What should Star Wars be? Not what was it 40 or 20 years ago, but what should it be today?
Five films into the Disney era of Star Wars, with a completed third trilogy ostensibly bringing the Skywalker saga to an end, there are two conflicting ideas — neither of which, as yet, definitively has the upper hand.
One vision immerses us in a warm bath of nostalgia; another dashes revisionistic cold water in our faces. The former is a gauzy slideshow tour of well-known characters and types, locations, images, themes and story beats; the latter, a demolition project in the pursuit of renovation, of change and growth.
J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII — The Force Awakens, which kicked off the new era, drew so schematically on the first Star Wars that it was practically a remake. This was soothing balm, perhaps, for some of those smarting from the clumsy blunders of the prequel trilogy (“This will begin to set things right”), but my kids were among those who left the theater complaining that The Force Awakens “stole too much.”
Rian Johnson apparently agreed with that critique, since his iconoclastic Episode VIII — The Last Jedi was a virtual antithesis to The Force Awakens, making the argument for killing Star Wars nostalgia to save Star Wars (“Let the past die”). This came on the heels of the moral complications of Rogue One, which cast Rebellion fighters as “spies, saboteurs, and assassins” engaged in terroristic acts.
From the bitterly disillusioned Luke dismissively tossing his lightsaber over his shoulder to the abrupt dispatching of Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader “We Hardly Knew Ye” Snoke — and especially the provocative idea that Daisy Ridley’s massively powerful Rey was of no notable parentage — The Last Jedi virtually blew smoke in the face of its predecessor at every turn. (Not to mention the faces of its outraged fans.)
Of course, The Force Awakens itself had similarly subverted Return of the Jedi by effectively canceling the victory party and restoring the status quo (with only the slightest rebranding) of a powerful Sith-led Shmempire versus a heroic underdog Shmebellion.
Now Abrams is back to “set things right” again in Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker — that is, to yank the rug from under The Last Jedi just as The Last Jedi did to The Force Awakens, and to an extent as The Force Awakens did to Return of the Jedi.
Was Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, goaded to grow beyond his idolization of Darth Vader and smash the helmet that he never actually needed? It has been remade.
Is the Emperor surrogate Snoke dead? The opening crawl (it can’t be a spoiler if it’s in the crawl) teases the mysterious return of the ultimate Emperor surrogate surrogate: the man himself, Palpatine redivivus (Ian McDiarmid), who, like Sauron or Voldemort, seems hard to kill for good.
As for Rey’s parentage — look, I’ll just say that, wherever the pendulum winds up, whatever you think of how Johnson played his own card there, Abrams’ response carries almost no emotional weight.
Both approaches have their advocates, and I sympathize with both. (Both warm baths and cold water in the face have their place in the world.)
If I don’t take sides, that’s because I think the hard reality is that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi each hover, in different but comparable ways, between competence and mediocrity. The Force Awakens has no surprises or new ideas, and The Last Jedi is more interested in subverting expectations than in telling a good story.
Star Wars at its best is both creative and daring in its pursuit of new narrative possibilities and dramatic revelations and nostalgic in its values of archetypal good vs. archetypal evil, especially in its celebration of the power of love, family, spirituality and even, sometimes, nonviolence.
Would either Abramsesque nostalgia or Johnsonesque iconoclasm have come up with the mythic revelations of The Empire Strikes Back (“No, Luke, I am your father”) or Return of the Jedi (the redemption of Darth Vader)? I doubt it.
At any rate, the narrative tug-of-war over the last few installments means that there are limits to how satisfying The Rise of Skywalker as the conclusion of this trilogy of trilogies could possibly be.
There’s also a limit, probably, to how bad it can be. Abrams still knows how to deliver spectacle and action as well as nostalgia, which is a heck of a drug.
Let’s face it, they could play John Williams’ ominous “Imperial March” over scenes of Uncle Deadly from the Muppets lobbing Green Goblin pumpkin-bombs at Scrat the saber-squirrel (I mean, they literally could, legally, and you could watch it on Disney+ forever and ever), and many of us would still feel emotions stir.
