rise of Skywalker is a pretty great commentary on what's wrong with us and how maybe it's impossible for us to pull out of this dive in time. Our mass media has become a reflection of our inability to take on nuance and think critically. Giving as many people as possible what a checklist dictates they want is the province of fast-food franchises and venal politicians. Instead of pushing us to grow, it's congratulating us for our moribund consistency.
Think about this for a second, how the most powerful scene in the film is a strange one--as well as the most likely to be derided by men who hate kindness and temperance--in which our hero, the foundling Rey (Daisy Ridley), is confronted with a serpent in a Jungian underneath. Her friends want to kill it because that's what people in this universe tend to do when faced with adversity--but she heals it instead, winning them access to the surface. It plays like the kinds of myth the series' patron saint, Joseph Campbell, employed in his pop-comparative cosmologies about returns of archetypes in the campfire tales we tell ourselves. The best scene in the pretty good Reign of Fire has its post-apocalyptic survivors performing the Vader/Skywalker battle from The Empire Strikes Back before firelight on a stage with wooden swords. Boiled down to their essence, these films are "just-so stories" for the celluloid age, peopled with binary types in a polarized galaxy. Rey is good. Luke is good. It's not a fairy tale for adults, because all fairy tales are for adults. Here's a moment where Rey is actually good. Morally, archetypally good. Not good because she kills for the side we're programmed to root for, but good because she chooses to embrace the serpent instead of murdering it. The only hope any of us have of ever being okay is this possibility that we make the same choices with our own demons: you don't destroy the shadow, after all, without destroying the light. (Since we're talking about archetypes, the end of the film finds the good guys obliterating the giant, phallic cannons hanging underneath the bad guys' giant, spade-like ships.)
Now consider how this possibility for kindness and sacrifice, nursed and carried through the bulk of The Rise of Skywalker (and introduced in The Last Jedi, which is, of course, this third trilogy's second, moral act, just as The Empire Strikes Back is the first trilogy's), is betrayed at the end with a murder/death/kill of the most graphic variety. It's a riff, the third one I counted that references Raiders of the Lost Ark, on Nazi and Nazi sympathizer faces melting before the glory of Old Testament vengeance. There's a lot of talk in these films about how the Jedi religion is ever only for defense--how it's about taking the path of love, knowledge, and acceptance no matter how difficult (and it's extremely difficult), rather than the dark path of retribution and fear. And here's The Rise of Skywalker, at the end of it, reenacting the same cycle of retributive violence that presumably left the film's bad guy the same bad guy as the bad guy for all the other films. He, this dark Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), even boasts that it was always him behind every bad thing. He's another serpent in another Jungian basement, his creature design modelled on, of all things, Leviathan from Hellraiser II. If he's an archetype, he's Legion. He is every bad thing. The solution the franchise's own mythology suggests is to accept that there must be a balance between opposite energies; the temporary feel-good sop is that the good guys kill the bad guys. When you're very young and very frightened, you want to kill the things that scare you. When you're very old and very sad, you see in yourself the things that have made the things that scare you so frightened. You realize, eventually, that you can't kill what scares you without first killing yourself. For about 40% of our neighbours, that seems like a good deal.
The Rise of Skywalker is a technical marvel that isn't very exciting, a work of massive processing and a huge and rare assemblage of gifted artists in the creation of the world's most amazing answer sheet to a set of questions only the very young and very frightened were ever asking. Some moments will be almost unbearably affecting for guys like me, who are shocked to feel like children again before sights and sounds that comforted them once. Yet nagging throughout are the world and its troubles, which this film doesn't want to address. That's okay, really. It is. There's a short story by Harlan Ellison called "Jeffty is Five," where a man discovers that a childhood friend of his has never aged past five, then catches him up by introducing the horrors of the world to his friend. The question of "cinema" as a high aspiration related to art versus theme parks is in the conversation around films like this, and rather than add to it, I'd offer that when I take my kids to Disneyland, what I want is to ride "The Haunted Mansion" ride with them. When I do, I want the same music, the same ghosts, the same everything, and I want to watch it through their eyes and fantasize about a time in their futures, once I'm no longer an essential part of their lives, when they would do the same with their children and remember me and how I loved them. What I don't want is a different "The Haunted Mansion" ride. I would argue that these films, with their impossible reach and cultural power, have the responsibility to risk more. That by risking more, they challenge its audience to be intellectually and morally courageous.
If you're concerned, rest easy that The Rise of Skywalker gives Rey her dynastic heritage, substituting the incredible notion that she could be nobody and still be a hero with a more conventional, a more safe, storyline where you can't help who you're born to, but you can create your own family from friends and allies. It's a cozy idea that doesn't challenge our ingrained notions of exceptionalism. There are laser-sword battles but none with the visceral astonishment of the Darth Maul ménage à trois, the kinetic thrill and inventiveness of the throne-room sequence from The Last Jedi, or the hair-raising frisson of the forest battle that climaxes The Force Awakens. And there are none with the stakes of those in the original trilogy. There are space battles but nothing like the two Death Star runs or Rey's escape from Jakku when first piloting the Millennium Falcon. Old friends appear and are nice to see, but their appearances are tired and a fait accompli according to the machinations of this nostalgia device. There's an electric moment where it appears that Rey, in her uncontrolled rancour, has murdered one of her friends, but The Rise of Skywalker immediately reassures us that everything's all right, there's nothing to be afraid of, go back to sleep. The picture answers every possible question raised by the previous eight films, ends where the very first film began in 1977, gives a character something he should have gotten decades ago to a resounding and knowing cheer in any audience of diehards, and knows exactly when it's going to make you cry because it takes great pains to cue your tears. The Jedi Mind Trick. It only works on the weak-minded--the very young or the very frightened.
I've been going to estate sales lately, not to purchase anything but because they make me feel something I want to live with now. They make me feel morbid and morbid's handmaiden: mortal. I imagine my treasures touched by strangers weighing their value against the market and not against the burden placed upon them by the holes in my heart. I bought a plaster pigeon from one of these sales for two dollars. I don't know why. I think about what would have brought these people to this place where their things are unwanted by their children when they die (are their children dead, too? Did they have children?) and arrayed for scavengers. Rey is a scavenger in these new films--she's called that a couple of times in The Rise of Skywalker by her nemesis/possible lover/possible brother Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who spends the entire time pursuing her for different reasons as the film progresses. Their interplay is fascinating mainly because Driver is an actor fully capable of making a character wounded and human. Because the movie is the way that it is, it underscores his performance with actual wounds that Rey must literally heal. It's a movie made for people who are not yet fully people and so require narration to fill in complexity that's already naked and obvious to our empathy and experience. Subtext is text here; things in the underneath are scary, you see, and must be dragged into the light. There are so many vibrant, eye-splitting colours in The Rise of Skywalker, there isn't any room left for grey, I guess.
Standing on the edge of a raging storm, hand to heart, Kylo Ren gets a moment to address the ghost of his dead father and it's powerful because we all have fathers we need to apologize to, sometimes after they're gone, and hope they can hear us, though we suspect they can't. I cling to these two moments from this film: the one with Rey and the serpent, the other with Kylo and his father, because they represent to me how this series could have ended had it not been so frightened. I think, too, about when C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) makes a heroic sacrifice that is instantly devalued because this sentient being has a back-up soul it can upload. The Rise of Skywalker could be described as a mere compendium of betrayals it commits against itself. None so egregious as that of Trần Loan's Rose Tico, reduced in this one to cheerleader and reaction shot in what amounts to fewer than five minutes of screentime; or even the introduction of a potential same-race love interest for Finn (John Boyega) to deflect his same-sex chemistry with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and interracial chemistry with Rey. Some of the betrayals are to the theme and spirit of Star Wars, you see, or to its own narrative. Others are to everyone who isn't straight and white. There's a whiff of nostalgia to that for much of the worst of fandom, alas. Our current President ran on it.
The Rise of Skywalker could have been about reconciliations, not just reunions; it could have been about healing as opposed to the opening of new injuries. The final act of Rey, our new hero archetype, is her burial of twin artifacts in sacred ground. It's an act of secrecy, repression played as if it's memorial. Is it that much different from Kylo Ren's hoarding of rare collectibles like the Vader mask? It is the ritualistic sanctification of the manifest destiny of this bloodline...and retrograde in the worst way. All that aside, The Rise of Skywalker is shallow reassurance that the fragments we use to hide our serpents are sufficient to shelter us against them when they come calling. I can never give the vintage Kenner AT-AT in my office to the eight-year-old version of me who needs it more. When I look at it, however, I remember that delicious tang of my longing and imagine this does something to soothe it. It's a trap. One day, it'll be another artifact in an empty house full of totems. I'm too tired now to take much comfort from any more of these angry misinterpretations of grace. And I'm too old to be satisfied with the fastidious tying, however dazzling, of knots.