Just as The Force Awakens pedantically emulated A New Hope, Rise is out to evoke Return of the Jedi at every turn, down to familiar locations and of course the Emperor himself.
There’s a new twist on the not entirely coherent idea from Jedi that tempting you to strike him down is how the Emperor wins — and it ties into the one new idea in Rise. It is an actual spiritual idea about the Force and the Jedi, and like much of Star Wars mysticism it could be given either a more New Age-y reading or a more Christian reading. Either way, it isn’t given enough attention or expressed powerfully enough to be very interesting or important.
Rise not only suffers from the same risk-aversion and over-familiarity as The Force Awakens, it’s also all too obviously working to re-reverse all its predecessor’s reversals.
Some of these involve transparent pandering to pressure from fans. The unhappiest example is sidelining Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, whose odd relationship with John Boyega’s ex-stormtrooper Finn was one of the more promising elements of Last Jedi, but whose unpopularity with some fans crossed into vicious racist and sexist trolling of Tran.
It doesn’t help that Rey, Finn and Poe were never as well-defined as Luke, Leia and Han. Since each film in this new trilogy was evidently meant to highlight one of that original triad — first Han, then Luke, and finally Leia — Carrie Fisher’s death is another blow that the filmmakers work around as gracefully as possible, working around whatever deleted footage they had and fudging the rest in various ways.
Last Jedi teased us with the question of whether Ben Solo would be turned back to the good side or whether Rey could possibly be turned to the dark side. With Johnson at the helm, nothing seemed off the table. With Abrams back … I mean, draw your own conclusions.
Abrams even seems bent on undoing his own actions, on avoiding meaningful narrative choices of any kind. Again and again he seems to cross a line only to backtrack, until it becomes comical.
Perhaps the film’s one real creative goal is not to alienate or upset anyone, which sometimes means alienating everyone. (Even the target audience for a fleeting same-sex kiss may be unhappy about how carefully it’s downplayed in the background of a crowded, celebratory reunion scene.) It’s a film not only at war with its predecessor but also with itself.
This eventually becomes a fatal problem as it becomes clear that Abrams has no clear idea how or why good triumphs over evil. George Lucas’ conceit in the original Star Wars was that Imperial military-industrial groupthink discounted the power of the individual. In Return of the Jedi, the power of love proved stronger than the dark side (and low-tech indigenous resistance proved more creative and adaptable than technologically superior but less nimble imperial occupiers).
Two ideas wrestle in Rise: Does good triumph over evil through the power of friendship or does everything come down to the awesomeness of special people from special families? I’m not saying it can’t be both, but Abrams trips over his two ideas and one of them falls flat before being crushed by the other one.
The wrong one, in my opinion. The Star Wars saga has become too long and too vast for such a small set of closely related characters to exert such hegemony. At some point Shrinking World Syndrome becomes a moral problem, no matter how large or diverse the supporting cast is made.
The original Star Wars trilogy — clunky, visionary, half-baked, mystical — remains a towering achievement. It is now bookended by two inferior trilogies.
The prequel trilogy, wrongheaded and graceless, still has a kind of perverse integrity as well as a creative boldness and a spectacular visual inventiveness. The sequel trilogy goes down easier sip for sip, but there’s no overarching vision and even the individual films are less than the sum of their parts.
Return of the Jedi is a movie with notable problems, but this new conclusion to the Skywalker saga, though far bigger in scope, is dwarfed emotionally by the earlier finale. If nothing else, The Rise of Skywalker should leave fans with new appreciation for the original trilogy’s least loved installment.
This closing chapter belongs to nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean iconoclasm is dead. Whatever Star Wars should be, it will continue to be something.
There are more Star Wars Stories to come, and eventually, inevitably, there will be an Episode X, followed by XI and XII. Disney surrounds us and penetrates us. The Mouse will be with us always.
Caveat Spectator: Stylized sci-fi combat violence and menace; a fleeting same-sex kiss. Older kids and up.